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Some Americans may have hoped that the trial of Army reserve Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr., identified as a principal in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, would illuminate the larger question of how exactly we wound up in the moral and military quagmire of Iraq. But trials were designed for resolution, not revelation, and Graner’s court martial worked exactly as it was supposed to. American law received Graner’s explanation — that guards had balked at what they’d been directed to do, but then, “like good little soldiers or bad little soldiers, we went right back” to follow their orders — and closed the books. Almost immediately, America’s use of torture was old news; among pundits, physical coercion emerged as a subject for hair-splitting, not horror; on Capitol Hill, high-command rationalizers won praise from senators who’d apparently missed the Nuremberg Trials the first time around. Fortunately, for those of us still groping for the truth, there was “Friday Night Lights.” Peter Berg’s film arrived in video stores four days after the Graner verdict. Visually stunning, “Friday Night Lights” repackages Buzz Bissinger’s well-known 1991 exposé of high school football to focus on a coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and three of his players: the NCAA-class running back Boobie Myers (Derek Luke); a second-generation receiver, Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund); and the team’s emotionally fragile quarterback, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black). But “Friday Night Lights” revealed as much about Abu Ghraib as about the secondary-school gridiron. If audiences missed why the film Larry King called “one of the greatest sports movies ever made” was applicable to Iraq, they overlooked what jock films do. Indeed, football may be postwar America’s most controversial sport because its physical enactment of capitalism — battered men struggling for territory on behalf of skybox-ensconced entrepreneurs — is so overt. But in its crippling violence, its complex battlefield strategies, and its dependence on frenzied, flag-waving camp followers, football is also a jarring replication of the conditions under which we send young men to war. Notably, Berg’s story gives us heart-breakingly young Americans mired in a dangerous, disastrous, tour of duty — a football season in West Texas’ Permian Basin. That barren, but oil-rich, land produced the protagonists of “Friday Night Lights.” It produced George W. Bush as well. Hardscrabble Odessa, staggering under the economic pounding Texans call “the bust,” works as Berg’s metaphor for a present-day American middle class that’s only now gotten a peek at the bill for Iraq. And Gaines, floor-boarding his SUV through a cacophony of talk radio invective, looks mighty like the red state working man: facially placid, but pressured beyond the breaking point; driving fast, going nowhere; master of all he surveys, but surrounded by nothing. He’s the American heartland personified — barely able to hold its desperation in check and doing so only through stubborn denial, rigid pretense, and grandiose illusion. Of course, West Texas has always been a good market for grand delusion. Promises of rising tides and raised boats were the stock in trade of the money men who came to Midland-Odessa in the oil years — importing East Coast capital, living large, talking big, reaping astronomical profits, and moving on by the time the wells petered out. Today, they remain in the Permian Basin only in the portraiture of the region’s shrine to big oil, the Petroleum Museum’s Hall of Fame: wildcatter Sid Richardson, engineer Erle Halliburton, and the founder of Zapata Oil, George H.W. Bush. Yet the film’s predominant visual image is Permian High School’s Ratliff Stadium, a startling, obscenely grandiose coliseum that towers like Ozymandius’ thighs over an empty landscape. If Texas insiders wince at Berg’s lingering long-shot — remembering Ranger Stadium and the financial sleights of hand that gave George W. Bush a baseball team and its playing field — national taxpayers ought to recognize Berg’s nod to the real beneficiaries of war Permian Basin-style: the speculators, developers, consultants, and private contractors who are walking away with America’s war chest. Inevitably, the heavy lifting that fuels the windfall rests on the backs of Gaines’ blue-collar kids. “People say some of that money should have gone to the school,” a radio listener comments on the stadium’s astronomical construction costs. “Ain’t that stadium dedicated to the school? I say the money did go to the school.” Not surprisingly, the team’s superstar can’t make out the words in USC’s “please-call” letter. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? What is this place, Berg’s film demands to know — this community so willing to sell its children and their futures for the illusion of dominance, a last-century reputation based on a world that no longer exists? But we know Berg’s townspeople all too well: middle-aged men defining themselves with team rings and hang-tough talk; small business owners pledging allegiance in flags and Support Our Panthers bumper stickers; Americans resorting to mindless jingoism with the terrifying suspicion that perhaps they aren’t special, after all. Determined to feel they still rule the world, they’re the natural prey of the security companies and Dick Cheney confidants, the Donald Rumsfeld spinmasters, and Homeland Security henchmen who know no price is too high for the illusion of holding on. These are the Americans Barbara Ehrenreich identified in Nickel and Dimed and that Susan Faludi quoted in Stiffed: Boomer babies who now see the postwar representations of American prosperity and productivity “not as promises met, but as betrayals, losses, and disillusionments.” But it’s Berg who, in Odessa’s football fanatics, finally shows us their faces — and their bitter rage. “This is the only thing you’re ever gonna