I have only one beef with this year’s Academy Awards. I’m happy that Katherine Bigelow, director of “The Hurt Locker,” gets an Oscar for her mantel and another to rub in ex-husband James Cameron’s face. I’m happy that journalist Mark Boal found a way to mine Oscar gold out of all the time he spent reporting from Iraq. I’m happy that Greg Shapiro (who gave us “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle”) is an Academy Award-winning producer, and I’m especially pleased that truth-teller and former Disneyland Paris janitor Nicolas Chartier (who was banned from the ceremony for encouraging people to vote for his movie and “not a $500M film”) will be getting a statue.
The only problem was the best war movie nominated didn’t win an award on Sunday night. It was the true story of an American hero who exposed the official government lies that got us into the Vietnam War and brought down the Nixon administration in the process: Judith Ehrlich’s and Rick Goldsmith’s documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.” I understand Hollywood doesn’t usually heap praise upon real people who do incredible things or make difficult choices (preferring instead to celebrate the genetically fortunate meat puppets who portray them on-screen), so I wasn’t surprised that the Documentary Feature Oscar went to a film about dolphins. And while the movie business pats itself on the back for discovering the American soldier and “The Hurt Locker” over a year after it premiered at the same 2008 Venice Film Festival that featured “The Wrestler,” let’s not forget that the fictional characters in this made-up story are based on real people — and a lot of them need real help.
As hard as this “Great Recession” has been on the rest of the country, the movie business is doing better than ever and made more money at the box office in 2009 than in any other year in history. On the opposite end of the “payback relative to sacrifice” scale are the military personnel who have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While our national unemployment rate hovers right around 10 percent, the same rate for veterans aged 24 or younger is an incredible 27 percent — 10 percentage points higher than the rate among civilians of the same age. The unemployment rate for Afghanistan and Iraq vets is 20 percent higher than the overall rate; so the fact that there are nearly 200,000 unemployed veterans who have served in those two wars basically means that we, as a country, have decided that there is no future private sector benefit for young people who choose military service.
As nice a gesture as it is to thank our military in acceptance speeches, movie studios could create opportunities for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets by doing something like hiring focus groups composed of young veterans to screen new releases and offer their opinions on how they’d be received on military bases — and that’s just off the top of my head.
Much more important than the economic needs of soldiers is their mental health. Our military is about 1 percent of our population, but veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides. The rate for younger vets rose more than 25 percent between 2005 and 2007 and the number of suicides almost doubled among active duty soldiers in the Army, Army Reserve and the Army National Guard between 2004 and 2008. As characters like the ones in “The Hurt Locker” join the troops from “Jarhead,” and “In The Valley of Elah,” and “Generation Kill” in exposing the issues Afghanistan and Iraq war vets face in dealing with re-integration into civilian life and post-traumatic stress, the producers who get rich by marketing those characters have an increasing moral obligation to re-invest some of that money to help the real people and improve the real lives on which these characters and stories are based.
As our military occupation of Iraq continues to wind down and our footprint in Afghanistan becomes smaller and smaller, the memory of the disastrous neo-conservative Bush foreign policy will begin to fade in the same way that the memory of the completely corrupt Nixon administration has gotten blurry with time. It will become the domain of the documentary filmmaker to tell true stories like Ambassador Joe Wilson’s (our generation’s Daniel Ellsberg) and the job of feature film directors to do justice to this new film genre of soldiers’ stories from western Asia.
Whether it’s big budget military hardware porn made with the cooperation of the Pentagon like “Transformers” or a small independent film that initially opens on only four screens like “The Hurt Locker,” the most important message Hollywood can send is the same one my friend Mike Woods’ dad taught us after taking us to see “Platoon” in the mid-1980s. In a conversation that stuck with me for literally the rest of my life, he made sure we knew that no matter what it looks like in a movie, war is pain, war is death, and war is not cool.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who would like to thank Lt. John Mark Woods for teaching him that the best place for a soldier to be is at home with his or her family. Kenny’s past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.