Over There (FX, Wednesdays, 10:00 p.m. ET), the new dramatic series about American soldiers fighting in Iraq, is supposedly neither pro-war nor anti-war.
"I don't think you have to deal at all with the politics of it," producer Steven Bochco told Reuters. "Ultimately, a young man being shot at in a firefight has absolutely no interest in politics." Of the soldiers, he told The New York Times, "they're not fighting for an ideal, they're fighting to survive. It irises down to issues that are completely nonpolitical."
But to portray a war without any of its ideals is to portray that war as meaningless. If the reasons for the war are just "politics," if war is nothing more than a struggle for survival, who could support it?
Michael Medved has pointed out the change in war movies. The movies about World War II made five decades ago did not necessarily glamorize war or shrink from how terrible it is. But they presented the GIs as fighting for a cause that gave meaning and value to their sacrifices. The old war movies-think The Longest Day-were on the side of the Americans and of America. The soldiers were heroes because the war was worth fighting.
But with the Vietnam War, Mr. Medved observes, that all changed. With the anti-war sentiments of the cultural elite, Hollywood began portraying war-even "good wars" such as World War II-as meaningless and absurd. The soldier was portrayed as an existential hero, struggling-and often failing-to keep his humanity in a world of senseless violence. (Think Catch-22 for World War II; M*A*S*H for the Korean War; Apocalypse Now for Vietnam.) In the more recent war movies, patriotism is a joke, leaders are corrupt, and idealism is a foolish illusion.
In the new mindset, even pacifism changes. The old pacifism was based precisely on moral ideals. The new pacifism is grounded in cynicism. Ideals and moral values do not exist, so there is nothing worth fighting and dying for.
Over There is definitely in the post-Vietnam school of war movies. "Shut up and stay alive," the sergeant tells the terrified young men and women under fire for the first time. "Your job is just to survive."
In accord with the anti-war movie cliché, the officers are indifferent and incompetent. The men complain about how an image-conscious general 75 miles away is making decisions based on making the war look good, while causing the grunts on the ground to get killed.
But for all of the series' ostensible sympathy for the front-line troops, it treats them with palpable condescension. One of the men in the squad has the nickname "Doublewide," expressing the bigotry of the upper middle class for people who live in trailers. A bespectacled young soldier has the nickname "Dim" because he was a college student and thus "stupid to join the army."
Most real recruits cite patriotic motives to serve their country. Not in Over There. One soldier needs the GI Bill so he can go to college. Another had auditioned for a national choir, but when he failed, he enlisted to avoid facing the folks back home. Others are escaping bad family situations. One soldier does say, "I love the army," but his gung-ho attitude earns him scornful looks, and he will no doubt learn his lesson.
Ironically, even anti-war war stories exploit the action and excitement of war. The combat scenes in Over There are excellent. Gun battles-with flashing machine guns from a mosque-are shown in the green light of night-vision goggles. The camera bounces along with the men as they run. Scope shots show the targets-enemies who silently fall when shot-putting the viewer behind the rifle.
In a signature scene, an insurgent charges, whereupon he is shot with a grenade launcher. His body blows up, but for a while his legs keep running. Such excruciating violence, plus the graphic profanity allowable on basic cable, earn the show a rare TV-MA rating.
Over There is the first TV drama based on a war still in progress. But this did also happen in World War II, to keep up morale on the home front. Those movies are often dismissed today as propaganda. So what is Over There?