While watching the chaotic exit from Afghanistan this week, I was reminded of Lions for Lambs, a middling film with a stellar cast and a thoughtful script made in 2007, just a few years into the war in the Middle East.
The film follows three storylines: a conversation between an ivory-tower professor (director Robert Redford) and his lazy but promising student (Andrew Garfield); another conversation between rising star Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) and awkward, almost over-the-hill journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) on the eve of a new military strategy; and a conversation between two soldiers (Luke Derek and Michael Pena) trapped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan when that strategy fails.
In light of what is happening right now, the aw-shucks smiles are just a little too charming and artificial for my taste.
All of this “conversating” (as my students like to call it) produces a talking-head story that feels more like a classroom session founded on the Socratic method of interrogatory learning than a compelling script founded on the Aristotelian model of storytelling. Redford tries to mitigate the lack of action by directing everyone to smile charmingly, a technique that, over the years, has served him and his acting proteges well. But with the backdrop of war, and in light of what is happening right now, the aw-shucks smiles are just a little too charming and artificial for my taste.
Nevertheless, it’s worth revisiting Lions for Lambs today, if only to review the presentiments of where we are now — with journalists who focus more on “ratings and revenue” than investigating hard news, students who stare mindlessly at screens and resist intellectual challenge, politicians who just want a good talking point for the voters — and also to evaluate the perspectives suggested by Matthew Michael Carnahan’s prescient, though stagnant, script, written 15 years ago.
Here are some moments that stood out for me in the film:
The film’s military action is based loosely on a real case in which special forces were dropped into an area that was supposed to be cleared but was actually occupied by Taliban fighters. To protect the American troops while planning a rescue, airplanes strafed the area around them, killing many of the Taliban and providing temporary cover for the Americans. The precision of their strikes is a stark reminder of how important air support was to the Afghan army — support that was suddenly withdrawn over this past weekend. No wonder the Afghans feel betrayed and maligned by accusations of cowardice. Over 60,000 Afghan soldiers were killed during the past 20 years; Biden’s thoughtless characterization of them as “unwilling to fight” was unfair and uncalled for. They needed the promised air support in order to continue fighting. I am appalled by how they have been abandoned.
Is revenge ever a rational justification for violence or war? No. It just leads to more violence and loss.
In the film, the so-called “new strategy” of airlifting small platoons into isolated areas for ground fighting is justified by Lt. Colonel Falco (Peter Berg) as he explains to the special forces preparing for the mission: “Never engage the same enemy for too long or he will adapt to your tactics.” Ironically, however, as Janine Roth points out, they are embarking on a strategy that was tried — and failed — in Vietnam. There’s nothing new or innovative about it. Her words do not bode well for the mission underway.
Senator Irving justifies the military response to the attack on the World Trade Center by reminding Roth, “Unfortunately civilizations do not sustain themselves through nonviolent response. We were attacked! You do not respond to an attack with diplomacy!” Roth challenges him, asking, “So what does that mean? You’re now going to forego diplomacy and the State Department?” In 2007 that line might have garnered some nods of agreement from the audience; diplomacy is always preferable to war, isn’t it? But today my response is, “Fat lot of good the State Department has done.” Over the past week we have heard very little from the Commander in Chief, while State Department spokesmen and military figures have engaged in CYA press conferences. The buck has been passed around so much that its antlers have fallen off. And the Taliban are very much in charge.
Then there’s the issue of revenge, which also appears in the film. Is revenge ever a rational justification for violence or war? No. It just leads to more violence and loss. Is violence justified for genuine self-defense against a present assault? Yes, of course. To prevent future assaults? Maybe, if it’s a demonstration of strength designed to prevent war. To aid those who ask for help? Yes, I think that’s rational and justifiable too. Even imperialism or plunder — the desire to steal from others — is a rational reason for violence, although it’s also an immoral one. But revenge? Where does that get us?
Even American citizens have been told to “get yourself to the airport” that is now surrounded by Taliban terrorists blocking the roads.
The most revealing and relevant line of the film, and the answer to that question, begins at 28 minutes, when Senator Irving stands up, takes off his jacket with its American flag lapel pin, symbolically walks away from the flags that surround his desk, and warns Roth how hard it is to walk back from war:
We walk, and Afghanistan reverts back to the Taliban. Only now the Taliban has metastasized into something infinitely more vicious and potent because they’re now 2-0 versus superpowers. They butcher the people who helped us, who voted and were stupid enough to put their faith in our word. So call it not only the end of hope for tens of millions of Afghans, but the end of American credibility, the end of America as a force for righteousness in the world.
I think that this is where we stand now. As I write, our Afghan allies have been abandoned. Even American citizens have been told to “get yourself to the airport” that is now surrounded by Taliban terrorists blocking the roads. Women and children are being beaten and worse if they are caught without a burqa. And China is turning its attention toward Taiwan, because American credibility as a compassionate and righteous superpower has been shattered.
It is not a pretty outcome, regardless of the beguiling smiles on the faces of the State Department officials who are being directed to defend it.