I. Echoes From the Past and Future
The images look familiar, even comforting in a way, steeped in the heroic black-and-white tints of classic movies and World War II newsreels. Unshaven, wisecracking G.I.s slogging gamely through urban combat. Tanks crawling over broken walls, past burned-out buildings. Quick cut to the skies: lumbering bombers releasing their payloads over sprawling cities, while fighters dart in and out around them and black clouds of ack-ack explode with sudden menace. A brief sweep of the enemy dead, frozen in their final agonies across a churned-up field. Then a long line of refugees, plodding along the edge of a highway while American troop trucks, jeeps, and half-tracks roar past them in the opposite direction.
But there’s something slightly wrong, something askew in the pictures. The shop signs in that ruined city — they’re all in English. The road signs in that shot of the highway are in Spanish. And those refugees aren’t white German burghers or French villagers; they’re brown, like Mexicans, maybe. And look, the fighters swooping in to strafe our bombers — they’ve got maple leafs painted on their fuselages. And there, amongst the enemy dead, a corpse still clutching his battalion’s flag: a Union Jack.
This is the kind of cognitive dissonance evoked by a new screenplay from renowned director Alex Cox: Our War Against Canada. The British-born Cox — long resident in the United States — is planning a three-part, 90-minute documentary on the all-too-true story of serious American plans to wage war against Canada, Mexico and Great Britain in the years before World War II. These detailed schemes are filled with "echoes from the future," in Pasternak’s apt phrase: eerie prefigurements and deep-rooted patterns that have been played out — in reality, not just on paper — over and over down through the decades, and now confront us once again, most starkly and horribly, in Iraq.
"War Plan Red" dealt with a proposed war against Great Britain, then considered America’s chief rival for economic dominance in the world. The 1935 plan envisioned major strikes on UK interests around the world, with the primary focus on nearby Canada, which was to be subjected to a full-scale invasion and occupation, with aerial bombing of cities, massed infantry and armor attacks — and the use of poison gas. The capture of Canada’s vast mineral wealth was another goal of the attack. How serious was this plan? Serious enough to be the object of the largest war games in U.S. history up to that time: 50,000 troops on a detailed dry run of the cross-border assault.
"War Plan Green" was a similar plan drawn up for an attack on Mexico. This was to be a "regime change" operation designed to seize oil fields and protect U.S. economic interests if an unfriendly government sought to challenge American hegemony. The plan began with economic sanctions to soften up the recalcitrant Mexicans, followed by the concoction of a suitable pretext for "defensive" military action. After a blitzkrieg assault on Mexico City, the regime would then be handed over to local collaborators, with an American-trained "national army" to keep the populace in line.
There is a general misconception that the U.S. military has always turned out plans like these to cover almost every possible contingency, every country; thus you’re bound to run across off-the-wall scenarios, such as an invasion of Canada, that would never be implemented. But this is just a myth. In fact, war plans at this level of detail are never drawn up unless there are very serious policy considerations behind them. For example, the now-advanced plans for an airstrike on Iran are not simply contingency exercises churned out by Pentagon analysts, they were ordered directly by George W. Bush, as were the prewar plans for the Iraq invasion.
As Cox notes in the documentary’s conclusion: "These war plans tell us some disturbing things about the world’s last superpower — about America’s attitude toward its allies, about the motivation behind its lofty sentiments, and its inexplicable acts of terrorism and war." Like some grand cinematic mashup, the film will force past and present into a strange, disturbing harmony whose resonances will almost certainly, tragically, echo far into the future.
II. Follow the Money
Alex Cox is something of a mashup himself — director, writer, actor, a unique combination of artistic integrity and political insight rarely seen in the cinematic world. His widely varied, multi-leveled work — encompassing everything from early Eighties "cult" hits like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy to the more recent surrealist Three Businessmen and his mind-bending, Liverpudlian update of The Revenger’s Tragedy — is characterized by an unflagging sense of subversion: overturning, undermining, examining, recasting the dominant paradigms of power and convention. Far outside the Hollywood mainstream, based in rural Oregon with his wife and creative/business partner, screenwriter Tod Davies, Cox’s reputation draws an array of top talent to his projects, including Derek Jacobi, Joe Strummer, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Ed Harris, Elvis Costello, Eddie Izzard and many others.
In recent years, Cox has also been directing documentaries on such diverse subjects as Japanese film icon Akira Kurosawa and the Seventies soft-porn Emmanuelle phenomenon — the latter made for British TV. It’s unlikely that Our War Against Canada will be backed by the corporatist American networks anytime soon, but Cox was keen to talk about the project in an email exchange as he was scouting film locations around the American West for his next feature.
Cox said the idea for the documentary sprang from an article by Floyd Rudmin in Counterpunch earlier this year. "I read it, and was fascinated," said Cox. "Rudmin’s conclusion — that the U.S. military’s plan for the invasion of Mexico was the same as the invasion plan for Iraq (cause chaos, set up an ineffective puppet government, and create permanent military bases among the oil fields) — is stunning in its simplicity and its conviction. It suggests that the Iraq war, far from being a failure or a misadventure, is going exactly the way its authors planned. A documentary film — if anyone sees it — can bring that information to a wider audience."
