The Movie-Made War World of George W. Bush
by Tom Engelhardt
Here’s a memory for you. I was probably five or six and sitting with my father in a movie house off New York’s Times Square — one of the slightly seedy theaters of that dawn of the 1950s moment that tended to show double or triple feature B-westerns or war movies. We were catching some old oater which, as I recall, began with a stagecoach careening dramatically down the main street of a cow town. A wounded man is slumped in the driver’s seat, the horses running wild. Suddenly — perhaps from the town’s newspaper office — a cowboy dressed in white and in a white Stetson rushes out, leaps on the team of horses, stops the stagecoach, and says to the driver: "Sam, Sam, who dun it to ya?" (or the equivalent). At just that moment, the camera catches a man, dressed all in black in a black hat — and undoubtedly mustachioed — skulking into the saloon.
My dad promptly turns to me and whispers: "He’s the one. He did it."
Believe me, I’m awed. All I can say in wonder and protest is: "Dad, how can you know? How can you know?"
But, of course, he did know and, within a year or two, I certainly had the same simple code of good and evil, hero and villain, under my belt. It wasn’t a mistake I was likely to make twice.
Above all, of course, you couldn’t mistake the bad guys of those old films. They looked evil. If they were "natives," they also made no bones about what they were going to do to the white hats, or, in the case of Gunga Din (1939), the pith helmets. "Rise, our new-made brothers," the evil "guru" of that film tells his followers. "Rise and kill. Kill, lest you be killed yourselves. Kill for the love of killing. Kill for the love of Kali. Kill! Kill! Kill!"
"Wipe Them Out!"
Kill! Kill! Kill! That was just the sort of thing the native equivalent of the black hat was likely to say. Such villains — for a modern reprise, see the latest cartoon superhero blockbuster, Iron Man — were not only fanatical, but usually at the very edge of madness as well. And their language reflected that.
I was brought back with a start to just such evil-doers of my American screen childhood last week by a memoir from a once-upon-a-time insider of the Bush presidency. No, not former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who swept into the headlines by accusing the President of using "propaganda" and the "complicit enablers" of the media to take the U.S. to war in 2002-2003. I’m thinking of another insider, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. He got next to no attention for a presidential outburst he recorded in his memoir, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story, so bloodthirsty and cartoonish that it should have caught the attention of the nation — and so eerily in character, given the last years of presidential behavior, that you know it has to be on the money.
Let me briefly set the scene, as Sanchez tells it on pages 349-350 of Wiser in Battle. It’s April 6, 2004. L. Paul Bremer III, head of the occupation’s Coalition Provisional Authority, as well as the President’s colonial viceroy in Baghdad, and Gen. Sanchez were in Iraq in video teleconference with the President, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (Assumedly, the event was recorded and so revisitable by a note-taking Sanchez.) The first full-scale American offensive against the resistant Sunni city of Fallujah was just being launched, while, in Iraq’s Shiite south, the U.S. military was preparing for a campaign against cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
According to Sanchez, Powell was talking tough that day: "We’ve got to smash somebody’s ass quickly," the general reports him saying. "There has to be a total victory somewhere. We must have a brute demonstration of power." (And indeed, by the end of April, parts of Fallujah would be in ruins, as, by August, would expanses of the oldest parts of the holy Shiite city of Najaf. Sadr himself would, however, escape to fight another day; and, in order to declare Powell’s "total victory," the U.S. military would have to return to Fallujah that November, after the U.S. presidential election, and reduce three-quarters of it to virtual rubble.) Bush then turned to the subject of al-Sadr: "At the end of this campaign al-Sadr must be gone," he insisted to his top advisors. "At a minimum, he will be arrested. It is essential he be wiped out."
Not long after that, the President "launched" what an evidently bewildered Sanchez politely describes as "a kind of confused pep talk regarding both Fallujah and our upcoming southern campaign [against the Mahdi Army]." Here then is that "pep talk." While you read it, try to imagine anything like it coming out of the mouth of any other American president, or anything not like it coming out of the mouth of any evil enemy leader in the films of the President’s — and my — childhood:
"’Kick ass!’ [Bush] said, echoing Colin Powell’s tough talk. ‘If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can’t send that message. It’s an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal.
"There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!’"
Keep in mind that the bloodlusty rhetoric of this "pep talk" wasn’t meant to rev up Marines heading into battle. These were the President’s well-embunkered top advisors in a strategy session on the eve of major military offensives in Iraq. Evidently, however, the President was intent on imitating George C. Scott playing General George Patton — or perhaps even inadvertently channeling one of the evil villains of his onscreen childhood.