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The Way We War

If you are tired of filmmaker Michael Moore and his shtick, I understand. So am I, and have been for some years — offended, in addition to other things, by his antipathy to Israel. But for all its flaws, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a brilliant documentary. It could have been and should have been a masterpiece, but Moore is Moore, which means that it is filled with self-indulgence. He insists, too often, on inserting blatant satire when the unadorned facts would have been sufficient. He insists on idle speculation when none is required or wanted. He is, in a word, obtrusive.

The great documentary filmmaker assembles the facts as he understands them, juxtaposes this with that and is thereby a commanding presence even if he himself never appears in the film, even if his voice is never heard. (Think of the work of Frederick Wiseman, the master documentarian: “Titicut Follies,” “High School,” “Public Housing,” “Domestic Violence,” 32 films in all.) Moore is resolutely indelicate — but, flaws and all, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is memorably compelling.

From Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spitting on his hand so that he can smooth his hair to President Bush blinking nervously before appearing on camera and stumbling over common aphorisms, there is footage that embarrasses — if they ever see the film — the principals. From scenes of a desolate Flint, Mich., we move to a convention of entrepreneurs salivating over the profits to be made from the war in Iraq, each scene an embarrassment to us all, the juxtaposition of the two simply devastating. But these scenes and others like them are digressions from the film’s main thrusts.

To render one aghast: The footage of the carnage in Iraq — blunt, uncensored. We see dead and wounded Iraqis and American soldiers, and we have to force ourselves not to avert our eyes. These dead, all of them, have died — been killed — in our name. We are required to look, unblinkingly, and to feel sick.

To render one angry: The lies. There have been many more sophisticated analyses of why, after Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and the lives of nearly 3,000 people, we chose to make war not only on Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was headquartered, but also on Iraq, which had only (at most) a marginal connection to Al Qaeda. But few Americans will have read the devastating report of Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California listing 237 misleading statements by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. (The compilation is not of statements believed to be true at the time but since contradicted by new information; instead, it includes only statements at odds with available evidence at the time they were made.)

For those who have only a vague sense of the misinformation the government has been providing us, the film will come as a revelation. Dismiss Moore’s own conspiracy theories if you’re so inclined, but the facts of our intention to attack Iraq long before September 11, 2001, and the fabric of systematic inflation of the actual threat posed by Iraq are impossible to dismiss.

To render one ashamed: Two Marine recruiters stalk a working class (and unemployed class, as well) mall in Flint, Mich. They are hustlers, characters from a David Mamet movie, with a quota to meet. A black teenager plays the saxophone. He’s encouraged to enlist because the Marines offer so much opportunity for budding saxophone players. The one over there, he’s on drugs, let’s skip him. But see the one by the red van? You come up to him from one side, I’ll come up from the other. These are Unites States Marines, whose uniforms dazzle but cannot disguise their sleaze.

To render one reduced to tears: The great and moving heart of the film is the story of Lila Lipscomb, a determined woman from Flint who knows that if her boys are to have a chance of a good life they must go to college, and college is well beyond her means. So she encourages them to join the army. One of them serves on a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq, and one night, she hears on the news that a Blackhawk has been shot down.

Remember the opening of “Saving Private Ryan,” the haunting scene where the mother, viewed from the rear, watches as a car navigates the long dusty road to her house and then, seeing that it is a military vehicle, crumples to the ground? She knows there can be only one reason for this visit: her son has been killed. Here, Lila Lipscomb learns of her son’s death via a phone call from the Defense Department. And as, sitting with her extended family, she reads her son’s last letter and recounts the terrible phone call and her response to it, we weep. War brought close, statistics personalized.

Her husband, silent the whole time, finally speaks up: In a way, he says, I care even more for the ones who will die today and tomorrow. For what?

I wonder whether Michael Moore loves America, but there’s little question he loves the working people of Flint, where he himself was born into a working class family. And it is those people’s children, Moore makes crystal clear, who are fighting this war in our name. Caught on camera in Iraq, some of them are gung-ho for the action, and some more thoughtful. One reflects that every time you kill another human being, you lose a piece of your soul.

Much of the footage is a wonder; in its light, the possibility that this president may be re-elected is a mystery.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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