Judge Daniel MacDonald is glad this isn't a how-to manual.
Learn History. Then Change It.
Over the past sixty or so years, presidential administrations have used the media to an increasing degree for selling the American people on going to war, employing a range of rhetoric techniques to obfuscate the facts, and media have taken an increasingly active role in this duplicity. Such is the thesis of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, a new documentary from Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp (Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of the American Empire), narrated by Sean Penn (Mystic River).
Despite the rather provocative—and possibly inflammatory—title, War Made Easy is not a left-wing treatise on the Republican Party's attempts to deceive the public. It truly is non-partisan, using examples from administrations both Democratic and Republican, popular and unpopular to make its point. The target is not so much the administrations themselves as the media outlets reporting on them.
That said, it's hardly a balanced piece of work either. War Made Easy is based upon the book of the same name by Norman Solomon, and indeed the piece is comprised of a barrage of news footage intercut with an interview with the author. No other points of view are presented, no one is asked to support or refute the man's ideas; the aim is not so much to launch debate as it is to inform and persuade.
Fortunately, the argument made is both compelling and well-supported, a bucket of ice water to the face in an attempt to wake up an unsuspecting public. The sheer volume of facts presented to support Solomon's contention, and the brisk pace at which the evidence is laid out, makes it difficult to argue that he's not onto something. Viewed side by side, the commonalities in rhetoric tactics employed over and over become frighteningly clear, in what Solomon terms the "rhetoric of democracy." Common themes appear from disparate presidents' mouths in making a case to the American people: the United States enters war reluctantly, and only in the name of striving for peace and democracy; the enemy is evil and must be stopped at any cost; the decision to wage war is a black-and-white issue, and to choose wrongly would be at the peril of Americans themselves. To see Harry Truman, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all effectively saying the same thing, with seemingly the same goal, is truly eye opening, making the viewer wonder what could be stopping journalists from putting this together themselves and asking tougher questions.
Of course War Made Easy posits a series of reasons for this, too, using Phil Donahue as an example of what happens to those who dissent (his show was abruptly cancelled). Further, attention is drawn to the collective mea culpa made by many journalists after it became clear the case to invade of Iraq was based on shaky evidence. But saying sorry doesn't turn back the clock, and doesn't explain why this keeps happening, over and over again.
A number of segments of War Made Easy are truly memorable, some indelible. The image of Walter Cronkite standing in front of a small Vietnamese village as American soldiers set fire to rooftops with their Zippo lighters, the villagers trying to douse the flames, is in bold contrast to the sanitized version of events that hits our TV screens today. Even more sobering are the facts about civilian causalities since WWII: in that war, some 10% of casualties were civilian; that number went up to 50% during the Vietnam war, and has jumped to a ghastly 90% in the current campaign in Iraq, despite claims of super-precise weaponry and a humanitarian outlook. Regardless of how you feel politically, that's just too much.
There's a lot to get upset about in War Made Easy, but it ultimately suffers from having so singular a viewpoint. I would have liked to hear opinions from more than just Solomon himself: so many players are being held up for judgment based on short news clips, with no opportunity to provide their own perspective. Perhaps the idea is that the news reports speak for themselves, but who better to give insight into pressures that may come from the White House on what can and cannot be reported than the reporters themselves? Sean Penn's sober narration adds credibility and a sense of objectivity, but it's hard not to feel that this too is a complex issue being simplified for mass consumption.
War Made Easy is mostly comprised of archival footage, and so the picture quality varies from clip to clip; this is exasperated by a non-anamorphic 16:9 transfer. That said, there are few flaws that draw attention to themselves, as the short feature has plenty of room to breathe on this DVD. Audio is in two-channel stereo, with an impressive amount of stereo effects given the source material, although the level is somewhat lower than most standard discs. No special features are included save trailers for other Disinformation Co. documentaries.
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