John Cusack: Outsourced Warfare Represents a "Radical, Dangerous, Disgusting Ideology"
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Note: A trailer for War, Inc. can be viewed in the video window to your right.
John Cusack's new film, War, Inc. , is set in a fictionalized Iraq. It's a funny film. It might have been tough to watch if it weren't, given the level of destruction that five years of occupation have wrought on the real country.
Cusack, along with co-writers Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser, offer up a dystopian vision of the future of privatized warfare set in "Turaqistan," a presumably oil-rich country that, if it really existed, would surely be somewhere that most Americans couldn't find on a map.
The film's humor rests on very real and demonstrably disastrous trends in neoconservative foreign policy of recent years -- a lethal war of choice and profit, the dismantling of states and plundering of their resources, a profound cultural insensitivity, lack of accountability and reckless disregard for easily-predicted consequences -- which are then pushed to the absurd.
In Iraq, journalists are embedded with troops and tour Potemkin villages to demonstrate progress; in Turaqistan, they're given virtual-reality tours of combat without leaving the cozy confines of "Emerald City," War, Inc.'s version of Baghdad's Green Zone. In Iraq, contractors like Halliburton have squeezed billions out of the treasury for substandard work that has left the country's infrastructure decimated; Turaqistan is wholly-managed by the Halliburton-esque Tamerlane corporation, and the tanks that patrol the country's burned-out streets are covered with NASCAR-style logos for everything from Popeye's Chicken to Golden Palace online gambling.
Fans of the underground classic Grosse Pointe Blank will find much that is familiar. Cusack plays a conflicted killer -- this time a lethal assassin -- an extreme kind of corporate fixer -- whom Tamarlane dispatches to far-flung locales whenever someone of influence threatens the company's bottom line. The film has the same kind of sardonic and referential humor, and employs the same over-the-top ultra-violence pushed to comic extremes. Joan Cusack, in a role reminiscent of the one she played in Grosse Pointe Blank , again steals the show with her few minutes of screen time.
With sharp writing and strong performances by Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff and Ben Kingsley, War, Inc. is provocative and satisfying. But it may have failed in one notable regard. Turaqistan, for all its insanity, is not all that much crazier than the reality of post-invasion Iraq; a week after the film arrived at AlterNet's office, and with mortars raining down in Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone, a Los Angeles-based company announced that it's planning to build a Disney-like skateboard- and theme-park in Baghdad. Never mind that most Iraqi kids have never seen a skateboard -- a spokesperson for the company promised that a shipment of free boards would arrive in Iraq before the park's opening.
AlterNet caught up with John Cusack recently to discuss the inspirations for his film.
Joshua Holland: Tell me a little bit about your new project.
John Cusack: Well, we thought of it as an incendiary political cartoon that would hopefully put America's current imperial adventures in Iraq into a kind of a larger context. And maybe put a different lens on what privatization means; what this plan has been and what it's been like when people try to privatize the very core things it means to be a state. And what it means to spread an ideology like that across the globe.
There are 180,000 contractors in Iraq and about 160,000 troops, right? And if one just takes that trend to its logical conclusion, well that's where "War, Inc." is set. It takes place at a time in the near future when warfare us an entirely corporate affair.
Holland: As a political nerd, it struck me as a highly referential film. I felt like your character, to some extent, was loosely patterned maybe on John Perkins, who wrote Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Cusack: You know, that book came out when we were already making the film, I believe. And I know we were writing it when Naomi Klein's groundbreaking piece called "Baghdad Year Zero" came out in Harper's. She's a journalist I've always greatly admired and respected. And then as we were making the movie, she was writing the Shock Doctrine . I remember being aware of it while we were writing it. And I remember talking about it. But you know, this character was also based on [former U.S. Envoy to Iraq] Paul Bremer flying in while Baghdad was still burning and literally ruling by Fiat. Sitting down in Saddam's old palace and banging out 50 or 60 new laws that would allow 100 percent foreign ownership of previously state-owned industry by these outside corporations. And he was running around in those Brooks Brothers suits and the military boots when he did it.
Holland: I thought that I saw a lot of Naomi Klein in Marisa Tomei's character.
Cusack: Yeah, I think it wasn't Naomi straight up, but I think it was Katrina Vanden Huevel. It was Lara Logan and it was Naomi. It was, you know, any of the great journalists out there who are women ... Christiane Amanpour.
