Ballantine, 1993, 397 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-36663-8
At the time, it almost seemed too good to be true. A few months after the fall of the Soviet empire, a border skirmish between two middle-eastern countries quickly escalates in an armed war in which new alliances are formed, new technology is used and old dirty tricks surface anew under different guises. The Gulf crisis of late 1990/early 1991 wasn’t the first war to be televised, but it is -so far- the most entertaining, ending with a big happy ending. Footnote: Total war-related deaths for the Allied side were lower than handgun-related deaths on American soil during the same period.
Ask any North American who lived through the events, and they’ll tell you that the war was almost fun; that the picture painted by the media began with extreme danger and ended in total victory. America booted out the old ghosts of Vietnam and assumed its role as unique global superpower.
As expected, guilt came in ringing a few moments later. Gulf War revisionism reviewed the war and declared it bad. It was a ploy to re-establish George Bush’s manhood. It was a media-manipulated skirmish transformed into a global engagement that wasn’t. The poor Iraquis didn’t deserve to lose. Kuwait didn’t deserved to be freed. And so on and so forth.
Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero is an integral part of the rich-boy soul-searching done by American after the Gulf War. It pushes the most somber conclusions of the revisionists (and their associated conspiracy theorist) to their logical extreme: The Gulf War was manufactured by George Bush -along with the Hollywood movie industry- to ensure his re-election.
And the word “manufactured” isn’t used here in a cynical fashion: The most interesting parts of Beinhart’s book are those in which a crazy memo is given to a top-notch Hollywood director, who uses a film archive to literally design “the perfect war”, which will be as victorious as it will be an emotionally satisfying experience.
Unfortunately, to get to these parts, you’ll have to wade through the increasingly uninteresting tale of Joe Broz, a security agent who gets caught up in the whole mess. Not only does this subplot actually is supposed to be the core of the novel, but it is far less dense -not to mention unoriginal- that the actual making of the war. Notice that when American Hero was adapted for the big screen -as the celebrated WAG THE DOG-, they wisely concentrated the whole action around the war-makers. (They also cleverly neutered the “breathtakingly nasty” [says Kirkus] satiric edge of the novel by inventing a fictional war rather than naming names and citing historical facts.) By the time Broz is hunted down by government agents who will kill him to keep the secret, it’s no use; we’ve see all of this before in countless conspiracy thrillers.
The other flaw of the book is to depart from a comic premise and treat it as a rather dry conspiracy theory. Granted, the 120-odd footnotes are fun reading and thought-provoking, but look closer and you’ll be able to poke holes in Beinhart’s argumentation that this is All True. (Not the least of which might have been “If Bush really wanted to win the election, why didn’t he wait until 1992 to start the war and ride the victory in presidential elections??”) The last section, explicitly titled “Conspiracy”, smacks of desperation. Someone phone up Beinhart and tell him that heavy-handed satire is self-defeating. (If you really want a conspiracy, ask yourself why a smart, but unpopular, mystery author would suddenly decide to jump on the conspiracist bandwagon… hmmm…) But that’s just the anti-conspiracy-theorist speaking. Feel free to ignore.
In any case, American Hero is worth a look, if only for the hilarious acid portrait of Bush, the White House and Hollywood.
And who knows? Like most conspiracies, the Gulf War almost makes more sense that way.