Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Astonishing Signs of Normalcy
I’ve said this before, and I really need to say it again: I’ve seen too many movies. You might not think a movie problem is a big deal, but trust me, it really can hurt you when it comes to the reality thing.
Take, for example, Iraq. This war has been going on for as long as I can remember, and you might be a little foggy on some of its history. If you think back, you’ll remember turning on the news and seeing some of the locals toppling that big Saddam statue. That scene was pretty darn dramatic; wouldn’t you agree? It was so dramatic, I figured there wasn’t much that could top it. There would be some more action. Then, the movie would end with dancing in the streets – kind of Bollywood.
Then, they caught Saddam. There he was, right there on our television screens, looking like some crazed, off-his-meds street person. Time to roll the credits? Not so fast. OK, here it comes: The grand finale – MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Remember that? Well, that was a very long time ago -- measured in cinematic time, that is.
I grew up with little screen and big screen cowboys. The good guys weren’t always that good, but (sometimes with a little prodding from the townspeople and the pretty school teacher or sultry saloon gal) they eventually did what they had to do. They walked into the saloon, called out the bad guys, killed the worst of them and either jailed the rest or ran them out of town.
It was a damn good formula. Even a very modern Western, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven stuck to the same basic script. The hero walks into the saloon and kills the villain. Clint’s own formula, which brews up a not-so-virtuous hero and a not-so-evil villain, is more morally murky than the westerns of old, but the plot keeps the tradition alive.
Back to Iraq:
In the midst of being stuck in that awful quagmire, an odd thing happened that almost went unnoticed. Wyatt Earp rode into Tombstone, told the frightened townspeople to go home, and that he, Morgan, Virgil, and Doc Holliday would take care of the bad guys. That’s pretty much what happened when General Petraeus announced his plan for “the surge.” Of course, everyone, including me, was sure the quiet cowboy was just trying to buy some time for his boss to sneak out of Dodge, unmolested. A surge? Give me a break.
The Iraq movie had gone all reality on us, ages ago. Every time a cattle rustler got killed, more would pop up. That pudgy, pompous little cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr was continually sticking his thumb in our eye. No, there would be no Hollywood ending.
But, hold-on a minute.
There was a Hollywood ending. The General and his gang cleaned up Baghdad. The pudgy, pompous cleric was told to behave himself. And he did. The General reported: “astonishing signs of normalcy.” Of course it wouldn’t last. But it did. Sure, there’s still work to be done. People are still getting blown up, and Baghdad isn’t on anyone’s top ten vacation destinations, quite yet, but even Tombstone still had outlaws, after the Clantons were removed.
So where was the celebration, marking this incredible accomplishment? There should have been a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, but the Committee in Charge of National Celebrations had ruled: No more Mission Accomplished celebrations until May 2, 2103 -- one hundred years from the date of that unfortunate scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln, where a cowboy president flew noisily into the spotlight and took that famously undeserved bow.
Americans expect heroes to emerge and handle every major crisis. We shouldn’t. We had our Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Patton, Schwarzkopf, and lots of others, including I think, Petraeus. (This is no place to argue good wars vs. bad wars. Let’s do that another time.) It would be good for us to start losing that unrealistic expectation. Maybe it was a good thing not to celebrate the General’s achievement -- letting it slowly slip from our consciousness, making it easier for us to stop expecting the arrival of movie heroes and movie endings. Sure it takes away some of the joy of victory, but we’re better off in the long run.
Now, on to the next movie:
The gangs had looted the banks. Wait, that’s not quite accurate. The bankers were in the gangs that had looted the banks. That may not be it either. It’s confusing. The point is that everyone went broke except the gang leaders who got paid millions and billions for stealing our money. “Don’t panic!” said the new President. “A new marshal will be riding into your town. Go on with your lives, and leave the bad guys to him.”
Then, one day, we met him.
We waited anxiously for him to tell us that everything would be fine, now that he was in town. We listened. He finished. Then, the markets and our hopes dropped like a rock. Some said it was because he was too close to the gangs, maybe even a gang member himself. Yes, that was the problem. Or, part of the problem. He was too much one of them, but he was also too much one of us. Too little. Too nervous. Too flimsy. He was dwarfed by the small screen. Forget the big screen. This movie was not going Hollywood.
And so it continues. Every day, we search for astonishing signs of normalcy – in the job market, the housing market, the stock market, the shopping malls.
I’m writing a screenplay.
I call it a Surrealistic Monster Movie Western. In it, The General is seated at his old roll top desk in the frontier jailhouse, with his shotgun across his lap. (I am really, really mixing metaphors here. It's that damn movie problem.) He is keeping a close eye on Monsterstan (that would be the Afghanistan-Pakistan monster, in case it wasn’t obvious to you), when his mail arrives. In it, he finds a foreclosure notice for the jailhouse, along with notification that his pay is being rolled back and his 401k match has been eliminated.
On the streets of Tombstone, the similarly plagued citizens are looking for someone to hang. He calls for his deputies. Together they round up the bad guys – you know, bad bankers, bad brokers, bad regulators – and march them to the O.K. Corral.
And shoot them.
You think that’s going too far? Relax. It’s just a movie.