Holland: Now, the film presents kind of a dystopian vision of where we're at or where we're heading -- tell me a little bit more about this central theme, this idea of outsourcing warfare to this kind of Halliburton-like mega corporation.
Cusack: Well, it was an ideological viral disaster -- that's what this war was. It wasn't Paul Bremer, although a lot of people would like to paint him as the fall guy. It's the entire system of thinking that is insane. The Shock doctrine does a great job chronicling what's essentially been a 35-year campaign to destroy the New Deal and privatize everything, and the use of disasters and wars to justify "shock therapy" -- to pass legislation that would never get passed in any country that wasn't reeling from trying to bury their dead or stop from being tortured or killed or trying to get water or food.
So I think it's really about the entire system and that entire ideology. There seems to be these companies that helped create a new market by creating a war, and then they bar the competitors from entering into the clean up. In the meantime, they've privatized the entire country, which is basically strip mining it. Basically, it's a land-grab. So not only are we looking at a murder scene, but it's the scene of an armed robbery.
And that's the version of democracy ... the version of a free market that we're not only supposed to worship, but into which we're also supposed to keep feeding bodies. We have to kill to feed this kind of twisted version of their free market. And [American political leaders] seem entirely unconcerned that Halliburton and Bechtel -- and Parsons and KPMG and Blackwater and the rest -- are kind of madly gorging off of this protectionist racket.
If you really think about outsourcing all the essential things it means to be a state, like armies, disaster relief, interrogation, border patrol -- all of these functions -- then I don't really know what's left in terms of the sovereignty of a country. I don't really know what's left.
So it's not even about free markets. I mean, if these [corporations] want to just go invade a country and take it over, and take their chances on the open market, that's one thing. But to use the U.S. military and our Treasury Department as their ATM to do it -- that's ... that's cause for revolt.
I just don't know where it stops. Should anyone who has a corporation be allowed to hire private mercenaries? I mean, I have a corporation with three people in it. Should I be allowed to you know, have guys with flame-throwers follow me around Chicago?
Holland: Are you contemplating invading one of the studios?
Cusack: I don't think so. I'm saying where does it end? It seems like we're so far down the rabbit hole. Some people hear about this type of privatization, and think, 'well it's just an effective streamlined management technique.' I'm saying: 'no, it's radically transforming and ruining the country.'
As Naomi says, it's like the state is the final frontier to be plundered. That's really scary to me. And I don't think people know about what's going on. Because if they really did know about it, I think well-meaning Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats would band together and try to throw these people in prison.
Holland: I think that you captured that very well. It reminded me of something PW Singer wrote in his seminal book on this subject, Corporate Warriors . He argued that, whereas a national army is inherently ... is by definition there to advance a state's foreign policy, when you have these private militaries, their ultimate fealty is to the bottom line. And often, you know, advancing that bottom line is contrary to the so-called "national interest."
Cusack: Yeah, I mean ...
Holland: And those private contractors at Abu Ghraib are just a perfect example of that.
Cusack: Well, yeah, it's just about making money. It's about the shareholders. That's an executive's legal duty. But corporate profit is not the only national interest that a government has to advance. If it were, the military wouldn't be accountable in our system, with its checks and balances. It would just be a free-roaming force for hire to whatever corporate interest could pay the bill. Right?
Cusack: And this notion of privatizing the Army should be the last line of defense.
As Naomi points out so brutally in her book, this ideology is a triple whammy, because there's supposed to be Republicans who believe in restrained government and individual liberties ... you know, libertarians who want to get the government off our back -- the frontier libertarian cowboys. But then anytime they can expand the reach of the state and scarf up public money and violate individual privacy, they'll do it. They'd do anything as long as there's profit in it. So they don't even adhere to their own principles. To even call them ideologues is wrong -- they're crooks, not ideologues.
All these guys are socialists on the way down. Like when it's a fuck up, they always take the state's money -- they're always happy for a bail-out, and then they hand the bill to the rest of us. When they finish gorging off the state like welfare freaks, then they embrace socialism.
Holland: Well, we're seeing this with Bear Stearns and the housing crisis, as well. It's socialism for the top two percent. Fuck you for all the rest.
Cusack: Yeah, the hypocrisy and the lies around it are so massive it just makes your eyes start to water. You know, the movie is not a partisan movie. It's not Democrat or Republican.
