Though the early to mid-aughts documentary boom has recently died down, it’s still difficult to believe there hasn’t been a serious nonfiction indictment of the collusion between the government and the media in selling the invasion of Iraq to the American public. This accounts for a somewhat shameful omission in the ever-growing Iraq War doc catalogue–the sheer amount of lies, distortions, and fear-mongering titillations on display in a typical CNN or Fox News broadcast circa 2002 (and today) would offer enough evidence on the sorry state of our national media for a book-length study, let alone a feature film. Columnist, critic, and antiwar notable Norman Solomon has now, remarkably, provided both: his 2005 volume “War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” has been adapted into an explosive, compact 73-minute documentary by filmmakers Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp. If a few years ago Solomon was a lonely voice in the wilderness, with this film he has a major stage from which to educate a potentially greater audience.
Because educate is what this film has been unabashedly designed to do–there’s a reason it was produced by the Institute for Public Accuracy (of which Solomon is founder and executive director) and Media Education Foundation. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss “War Made Easy” as the cinematic equivalent of a lecture, no matter how tempting it might be to do so in an age where talking head-guided social studies lessons have emerged as the most popular form of documentary expression. Since Solomon is the only interviewee on screen (though it helps in such a case for a marquee name like Sean Penn to provide voice over services) “War Made Easy” should by all reasoning be even more dry and didactic, but it actually works as an effective and often startling montage of found footage (thank you, Fair Use) that plays like a highlight reel of the mainstream media’s incessant but subtle ideological agenda.
Beginning with the thesis that since the Vietnam War the political and economic complexities behind America’s military adventures around the world have been sold as battles pitting American good (democracy) against foreign evil (communism, terrorism), Solomon picks apart the deceptive, fear-baiting rhetoric of politicians and administrations masking self-interest behind appeals for defensive and, more often, altruistic intervention. Examples from our most recent foreign policy disaster form a by-now familiar litany of bullshit: phony African uranium, smoking guns, Iraq-Al Qaeda connections. Nothing new there. But the heart of “War Made Easy” is revelatory: “The war propaganda function in the United States is finally tuned, it’s sophisticated, and most of all it blends into the media terrain.”
What follows is a plethora of visual proof, troubling to the point of absurdity: the mainstream news’ dependence on softly handled official sources (Colin Powell: “I’ve laundered [these charts] so you can’t really tell what I’m talking about because I don’t want the Iraqis to know what I’m talking about. But trust me, trust me”), a lurid emphasis on the Pentagon’s war perspective to the detriment of any other (even supposedly liberal CNN went out of its way to hire retired generals as “analysts” instead of independent experts), and the silencing of dissenting, antiwar voices (when Phil Donahue of all people becomes a media martyr due to being axed by image-conscious MSNBC, something’s wrong). The greatest obstacle to a truly informative media seems to be the suppression of debate in the lieu of patriotic fervor. Commentators and journalists cover war as a Hollywood blockbuster or sporting event (one reporting from an aircraft carrier: “When you’re 300 feet away from ’em when [a fighter jet takes off], you hear it in your shoes and feel it in your gut”), directly order the end of political debate, and, at the behest of insidious government management, “embed” themselves with platoons to provide a better view of abstracted violence.
But “War Made Easy” doesn’t stop there. Solomon and the filmmakers deserve the highest credit for not only challenging media complicity but also the faulty basis on which the entire foundation of war coverage has been based in the last fifty years. They blast through the myth that Vietnam marked the gold standard of that coverage, while in reality it was the first step in the now nearly complete failure of the mass media to provide historical context for the most important decision a country can make. By focusing on quagmires and cut and running, they still keep us thinking that imperialistic wars should still be “winnable,” rather than investigating them as reactionary and destructive offshoots of militarism. “That critique doesn’t challenge the prerogatives of military expansion or aggression or empire,” Solomon states. Thankfully, “War Made Easy” does.