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, not to mention conservative theme; but Sand Castle goes beyond this banality, offering some criticism of the allied presence in Iraq.
The film's title implies the unsustainability of the American adventure in Iraq 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 one drole moment, one of them is unable to understand his translator's word 'apothecary').
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 does have something of the critical spirit of the Vietnam war films of the 1980s.
Watching Sand Castle I couldn't help seeing some 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 of 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 briefly in a subordinate clause of the voice-over that allocates responsibility for the killings 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. This section of the documentary is, in fact, oddly opaque. 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 - and by implication aberrant - interpretation of the Gulf War, Goodman's film soft pedals the state-sanctioned violence of Desert Storm, just as it 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 better to understand McVeigh's feelings of anger and frustration (no matter how heinous his eventual crime). 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 anger 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 total 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: the people slaughtered by McVeigh were ordinary folks and young children. McVeigh later queasily acknowledged that the deaths of these children constituted 'too much collateral damage', a phrase that suggests the deep influence of his military experience on his later actions. Indeed, in his post-arrest tract 'Essay on Hypocrisy', McVeigh states that the terror and death he had wrought on American citizens was the corollary of US imperial violence abroad and was justified by lex taliones.
In his 1916 essay 'Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work', Freud identified the character type of the 'Exception' - one who turns his early experiences of suffering into a justification for disregarding the moral scruples of his community. This description fits McVeigh well. Moreover, since Freud discusses this character type as a defence against disability and deformity, taking Shakespeare's Richard III as his illustration, it is noteworthy that McVeigh was bullied at school on account of his lankiness and failed his physical for the Army Rangers. But while McVeigh must be held fully accountable for his crime, context also matters. 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.