The invasion of Iraq has been called the greatest intelligence failure of all time. This is – of course – an outright lie: it was a great ‘intelligence’ success. Dissenting evidence was compartmentalised and ignored, and the information was ‘fixed around the policy’ of invasion. In this episode, we examine two films that tell the story of the fixed intelligence from different perspectives – inside the British and American foreign policy establishments, and inside a small group of sceptical journalists fighting against the tide of propaganda.
I want to begin by talking about my own experience around the Iraq invasion, because it was a motivating, radicalising moment in my own political development. I always knew the story was a lie, and that this had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or national security or WMD. I was one of millions who protested in this country, let alone the many millions more around the world. Indeed, while I was in London that day I was openly telling people the protest wouldn’t work, and we should takeover Parliament if we wanted to see actual results.
Needless to say, we did not take over Parliament, and as a result the government invaded Iraq.
Nonetheless, it was a valuable lesson in just how large the scale of opposition and dissent was, and how little that mattered to the psychopath-in-chief Tony Blair. These were the biggest protests to ever take place in this country, but the government ignored the public just as they ignored all the evidence proving that the case for war was a waterfall of lies.
In the midst of all this, someone assassinated Dr David Kelly, and the majority of people that I spoke to said they believed he’d been killed by the US or UK governments, or some combination thereof. Obviously, investigating 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings were also key to developing my perspective on how the world really operates, but I don’t want to downplay the Iraq war disinformation and the David Kelly operation.
Now, I was already a philosophical anarchist – opposed to the existence of government due to it being a massively inefficient way of delivering social services, and involving an inevitable violation of people’s rights on a daily basis. But these real world events, and what I learned about them, put me on the path to doing more practical anarchism, actively working against the state and not just opposing it in terms of abstract principles.
So this topic, these events, mean a lot to me personally, they were vital to the person I have become in the years since. Without them, I do wonder what my life would have looked like, let alone what the wider world would look like. The consequences of the invasion of Iraq will continue until after I’m dead, until after we’re all dead.
But there are curiously few films looking at this. Most movies about the Iraq war either focus on battlefield experiences, or on veterans coming home. And in truth, there aren’t that many movies about Iraq, in keeping with the general decline in conventional war movies in recent decades.
One of the reasons for this is that the DOD have denied a whole string of Iraq war-themed scripts and the ones that did get produced made no money. There is governmental and industrial opposition to this kind of film.
The first film we’re going to look at – Rob Reiner’s 2017 drama Shock and Awe – was one such movie. Reports from the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison office show how the producers approached the DOD during post-production, looking for access to a National Guard post in Slidell, Los Angeles, for one day of filming.
The request was turned down because, as the reports describe, the film was a:
“Rob Reiner dramatization of the politics and events leading up to and including the “2nd Iraq war,” i.e., ousting Saddam Hussein; premise is how the WH & DoD (mainly the WH) claimed that Bin Laden and Hussein conspired to create the 9/11 attacks, and fabricated evidence of Saddam collecting materials to fabricate nuclear weapons to use against the US and its allies.”
It doesn’t even seem they reviewed the script, they simply turned down the film due to its themes and perspective. You might expect, therefore, to find a fairly radical movie but, alas, that is not the case.
Shock and Awe tells the story of two journalists and an editor at Knight-Ridder who didn’t believe the Iraq-Al Qaeda-WMD story and published a bunch of stories about how the White House and Pentagon were lying.
I am sure Reiner wanted the film to be a modern version of All the President’s Men, the movie about Woodward and Bernstein taking down Nixon by publishing stories about Watergate. It is a tale of maverick journalists – one of whom is played charmingly but totally unconvincingly by Woody Harrelson – going against the grain, and doing their jobs regardless of consequences.
But it’s actually quite a tame movie, in terms of tone. It lacks the spooky, menacing quality of All the President’s Men, and has a quite lighthearted, comedic feel to it in a lot of places. This is obviously an effort to humanise the characters and make them likeable, but given the film was made in 2016, by which point most people agree the Iraq war was launched on lies, there was no pressing need to do that. We already sympathise with these guys. The only people still defending the Iraq war aren’t going to watch a film like this, they’re going to dismiss it as lefty Hollywood critical race theory propaganda.
