Rules of Engagement

By Thomas Kelly
web posted April 24, 2000

Rules of Engagement is a tour of the minefield of American foreign policy, a strange patch of volatility where our avowed enemies are given a map and our fighting men are blindfolded. Add the complication that we are never quite sure who these enemies are, but they often seem to be our own diplomats, and you have an unusual coup for Hollywood, a film which questions global meddling by that ludicrous pack of derriere-licking, blind guide dogs known as "The Diplomatic Corps'. No character epitomizes their vacillating ineptitude so well as the American ambassador to Yemen superbly portrayed by Ben Kingsley. He left Ghandi at the Ganges for this role of diplomat with a disintegrating backbone. To this icon of that two-faced deity known as 'national interest' and 'national prestige', the nation's "interest" seems to be the sacrifice of young marines. We witness the spectacle of men risking their lives to retrieve a bullet riddled flag for a state department riddled with corruption born of personal aggrandizement. This makes us wonder, 'Exactly what is America's foreign policy?' Is it a program aimed at strengthening the hand of every potentate with a confiscated oil well or is it an orchestrated attempt to provide cover for terrorists? It is of course both, with the additional agenda of justifying the rise of bureaucrats on a mound of American corpses.

A unique story-telling device employed in Rules of Engagement is the withholding of key information from the audience. Glimpses of events, which would exonerate our used and abused heroes, are withheld until the final moments. This might seem unfair to viewers, as it makes the good guys look a lot like the bad guys and the bad guys look like the good guys. It is amazing what the absence of small pieces of a puzzle can do to our perception of a situation and this, of course, is the reason the protagonist's point of view is incompletely presented until the climactic courtroom scene. It is a parody of the capacity for information control at the highest levels of power.

The careers of the two key players in this crafted film begin with a combat bonding experience in the jungles of Vietnam, yet another reminder of the destruction possible to a government empowered to sacrifice lives to an undefined national interest. Admittedly, there is an unforgivable oversight of key evidence by the investigating defense attorney (as well as the director). The revealing trajectory and variety of ordinance embedded in the walls of an embassy under siege is completely omitted. But the defense counsel himself confesses to being inadequate to the task of defending a comrade who will have no other attorney.

A large measure of this picture's success springs from the casting. With Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson in the roles of the two lifelong friends, we are treated to a pair of career Marines who avoid being Rambo cutouts. They can kill. They can weep. In watching the antics of their civilian commanders on the contemporary world stage, it appears that statesmen can do only the first and then only by compelling others to handle the slaughter.

The saddest fact of all is that the brightest, bravest and finest of America's men often die because they believe it is an act of devotion to their country. Too often—most often—it is senseless carnage, which in no way benefits and in many ways harms the nation. Legacy building wimps and global power-mongers stir conflict from their Washington sanctums and then beat their drums for the press as Americans die and dictators are given new Shaitans toward which they can direct the fury of their oppressed subjects.

The headlines of past weeks have added a grim touch to this situation in the tragic deaths of young American servicemen training in the southwestern American desert. It was for just such a mission, an emergency ambassadorial extraction, that they were training when their helicopter went down. Their deaths were accidental. But had they survived and gone on to succeed in an actual mission, their actions would have been sanctified only by their heroic character, not by the objectives of those who claim the "national interest" as a motive.

Year after year, they pour into the country's military training camps, eager, patriotic without a full understanding of the word's meaning, implication or potential for abuse. They come from the football fields, the colleges, the farms where they have grown to believe that America's objectives in global matters include the establishment of a free society and benevolent leadership in a world community pocked with despotism. These, the young, the innocent, the adventurous, are sacrificed to an aimless foreign policy which results only in the political aggrandizement of glad-handing wonks. It brings to mind the image of the ancient Aztec priest-chieftains standing atop their monuments to human sacrifice. They cut out the hearts of their victims and a cascade of blood poured down to awed tribesmen witnessing the magnitude of their nation's power.

They at least could claim that their victims were conquered enemies.

Thomas Kelly writes on movies from Encinitas, California.

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