Clift: The True Toll of War

The Democratic-controlled Congress is once again trying to change the course of U.S. policy in Iraq; once again they've failed. Without 60 votes in the Senate, the latest war-funding bill, passed by a narrow margin in the House and with a quarter of the money requested by the White House, fell short—and President Bush has emerged the victor. We've seen this movie before, except this time it has a new wrinkle: a huge drop in public consciousness about Iraq.

It's happened in part because American casualties are way down—even though this year has been the bloodiest since the war began. The news media have backed off in their coverage, paying more attention to a prospective military clash with Iran and the Musharraf meltdown in Pakistan than the day-to-day turmoil in Iraq. "The media requires change, and the story hasn't changed," says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "People's mood about the war hasn't improved, but they aren't tracking it because they can't find it."

At a breakfast last week a reporter asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer if Democrats were so wedded to the story line of Iraq as a failure that they risked embarrassment if it turns out to be a success.

Whatever is meant by success in Iraq, it would have to be pretty spectacular to justify the $1.6 trillion that the war could cost by 2009, according to a report by the Joint Economic congressional committee, which includes such hidden costs as the interest on borrowed money to pay for the war and health care for tens of thousands of wounded. Administration planners assumed a certain number of injured and some dead, but not this many—not in a war billed as a cakewalk with grateful Iraqis strewing the path with flowers and candy. For the 3,859 fallen soldiers and their families, the cost, as they say in that American Express commercial, is priceless. With the exception of Cindy Sheehan, who took her rage public after losing her son, these families are hidden from view, partly because of their own choice, but also because of administration policy banning pictures of returning coffins and a society that too often prefers to look away.

In the last year there have been a number of movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, "Lions for Lambs" and "Rendition" the latest entries, and they're not doing that well at the box office. "Grace Is Gone," which opens in Washington and Los Angeles early next month, is different, in that it addresses the nonpolitical side of the war: the loss, the pain, the coping. It's hard to tell where filmmaker James Strouse is coming from politically, and that's what he intended—because he's not sure himself. The polarization around the war feels abstract to him, he said. Instead of debating whether it was the right war, or we were lied to, he wanted to focus on the consequences, the daily reality of living through a war like this. He does it by telling the story of a patriotic family that has faith in the administration. While Bush doesn't attend funerals, he does meet privately with grieving families who continue to back him and the war. The family portrayed in "Grace Is Gone" has a yellow ribbon on its SUV, and they are far more typical than the Cindy Sheehans of the world. But that doesn't lessen the sense of loss—which is, after all, the point of the movie.

The opening scene has John Cusack, playing the father, catching his adolescent daughter watching CNN—dangerous stuff for families with a loved one in harm's way. His wife Grace is a sergeant fighting in Iraq. They met in boot camp, but he was discharged because of poor eyesight, and now he's tending the home front with their two young daughters. He's barely awake early one morning when the dreaded knock on the door comes and two military officers tell him Grace has been killed. He can't bear to tell the girls and instead embarks on a zany act of denial, taking them on a road trip to a distant theme park, punctuated by calls back home to hear Grace's voice on their answering machine. Cusack, in an intensely coiled performance, conveys the calm yet crazy thinking of someone working through trauma. In a dinner-table conversation with his longhaired, lefty, anti-war brother airily trying to decide on graduate school, he explodes, explaining that Grace is fighting "for your privileged freedoms"—without revealing she's dead.

The raw emotion is almost too much to bear. Indeed, the actress playing the older daughter, Heidi, not quite 13, would convulse and cry after filming a scene, according to Strouse. The reaction from military families has been positive, but left-wing activists have criticized Strouse for not making the movie more of an indictment of the Iraq war. That's the difference between a movie and a polemic, and that's why "Grace Is Gone" may succeed.