Then there’s the bizarre choice by Reiner to play the editor at Knight-Ridder. For one thing, Reiner isn’t a particularly good actor and so it comes across as egotistical, especially in a project that attracted big names like Jessica Biel and Tommy Lee Jones. I’m sure they could have got someone better than Reiner. I felt this was a choice born out of vanity.
For another, Reiner doesn’t play it straight – he overstates every line of dialogue and tries to make the guy avuncular and larger than life. When in reality, no news editor is anything but tired and jaded and pissed off.
The result is that what could have been an important movie is a weak, light, banal, derivative tale. The whole thing was a massively wasted opportunity.
Covert Nationalism and Ironic Deceptions in Shock and Awe
More worryingly, the film is extraordinarily nationalistic. It very much fits into the model that Matt outlined in Reel Power, of a film that contains some kind of challenge to the establishment but it’s all wrapped up in jingoistic feelgood bullshit. There are exceptions but, as Matt detailed in that book, a great many films that are perceived to somehow be radical or counter-establishment are fundamentally reinforcing established norms and values and ideas. This is especially the case when it comes to films that in some way relate to national security, as this one does.
So I want us to take a look at some specifics in Shock and Awe to illustrate this, because while I imagine very few of you have seen the movie it’s a great example of how this kind of story operates.
Shock and Awe opens with a caption, quoting Bill Moyers – ‘There is no more important struggle for American democracy than insuring a free, diverse and independent media’. Note, American democracy. Not democracy per se, because deep down the US establishment only uses democracy as an excuse for foreign interventions, they don’t actually believe in it. But American Democracy, which sounds like something you’d buy at Wal Mart.
As a quick aside, the new book by Tricia and myself is actually available via Wal Mart’s website. I don’t know how to react to that except to laugh.
That caption is tag one for petty nationalism, in this movie supposedly questioning the nationalistic post-9/11 wave and how it led us to tragic consequences.
The next scene is a senate meeting about VA funding, where a paralysed Iraq war veteran talks about his experiences, lists a bunch of statistics about how many people serve in the US military, how many were killed in Iraq, and then asks the senators ‘how the hell did this happen?’.
Not only is that question never fucking answered at any point in the movie, there’s literally no reference to dead Iraqis. Or Syrians or Iranians or Jordanians or Kurds or Turks or anyone else who has died as a consequence of the Iraq war, whether directly or indirectly.
No, the only deaths that count are American troops. Not even the American civilians – journalists, aid workers and so on – who died in Iraq, let alone British or other coalition troops or civilians, let alone Iraqi or other peoples, are acknowledged at any stage of the film.
Reiner takes the time to build in a love story where the younger journalist, played by James Marsden, hooks up with Jessica Biel. Because we all know that you need a love interest if you’re making a hard-hitting movie about investigative journalism around one of the biggest political decisions of our lifetimes.
But what you don’t want to do is acknowledge the deaths of anyone other than American troops. In this film apparently questioning nationalism and militarism.
Indeed, there’s a recurring theme in the dialogue between the journalists and the editor, as well as the grizzled military veteran war correspondent played by Tommy Lee Jones, where they lambast the politicians for having not served in the military.
The implication – which is the same in the Air Force-supported film Operation Christmas Drop – is that a government run by the military and by veterans would be better than one where people are elected regardless of whether they’ve been in the military or not.
Which is fascistic. It’s rule by the Pentagon.
Why is this film, which opens with a caption about the importance of ‘American Democracy, now available with cheesebacon’, advocating for a military coup within the US?
Where this really comes to a head is when Colin Powell goes to the UN to deliver his notorious presentation, making the case for war. The film, as is common across Hollywood depictions of the Bush administration, depicts Powell as some sort of tragic hero, going along with something he disagreed with.
It is true that Powell did argue against the invasion of Iraq during the post-9/11 period, but he had no such opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan, and we shouldn’t forget this is a man who participated in and helped cover up the My Lai massacre.
How did Shock and Awe portray Powell? As a good soldier, following orders even though he disagreed with them. It even says he ‘threw out’ the stuff connecting Saddam to Al Qaeda.
This is materially untrue – not only was Powell a cynical piece of shit and a political hack, his UN presentation did link Saddam to Al Qaeda. It somewhat downplayed the supposed (i.e. bullshit) connections to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – Bin Laden, Zawahiri, that group – but he explicitly connected Saddam to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.
