Shades of Gray

I’m quite disinclined to insert myself into the middle of the Douthat-Larison discussion (see here, here, here, here, here, and also – whew! – here) of Hollywood’s depiction of U.S. foreign policy, but I do want to make one small point that deserves some emphasis: namely, that narrating the push for war in a way characterized by the right sorts* of sympathy for the motives and actions of those behind it has the capacity to serve a powerfully anti-war function, too, by reminding us that not all unjust wars are the product of greedy business executives and lies and backroom dealings among warmongering neocons in the DoD. This is not to say that the drive to war in Iraq wasn’t characterized by well more than its share of that sort of thing, but we do well to remember that even the best of intentions – which I can say with great confidence were had by a significant body of war supporters – don’t make an action right, and so that we can’t immediately discern the unjust wars from the just ones simply by scrutinizing the honesty or inner purity of those who would lead us into it. It’s for this reason, I think, that the “Bush lied, people died” account of the Iraq war can be so unhelpful: not because it’s false, and not just because it’s polarizing or lacking in tragedy or ambiguity, but because it gives the impression that the lying – which is not that uncommon, mind you – was the primary place where things went wrong, whereas in reality the war in question would have been unjust and disastrously executed even if everyone had been perfectly forthright about why we were getting into it.

  • Addendum: I should emphasize that “right sorts” is doing quite a lot of work here, since in a world where good intentions are commonly thought to excuse the wrong sorts of sympathy for certain of its subjects will quickly make one’s film into an anti-war one. It may just be that the lack of historical distance makes it impossible, or at least nearly so, to strike the appropriate balance; thus Christopher Browning’s account of the German draftees who carried out the “Final Solution” in Poland helps us see that these were men just like us without giving us any inclination to think that Nazism might not have been so bad after all, whereas any filmmaker’s attempt to sympathize with Bush & Co. will immediately be seized on by certain factions as a film that shows how the war was really all right. If this is all that Daniel is saying, then perhaps we don’t actually disagree.