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War with Iraq: The Movie

by Robert Brent Toplin on Oct 24, 2002

Robert Brent Toplin

In speeches about the urgency of attacking Iraq, President Bush has described the challenges America faces in the manner of an old-fashioned Western. His scenarios resemble the plot of one of the greatest of the genre, “High Noon.”Ý Bush may be drawing lessons from the wrong Hollywood flick, though, for American experiences in the Middle East are beginning to resemble the script of a Spaghetti Western.

In the 1952 saga “High Noon,” a villain and his henchmen threaten the safety of a western community, whose cowardly citizens cringe in the face of danger. Sheriff Gary Cooper, alone, stands up to fight. When Cooper dispatches the desperadoes, the nervous townspeople give a sigh of relief, but Cooper throws down his badge in contempt for those who were afraid to deal with evil.

Bush supporters would like to view him as Gary Cooper confronting a world indifferent to Saddam Hussein’s malevolence, but what Bush’s critics are saying suggests that his war scenario could make him look like Clint Eastwood. In “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) and other made-in-Italy Spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood had few friends and many enemies. The cynical cowboy lived in an ultra-violent society populated by warring gangs. To survive in this tough environment, Eastwood needed to be as brutal as the desperadoes he confronted.

No moral certitude like that of “High Noon” informed the typical Spaghetti Western. There was so much murder and mayhem in the films that the traditional Hollywood Western clashes between good and evil, hero and villain, and civilization and barbarism vanished.

The encounters of the United States in the Middle East have played out, at various times, according to both scenarios. America’s intrusion in Lebanon is a case in point. In 1958 President Eisenhower sent marines and warships to the Mediterranean country to help end a civil war there. Within a few months, he was successful. Like Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Ike succeeded in promoting law and order.

In recent years American interventions in the region have looked more like the script of “A Fistful of Dollars.” In 1983, when President Reagan sent marines into Lebanon to save it from destructive fighting, American soldiers became the targets of warring parties; 241 Marines died in a terrorist bombing, and Reagan quickly pulled out U.S. military forces.

Worse for American popularity, there has been a role reversal. Many in the region now view Osama Bin Laden as a folk hero and view the shameful attacks of Sept. 11 as courageous. Public reactions are especially surprising in Kuwait, the country U.S. forces help to liberate in the Persian Gulf War. Anti-American sentiments are growing there, too.

The current promoters of war against Saddam Hussein’s brutal tyranny in Iraq speak as if American military action will take the form of a “High Noon” morality play. Iraqis will welcome liberation, they say, and members of the world community, like the cringing citizens in “High Noon,” will celebrate once they see that the action is successful.

Opponents of the use of force point out that military intervention could produce unintended consequences. The United States could find itself in a troublesome mess that resembles the moral chaos in a Clint Eastwood picture. People of the Middle East may not welcome the Americans as saviors, they warn.

War would excite mass protests, and some moderate regimes in the Middle East might fall into the hands of extremists. American military action could excite radical Islamic groups to participate in a jihad against the United States, intensifying the danger of international terrorism.

No one knows with certainty which movie scenario will hold true if the United States attacks Iraq. Those who favor war hope that events will unfold like the script of “High Noon,” with the forces of moral rectitude bringing security and progress to an appreciative Iraqi and world community. In moments of doubt, however, they wonder if they may be entering the setting of an ultra-violent Spaghetti Western that places them among few friends and many enemies.

A quick victory in war would be likely to leave the impression of a “High Noon” experience. It might take a little time to see the relevance of “A Fistful of Dollars.”


Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.