The Empty Balcony: Three Kings

There haven’t been that many films made about the Persian Gulf War. A quick search in the tubes only turned up a handful. A quick, forgetful war (from the American perspective, anyway), there would have been no real lasting impact on American society wrought by the conflict had it not been for our recent misadventures in the desert. We tore a bloody swath through Kuwait and Iraq for one hundred hours in 1991, and came home intact and victorious. We seemed to dictate everything that happened on the ground and in the air. The war was fought on our terms completely. Mistakes were few, casualties were few, while damage inflicted on the enemy was severe. We decided when it began, and we decided when it was over. For us, it was the perfect war. Our only problem was we failed to recognize that the enemies of the future could learn lessons from it.

That was eighteen years ago. What lessons we thought we had learned from that war all turned out to be wrong. We thought we could bomb our way to victory, and this was largely true, as long as there was a compliant opposing force holding still for us through the sights. That thinking became even more rigid after one bad day in Somalia left eighteen Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead. We lost that one as soon as the television showed an American body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

Nothing like that happened during the Gulf War. Where there were Americans in uniform, the message was tightly controlled by the Pentagon. Where there were only Iraqis and journalists, such as in Baghdad, the fireworks show that lit up the sky every night courtesy of American air power made our military appear as untouchable, avenging angels from above. No mortal army could stop us.

This was very much on the minds of members of the Clinton administration, having inherited what turned out to be a very deftly handled foreign policy portfolio from the first Bush administration. Clinton and his people had badly botched the public facing of the Somalia mission, and it had left them skittish, reluctant to involve American forces in overseas operations. There was an immediate cost to this drawing down of interventionist ideology. One year after retreating from Somalia, Rwanda went insane. 800,000 people were murdered over the course of three and a half months, many of them hacked to death with machetes. The Clinton administration was so embarrassed by its lack of action in preventing the chaos that it refused to utter the word ‘genocide’ for months. Of course, no one at the White House, or in any other western capital, was responsible for the killing, but doing nothing was unconscionable.

So when the next opportunity arose to do some good and fight a war at the same time, in 1999 in Kosovo, the decision was made. There would be no ground war. There would be no American casualties. We would overwhelm the opposing force by raining destruction from above. When all was a smoking ruin, we would impose peace. That we were stopping a genocide in the bargain made us look like avenging angels once again. The message would be controlled, just like it was back in 1991. And so the lessons of the Gulf War became even more rigid.

But underneath it all, our subconscious selves were coming to conclusions all their own. Despite the wide domestic and international support for the Gulf War, our brains could easily recognize the soft coating of rubbish that tainted the whole thing. As oil wells burned and southern Shiites were abandoned to the reinvigorated fury of an enraged dictator, we couldn’t throw parades fast enough for the conquering army returning in triumph, job half done. Or was it?

We had reinstated the status quo, and that was good. But behind all the triumphant footage and the briefings from the four stars we all got a glimpse of just what it takes to keep this country and its economy afloat. We saw the complex web of entanglements that required, that demanded, the liberation of Kuwait. It’s since gotten even more complicated.

In retrospect, it does seem that the Persian Gulf War was an introductory course in 21st Century politics. But while we pretend that our innocence was lost to us one day in September of 2001, a movie from 1999, and the story it tells, turns those perceptions upside down.

Three Kings, written and directed by David O. Russell, is a preachy and moralizing film about four soldiers on a luckless gold heist in the days following the ceasefire in 1991.

Getting wind of pirated Kuwaiti bullion stashed away in a bunker outside of Karbala, soldiers Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), set out on a rogue mission to steal it. They find themselves sidetracked by the ugly aftermath of the Gulf War, as they play witness to oppression by the Iraqi army against unarmed civilians. It is then they face the inevitable choice between keeping the gold and saving the civilians. Anyone who has ever seen a movie before knows which choice they make.

The army is portrayed as a coldly calculating extension of generals and politicians, and it is far from a flattering portrayal. It is up to the individuals in the film to find their own goodness and morality. Russell confronts squarely the capacity for decency in human nature and how it so readily sublimates itself to group cohesion.

Most of the film could easily be described as adequate and entertaining. At the time it was made, there were some fairly slick shots throughout, but ten years on such gimmicks feel a little dated.

What keeps the film relevant is exactly what has kept the Gulf War relevant: our latest war in Iraq. Without timely intervention by the second Bush administration, Three Kings might have remained on the curio shelf, one of those films that crops up on basic cable every few years and surprises first time viewers who may have never heard of it before, then quickly fades back into obscurity.

But Three Kings is more than that. It is a window back into our thinking in 1991, and in 1999, when the movie was made. It assaults the viewer over and over again with accurate predictions of what would have happened in Iraq had we chosen to go on to Baghdad and dethrone Saddam Hussein. The war was still fresh in our minds in 1999, and the truth of the situation was evident, if not readily admitted in public. We had gotten lucky in the Gulf War. We bowed out at just the right time, before something awful happened and we found ourselves in a brutal counterinsurgent slog with no end in sight. Another few days and Iraq would have been ours, and the nightmare scenario that eventually did play itself out would have been conducted a decade earlier. It was that close. We knew this back then, but time, and a short time at that, made things foggy. Another Bush found his way into the White House and Iraq was on the list of unfinished business from Herbert Walker’s days. Realism and restraint that had saved the day in 1991 was gone, replaced by hubris and arrogance fueled by national trauma and runaway patriotism.

In watching Three Kings, the viewer sees that there was indeed sense at the end of the last century. Three Kings feels like a film from another era, not just another decade. Through the looking glass we have indeed gone, and back on the other side relics like Three Kings taunt us by reminding us of what we were like before we let things spin out of control, before we reset all our knowledge and experience about the Middle East after 9/11 and blindly followed fools who ordered us back over the berm.