There’s a scene in Tim Robbins’ anti-war satire, Embedded, in which a neocon big shot, trying to rationalize the pending invasion of an Arab country, blurts out, “To lead by example is cowardly!” It’s a funny line because it turns a cherished principle of civics and morality inside out; it’s also a scary comment because we live in a time when such old principles are being discarded like so many banana peels by a White House completely at ease with turning the planet into a mixed-use graveyard/ toxic-waste dump. Writing in November’s Harper’s, Benjamin DeMott describes today’s slogan-besotted policymaking as “junk politics” that “miniaturizes large, complex problems at home while maximizing threats from abroad.” Nothing, perhaps, better illustrates junk politics and its partisans than Washington’s presentation of Iraq as a satanic menace and the public’s credulous acceptance of that threat.
Now running at the Actors’ Gang Theater, Embedded focuses on three groups involved in the invasion and occupation of a thinly fictionalized, oil-rich nation named Gomorrah. There are the neocons, in the form of the Office of Special Plans, a camarilla of war-loving presidential advisers from academia weaned on the interventionist theories of Leo Strauss; there are the media that have signed Faustian contracts with the Pentagon to become “embedded” with the invading military units — and with military censors. And there are the individual grunts who have enlisted to escape from America’s hollows, barrios and ghettos in search of skills, education and, maybe, a little adventure.
War, that runaway choo choo of history, is a great provider of adventure — and career-building opportunities. For Robbins’ Special Plans hawks, all of whom wear Earhardt Steifel’s Mardi Gras–type masks that suggest real policymakers (and who come with easily decipherable names like Pearly White, Woof, Rum-Rum and Cove), ordering other people into combat is a nifty way to divert public attention from a cratering economy and to test Strauss’ neo-Platonic theories. As far as they’re concerned, the masses are a semiconscious lump of Play-Doh that must be shaped by the necessary lie. Unfortunately, today our government must produce necessary lies on an hourly basis, which is where a slothful but dutiful press comes in.
Robbins introduces the war journalists in a delightfully degrading scene in which they are abused by their drill instructor–censor, Colonel Hardchannel (V.J. Foster), himself a bizarre hybrid of Sergeant Rock and a Broadway-musical buff. “Sir! I am a maggot journalist, sir!” he has them call out during fall-out and calisthenics. His charges range from eager local-TV jocks to battle-hardened reporters (think Christiane Amanpour).
Although most are lampoons, one of the journalists, Stringer (Andrew Wheeler), embodies the kind of honest, straightforward writer that once typified modern American war correspondents from Ernie Pyle to David Halberstam, and whose dispatches today usually appear buried in the middle of a newspaper.
The soldiers are represented by Private Jen-Jen Ryan (Kaili Hollister), her boyfriend Private Perez (Jay R. Martinez), a sergeant (Brian T. Finney) and Monk (Ben Cain), who guns down an Iraqi family during a misunderstanding. Jen-Jen’s story is the centerpiece of the show’s military segments; and, if this Private Ryan sounds familiar, it’s not because of a Steven Spielberg film but because she is Robbins’ stand-in for Jessica Lynch, the young soldier whose capture by Iraqi forces and “rescue” from a hospital’s intensive-care ward were instantly manufactured into a legend rivaling Sergeant York. The prosaic details that eventually came out about Lynch’s ordeal, along with her extraordinary admission of shame about her exploitation, are one of the saddest tales to emerge from the war — and from a media that had become a mere speakerphone for Pentagon fairy tales.
Embedded is poured onto a spare, boxing-ring-like stage starkly lit by Adam H. Greene. Under Robbins’ energetic direction, an able ensemble of 13 charges on and off it for 85 minutes, sans interruption. Although a group effort, V.J. Foster steals the evening with his ruff-tuff Colonel Hardchannel, an irresistible ‰ personality torn by the requirements of public relations and military bluff — all the while peppering the night with show-tune references.
The show’s shifting focus makes for a mix of ricocheting blackouts but, fortunately, this is not a work at war with itself. The parts dealing with the neocon masters of war are unquestionably the most propagandistic and over-the-top. Still, this bit of street theater, which recalls the best of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, never tips the boat over. And, while the sendup of the war correspondents occasionally lapses into buffoonery, that’s never the point of Robbins’ approach, and this segment is well defined by the persistent inquiries of Stringer and his conflicts with Colonel Hardchannel.
Robbins is clearly most sympathetic to his story’s grunt soldiers. Make that, sympathetic period, and, not surprisingly, they come off the least interesting. Every time one of them begins reading a letter to home, the piece stops dead in its tracks — but not from revelation. The problem is that Robbins hasn’t found a way to present the soldiers to make them anything but victims: Their situation is not funny, they’ve done nothing to be lampooned for, yet they’ve also done nothing to earn our sympathy other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that’s exactly where and when soldiers are sent, and so it’s hard to feel for these enlistees (not draftees), especially when they’re sighing about the steaks, ribs and chocolate ice cream that they miss.
Ultimately, Embedded’s grunts are dull characters because they make no choices. The satire’s journalists do make choices and, for all their pathetic kowtowing, are the more human figures for getting in bed with the Pentagon. As Phillip Knightley wrote about America’s World War I reporters in his book The First Casualty: “The principles of a nation at war demanded control not only of the way people fought, but also of the way they thought. Such influential opinion makers as war correspondents could not be allowed to write freely lest they create unproductive reactions . . .”
But there’s an even darker truth about the Iraqi war that Embedded only hints at — that even if Americans had all the facts before them, we wouldn’t care. Because in a way we do have the facts, or at least, access to them — it’s not as though no one in big media has reported on the administration’s lies or its ulterior motives in Iraq, much less about the hypocrisy of its crypto-fascist pundits and theoreticians.
How else can we explain opinion polls that show people doubt the veracity of Bush’s claims about going to war but believe it’s good to be in Iraq anyway? Americans remain uncurious about other countries and are narcotized by television, sports and celebrity; while much of the world starves, our biggest worry is that we are eating ourselves to death. Into this spiritual void the predatory right wing has jumped, with a cowed or sympathetic news media administering the morphine drip of propaganda to the voters. The neocon ice age will not last forever, simply because nothing does. But that’s not encouraging news — a lot can happen during an ice age.
EMBEDDED | Written and directed by TIM ROBBINS | At the ACTORS’ GANG THEATER, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through December 21 | For information, call (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15.