Jigsaw Films, 106 minutes
In his unflinching memoir of the Pacific War, With the Old Breed (1981), Eugene Sledge reported that his fellow marines regularly used their bayonets to gouge gold teeth from Japanese corpses. On one occasion, an American marine actually tried to pry his gold trophy from the mouth of a Japanese prisoner, still writhing in agony. Such darker moments of “the good war” are not often remembered today.11.
There are exceptions; see “Reporting the Good War: A Conversation with Ken Burns”, The American Interest (September/October 2007). And of course, they were not publicly reported at the time.
Taxi glosses over all the legal complications so that the charge of lawlessness can serve as the predicate to an even stronger charge. When the film tells us about the U.S. disregard of the Geneva Conventions, it tells us that the Conventions were drafted after World War II in response to atrocities committed against prisoners.That is somewhat misleading, since international treaties protecting prisoners of war go back at least to the Hague Conventions of 1899. We could not have prosecuted Nazi atrocities if they had not already been regarded as unlawful at the time. But the invocation of the World War II experience allows the film to cut to newsreel footage of emaciated concentration camp victims tottering toward the camera. The pictures convey the point: If you disregard established legal constraints, you will end up behaving as the Nazis did.But of course the film cannot really demonstrate this conclusion because it is absurd. The narrator tells us that as many as 25 deaths of detainees have now been classified by military authorities as possible homicides. That is a disturbing number, to be sure, but it is not evidence of systematic murder considering that more than 80,000 prisoners have been detained for some period since 2001.Even so, the film can’t resist straining for some larger point. We are told, for example, that evidence extracted by torture was used to back up Colin Powell’s claim to the UN Security Council in February 2003 of links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda—as if all the resulting miseries of the Iraq war sprang from this reliance on one unreliable source. We are told by an interrogator who was at Bagram that Americans used to pride themselves on being good but seem to have decided after 9/11 that they could no longer afford to hold themselves to higher standards. Then we hear, as a kind of epilogue, from Frank Gibney, father of the film’s writer-director, who says that when he was an interrogator for the Navy in World War II, nothing like torture was ever employed, because the United States did then hold itself to a higher standard.In fact, American soldiers sometimes used very brutal methods to extract information from prisoners during World War II. Whether this was known or approved by high-level officials is by now a somewhat moot point. American policymakers at the highest levels planned and implemented the massive bombing of cities in Germany and Japan, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Taxi suggests that we have gotten ourselves into nasty, protracted conflicts because we have lowered our standards since World War II, “the good war.” But the truth is almost the opposite: We live with more uncertainty about our military methods today because we try to hold ourselves to higher standards.We should hold ourselves to high standards whenever we can. And we surely can do better than we did at Bagram and Abu Ghraib. But we should not imagine that victory, or even peace, is an assured reward for the pure at heart and the clean of hand. The real world does not always follow the ethical or aesthetic priorities of film directors. 1.
There are exceptions; see “Reporting the Good War: A Conversation with Ken Burns”, The American Interest (September/October 2007).