Apparently based on a piece of non-fiction research into US Army Psychological Special Ops, this quiet little gem, which had escaped my attention until now, is broadly speaking a comedy. But not of the slapstick variety. More in keeping with the Dr Strangelove/Catch 22 genre, though in places you might say it borrows something from the irreverence of the US TV series Mash. Is it funny? Well, like all attempted comedy, it really is a subjective call. But perhaps a more apposite question is rather; is comedy a fitting genre to tackle the untold pain and suffering unleashed on Iraq and elsewhere by the US military-industrial complex and its corporate vultures?
I must confess to having enjoyed the film and for me the central cast of Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and George Clooney all did a professional enough job. Was it as ground-breaking as say Catch 22 or Dr Strangelove? Most definitely not. And therein lies the point of debate. Even as we blog, some 14 years after the shock and awe began, there is nothing remotely amusing about what the US led coalition of warmongers have done to that unhappy country. Ditto for Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and a host of other long-suffering nations. But it has to be admitted that dark political humour is sometimes the best, at times the only way, to undermine the hegemony of propaganda that is at the disposal of the US military-industrial complex.
There is no doubting that Catch 22, book and film, played a significant part in the growing anti-Vietnam war sentiment that eventually manifested itself in the US, and I guess that the directors and actors in this film might have had similar ambitions. In order to combat the carefully constructed propaganda of the occupying forces you have to be able to tap into the absurdity of their war aims. In the case of Iraq, the absurdity is beyond belief. The US and its western allies armed Saddam Hussain to the teeth with highly sophisticated weaponry in order that they might subdue the Shia Iranian revolution. And this Saddam duly complied with, unleashing a blood-curdling first world war style war on their Shia neighbours.
But here is the sickening irony twenty odd years on and after not one but two brutal US orchestrated wars, and with the entire region still knee-deep in blood and misery, it is the Iranian Shia Mullahs that are now in control of Iraq. As for the defeated Sunni tribes, once loyal to Saddam and his US backers, they are now forced to align themselves with the various Islamic terror groups, funded as they are by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, in order to attack the new regime and its western backers. None of this bleak irony is exposed in The Men Who Stare At Goats, and the project is the worse off for it. Yes, exposing the lunacy of pseudo psychological warfare is useful in undermining the legitimacy of US interventions, but really effective political comedy has to get at the very heart of the beast in this case -US control of the oil fields. This film, amusing as it is, unfortunately misses the opportunity to strike hard.
The best political writing from within the US is, undoubtedly, the House of Cards, where the never-ending war on terror is soon exposed to be nothing but a fiction. The real terror, as we quickly learn, is manufactured not in some foreign Islamic lands but right at home in the White House and in the Pentagon. I suspect the days of using clever political humour to attack the US global network of terror might be over. These days it takes courageous, hard-hitting political drama to get anywhere near the truth.
By all means, spend a pleasant couple of hours watching this film but don’t expect anything too revolutionary. Yes, we are probably long overdue a new devastating political satire to shake things up, but I fear this film is not it.