Holland: No, no. Democrats are complicit in all of this. Let me push that: what are your thoughts about the Democrats' unwillingness or inability or hesitancy to go after real accountability for these issues? Is there an opposition party, in your view?
Cusack: It sure ... it doesn't feel like it. You know, there are individuals in the party who have done important work. But I think when Pelosi took impeachment off the table it was a disastrous development for the Democratic party. I can see how they thought they were going to just ride out the election and take power. But if they're going to let the administration commit war crimes like this ... breaking U.S. and international law on this level without any accountability, I don't know what kind of authority the Democratic Party has left.
Holland: Let me switch gears a little bit. You're no doubt going to come into a lot of fire from our lunatic friends on the right. And they've done a pretty good job of portraying Hollywood as kind of a bastion of anti-Americanism.
Cusack: Well, I think you have to always consider the source. Strangely, I haven't really been attacked at all yet for this. But I would find it interesting that the people who would criticize me ... what do they do? They read. They write. They talk to interesting people and they deal with ideas. And they put on make up and they go in front of a camera. And sometimes, they read their own lines. Sometimes, other people write their lines for them.
That's what I do, too. But because somebody gets a cable slot and they put a bunch of make up on and they pretend that they're journalists, I'm supposed to take shit from them? That argument is ... I mean, it's so absurd I don't even know if you can really have the argument.
People can say that films have no merits or they don't -- or they can attack the aesthetics. But to say that some kind of ultra right-wing talk-show host has more of a right to an opinion than I do is ridiculous. I mean, why?
Holland: Well, I think it's because they've spent 25 years in a concerted effort to poison the well when it comes to Hollywood.
Cusack: Okay, yeah, well ...
Holland: I mean, it's been a concerted campaign. It's not an accidental coincidence that all of these people decided to condemn "Hollyweird" at once. They know that it has a significant impact or capacity to impact the political debates and the political culture.
Let me ask you a related question â€” about the climate in which you were working on the project. There was a period when they were burning Dixie Chicks CDs and I wonder of this is a film that you would have had significant trouble making just a few years earlier?
Cusack: Well, when you make something like this, you write it and then you have to sort of get the script good enough to present. And we did that. And I can't remember the exact timing of it, but yes, the Dixie Chicks were getting their records burned. So we sent it around to all the studios and they all passed and said, you know, 'we're not going to do something like this because it's going to be seen as anti-American or anti-corporate.'
I said no, it's an incredibly patriotic satire. Dissent is an incredibly patriotic thing to do. I'm not going to cede my patriotism to anybody. I refuse to do that and I won't be cowed -- I won't be obedient, because that's unAmerican. All the cast jumped on board right away. And I think everybody wanted to be a part of that sort of defiant spirit of the piece.
Anyway, the studios all took a pass, but we found a small studio that does a lot of foreign sales, and they gave us about a third of the budget we had for "Grosse Pointe Blank," ten years ago. And we went to Bulgaria to shoot.
But then even last year when we were just beginning to screen it, the reaction was a lot different than it is now. Today, everybody seems to want to have ... maybe not as in depth a discussion as the one I'm having with you, but everybody wants to talk about these ideas and use the film as a springboard to talk about what's going on. And that's very different than even six months ago. So I find it a cause of some optimism that people are talking now.
Holland: What is your position on how the United States should move forward in terms of Iraq? The $64,000 question, if you will.
Cusack: Well, I think we have to get out of there and get all the contractors out of there -- we just have to reverse these disastrous, disastrous last seven years. And I don't think there's going to be an easy, nice way to do that.
Holland: My last question is always the same: is there something that you would have asked yourself if you were me that I didn't ask?
Cusack: You know, maybe the only thing I would ask, or rather what I would say is America has been an empire. And America has done a bunch of horrible things to build that empire. A lot. But there's also so many great things about America and there's so many great things that America has done ... you know, like the GI Bill and the rise of the middle class or the Marshall Plan after World War Two.
And what I think what this neo-conservative movement is, is a way to sort of re-make the world. And it's a radical, fundamentalist attempt to re-make the world. It's a reverse New Deal. Where the New Deal used public money to lift up the citizenry and build stability across the world, this thing is a way to cripple governments from doing any of that -- it's a radical, dangerous, disgusting ideology.
As Arundhati Roy says, we need to lay siege to empire with everything we've got. You know? Deprive it of oxygen, shame it, mock it, tell our own stories. This corporatist revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they're selling ... their ideas, their wars, their notion of inevitability.