have,” Billingsley’s abusive, alcoholic father (Tim McGraw) warns with the cold insight that accompanies a wretched hangover. “You got one year to make yourself some memories. And then it’s gone forever.” If each of Gaines’ players comes to personify yet another Child Left Behind, illiteracy proves to be the least of these kids’ worries. They enter the season cripplingly overextended and underprepared, their schedule geared to an ambitious campaign neither Gaines’ athletic department, nor its downtown-business backers, can quite appreciate. After an easy start, the team’s initial skirmishes turn suddenly and stunningly catastrophic. Berg’s boys stay in the game because no competent replacements exist to relieve them. When a new recruit can’t come up with a helmet, Myers, who has offered the team its only strategic advantage, winds up a casualty. Trapped in harm’s way, the survivors panic, realizing their coach hasn’t a clue. Or a backup plan. “He designed his offense around one player,” they admit to each other when the boosters and broadcasters are gone. “We’re dead.” What follows is the frightening picture of a war effort sustained by imposing enormous responsibility on a group of children. “Show some leadership,” Gaines shouts, amid genuine carnage, at an emotionally racked 17-year-old. And amazingly, Berg’s good little soldiers go on, staying in the fight through miraculous interceptions, advancing by luck — wonderful, brave, terrified, motivated by the one thing American grunts have always found worth fighting for: “I love you guys,” their quarterback says in the huddle. But the cost is appalling. In some of the most violent footage in mainstream film, Berg’s undersized boys endure wave after wave of crushing, unmediated blows. Playing before an international audience — a championship battle staged at the Astrodome, the “eighth wonder of the world” — against Dallas Carter’s inner-city giants, the members of Gaines’ team find themselves fatally ill-schooled for the arena they’re fighting in and the culture that’s killing them. The damage is excruciating for audiences who’ve sat in the stands for the deaths of 1,400 Americans in Iraq. “This game is spiraling out of control,” a media commentator states of the obvious. “At some point, you’ve gotta worry about the safety of these players.” Gee, you think? But no one protects these kids. “Friday Night Lights” makes it clear that no one ever will. Not the backers, seeing every yard gained as a chance to do business. Not the coach, sending boys to build his personal legend. Not the yes-men, dependent on administrative good will. Not even the folks at home, caught up in the community’s hatred of a manufactured enemy: a father shouts for his injured son to return to the field; a mother screams to her battered son, “Get up, Michael, get up.” And certainly, not the process of legal inquiry. Law operates like a zone defense, after all, calibrated to stop the action in a narrow area, with the least possible penetration. If things work as they should, blame never advances up the chain of command. Not to the coach. Not to the department heads. Not to the institutions that promulgate systemic objectives as values. Not to the underwriters who grow rich when the tenets take root. Instead, law limits its inquiry to the individual: the bad apple whose evil is unavoidable, the rogue whose conduct the president condemns, the solitary miscreant whose fumble is obvious even from the cheap seats. In law as in football, the buck typically stops on the field — in the claimant who lacks standing, the petition that begs jurisdiction, the question that exceeds scope. Our process, by design, never asks who got us into this mess. And we want it that way; we’re too far gone to risk the supply line that feeds the national jones. Come on, who really clamors for the inquiry that shows we endorse profit over principle, that our sense of security is façade, that our view of our history is sham? In the end, we like our football. CRUSHING CONCLUSION So the Abu Ghraib cases will close with their verdicts. We’ll never learn exactly who let the psychos into the game, the ends-justifying strategists who — like the high school coaches who know their linemen aim to leave Boobie a cripple — just want the results. “If [Military Intelligence] is asking you to do this, it needs to be done,” Graner testified. “They’re in charge.” They still are. The question isn’t, “Can it happen again?” It’s happening now. Berg’s conclusion is devastating, not for audiences, but for Americans. It’s season’s end in Odessa, an outcome much to be wished for in the Middle East. But West Texas’ institutions remain in place: in parking lot scrimmages, 8-year-olds enact the old ritual. Overage Permian Basin playboys continue to call the shots. Staffers go on marketing the message, their contracts renewed. When we last see him, Gaines is looking forward to a new season, offering new campaigns and more division titles. So — if we are to believe recently released Pentagon plans to send American troops into Iran — does the president. Tidying up, Gaines tosses name tags into a trash can. “We’re the equipment. We’re the jockstraps, the helmets,” a used-up running back shouts in North Dallas Forty, Pete Gent’s stinging commentary on post-Vietnam War football-capitalism. “And they just depreciate us and write us off on their tax returns.” Outside the stadium, Berg’s young fighters say goodbye, no longer schoolboys, but men who’ve been to war — withstanding risks they should never have been exposed to; suffering loss for reasons they know are false. Berg’s quiet quarterback does what he has not done before: He smiles. It’s over; they can walk away. “Be perfect,” they tell each other in a code that’s their own. And like America’s children in Basra and Tikrit, in Fallujah and Baghdad, in Mosul and Najaf — like even the kids in the guard units of Abu Ghraib — they are. Terry Diggs teaches courses on law and film at Hastings and Golden Gate University law schools.

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