Across the ideological chasm in American political life, the left and right oppose each other in dueling facts, interviews, opinions, denunciations, and documentaries. The worlds that each wing sees resemble nothing so much as the positive and negative images of a photograph. Fahrenheit 9/11 (9/11) and Confronting Iraq (Iraq) are the latest gladiators in what may be a decades long Armageddon. Stark differences and intriguing similarities recur in a cinematic ying and yang between these two films.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is a mosaic composed of a very large number of facts, sounds, and images arranged according to the inner vision of Michael Moore on the war against terrorism that followed the al Qaeda attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. The filmmaker’s website (<www.michaelmoore.com>) contains a large memorandum of 59 entries composed of from one to nineteen entries that Moore asserts buttress 9/11 on a factual level. The parry to this approach accuses Moore of removing “facts” from their context (de-construct) and re-arranging them (re-construct) to verify an intention by President George W. Bush to attack Iraq on whatever pretext at the earliest possible time.
The key question that a critical evaluation of Fahrenheit 9/11 ultimately must face revolves around whether it is the inner vision of Michael Moore that breathes life into the “facts” or whether the insight rises from those facts. For example, the film catalogues several key actors in the 2000 American presidential election who have personal or professional relationships to George W. Bush. Since these relationships, or conflicts of interest, are true, then, the film argues that it is also true that there was a conspiracy to do what was necessary to elect George W. Bush.
This logic mimics inductive reasoning, but the argument is not necessarily true. A murderer must have motive, means, and opportunity; however, an innocent man may have all three as well and yet remain innocent. Instead of deducing conspiracy from Moore’s large number of facts, it may be that the reasoning runs from a generalization (Bush is a lying incompetent) to the specifics (the facts) that must be there somewhere.
How does Iraq build its case that the war on terrorism, and the Iraqi war, as a battle within that war, is necessarily and proper? The film surveys several decades of recent history and asserts that there is an ongoing war of terrorism. Specifically, the Roger Aronoff documentary says that in 1993 when Bill Clinton became president, there was general peace. Twelve years of Reagan and H. W. Bush had been strong and assertive; Clinton, on the contrary, says the proper words (this will not go unpunished) but never backs them up with steel. Clinton’s failure to carry out those words leads to Osama bin Laden telling his followers that the United States is impotent. Iraq then speaks of U. N. attempts to use a carrot and stick approach, but, like Clinton, never backs up the carrot with any real stick. The lesson of history can only be that a carrot-and-stick approach fails when the punishment is non-existent.
Interestingly, there is an irony in the oft-stated parallel between President John F. Kennedy and President Clinton. Kennedy, it is said, was upset because the Soviet Union kept pushing the West, and asked an aide, “When will they stop?” The aide reportedly said, “When they meet steel!” Director Aronoff does not use that anecdote; would 9/11 have used such an anecdote? Ultimately, the answer is unknowable, but it would have fit within Fahrenheit 9/11.
Unquestionably, 9/11 rallies those who believe in the incompetence and criminality of George W. Bush and is ludicrous to those firmly committed to Bush, but does it speak to those without a firm, prior opinion? Iraq presents a reasoned, orderly argument, not personal, with only a few inflammatory statements. For all its listing of facts, Michael Moore’s appeal is fundamentally to the emotions for the first three-quarters of the film. The parody of the Bush administration by (literally) the Bonanza (a western show on television) musical theme rates as sophomoric. Several parts of 9/11 look and sound like unused footage for campaign ads.
So is Fahrenheit 9/11 the low road with Confronting Iraq the high, noble, reasoned road? There are some parallels between the two that give pause. A school of thought exists that sees the left and right wings in American political life as sharing certain common characteristics. Each sees the problems, issues, and the people of that time in clear, sharp relief with few, if any, gray areas. Certainly, Moore points out no contrary facts to his conspiracy theory and never laughs at mistakes (or even admits their existence) made by those who agree with him. Still, Roger Aronoff has a lot of sharp black and white in his documentary. Director Aronoff notes that Post-Colonial “poor old me” excuses for terrorists have long passed their “useful” life.
There is something to that argument, but to dismiss them as irrelevant is simplistic. When I served in Bosnia, I heard Muslims describe the western armies as “crusaders”: the Europeans of the first, and successive, crusades. Such mythic memory still has power and can only be defeated by substituting alternative images and visions. Whether or not such arguments have validity, they have power. Many Muslims were shocked when Saddam Hussein lost so quickly and weakly in the Second Gulf War; the propaganda, his projected image, held sway in their minds.
Director Aronoff could profitably have added to his two principles for winning the war against terrorism (defeat their warriors and remove the conditions) by accepting the image, however invalid, in the psyche of the average Middle Eastern Muslim. The acknowledgment of a gray area paradoxically might have added to the heft of the principal argument.
So is Confronting Iraq better, more true than Fahrenheit 9/11? Iraq’s appeal to reason and fact seems more valid to one who is not a “True Believer.” Still, that could only be a matter of personality and training; in 1963, many hung conspiracy theories on a series of parallels between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of John F. Kennedy. Iraq’s superiority may lay in the future validity of its explanation, scientific or not. Confronting Iraq gives one a frame, a theory, with which to look at the world. Like any theory, it will not explain every fact or incident (there will be gray areas, life is rarely that neat). Although it was completed before the September 30, 2005 elections in Iraq, the theory of Iraq would have predicted success. The film could have invoked the unilateral disarming by Libya of its Weapons of Mass Destruction capability as a predictable result of a properly implemented carrot-and-stick policy. History may decide that the overriding justification of the Second Gulf War was that it started a domino affect toward democracy in the Middle East. When it comes to human beings and the accidents of history, the path in the Middle East is likely neither short nor smooth. Like any theory or explanation, history will test its validity.
Aronoff, Roger. Confronting Iraq. Washington, DC: Accuracy in Media, 2004.
Moore, Michael. Factual Back-up for Fahrenheit 9/11. Jan 28, 2005. <http://www.michaelmoore.com>
---. Fahrenheit 9/11. Santa Monica, Ca: Lions Gate Films, 2004.
Oklahoma State University