The film also drives home another telling point: that there were no similar plans for a possible war with Nazi Germany — a nation that one might think posed a greater potential threat than America’s close allies Britain, Canada and Mexico. But there’s nothing strange about this to Cox; it simply underlines the elitist economic interests that have remained the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy for generations.
"The war plans were to cripple potential economic rivals and to seize the natural resources of Mexico and Canada. Germany was viewed entirely as an ally by the U.S. military, and thus, one assumes, by the American oligarchy: the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Duponts — not to mention a very minor U.S. oligarch named Prescott Bush, whose firms had extensive dealings with the Nazis, even after America had entered the war. The moral here is that a nation as powerful as the United States didn’t — and doesn’t — need allies. It has vassal states, instead. Step forward my own dear Britain!"
And the American media have been eagerly complicit in masking the true nature of this corporatist agenda, Cox noted. "The Washington Post ran an article based on Rudmin’s research into the war plans at the National Archives. As Rudmin pointed out, there was a code name for Germany: Black. But the Post reporter outright lied, pretending there was also a ‘War Plan Black.’ There wasn’t. There were too many American corporations —IBM, Ford, DuPont, Standard Oil — doing business with the Nazis to permit such possibilities. So apparently it’s the Washington Post’s job to reverse the truth, via scurrilous, lazy fudges."
The plans didn’t stop at aggressive war and economic terrorism, however. They also envisioned internment camps for British and Canadian nationals in the States, along with homegrown "pacifists" and other troublemakers. Nor did they draw the line at conventional weaponry; as noted, WMD attacks of poison gas were part of the scenario. Here too, Cox sees disturbing continuities.
"I suppose all countries were guilty of this," he noted of the WMD plans. "Both sides used it in the First World War. Churchill viewed poison gas as an excellent option, as I recall. Mussolini used it in North Africa. Today most civilized nations eschew gas, germ warfare, and landmines (though not the U.S. on the latter) — but there are no international prohibitions against napalm, white phosphorus, depleted uranium, or cluster bombs: equally insidious weapons, even crueler than the phosgene and mustard gas they’ve replaced."
As for the planned concentration camps — which were actualized less than a decade later, in the internment of Japanese-Americans — "there were such plans in the Eighties too, at the time of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran civil wars — Rex-84 and other mass-roundups planned by Ollie North," said Cox. "But all that stuff gets forgotten very quickly — just as Clinton and Gore’s support of the Contra terrorists, or Jimmy Carter’s creation of the Islamic extremist army in Afghanistan — vanishes quickly from the ‘official’ record."
Indeed, such inconvenient truths reveal another salient fact about America’s corporatist militarism, from "War Plan Red" to "Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Cox: its bipartisan nature. "That’s why the American electorate gets a choice of two oil-related warmongers like Gore and Bush," he said. "It’s easy and lazy to pretend that Kerry or Clinton would have done things differently. But a million Iraqi children died on Clinton’s watch — a price that Madeline Albright said was perfectly acceptable."
Confirmation of this joint responsibility for decades of murderous mischief comes from an unexpected source: Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense for Bush Junior (and ex-CIA chief for Bush Senior). "Robert Gates wrote a book called From the Shadows in which he said that, having served in six administrations, Democrat and Republican, he saw no difference between the parties’ foreign policies," Cox said. "Carter created the Afghan terror network and the Contras. Bush and Reagan just enhanced them. And FDR signed off on the invasion of Mexico and Canada. Gates is part of that small intelligence-related crew which has dominated US politics since the JFK assassination: people who keep showing up in different guises. John Dimitri Negroponte is another. Rumsfeld another. Gates knows his stuff."
"We — as sentient citizens or individuals — need to get past the idea that a choice of two almost-identical parties will fix things," Cox went on. "Both parties in the US — like the Tories, New Labour, and the Liberal Democrats in England — represent the needs and desires of the oligarchy and the big corporations. There is no difference between any of them. As long as they control oil in the Middle East, water resources in Bolivia, and uranium on the Navajo reservation, they’re happy. The only solution is another party. And that, for me — based on what I’ve seen in England and Scotland — is the Greens."
At the same time, Cox is fully aware of the fickleness of political factions — even the most "progressive" ones. One of his most striking films, "Walker," was a darkly comic look at a 19th century American intervention in Nicaragua. He shot the film in Nicaragua itself, with the cooperation of the Sandinista government, in 1987, at the height of the Contra terrorist war. The Sandinistas returned to power this month with Daniel Ortega’s presidential victory. But Cox sees little to celebrate in this political sequel.
"I can’t rejoice at all in Ortega’s victory, despite the energy and time I put into supporting the Sandinistas — including giving them millions of Universal Picture’s dollars. Ortega has made too many compromises with the oligarchy and the Catholic Church. He has discredited the party and the movement. The weekend before his election victory, a young woman died in a Managua hospital because a doctor was afraid to give her a therapeutic abortion. What does anyone have to celebrate in Nicaragua?"
Still, Cox keeps moving, seeking out new ways to "inoculate the world with disillusionment," as Henry Miller once described the role of the artist. "Our War Against Canada" is part of that effort. "Paul Lewis, who was Dennis Hopper’s producer, said that films should be punishment inflicted on people looking to be entertained. I subscribe to that philosophy," Cox said, then added: "Unfortunately, we were thinking about an improving punishment, rather than the current crop of Hollywood films."
This piece was written for Truthout.org.