- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

Went to see "Rules of Engagement." Went in ready to love it. Came out disappointed, then puzzled, then … well, this film fails in so many ways that it becomes a Culture Wars metaphor as well as a military melodrama gone astray.

Jim Webb, the film's creator, executive producer, and co-writer, could fairly be called the closest thing America has to a Renaissance Man. Heavily decorated Vietnam Marine; Georgetown-trained attorney; high government service (secretary of the Navy, assistant secretary of defense); prolific novelist; award-winning journalist; and one of the few genuinely charismatic people I have ever met. He has also known for plain speaking on controversial issues and uncompromising defense of the military virtues. Would that America had a few thousand more like him.

According to an interview with Mr. Webb in the April issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings, the idea for "Rules of Engagement" came about in 1989 because he wanted to acquaint a nation of military illiterates (my term) with two aspects of military life: loyalty to each other and what the modern military has to deal with on a daily basis. He mentions nine years of revisions, so it is often hard to tell who messed up what. He does state: "The thing I am proudest of, in terms of what has survived through the film-making process, is the kind of rhetoric that you're going to hear."


"Rules of Engagement" begins in Vietnam combat. A young enlisted Marine, Terry Childers (played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson) saves the life of his lieutenant, Hays Hodges (a fine performance by Tommy Lee Jones).

Then it is a few decades later, and it is Cols. Hodges and Childers the former a Marine lawyer about to retire, the latter a water-walker about to take over a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deploying to the Persian Gulf area. The American Embassy in Yemen comes under armed attack by your typical mix of terrorists and rent-a-mob. Col. Childers flies in with a small force to evacuate the ambassador and staff. The embassy comes under heavy fire from shooters mingled with the civilians. After losing several men, Col. Childers orders his Marines to fire on the crowd. Hundreds are killed or wounded.

Back home, Col. Childers finds himself court-martialed for murder. Seems the national security adviser and the State Department want him sacrificed to mollify the Arab world, and are willing to destroy evidence, commit perjury, etc., to make it appear the crowd was unarmed. Col. Childers calls Col. Hodges out of retirement to defend him. There ensues a trial that I will not ruin by revealing the verdict. After the film ends, some words appear on the screen about how, later, the evidence-destroying adviser and the perjuring ambassador got investigated and had to resign.

So what is wrong here? For one thing, the combat scenes. Tony Milavic, a retired Marine friend who did three tours in Vietnam, objects to the stylization. War movies, it seems, must now achieve the "Saving Private Ryan" level of gore a complaint I have heard more than once. He also finds the stick-figure portrayals of the civilian officials unworthy and unfair. (Perhaps the film's greatest dramatic failure is that these evildoers are not exposed in the courtroom.) And he considers it impossible that, of all the Marines who fired on the crowd, none saw any weapons or were able to testify on Col. Childers' behalf.

(Other shortcomings: a Marine prosecuting attorney who must have studied law under Douglas Niedermeyer, the ROTC jerk in "Animal House," and an utterly implausible sequence of events involving a North Vietnamese colonel.)

But these may well have been failures of the system. The film's deeper problem is the rhetoric of which Mr. Webb speaks proudly. There were several well-acted speeches, expressing truths with power and dignity. And yet, I came away less inspired than annoyed, with the final sense that I was sitting through a sermon, an overstarched, manipulative, holier-than-thou exercise in military Puritanism.

In the end, "Rules of Engagement" provides a perfect example of why conservatism and its associated virtues lost the Culture War. It doesn't persuade. It lectures. "Rules of Engagement" is about the military. But imagine it as a film about abortion, say, or ecology. Same effect. Movies, like drama and literature, are complex, subtle things, and if conservatives are going to use them properly, best they master the complexities. And a good way to start might be by dropping the standard initial response: But the other side lectures and hectors all the time. Yes. But just because it works for them, doesn't mean it will or should work for you.

As for Mr. Webb, here is hoping his next novel will be a masterpiece … on some totally non-military/ non-political theme. After that, he might consider a less challenging endeavor, like running for president.

I would support him.

Philip Gold, a former Marine, is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based public policy and cultural affairs center.

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