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Collateral Damage

Film review by Marc Becker
February 13, 2002

The appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger's new vigilante action flick Collateral Damage in movie theaters last week made the news because the studio had delayed its release for several months for fear that a terrorist bombing of a high-rise building would offend public sensibilities in a post 9/11 world.

Critics have greeted the film with the retort that Hollywood should have been more concerned about insulting the public through the film's implausibilities and plot holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through. As a Latin American historian, I am much more troubled by the film's a-historical portrayal of U.S.-Colombia relations.

For those unfamiliar with the film, a Colombian guerrilla leader nicknamed "El Lobo" (Cliff Curtis) bombs U.S. officials at the Colombian consulate in Los Angeles to force the U.S. to get out of his country. Schwarzenegger plays a firefighter who watches as his wife and son are killed in the explosion, and subsequently vows to revenge their deaths. Schwarzenegger, in an act of vigilante justice, kills El Lobo before he is able to carry through on his plans to blow up a State Department building in Washington, D.C.

From the beginning, this scenario is fraught with problems. First, such terrorist attacks on the U.S. from a Latin American guerrilla movement are unthinkable. Almost universally, political activists in Latin America responded with horror to the 9/11 attacks. Even such hardened communists as Fidel Castro who have been the victims of terrorist attacks from the U.S. for over forty years denounced the attacks and expressed sympathy with the victims.

Second, the film's title comes from a political activist who sympathizes with the goals of the Colombian guerrilla movement and disregards the deaths of Schwarzenegger's wife and son as "collateral damage." This term and concept, of course, comes from right-wingers like Oliver North who were not bothered by civilian deaths; few leftist activists in the U.S. share such a similar disregard for human life, and it is disingenuous of the film to imply this.

Much more troubling about the film is its (intentional?) ignorance of U.S. support for an anti-democratic and unpopular regime in Colombia. Under the guise of Plan Colombia purportedly intended to attack drug trafficking, Colombia has become the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid. This war on drugs becomes a thinly veiled attack on 50-year guerrilla insurgency which is fighting against a wealthy and exclusionary government that ignores the needs of the majority of the people.

In Colombia, the U.S. continues to fund a military that is closely allied with right-wing paramilitary death squads that brutally massacre civilian populations. The drug war does not target wealthy drug traffickers, but instead focuses on spraying Roundup herbicides on poor peasants who are forced to grow coca leaves as a cash crop because neo-liberal economic policies have made their traditional lifestyles unviable. In a final absurdity, this biological warfare does more damage to legal food crops than the coca plants. This also causes health problems, robs farmers of their livelihood, and further forces them into the hands of the guerrillas.

Politically, the film Collateral Damage argues against negotiating with Colombia's two leftist guerrilla movements (FARC and ELN). But these are not small, shadowy, easily defeated groups like Al-Qaeda but large, well-funded organizations that control significant parts of Colombian territory. Excluding these groups from political negotiations only ensures the continuation of an endless and increasingly bloody civil war which threatens to engulf the entire region. In Schwarzenegger's world, a Terminator-style global apocalypse is preferable to peaceful co-existence and social justice.

Before September 11, many of us worried that Colombia would be the next arena of overt U.S. military intervention. Already, the U.S. has a significant number of military trainers in the country and "contract employees" have been killed in combat. Now, with Bush looking to expand his ill-advised war on terrorism, the possibilities appear larger than ever before. The result would be a disaster on the order of the Vietnam War, if not larger.

Collateral Damage is also morally flawed. One scene has Schwarzenegger claiming that El Lobo wants to kill many people while he wants to kill only one person (El Lobo) in revenge for the deaths in his family. What this glosses over (and what is difficult to verify without the precise body counts a la Terminator II) is that Schwarzenegger ends up killing more people in his blind pursuit of revenge than do the Colombian guerrillas. The moral is that U.S. lives count, while those in other countries do not. Perhaps this only mirrors reality, as the U.S. has now killed more civilians in its bombing of Afghanistan than were killed in the September 11 attacks.

Theater audiences cheer Schwarzenegger's murderous rampages and extra-judicial executions, which in Real Life lead to W.'s call to capture the Bad Guys "dead or alive, preferably dead" without bothering with the inconveniences of international law. In reality, El Lobo's son would hardly gravitate to his parents' murderer as Collateral Damage portrays, but instead would probably return to Colombia to continue the struggle against U.S. imperialism. The endless cycle of violence has not ended, but simply reached a new and more dangerous stage which will bring neither peace to Colombia nor security to the U.S.

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