They Won’t Give Peace a Chance - That Was Just a Dream Some of Us Had
The USA emerged from World War II as ‘the good guys’. Not only had they triumphed over National Socialism and imperial Japan and thereby put an end to two of history’s most brutal regimes but, compared with the other victors - the colonial powers France and Great Britain and the Stalinist Soviet Union – they also seemed a paragon of virtue. Whether an authoritarian or a democratic regime is better – a question intensely debated up to the start of WWII – seemed also to have been conclusively answered. The economic prowess of the USA, responsible in 1953 for 44.7% of global production, made any criticism of its system seem ridiculous (1) Yet in the 60s this image was reversed. The extreme cruelty of the war waged against Vietnam was mirrored on the domestic front by entrenched racism. The serial murder of oppositional, liberal politicians from the Kennedys to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X reinforced the public’s impression of an aggressive system, moreover one whose anti-communist foreign policy supported repressive regimes all over the world. The 60s were, on the other hand, a period of American renaissance: civil opposition to racism and the Vietnam War not only gave rise to new forms of non-violent protest (the sit-ins and teach-ins derived from the teachings of Ghandi and ultimately, from those of Thoreau (2)), but also to a completely new philosophy of life that, at least at the symbolic level was to establish itself internationally perhaps as successfully as had America’s economic model in the 1950s. The shock was therefore all the greater when, after 1990, history seemed to repeat itself. Whilst the USA initially appeared to be glorious victors over the Soviet Union in the Cold War it gambled its moral capital extremely quickly in Iraq. Yet, although domestic protest against the Gulf War began in advance of any actual hostilities (in contrast to protest against America’s initially covert operations in the Vietnam War) (3), its resonance was limited. This becomes very clear when one compares two films from the critical veterans’ movement: with its quiet radicalism, Winter Soldier, an evening-long film from 1972, is a milestone political documentary, compared to which Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan from 2008 comes over as a tame TV documentary (4).
The following programme comprises two contrasting sections: the first five works are contemporary films that address racism and war from very different cultural and cinematic perspectives; the subsequent three films work on the meta-level of citation.
Criticism of the Vietnam War in the cinema of former East Germany (GDR) generally did little more than defame the enemy. One exception is Robert Jackson Accuses, which cites from transcripts of the American Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials: a line of argument that is hard to resist, even today.
White Christmas also combines American popular culture – easy listening, to be exact – with acid criticism of the Vietnam War. The aim of this short agitprop film – addressed in fact, to the German rather than the American public – was to contrast bourgeois prosperity and comfort with the distant war. Like pretty much all ‘Love Generation’ criticism, the film doesn’t target the USA in particular but the entire capitalist system.
Jonas Mekas zoomed in from a completely different angle for his Time & Fortune Vietnam Newsreel. This fake interview with ‘Lapland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs’ brings an outsider’s perspective to bear on the US war, and discusses with ironic perplexity if it might not be possible to kill off the Viet Cong more cheaply. For, whilst white students in the US primarily took issue with the war in South-eastern Asia, African-Americans remained predominantly concerned with their own situation. For them, daily discrimination at home and the Vietnam War were simply two faces of the same racist coin (5).
Shot in Direct Cinema style, Crowded addresses the situation of Black prisoners, whose numbers in American gaols are still today disproportionate to the number of Black people in the population as a whole. Whilst the film criticises overcrowding and the dilapidated condition of prison architecture, one asks oneself – when recalling pictures of more modern high-security American prisons – if the situation has not perhaps now become even worse.
When it came to America’s struggles on the domestic front, the GDR emphatically took sides with African Americans – partly due to genuine solidarity and partly to propagandistic expediency. However, given that racism remains rampant in Germany, not least in its eastern states, it seems rather abstruse when Ralph Abernathy is assured in Free Angela Davis that “there is no room for racism” in the GDR.
Perfect Film illustrates the media-hype around the murder of Malcolm X by using its waste products: the uncut roll of film created when an editing assistant sticks together in more or less chronological order all the footage left over from the final cut. This reveals outtakes, repeat takes and the vanity of eyewitnesses but not the event itself, which consequently becomes all the more palpable for the viewer.
The My Lai massacre, the murder of an entire village by American troops, proved a crucial turning point in the Vietnam War. Numerous Vietnam veterans subsequently made statements before official as well as unofficial commissions about the many war crimes committed; the USA’s moral standing sank to a new low, and to justify the war to the public was no longer possible. The actor who recites soldiers’ statements in Acting Facts employs gestures so minimal as to suggest that he is an anti-monument: instead of being hewn from ‘immortal’ stone he acts in a time-based medium; he recalls, not glorious deeds but crimes; and with his every word he questions the validity of human and medial memory.
The end of the Vietnam War was as significant as the war itself had been horrific. That a so clearly superior military force had to end a war due to moral pressure on its own domestic front is probably rare in history indeed. Racism too, from an outsider’s viewpoint appears now to be a relic of the past: with a Black Minister of Defence, a Black Minister of Foreign Affairs and the recently nominated Black presidential candidate it seems that African-Americans may take the highest public office. Yet, talking to American intellectuals about the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements, one learns of their deep disappointment. Not few of them consider both projects to have failed entirely; racism is today merely more subtle and hence all the more effective; and the Iraq War along with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, clear proof that the USA is carrying on seamlessly from where it left off in Vietnam.
In CALIFORNIA/blue Abbey Williams sits holding her iPod in a branch of Ikea, singing along to Joni Mitchell’s lines from the year 1971: “Sittin’ in a park in Paris, France; readin’ the news and it’s all bad. They won’t give peace a chance; that was just a dream some of us had”. Here, the artist is citing not only the Peace Movement but also 1970s performative video art – and she puts it all in the artificial feel-good-world of the Swedish multinational furnishers. All that remains of revolutionary spirit is a gesture: art and the artist have long since seamlessly merged with the consumer world that surrounds them.
(1) Cf. Philipp Gassert: Die USA und der Kalte Krieg. In: Kleine Geschichte der USA. Stuttgart 2007, p. 432.
(2) Cf. Henry D. Thoreau: The Resistance to Civil Government/Civil Disobedience. Boston 1849/1866.
(3) Cf. Noam Chomsky: Hybris. München 2006, pp. 52.
(4) Winter Soldier is available on DVD (ASIN: B000F3AILI). “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan” is distributed online at http://www. ivaw.org
(5) Cf. the Black Panther Newsreel from 1968: http://www. ubu.com/film/varda.html