28 Oct 2007

“Deliverance” as War Metaphor

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The late James Dickey’s son, Christopher Dickey, took the occasion of the release of a new DVD-edition of the 1972 movie based upon his father’s novel Deliverance, to treat the film as a metaphor for the War in Iraq.

In the fiction of “Deliverance,” Ed (the Jon Voight character)’s sanity and bravery eventually save the day when he climbs out of the gorge. What I wonder is whether in the real-world crisis of Iraq there is enough sanity and bravery in Washington to deliver us from the evil that’s been created in Iraq. Unfortunately it doesn’t look that way. Whether we listen to the Republicans or the Democrats, the woman candidate for president or the men, all the major contenders remain reluctant to challenge the ersatz standards of strength set by the Bush administration. Sure, they snipe at each other, but none want to appear weak on national security. So we’re left with “Law, what law? Plan, what plan?” And we continue to float down the river as if without a paddle, unable and unwilling to climb out, with much more violence and in all probability worse humiliations yet to come.

And Mark Steyn rebuts.

In a column headlined “War and Deliverance,” their Middle East editor, Christopher Dickey, makes the picture the defining metaphor for “the Mesopotamian quagmire.” The Atlanta suburbanites in the picture include Burt Reynolds as the obsessive wannabe back-to-nature survivalist and Jon Voight as “the perfectly ordinary man, the just-getting-by guy,” but the one who, in the end, delivers his pals from the hell of their weekend in the country.

Unlike most of us, whose knowledge of the film relies on hazy memories from the 1970s and late-night TV screenings, Dickey knows the story in depth: His dad wrote the novel and the screenplay. And, as he sees it, the Burt Reynolds character with his “untested ersatz fortitude” is “Dick Cheney’s closet fantasy of himself,” and the Jon Voight character is “the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by.” As for the river whose rapids they set out to negotiate, “that’s the war in Iraq.”

Christopher Dickey paints with a broad brush: “On a grand scale they [the administration] could reinterpret the Constitution until it became meaningless.” (Monitoring jihadist phone logs being the reinterpretation into meaninglessness, unlike, say, partial-birth abortion, which is merely an ancient constitutional right the founders had cannily anticipated a need for.) So one’s first reaction to this is a faint flicker of surprise that Dickey doesn’t see Cheney as the mountain man and the Constitution as his rape victim. One’s second reaction is that the metaphor is dishonest. When it comes to “closet fantasies” about toppling Saddam, it’s not Dick Cheney versus “the rest of us.” Throughout the 1990s and all the way up to the Iraq war resolution, there were a lot of folks auditioning for the Burt Reynolds role: Bill Clinton, Al Gore and almost every other prominent Democrat indulged in just as much “ersatz fortitude” about Iraq and its WMD as Dick Cheney ever did. …

The real flaw in Christopher Dickey’s “Deliverance” metaphor: If Cheney is Burt Reynolds, and the rest of America is Jon Voight, and the river is Iraq, who are the hillbillies? Well, presumably (for he doesn’t spell it out) they’re the dark forces you make yourself vulnerable to when you blunder into somewhere you shouldn’t be. When the quartet returns to Atlanta a man short, they may understand how thin the veneer of civilization is, but they don’t have to worry that their suburban cul-de-sacs will be overrun and reduced to the same state of nature as the backwoods.

That’s the flaw in the thesis: Robert D. Kaplan, a shrewd observer of global affairs, has referred to the jihadist redoubts and other lawless fringes of the map as “Indian territory.” It’s a cute joke but a misleading one. The difference between the old Indian territory and the new is this: No one had to worry about the Sioux riding down Fifth Avenue, just as Burt Reynolds never had to worry about the mountain man breaking into his rec room. But Iran has put bounties on London novelists, assassinated dissidents in Paris, blown up community centers in Buenos Aires, seeded proxy terror groups in Lebanon and Palestine, radicalized Muslim populations throughout Central Asia – and it’s now going nuclear. The leaders of North Korea, Sudan and Syria are not stump-toothed Appalachian losers: Their emissaries wear suits and dine in Manhattan restaurants every night.

Life is not a movie, especially when your enemies don’t watch the same movies, and don’t buy into the same tired narratives.

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