The Grand Delusion

Cynthia Moothart

George W. Bush shamelessly boasts that he doesn’t read. Of newspapers he said: I glance at the headlines just to kind of [get] a flavor of what’s moving. I rarely read the stories. … get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves … people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”

Apparently, he also resists film.

A war waged on behalf of corporate cronies at the expense of working Americans recalls the lessons embedded in Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic Le Grande Illusion.

Filmed after one world war and under the threat of another, Grande Illusion served as a haunting elegy for the tragedy of battle and as a cautionary tale of its immeasurable toll. Exploring the profound social and political change of the interwar years — the erosion of inherited privilege and the resulting power shift toward the working class — the grand illusion of Renoir’s title is the notion that plutocrats can stand above and beyond the wars they create.

Using aristocratic connections Bush was able to elude the jungles of Vietnam. This time around he’s in hip-deep.

And as the last pillar of his reelection strategy fell — the thoroughly discredited war in Iraq joining the fiction that massive tax cuts to the wealthy would bring on a middle-class boom and that a crackdown on American civil liberties would bring international terrorists to their knees — voter support crumbled.

A recent Newsweek poll shows that confidence in Bush’s ability to responsibly conduct his own war dropped 15 percentage points between March and July. And among those most likely to be called up in a future folly — Americans age 18 to 29 — a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the Democratic National Convention found decorated Navy veteran John Kerry with a 2‑to‑1 lead.

With numbers so low so close to the election, the president — surely taking more than a glance at the headlines” — rhetorically retreated from war president” to man of peace.

But no amount of flip-flop and flimflam can sever the ties that bind this administration to its corrupt war. A suit filed August 17 in the Ninth U.S. District Court against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee, among others, ensures that.

An Army reservist from California filed the suit after superiors decided his one-year enlistment would be extended to three. He is one of as many as 40,000 other soldiers who have been forced to exceed their tours of duty under the stop-loss” provision enacted after 911. This emergency program, discredited by critics as a backdoor draft, allows officials to prolong reservists’ tours for the sake of national security.”

With 110,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq to fight a war of no purpose and seemingly without end, it’s likely the lawsuits won’t stop there. That fact certainly inspired Bush’s recently announced plan to recall 70,000 regular Army troops from Europe and Asia over the next 10 years to ease the strain on reservists in Iraq.

The most cutting conceit of Grande Illusion is the affinity that develops between an aristocratic German officer and his captive French counterpart at the expense of solidarity with the working class fighting their war. In this election season, Bush’s preference for his own already has been made clear: Tax cuts to the richest 1 percent amount, on average, to $48,000; the families of soldiers killed in Iraq get a $6,000 check.

The Manchurian Candidate now in theaters explores how an amoral dimwit with ambition can ascend to the presidency, though audiences get no sense of whether this one reads. With working-class men and women on the left, and increasingly the right, now gunning for Bush’s defeat, director Jonathan Demme ought to consider another well-timed remake — revisiting Renoir through the grand delusion of this plutocrat president’s reelection campaign.

Cynthia Moothart is managing editor for content at In These Times.
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