But of course, Zarqawi not only had no real connection to the Hussein government, he had no connection with Bin Laden beyond one meeting where Bin Laden thought Zarqawi was an asshole. And after the invasion and the deposing of Saddam, Zarqawi became a key figure in the anti-American resistance, the insurgency, the civil war and the rise of ISIS.
Powell even alleged that Saddam had mobile laboratories providing Zarqawi with chemical weapons, and that this was the origin of the ricin plot that had recently been busted up in London. In reality, the plot was the work of one homeless illegal immigrant who’d got a recipe for ricin from the website of an American white nationalist/survivalist type, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Zarqawi, Saddam, Iraq or anyone else.
Beyond Powell, Shock and Awe treats the whole of US foreign policy in a similar way. Even though the movie questions the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan is shown as a good war. The paralysed veteran in the opening scene says ‘we invaded one country after being attacked by another’, but Afghanistan never attacked the US.
Then there’s a bunch of references to how the 9/11 attacks must have been state-sponsored, but the film dismantles the idea that the state was Iraq, before Jessica Biel excitedly talks about how it’s Iran, not Iraq, that was the major state sponsor of terrorism. I don’t know if they were trying to imply Iran was behind 9/11, but that is a meme that’s been out there for a while.
Woody Harrelson’s wife, who is from the former Yugoslavia, bemoans the rising tide of nationalism before saying that’s what tore her country apart. This is the standard narrative about Yugoslavia which totally ignores how it was US policy that the country split up, how they supported nationalistic and hyper-ethnicist elements in order to provoke this Balkanization, and how President Bush even declared a state of emergency and restricted access to World Bank credits only to those countries that split off from Yugoslavia.
All of which encouraged nationalism, ethnocentrism, conflict, war.
In sum, Shock and Awe is not a critique of US foreign policy, or even a critique of how the US news media sold the public a lie because that’s what the government wanted. It is a patriotic story of noble American journalists telling the truth, of the one bad war in the midst of dozens of good American wars. And of how America should be run less by the politicians than by the military. And how the only people who suffered and died in Iraq were American troops.
We should also bear in mind when considering exactly what this film is, that Reiner was part of the ‘Committee to Investigate Russia’, launched by Morgan Freeman.
In this video, Reiner, Freeman and the rest of the Committee say that we’re ‘at war’ with Russia. This video came out not long after Shock and Awe did, so we have to consider them in the same light – as jingoistic propaganda that is pretending to be something else. In some ways, Shock and Awe is worse than a lot of openly pro-war films like Lone Survivor, because it reinforces liberal hypocrisies and bad faith.
In the Loop
The other film I want us to look at today is In the Loop, from 2009. The film is a spin-off from the TV series The Thick of It and stars many of the same people, some in the same roles as in the TV version, some in slightly different roles but basically the same characters. The star of both is Peter Capaldi who plays Malcolm Tucker, a spin doctor for the British government who is obviously based on real-life Blairite spin doctor Alistair Campbell.
Aside from thoroughly recommending the TV series I will keep my comments on The Thick of It for another day. You don’t need to have seen the series for the film to make sense, it’s in many ways a standalone spin-off that can be enjoyed on its own.
In the Loop is a very different film to Shock and Awe, even though both contain dramatic and comedic elements. The tone of In the Loop is far more acerbic, there’s a lot of imaginative swearing and direct, angry confrontations. In other words, it’s less of an idealisation of the world and more a funny, heightened depiction of how things really work and how people actually are – flawed, crazy, often stupid.
What makes it interesting is that this is a story without any heroes, and where we don’t want the central characters to succeed. We’re not really rooting for anyone, it’s more like a procedural of a mass deception campaign and a political conspiracy. But it’s very fast paced and funny, so it isn’t a thriller in any way. In terms of genre it’s very hard to pin down and define, but that makes it all the more unexpected to watch.
It does bear comparison with Four Lions, has some of the same writers and therefore has a similar combination of darkness and absurdity. If you enjoyed Four Lions then you’ll probably enjoy In the Loop.
The film centres around the British minister for international development and his journey through the world of foreign policy as the country prepares for war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is obviously a stand-in for Iraq. The minister is opposed to the war, but after saying in an interview that war is unforeseeable, and getting a bollocking for this, he is confronted again by the news media and says ‘in order to walk the road of peace, sometimes we have to climb the mountain of conflict’.
