Golden Times


A few days ago I recommended the movie Sand Castle. Since then I binged on war movies. These include Hyena Road, about a Canadian team of snipers, Jarhead 2 and Jarhead 3, about Marines.

I began to recognize a formula behind all these movies. Some idealistic protagonist is given an unexpected mission. A team forms around him, representing each demographic group. Often a female is on this team, or in its semi-periphery, providing another plot. Officers include sympathetic, war-weary types along with gung-ho, politically motivated assholes. Lots of desert scenes, Arabic music, call to prayers, and dust.

The locals are generally suspect, but there are always a few whose loyalty lies with the western troops. Not much has changed since the 1980s, when Hollywood began to populate action movies with dark Arab types, their five-o’clock shadows, and Arafat-style headgear. These are Zio-productions through and through.

Toward the climax of the movie, as the protagonist is completing his mission, most of his team is killed. Sometimes they decide to sacrifice themselves for the hero’s mission. There’s usually a “let’s all die together” moment.

The hero always straggles back to the home base, to receive praise from his commanding officer and everyone else. He is reunited with his sweetheart. Flags wave. The End.

Jarhead 3 actually struck closer to home because it was about Marines guarding a US Embassy in an Arab country during a crisis.

Back in 1979, during the Iranian hostage crisis, my father was the US Ambassador to Tunisia and I spent about six months there before being shipped off to boarding  school in Rome. My summer job was helping make new ID cards for the Tunisian staff in the motor pool. The Embassy had just received a new machine: it could take a paper card with a photo and seal it in plastic. It produced ID cards hot to the touch.

Despite the winds of fundamentalism sweeping North Africa, Tunisia seemed very tolerant and open. We were not paranoid and I wandered the country by myself. I’m not sure a teenage son of a US Ambassador would be allowed to do that anymore.

True, there was a machine gun nest on the roof of the Embassy, and incinerator barrels for the secret documents. True, my father took several different routes to work, leaving at different times, in a heavily armored car. True, our home residence had an arsenal in the master bathroom, where we were all told to seek refuge if shit hit the fan. It never did. Shit never hit the fan, that is.

Actually, we lived large, throwing pool parties and organizing softball games, inviting expats and locals. At least for us that was living large, as my parents came from middle class origins in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Marines guarding the Embassy were only three or four years older than I was and so we hung out on weekends. I remember “Ajax,” a bald and hulking marine who took us all snorkeling. He jerry rigged a lawnmower engine so that it compressed air. He then strapped the loud, smoking  contraption onto an inflated truck tire, floated it out on the water, and ran a garden hose down into the water. We took turns sucking on the air and looking around the bottom of the sea, with the sound of an internal combustion engine ringing in our ears.

The Marines also threw the best parties every Friday night. TGIF at the Marine House.

So Jarhead 3 reminded me of golden times. The movie of course is based on a nightmare scenario that never happened to us. While we sometimes contemplated a crisis, as did all Americans in Tunisia in 1979, it never happened. Instead, we got to experience a slice of paradise.

The Hollywood experience of the Arab world never made an impact on our lives. We had more of a romantic “Lawrence of Arabia” take on the place, and I suppose post-modernists would accuse us of “Orientalism” and constructing the exotic. Or whatever. But Tunisia really has spectacular scenery.

For me, Tunisia represented everything life should be: a vast and unpredictable adventure.

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