The Sentinel: The Situation

Film peers across cultural divide in Iraq
By Joseph Cress, March 25, 2007
Last updated: Sunday, March 25, 2007 2:19 AM EDT

It begins with a lack of understanding at the most basic level.

An American patrol confronts two Iraqi teenagers crossing a bridge at night outside Samarra.

They want to know why … They want to know their intentions … But there is a cultural divide, a language barrier.

Frustration takes hold and the soldiers act, dropping the two boys into the river.

One drowns and the news spreads among the population. There is both sorrow and anger.

A journalist investigates, tracking down a lead to the funeral where women wail over a coffin and men scheme in the courtyard looking to broker favors from the local mayor.

This is the setup for “The Situation,” a fictional film about the occupation of Iraq, which made its central Pennsylvania debut Saturday before a capacity crowd in Carlisle Theater.

Co-written by director Phillip Haas and journalist Wendell Steavenson, who spent a year reporting from Iraq, the film illustrates the interactions between Iraqis and American soldiers.

Its message is despite mass media coverage, many people remain confused and lack understanding of the war and the U.S. role in the conflict.

“You see the human toll, but at the same time you’re deadened by the newspaper reports,” Haas said. “You just can’t get underneath it, because you’re bombarded by information. You become numb to it.”

The idea of “The Situation” was to put a human face on events. It was filmed in Morocco using many local actors.

Some in the audience came to see a familiar face in retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., who ended his military career as commandant of the U.S. Army War College and now works as a military analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News Network.

He was one of three participants in a panel discussion held before the film and organized by the Clarke Forum for Comtemporary Issues of Dickinson College.

Scales said the situation in Iraq illustrates the need for the US military to train future leaders to be what he calls “culture-centric.”

War is no longer about “bringing steel to a target,” Scales said. Instead, it is more about the ability to forge alliances and establish connections. He explains how, in Iraq, soldiers of good will are being separated from Iraqis of good will by a lack of cultural understanding on both sides.

Scales said the United States needs to set aside its ego and treat other players on the world stage as equals to avoid being perceived as a global bully. “At the end of the day, war is a test of wills, a human contest between two sides equally determined to win.”

Lawrence B. Wilkerson is a retired Army Colonel who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and as associate director of the State Department’s planning staff.

What we are up against is not Islamo-fascists, but a radical element of Islam that does not represent the majority of 1.3 billion who practice the faith, Wilkerson said.

“To defeat our enemies, we need better ideas than they do,” Wilkerson said. Yet the United States is facing greater challenges trying to get its ideas across, he said.

We spend a half a trillion dollars a year on the military, but only $30 billion on diplomacy – that’s a disturbing imbalance,” Wilkerson said. “The military instrument does have a role, but it should not be the dominant role.”

While ideas make the United States great, mistakes have weakened our position and threaten the base on which we stand as a country, Wilkerson said. He cited as examples the mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison and a vice president who openly advocates the use of torture.

All this is making it harder for our soldiers to convince the average Iraqi they may have a better future, Wilkerson said. He added other countries judge us by our actions, not our words and we have been doing a lot of bad things lately.

Steven Clemons directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington.

While we hope Iraqis develop some form of self-determination everyone can live with, it is unlikely we will see democracy as it is known in the West anytime soon in the Middle East, Clemons said.

The ability of the United States to influence global policy has diminished as a result of the war causing other powers to step in to fill a void and countries like Iran and North Korea to challenge what they see as a lack of resolve, Clemons said. All this has made the world a more dangerous place.