War (in a General Sense) Is Hell

Steven Bochco’s Over There can’t see the quagmire for the trees.

Over There, the Steven Bochco-produced drama about the war in Iraq that premieres tonight at  10 p.m. ET on F/X, is being hailed everywhere as a groundbreaking television experiment – the first American series to fictionalize a war while that same war is actually going on. There’s a sense, in much of the press coverage of the show, that its mere existence is somehow salutary. Kay McFadden of the Seattle Times calls the series a “worthy and much-needed endeavor,” while the Houston Chronicle warns that it is “so well done that it may be too much for some viewers to handle.” Aaron Barnhart, TV critic for the Kansas City Star and proprietor of the excellent television Web site TV Barn, writes that Over There “crashes through television’s complacency like a Humvee with the pedal to the metal.” He’s not entirely wrong—though the characters are stock and the plotting conventional, tonight’s pilot does make for one of the most violent and wrenching hours of television I’ve ever watched, if only by virtue of its subject matter. Let’s allow for the moment, then, that Over There does push the boundaries of “television’s complacency,” and that that is a good thing. The question still remains: What, if anything, does it do to our complacency vis-à-vis the Iraq war itself?

Bochco has reiterated in interview after interview that he’s not interested in making a political statement about the war, pointing out that “a young man being shot at in a firefight has absolutely no interest in politics.” That’s an unimpeachably true statement, but it’s also a disingenuous one. Of course combat feels apolitical to those engaged in it, because what’s at stake for them is not the outcome of some ideological struggle, but the future of their physical existence. That’s precisely why it’s up to those who put them in harm’s way to have as broad as possible a perspective on the purpose, the goals, the endgame, and, ultimately, the meaning of the war these young people are being used to fight. On a lesser scale, the responsibility of representing a war is no different. Steven Bochco’s storytelling strategy at times recalls the “shock and awe” tactics of the early days in Iraq, when military leaders simply assumed that the mighty spectacle of American military technology would cow the insurgents into submission. Bochco tries to cow his audience by bombarding us with spectacular proof of how awful it feels to be in the middle of a war—any war. He’s pretty damn good at it, too—good enough to make us forget, for large chunks of time, any questions we might have about the origin and purpose of this particular war.

Tonight’s pilot episode, which plunges us right in medias of some very disorienting res, is like a one-hour extended remix of the gruesome opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a film to which this series is obviously heavily indebted. The show’s first battle scene, in which soldiers lay siege to a mosque full of insurgents, even tries to one-up Ryan’s infamous shot of a soldier searching for his own severed arm with an even more ghoulish image: an Iraqi blown clean in half by a grenade becomes a torso-less pair of legs that keep running for a few steps before falling to the ground. (Could this really happen? I was so disquieted by the idea that I put Slate’s Explainer, Dan Engber, on the case – read his response here.)

What with the disembodied but still-running legs, the vultures pecking at bodies as they fester in burned-out cars, and the nonstop ambient screaming, Over There devotes much of its running time to making sure we realize war really is hell—a sentiment common to pretty much every war movie post-Catch 22. But even that novel’s vision of war as an absurd, surrealistic spectacle taking place in a meaningless, anarchic void—a trope picked up by many modern representations of armed conflict, from  M*A*S*H to Apocalypse Now—is absent from Over There. It’s as if even the possibility that these men and women might be fighting and dying for the wrong reason, or for no clearly defined reason at all, has been deemed too terrible for viewers to contemplate.

In its second and third episodes, Over There does start to move in a direction that may be intended to provoke thought, and not just instinctual revulsion, about the violence on the ground in Iraq. One character, a white female soldier nicknamed “Mrs. B.,” shows signs of a sadistic streak that pushes her toward Lynndie England territory—in the pilot, she stands on a dead insurgent’s hand, as if experimenting to see whether the dead are really impervious to pain, and by the third episode, she taunts an Iraqi prisoner with mock kung fu moves as he stands in a “stress position.” But in general, the show seems too devoted to a tone of careful neutrality to explore the darker side of battle fatigue. And despite his willingness to expose his audience to graphic gore, Bochco, like the Department of Defense, seems squeamish at the thought of filming any actual flag-draped coffins. Though one major character does lose a limb, by the end of the first three episodes, the show’s visible body count is somewhere around a dozen enemy combatants and no Americans at all.

To watch the first three episodes of Over There, you’d never know there was any such person as George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein (OK, Saddam does appear once, in a faded photo taped to the wall of an insurgent hideout), much less any such thing as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not that I expect the Army grunts in Over There to lie in their foxholes debating the search for Nigerien yellowcake or the spread of democracy in the Fertile Crescent. It’s unrealistic enough how much time the main characters spend puzzling over the origin of each other’s nicknames as bullets whiz overhead (especially since, as soldiers watching the pilot have pointed out, by the time a unit is sent into combat, its members know each other all too well from months of training together.) But it would be a shame if Bochco’s only innovation in Over There was to replace the envelope-pushing nudity of his early cop shows (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) with envelope-pushing dismemberment. Over There is an impressively crafted and viscerally effective show, but its micro-narrative stays so resolutely focused on the trees—the ill-fated beer runs, the lousy K-rations, the everyday struggle for day-to-day survival—that it never pulls back far enough to see the forest (or quagmire) in which those trees take root.