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The War in Iraq as Imperfectly Envisioned
by George Romero

by Richard Estes
December 6, 2004

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Night of the Living Dead, released in the late 1960s by George Romero, is still rightly recognized as a seminal event in the history of American movies. Revolutionary for its cheap production, gritty black and white visuals and harsh juxtaposition of nerve wracking anxiety with gruesome eruptions of unsanitized violence, convincingly conveyed by an unknown group of naive, amateurish performers, the film played a central role in eliminating much of the censorship of movies in this country.

Less understood is the allegorical ending, when the remaining survivor is shot dead after being mistaken by the arriving police as one of the "living dead" that eat the flesh of humans. In this abrupt, electrifying moment, Romero captured the insanity of the war in Vietnam, surgically exposing the logic by which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese because it was impossible to distinguish civilians from Viet Cong.

But this is not only aspect of the ending subject to provocative allegorical interpretation. As they approach the remaining survivor, moments before mistakenly killing him, the police shoot and kill the legion of living dead disoriented by the dawn. And, of course, why shouldn't they? After all, the living dead are insatiable cannibals, bent upon devouring everyone else. Any kind of violence can, and should, be used to eliminate them. A more "just war" is impossible to imagine.

Indeed, a "just war", isn't that what President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the neo-conservatives called the preemptive attack upon Iraq in 2003? Yes, similar to the actions of the police, US forces invaded the country to get rid of a subhuman scourge, Saddam Hussein, and his Baathist allies. Except, after the Iraqis began to violently resist the ongoing US presence, US troops lost the ability to tell the difference between Baathist untermenschen and otherwise apolitical Iraqi civilians, and thus starting shooting first and asking questions later, resulting in an embarrassing number of dead Iraqis, many of them killed in their own homes during US home invasions, euphemistically called raids, or in their vehicles during the inevitable instances of miscommunication at checkpoints.

As US forces moved dangerously close towards paraphrasing the old racist dictum of the early Westerns, implicit in Night of the Living Dead, "the only good Injun is a dead Injun", the more urbane Iraqis, by contrast, looked towards Pontecorvo's classic film of Arab urban insurrection, The Battle of Algiers, for inspiration, utilizing asymmetrical methods such as improvised explosive devices, car bombs and sporadic mortar attacks. Predictably, US forces followed the protocol of the police, and, again, by implication, the cavalry, relying upon overwhelming violence to resolve the problem, with the recent combat in Falluja as the model for future operations.

Prior to entering the city, US forces ordered the populace to leave, and thereafter deprived those who were too old, too poor or otherwise incapable of complying with the order, possibly as many as 50,000 people, of water, electricity and medical care. Upon encountering anticipated armed resistance, US forces called upon air and artillery strikes to destroy buildings, heedless of the loss of civilian lives. Reports from people who escaped indicate that the US also indiscriminately sprayed chemical weapons, such as white phosphorous, and possibly napalm, to clear the streets by melting the skin of Fallujans.

At the time of this writing, relief organizations are just beginning to tentatively deliver aid. A Red Crescent representative says that "there are bodies everywhere," and that as many as 6,000 people may have been killed. Both the Red Crescent and survivors report widespread starvation, with people compelled to eat the leaves of trees. Physicians are fearful of an outbreak of water borne disease, such as typhoid, hepatitis and diarrhea, because of water contamination. Refugees remain homeless in nearby cities, facing a cold winter, without any prospect of returning home anytime soon, if they ever do.

But, despite the utilization of such extreme methods, the US military, unlike the police, was not fortunate enough to encounter a disoriented enemy. Quite the contrary, US forces actually attacked because the war has already been lost. Angry over the refusal of Iraqis to acknowledge their racial and cultural inferiority to the US, they leveled much of the city to consume the bitter fruit of revenge. Falluja is thus a grotesque intensification of what has transpired throughout Iraq: tens of thousands civilians killed, possibly as many as 100,000, inadequate water, electricity and medical care throughout much of the country and a sharp increase in the level of malnutrition among Iraqi children.

Accordingly, Falluja is not the last reel of the movie, but an alarming escalation, the beginning of the next phase of the war, offensive military operations conducted by US forces in cities throughout Iraq for the indefinite future, and possibly, even cross border incursions into Syria, Iran and Turkey, with even less restraint. Ultimately, in terms of ferocity, it will compare favorably with the infamous "three alls" campaign launched by Japanese against Chinese Communist resistance in North China in 1940: "kill all, burn all, loot all" as described by the Chinese, marked by civilian massacres, destruction of villages, torture and rape.

Falluja reveals the truly subversive aspect of Night of the Living Dead, America as a fearful society incorrigibly addicted to violence as a release for its anxiety. Jose Delores, the fictional, doomed revolutionary leader in Pontecorvo's other audacious film, Queimada [Burn!], about a 19th Century insurrection in the Antilles, called upon folklore to describe the inevitable outcome of such a death wish: "the invader will be destroyed by his insanity, like a trapped water buffalo, trying to escape by running all across the island, until he jumps into the fire that he himself has created." Prudent people are advised to avoid service in the military, guard and reserves, and encourage those close to them to do likewise.

Richard Estes is a co-host of the public affairs program, "Speaking in Tongues", broadcast Fridays at 5pm, Pacific time, from the studios of KDVS 90.3 FM at the University of California, Davis. Live and archived KDVS programming, including "Speaking in Tongues", can be heard over the Internet at He can be reached via e-mail at