Sand Castle certainly has some anti-war credentials, although this has not impressed everybody. Bemoaning the film's lack of originality, Brian Tallerico complains: 'we’ve seen this story before, at least a dozen times. Sure, the particulars are different, but the futility of war, especially in the 21st century, has been well documented'. Tallerico is right that the futility of war is a hoary, perhaps even conservative theme; but Sand Castle goes beyond this banality, mounting some trenchant criticisms of the allied presence in Iraq after the invasion of 2003.
The film's title implies the unsustainability of the American adventure in Mesopotamia and an anti-war sensibility is also communicated via a number brief, mostly silent scenes. Travelling through Iraq, Ocre sees, through the window of his Humvee, US troops ushering a family out of their home at gunpoint and an Iraqi boy pointing a 'gun finger' at him. Perhaps the film's most gruesome atrocity image is of a headmaster who has been hanged upside down outside his school and burned for collaboration with the Americans. Ocre's horrified gaze at the headmaster's charred corpse, seen in the shot above, is aligned with that of several local women, suggesting that he shares in their horror and disgust. Ocre thus comes to perceive the truth about US imperial oppression and the hatred and resentment it generates among locals. In another silent scene towards the end of the film, the soon-to-be-discharged Ocre hesitates to wash himself in the shower, suddenly conscious, it seems, of a deep injustice: he has access to water in abundance, but the Iraqi villagers he has encountered do not - a consequence, as Ocre is painfully aware throughout the film, of the US invasion.
As the shower scene suggests, this is a film about the sense of shame experienced by the soldier of conscience. The theme of shame is announced at the start of the film in Ocre's voiceover ('A war story can't be true unless it's got some shame attached to it'). It also arises, obliquely, in another short scene at the film's halfway point when the soldiers seem to be playing some kind of guessing game as they drive in the Humvee: 'Is it a thing?', 'Do we all carry it?', the soldiers ask. 'We all carry it', comes the definitive answer. The game ends abruptly when the men's vehicle is attacked by insurgents; but the answer to the riddle is clear enough.
And while much of the soldiers' behaviour here is certainly the standard, clichéd fare of the grunt film - the high jinks during downtime, the 'faggot' and 'I fucked your mother' quips, the ignorant comments about towel-heads - this behaviour does not go uncriticized. Ocre often challenges some of his colleagues' prejudiced remarks about the locals and some of the soldiers come across as idiotic (in a rare comedy moment, one of them is unable to understand his translator's word 'apothecary').
Perhaps the film's progressive credentials should not be overstated. The rationale for the war is never seriously questioned in Sand Castle and Iraqi insurgents are responsible for all of the film's outbreaks of fighting. Yet while not quite as bold as Stone's Platoon or De Palma's Casualties of War, the film is characterized by the same kind of critical retrospection that animated the post-Vietnam war films of the 1980s.
Watching Sand Castle I couldn't help thinking about the similarities between Ocre and the real-life anti-government terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the subject of another film recently added to Netflix UK, Barak Goodman's documentary Oklahoma City (2017). Goodman's film focuses on the build-up to Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, which claimed 168 lives, including those of 19 children in a daycare centre, and injured many hundreds more. The film combines interviews with victims' families and first-responders with extensive footage and analyzes the experiences that turned McVeigh towards mass murder - notably his sense of outrage and horror at the government's violent raids at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the early 1990s.
The documentary also mentions - all too briefly - McVeigh's time in the army during the first Gulf War and its influence on McVeigh's state of mind. An interviewee notes that McVeigh, by all accounts a highly regarded sharpshooter, felt ashamed when he shot an Iraqi soldier in the head from range, realizing that the Iraqis he had been trained to hate were 'human beings no different than myself'. McVeigh was clearly appalled at the meaninglessness of his own action and at the depravity of the military machine that instructed him to kill.
