Don't tell the Spartans

So, we went and invaded the wrong country and things are not going well there, and so our president has ordered in another 4700 troops on top of the 21,500 troop increase he ordered in January. But they're only going there in a supporting role, so the story didn't make Page One. Anyway, the real news over the weekend was that a comic book-turned-war movie just grossed $70 million, a record for March.

Huh? You haven't heard about the Spartan bloodbath 300? It's billed as one of the most violent war movies ever made—competition for that category grows ever-fiercer—but brutal is beautiful according to director Zack Snyder.

In case you are not male and under the age of 25, or for some other reason you still associate images of unspeakable violence and human carnage with feelings of shock, horror, extreme nausea or even empathy, you might want to steer clear of 300. Suffice it to say that 300 Spartans fight to the death in 480 AD holding off an onslaught of effete and evil Persians. (We know they are evil because their king, Xerxes, is into heavy piercing.)

It's probably hopeless to demand redeeming social importance from a film that makes mega-millions from beautifying violence. But it's fair to talk the politics of avoidance. So let me note that the timing is fortuitous for a film about a battle to save Western civilization in 480 BC from the ... Iranians.

It wasn't meant to be; Snyder started work on the film seven years ago and says the politics caught up with him. "I've had people ask me if Xerxes or Leonidas is George W. Bush," Snyder told the Times recently. "I say, 'Great. Awesome. If it inspires you to think about the current geopolitical situation, cool.'"

The problem is that our popular culture doesn't want to talk about the consequences of war. We have reality TV but it doesn't serve up in-depth coverage of the three struggles that are going very badly for the United States: the raging war in Iraq, the chronic war in Afghanistan and the still-diplomatic war with Iran over that state's nuclear ambitions.

War in the abstract is entertaining, though. It's the ultimate thrillah for a video-game culture craving a reality fix. Perhaps that explains the success of Future Weapons: The Next Generation of Firepower, a hot show on Discovery Channel. It features Mack the friendly former navy SEAL showing off all the Pentagon's latest whiz-bangery. The bangs are big enough to attract 1.5 million viewers, even though it's up against 24 at 9 p.m. on Mondays, according to Discovery spokesman Joshua Weinberg. The Pentagon is not funding the show, Weinberg said, but since it's doing terrifically well among 18-24-year-old males, you can bet it's a potent recruiting tool.

It's also reassuringly divorced from reality, as was acknowledged last week by none other that the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who noted that there is no military solution to that conflict.

Kirk Johnson, back from a frustrating stint at nation-building in Iraq with the US Agency for International Development, has been checking out Future Weapons with amusement and dismay.

"Nothing I saw would do any good on the streets of Falloujah, but it's a comfort thing," Johnson says. "It's reassuring, it's like we still pay all this money for our defense budget, we have all these awesome toys that other countries can't even dream of, but it has no relevance to the fact that we're losing in Iraq."

Still, war has been a moneymaker from time immemorial, so what am I whingeing about? It's true, I'm inconsistent: I object both to the explicit carnage in films like 300 and to the antiseptic military-industrial boosterism of Future Weapons, where they don't show the bodily damage done to people as a result of all the high-tech weaponry. This would be a good time to confess that I'm notoriously squeamish. I covered several wars as a foreign correspondent for the LA Times and saw too many dead bodies—soldiers, civilians, children, torture victims—ever to be able to stomach violence packaged as "entertainment." Half of Hollywood's fare these days leaves me struggling not to throw up into my popcorn.

I would feel better if this great fascination with war and violence made us try harder to prevent the next war from occurring. But the trailers of upcoming releases are not reassuring.

Sonni Efron is a member of The Times' editorial board.

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