War Dogs is a war film for our time, because there’s hardly any war in it.
From Birth of a Nation to Full Metal Jacket to Saving Private Ryan to American Sniper, American war films love to portray soldiers facing trial by fire through combat. War Dogs is different, though. Based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson that eventually became a book, the film features heroes who aren’t combatants, but arms dealers. Efraim Diveroli (played in the movie by Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (played by Miles Teller) made millions providing weaponry quasi-legally to US-backed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2000s.
Efraim and David stumble upon the odd dead body while smuggling Beretta pistols across the border into Iraq, but for the most part, their involvement in battle is abstract and distant. David initially resists getting into the arms trade because he opposes the Iraq war, but as Ephraim tells him: “This isn’t about being pro war. This is about being pro-money.”
As far as the film is concerned, the Iraq and Afghan wars don’t really matter; they’re just convenient backdrops for Efraim and David’s heist bromance hilarity, set to a fist-pumping classic rock soundtrack. Somewhere, presumably, innocents die; somewhere homes and lives are destroyed. But what’s really important is whether David will discover that his manifestly untrustworthy childhood friend can’t be trusted.
Efraim and David’s casual callousness is supposed to be funny—Efraim even calls himself an “ugly American” while referring to Arabic as “gibberish.” But the uncomfortable truth is that War Dogs, perhaps unconsciously, provides an accurate picture of current US attitudes towards war. Most Americans, for example, are blissfully unaware that we’re backing Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. The Saudis, with US support, are currently in the process of deliberately starving 14 million people.
American don’t have to know about Yemen because American military endeavors have little effect on the majority of people living in the US. The US has a volunteer army; most US conflicts take place halfway around the world. Most American citizens couldn’t even find Yemen on a map if asked—it’s hard to worry about people starving when you barely know they exist.
In War Dogs, David’s new baby is a lot more important to him than the deaths of faceless children in Afghanistan, who are never mentioned, much less pictured. People, naturally enough, care about the people closest to them. They generally don’t care about folks they’ve never met, even when, as with Efraim and David, their business sometimes requires them to pretend that they do.
The fact that Americans by and large don’t care about the lives of people in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen is an excellent reason for the US military not to be involved in those countries. Efraim and David certainly shouldn’t have life or death power over people whose deaths mean nothing to them.
Unfortunately, the very indifference which should logically and morally keep America out of other people’s wars also expedites involvement in those same conflicts. Just as Efraim and David like to think of themselves as swaggering badasses, so do American politicians enjoy their do-gooder, tough-guy fantasies. American planes swoop across the globe, spreading liberal hegemony and killing bad guys. As War Dogs shows, war is fun, as long as it happens a long way away.
The people on the business end of the bombs, as well as the members of the American military who are exposed to danger halfway around the world, aren’t having fun of course. But for Americans on the home front, the distant explosions don’t even register as an inconvenience. As a result, the use of America’s military has barely registered as an issue in either the primaries or the general election. Rand Paul, who expressed skepticism of the all-war-all-the-time policy on the right, was roundly hooted in debates and suffered an ignominious defeat. Bernie Sanders’ big foreign policy moment involved an attack on Henry Kissinger—whose war crimes were notably committed decades ago, in an era when the US had the draft.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election have been equally disinterested in debating American imperialism. Republicans focus on the four American diplomats killed in the Benghazi embassy, but Clinton’s broader, disastrous Libya policy is largely shrugged off, because no one in the US cares what happens to Libyans, no matter how many of them die. Trump doesn’t talk about the US bombing Afghan hospitals, because he knows voters don’t care about wounded Afghanis. Instead, he babbles about Obama founding ISIL. Accusing the president of being a traitor is something that will capture American attention, at least.
At the end of War Dogs, David is given a case of money in exchange for his silence. He’s not supposed to ask questions about what happened to his Albanian driver. But of course, the film doesn’t really care what happened to the driver. He’s a convenient moral dilemma used to illustrate David’s angst and complexity, just like the whole world is a convenient moral dilemma to highlight the fascinating character arcs of American arms dealers. America is much more interested in Efraim and David than it is in the people their bullets kill. That’s why we make so many bullets, to be shot offscreen, at nameless, faceless extras. For most Americans, as for War Dogs, war isn’t really that bad, because it always happens to somebody else.