Semper Fi, But Why?
Were I to tell you that Rules of Engagement features a protracted fistfight between Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, undertaken with broken glass and thunderous sound effects, you might assume the picture to be one of those old-tough-guy hoke-a-thons, like El Dorado. If I went on to say that Jackson and Jones portray Marine Corps colonels--the former facing court martial and the latter serving as his attorney, with both given the opportunity to bellow in close-up--you would change your reference to A Few Good Men. And if I were to add that the film pauses to depict an open-air hospital in Yemen filled with children who were shot to pieces by Jackson's Marines, you might give up on classification and think of the exceptional Three Kings.
Yes, Rules of Engagement transcends the usual movie categories; but it does so in order to drop into a more influential genre of fiction, that of the military press briefing. I commend the film to your attention because its story-writer, who was also an executive producer, is James Webb: Marine commander in Vietnam, Secretary of the Navy in 1987-88, popular novelist, freelance explainer on TV programs. In him we see united three functions of the national security state: implementing policy, making policy, justifying policy through the media. Given his authorship, Rules of Engagement is more than an entertainment and more than a statement of official thinking. It ought to be considered a continuation of war by other means.
The pretext for Webb's present maneuver is a story of good men sent to do a tough job, as Tommy Lee Jones puts it more than twice. When an angry crowd gathers before the US Embassy in Yemen, Jackson and his Marines fly to the scene with orders to protect the building and evacuate it if necessary. As the helicopters descend, Jackson sees that the situation is more serious than he'd been told; he'll be dealing with snipers, Molotov cocktails and battering rams. Fortunately, there's a back door. (It took the joint efforts of Webb and a professional screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, to make that one up.) Having sneaked into the embassy, Jackson evacuates the personnel (all three of them) but comes under a barrage of bullets. In the heat of combat, he orders his men to return fire, shooting into the crowd.
The following day, newspapers around the world publish the outcome: eighty-three dead and a hundred wounded, many of them women and children. Someone must answer for the massacre, and the National Security Adviser decides it won't be the US government. Jackson will take the blame, by himself.
By the way: Why were the Yemenis rioting? The US ambassador's young son asks that question during the siege, while cowering in a corridor. From his mother comes as much of an answer as Webb cares to give: "The people are mad about something, darling," an explanation addressed not only to the boy but to the audience, whose mental age Webb must calculate as no more than 9. Why, for that matter, do Jackson and Jones tromp through Vietnam in the film's prologue, set in 1968? Again, Webb would prefer not to ask, or rather not to have you ask. All he wants you to know (say it with me, please) is that these are good men sent to do a tough job--the standard operational lie at the rotten heart of the movie.
Like any effective falsehood, this one has a core of truth. The US military is indeed a tool of civilian policy-makers and (by extension) of the citizens themselves, who bear ultimate responsibility for its actions. It would therefore be logical to conclude that citizens have not only the right but the responsibility to judge the military. But members of the national security state such as Webb despise the bonds of logic. They want nothing less than perfect freedom, and so they place off-limits both reason and reasons alike. We must never ask why the military has gone to blow up a territory (though we ostensibly made the decision); and we are never to judge how the military conducts the blowing-up, since we were not the people under fire.
Rules of Engagement is an illogic machine, constructed to remove the inconvenience of thought from anyone who might question a half-century of America's war-making. First, with more brutality than cunning, the movie entices you to condemn Samuel Jackson, who leaves behind not only piles of corpses but also those children in the hospital, including a cute little one-legged girl who hops around with a crutch. Then, with more highhandedness than legerdemain, the movie exonerates Jackson, showing that the Yemenis deserved to become corpses. Those women and children were armed, and even the cute amputee popped away at Marines. Imagine Spielberg's girl-in-a-red-coat in Schindler's List as a guerrilla, attacking soldiers who'd been sent on a tough job.