War and Deliverance

Probably you know as much as you want to know about the most infamous scene in the 1972 movie "Deliverance," that homosexual rape by the riverside in the backwoods of Georgia—"Squeal piggy!"—it's been a source of hetero horror and sophomoric jokes ever since it first hit the screen 35 years ago. Warner Brothers has just released a deluxe anniversary DVD of "Deliverance," in HD or Blu-ray if you please, so the film's likely to have something of a revival in America's living rooms. Woe to any parents who fail to take the R rating seriously: that one nightmare sequence is so graphic, so carnal, so violent and humiliating that you cannot help but cringe, or laugh. (A lot of people laugh, nervously.) And you just cannot forget it.

Since my late father, James Dickey, wrote the novel "Deliverance" and the screenplay for the movie, I like to think there's more to the story than that, and indeed there is. But it was only last year, when I was asked by my friend Sue Walker at the University of South Alabama (yes, USA) to give a talk about the Middle East, which I normally write about, and also the making of the film “Deliverance,” which people seem to want to hear about, that I started thinking about the movie's particular relevance for the post-9/11 world. My old man and I disagreed about many things, but when I watched the re-released film again just recently, in light of current headlines, I realized just how well he'd tapped into those mind-sets that eventually helped plunge us into the Mesopotamian quagmire.

The basic plot of "Deliverance" is simple enough. Four suburbanites from Atlanta go canoeing up in the mountains. ("This is the weekend they didn't play golf," as the movie's original publicity campaign put it.) Then they find that the wild river and the people around it are much more dangerous than they'd ever bargained for. One of the men from Atlanta is raped, one is killed and the others learn to kill.

The instigator of the expedition is Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds in the movie), and while he talks about getting back to nature and testing himself against the wild, he's really more of a country-club Friedrich Nietzsche: a would-be "übermensch," or "superman," riffing on the 19th-century German philosopher's conceits, constantly training his body and mind to excel, reinventing himself to lead. His destiny—to survive against all odds—will be a triumph of his will. Or so he thinks.

In the end, though, it is not the übermensch who offers deliverance from the nasty, brutish horrors of the river and the men of the forest. It is the perfectly ordinary man, the just-getting-by guy, Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), who transcends himself to survive. He is not inspired by a vision of the future, he does not aspire to be tested by man and nature. He's motivated by fear, pure and simple, and his desire to return to his normal life without that fear.
In the early parts of the story, Ed thinks Lewis is a little nuts, but he's fascinated by the idea that Lewis might be right about—something—he's not sure what. Obsessions like those of Lewis Medlock can create their own charisma, inspiring fear while pretending to resist it. Untested ersatz fortitude often looks impressive. The other businessmen from Atlanta, the soft-spoken Drew (Ronny Cox) and porcine Bobby (Ned Beatty), think Lewis is a lot nuts. In fact, they think he's dangerous. And they're right.

Me, I think Lewis is Vice President Dick Cheney's closet fantasy of himself, and as such, a sort of model for the Bush administration as a whole. And Ed, he's about the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by. And the river? That's the war in Iraq.

"What the hell you want to go f--- around with that river for?" one of the unfriendly locals asks Lewis early in the movie.

"Because it's there," says Lewis.

"It's there alright. You get in and you can't get out, you gonna wish it wasn't."

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the endless war the United States is fighting now is that it started because Iraq was there: it appeared to be a made-to-order target for an easy invasion that would have great symbolic (indeed, philosophic) significance for the thinkers around Bush. After 9/11, the capture of the terrorists who plotted the attack and the destruction of the Taliban government in Afghanistan that gave them shelter just hadn't seemed a weighty enough challenge for these would-be supermen. "There's a feeling we've got to do something that counts—and bombing caves is not something that counts," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a confidante of Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told NEWSEEK in November 2001. In fact they had tasted that great forbidden fruit of war, the sense of license that it gives, and they didn't want to give it up. In wartime they could make up their laws as they went along. On a grand scale they could reinterpret the Constitution until it became meaningless. On the ground, they would give well-connected companies fat contracts and politically compatible mercenaries like those of Blackwater a license to kill. (See the excellent profile of that company's founder, conservative true believer Erik Prince, the adventure-seeking son of a self-made billionaire, in the current NEWSWEEK.)

Now look at our man Lewis in "Deliverance." He's a rich boy from Atlanta whose main income is from inherited real estate. But he loves to flirt with extinction. To come near death, then survive—"That intensity, well, that's something special," Lewis tells Ed as they're driving up into the mountains. "I believe in survival, all kinds. Every time I come up here I believe in it more."

Normally, the role of government—of civilization—is to curb our sense of personal license when civilized society is under pressure from anger and fear. Government is supposed to put a brake on cynical, self-serving calculation, especially at times of great danger and confusion. Nobody knows that better than professional soldiers, who are trained to understand the laws of society and of war. But the core coterie around Bush and Cheney, who never were soldiers, pushed for war with Iraq at all costs and as an end to almost all constraints.

Anxious to assert their vision of American strength, and themselves as its personifications, they were looking for a fight with Saddam Hussein long before September 11. Casting themselves as implacable opponents of tyranny, the ideologues of the administration had, since the days of the Soviet Union, envied the tyrants' ruthlessness. Quick to denounce bias when they faced opposition, they were the first to use mass deception to assure their own grip on power. And what made all this possible?  They could not do any of it—they could not begin to do it—without war and its attendant mystique of survival.

You remember the scene in "Deliverance" where Lewis has shot one of the mountain men in the back with a broadhead arrow and he's convincing the other three that they should hide the body. The decent family man Drew (Ronny Cox) says no, they have to tell the police what they've done. After all, the law is the law.

"The law?" Lewis half laughs. "The law? What law. Where's the law, Drew?" And then Lewis goes on. "You believe in democracy don't you? Well, then, we'll take a vote." The terrified companions opt to hide the evidence.

Yeah, you believe in democracy, don't you?

So the war-lovers in the Bush administration got what they wanted with a democratic vote. The United States invaded Iraq. And those of us who were covering the build-up to that war kept saying, OK, Saddam's a bad guy, but what are the American plans for the aftermath of the invasion—for the occupation? You don't eliminate a dictatorship that has been in place for more than 30 years and expect it will be an orderly transition. The response from the supermen: there won't be an occupation; it won't be a problem.

Remember when the four guys in "Deliverance" come out of the woods after burying the first mountain man? They've got another one waiting to kill them down in the gorge. They've got bone-breaking rapids in front of them.

"What's the plan Lewis?" Ed asks him.

"Plan? Just paddle on down to Aintry, get the cars and go home."

In the fiction of "Deliverance," Ed's sanity and bravery eventually save the day when he climbs out of the gorge. What I wonder is whether in the real-world crisis of Iraq there is enough sanity and bravery in Washington to deliver us from the evil that's been created in Iraq. Unfortunately it doesn't look that way. Whether we listen to the Republicans or the Democrats, the woman candidate for president or the men, all the major contenders remain reluctant to challenge the ersatz standards of strength set by the Bush administration. Sure, they snipe at each other, but none want to appear weak on national security. So we're left with "Law, what law? Plan, what plan?" And we continue to float down the river as if without a paddle, unable and unwilling to climb out, with much more violence and in all probability worse humiliations yet to come.

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