In 1972, James Dickey’s novel Deliverance was turned into a major Hollywood motion picture. It instantly became a cultural icon for America of the last years of the Vietnam War. For many of those who saw it, Dickey has spun a clear political subplot—the men lost in the wilds were America lost in the jungles of Vietnam. But more broadly, both the novel and the film can be viewed as a modern American transposition of Lord of the Flies, involving not children marooned on an island, but modern American suburban men lost in the wilds of north Georgia. If anything, Dickey’s working of this material is more powerful than Golding’s. Dickey’s son, Christopher, is a talented writer who now mans the Paris bureau for Newsweek. I got to make his acquaintance this summer when we both attended a counter-terrorism conference in Italy.
In a column in the current Newsweek, Dickey gives us an update on Deliverance and applies it to America’s current predicament. Here’s a snippet:
Me, I think Lewis is Vice President Dick Cheney’s closet fantasy of himself, and as such, a sort of model for the Bush Administration as a whole. And Ed, he’s about the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by. And the river? That’s the war in Iraq.
“What the hell you want to go f— around with that river for?” one of the unfriendly locals asks Lewis early in the movie. “Because it’s there,” says Lewis. “It’s there alright. You get in and you can’t get out, you gonna wish it wasn’t.”
One of the most disconcerting aspects of the endless war the United States is fighting now is that it started because Iraq was there: it appeared to be a made-to-order target for an easy invasion that would have great symbolic (indeed, philosophic) significance for the thinkers around Bush. After 9/11, the capture of the terrorists who plotted the attack and the destruction of the Taliban government in Afghanistan that gave them shelter just hadn’t seemed a weighty enough challenge for these would-be supermen. “There’s a feeling we’ve got to do something that counts—and bombing caves is not something that counts,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a confidante of Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told NEWSWEEK in November 2001. In fact they had tasted that great forbidden fruit of war, the sense of license that it gives, and they didn’t want to give it up. In wartime they could make up their laws as they went along. On a grand scale they could reinterpret the Constitution until it became meaningless. On the ground, they would give well-connected companies fat contracts and politically compatible mercenaries like those of Blackwater a license to kill . . .
Anxious to assert their vision of American strength, and themselves as its personifications, they were looking for a fight with Saddam Hussein long before September 11. Casting themselves as implacable opponents of tyranny, the ideologues of the administration had, since the days of the Soviet Union, envied the tyrants’ ruthlessness. Quick to denounce bias when they faced opposition, they were the first to use mass deception to assure their own grip on power. And what made all this possible? They could not do any of it—they could not begin to do it—without war and its attendant mystique of survival . . .
Dickey’s relation of Deliverance to the current American dilemma is not an entertainment. It’s an admonition.