Yet Goodman's film, perhaps out of a desire not to rationalize or mitigate McVeigh's crime, does not make clear that McVeigh, according to his authorized biography American Terrorist, was present when US forces massacred Iraqis (and unknown others) fleeing from Kuwait towards Basra on Highway 80, the so-called 'Highway of Death', and was himself forced to execute surrendering prisoners. This attack - one of the greatest US war crimes of the twentieth century and one that McVeigh and colleagues saw repeated a few days later on Highway 8 - is glossed very briefly in a subordinate clause of the voice-over. And, extraordinarily, in this voice-over, US responsibility for the killings is disavowed and allocated solely to McVeigh: 'When he [McVeigh] killed Iraqis...'. Corresponding with this phrase, some dead bodies on the Basra road are shown, but a context for these images is not supplied either by subtitle or voice-over and the US responsibility for the massacre is elided. In fact, the argument being made in this section of the documentary is opaque - an aporia, if you will. What we do hear is an interviewee's description of McVeigh's response to the massacre: 'He sees the American government as a bully'. By focusing on McVeigh's subjective interpretation of the Gulf War, Goodman avoids taking any position on the state-sanctioned violence of Desert Storm, just as he elsewhere underplays and rationalizes the extreme, surplus violence used by the federal authorities at Waco, opting once again to foreground McVeigh's personal perceptions ('He felt it was murder').
To fill in some of the historical context that has been elided in Goodman's film, we must turn to other tellings of the McVeigh story. In her book Aberration in the Heartland of the Real: The Secret Lives of Timothy McVeigh (2016), Wendy Painting provides a less sanitized view of the US army in which McVeigh served and thus helps us to understand McVeigh's feelings of anger and frustration as a serviceman. Painting shows that while he felt at home in the army and sometimes seemed to take great pride in his achievements, McVeigh at was other times deeply ashamed of what US forces were doing in Iraq. This was a deep ambivalence. In letters he wrote home, he described his fury at being ordered not to feed starving Iraqi children (McVeigh and another soldier would later defy this order by leaving fruit cocktails at the roadside for the locals). And after his arrest, McVeigh also spoke of his dismay at the 'intrusiveness' of fellow soldiers who would secretly watch Iraqi women going to the bathroom at night using their thermal imaging cameras. While he was ultimately responsible for staggering brutality and callous disregard for the lives of others, there is no doubt that he was also capable - during his time in the army, at least - of generosity and humanity. Like Ocre in Sand Castle, he was a soldier of conscience.
McVeigh described the Oklahoma bomb as a 'counterattack' on the US government. It was, of course, nothing of the sort: those slaughtered by McVeigh were ordinary folks and young children. But the vocabulary of war was deeply ingrained in McVeigh, as can be seen from his subsequent, queasy acknowledgement that the deaths of the children in the Murrah daycare centre constituted 'too much collateral damage'. In jail, McVeigh had his Marquis de Sade moment, railing against the double standards of the US political establishment in his post-arrest tract 'Essay on Hypocrisy' and arguing that his act of individual terrorism was merely the corollary of US imperial violence abroad. Why, he protested, should his crime should be condemned while US terror overseas is legitimized?
In his 1916 essay 'Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work', Sigmund Freud identified the character type of the 'Exception' - one who uses his early experiences of suffering to justify his disregard for the moral scruples of his community. Freud discussed this character type as a defensive reaction to the shame of disability and deformity, taking Shakespeare's Richard III as his illustration. McVeigh seems to fit the profile of the Exception well: after all, he was bullied at school on account of his lankiness and failed his physical for the Army Rangers. But while McVeigh can certainly be understood as having a disordered personality, we must also acknowledge the pressures that he was placed under throughout his life and the evils he witnessed during his time in the army. As W. H. Auden had it, 'Those to whom evil is done do evil in return' and, to borrow Slavoj Žižek's terms, we can only properly understand the 'subjective violence' of the individual in the context of the 'objective violence' of capitalism - with imperialist warfare as its highest expression. This context is elided in Oklahoma City, as are all of the troubling questions surrounding the bombing itself (such as the not-inconsiderable evidence that McVeigh did not act alone and that the FBI had foreknowledge of the attack). By downplaying the traumatizing military madness to which McVeigh was exposed as a young man, Goodman's documentary inadequately accounts for the act of savagery he went on to commit.