The result of this is that the minister ends up in a tug of war between different senior officials at the State Department – Karen Clarke, who is opposed to the war, and Lynton Barwick, who is very pro-war and has set up a secret war committee. Lynton is superb, played hilariously by David Rasche, who also plays a major character in Succession, the showrunner of which was one of the writers on In the Loop. There’s very much a continuity of worlds between The Thick of It and Succession, and Four Lions also has a similarly dark yet farcical worldview.
The minister gets invited to Washington DC, whereupon he makes a complete fool of himself because he’s caught between two sides and is a weak, inept, hapless man reminiscent of many British politicians.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Tucker is tasked with finding the key intelligence making the case for war. One of Karen Clarke’s assistants, Liza, has written an analysis paper looking at the arguments for and against war, which suddenly becomes widely read as people realise war is imminent. A General at the DOD, played by Tony Soprano, teams up with Karen Clarke to try to stop the war.
So the film has all these moving pieces, and there’s a feel of organised chaos which will be familiar to fans of The Thick of It and Veep, which is sort of an American version of The Thick of It made by the same guy – Armanda Ianucci. It isn’t entirely clear who is in charge, or if anyone is, but there’s a lot of power plays and deceptions and manipulations along the way.
At one point, Liza’s analysis paper gets leaked to the press and causes uproar because it makes clear that the war is a stupid idea that will only destabilise the situation and make everything worse. So while Malcolm is in America, at the UN, he gets his number 2 to go and bollock the civil servants at the Foreign Office who leaked the paper.
While all this is going on, Lynton is pressuring Malcolm to come up with the smoking gun intelligence to make the case for war, ahead of a UN vote. So Malcolm ropes in the minister’s aide, as well as his number 2 back in London, and they cook up a dodgy dossier using Liza’s paper as the basis.
This is clever, because it’s a condensed version of what actually happened. There were two main dossiers published by the British government on the case for war against Iraq. One was plagiarised from a thesis written by a student, the other was put together by a team of spin doctors working out of the Foreign Office. They were assembled and supervised by Alistair Campbell, who was half spin doctor, half government enforcer, and they basically took anything they could find to build a narrative of Saddam posing an imminent threat.
Then, the whole thing was fed through John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a super-secret committee who oversee the British intelligence services. Because he had to put his name on it, to make it seem like an intelligence analysis rather than something cooked up by the politicians and their flunkies, he had to make sure he was happy with it.
But emails released years later prove that Scarlett was told to minimise the caveats, i.e. language such as ‘may have acquired components’ was only to be used sparingly, in favour of phrases such as ‘is strongly believed to have acquired components’, or simply ‘has acquired components’.
Scarlett’s reward for this utter hatchet job was that he was made head of MI6, the job he’d always wanted. He even served as head of their public affairs office for a time, that’s how much of a despicable, deceitful shill he is.
And herein lies the problem of a film like In the Loop – I can see this scene, and another where Lynton is telling his staff to just ‘get the caveats the hell out of there’, for what they are. I know where this came from, its roots in reality. But most people watching this film probably don’t know about all this, unless they followed the Iraq war inquiry or certain websites.
So does this black comedy come across as ridiculous, something that couldn’t happen in real life, or something chilling, as it should be? Extending the question further, does this portrait of a farcical political conspiracy make it seem like conspiracies are always farcical?
Because while elements of the real-life Iraq War conspiracy were absurd, and horribly badly managed, other aspects such as the murder of David Kelly were impeccably handled. To this day I can’t tell you much about exactly how he died, let alone who killed him, only that he was killed and the culprits are obvious due to the motives being obvious.
Naturally, there is no place for that sort of plot line in a film like In the Loop, but that’s part of the problem I have with the movie. I do enjoy it, I’m very glad it exists, but it has always left me with these lingering doubts, largely because I take that period around the start of the Iraq war so seriously.
Back in the day we used to make very serious political thrillers in this country, such as A Very British Coup and the original House of Cards. They did not shy away from these things, but in the post-9/11 years it seems you can only really explore these phenomena through the veil of comedy. Which does take the edge off. No one who watched this film felt like assassinating Tony Blair afterwards.
Whereas everyone who watched his testimony at the Iraq War inquiry will have at least had a moment.
In sum, neither of these films is perfect but both are worth watching as examples of how difficult it is to make a no-holds-barred political movie. In the Loop is clearly the more original and hard-hitting story, and there is little trace of the nationalism, militarism or jingoism that permeates almost every scene in Shock and Awe.