When “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” was first released in 1964, it was declaimed by some as a brilliant political statement and denounced by others as un-American. But seemingly all who thought and argued about the movies agreed on one thing; this picture mattered.
I believe it still matters today.
The series of unfortunate events that comprise this most scathing of satires is set in motion by the fittingly named, furiously deranged General Jack Ripper (you read that right). Convinced that Communist Russia is interfering in everything from the national water supply to his sex life, Ripper oversteps his authority and sends a military aircraft over to the USSR, giving the men aboard only one command: bomb the hell out of the place.
Back in the US of A, the American president, a British diplomat and a German weapons expert, all played by the brilliant Peter Sellers, attempt to sort out the crisis. Spoiler alert: they fail. Nuclear war breaks out. By the time the movie ends, much of the civilized world has, too.
On the road to this fictional Armageddon, the picture provides plenty of lessons on the folly of American militarism””lessons that may help us think a little more clearly about our current foreign policy struggles.
Like any good satire, the picture utilizes absurd situations to generate incisive commentary on real-world problems. Ripper’s rant about the Russian attack on his “essence” is howlingly funny, but it is also an exaggerated example of how violence often erupts not due to some desire for Grand Justice, but in response to pathetic feelings of impotence.
This brings to mind an LA Times quote from a U.S. official, who said that the White House was devising a strike on Syria “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Becoming “just muscular enough not to get mocked” also happened to be my chief aspiration in middle school, but is it really a worthy motive for an air strike? Comments like these lead me to think that the Syrian discussion is often less about security and more about insecurity.
One of the picture’s other major themes is the danger of objectifying our opponents. When the American president notes that a proposed plan of action would kill millions, one of his generals responds: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed!”
It’s a great laugh line, but the laugh sticks in my throat when I recall the numerous times our president has referred to the 500-plus innocent civilians killed by his drone strikes as “collateral damage.” The problem with death-from-a-distance tactics, the moral issue the picture so accurately pinpoints, is this: we do not see the individuals affected as people, because we do not see them at all.
Our foreseeable future is riddled with potential foreign entanglements. Obviously, no leader should base their decisions about said entanglements wholly on “Dr. Strangelove”. But they could learn a thing or two from watching it, as it shall remain relevant for as long as our foreign policy failings remain prevalent.