‘Gran Torino’ and the Long-Term Impact of War

I just saw Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” over the weekend, and I immediately wondered, upon leaving the theater, how it managed to get left out of the recent blog discussion about movies dealing with international relations.

The movie examines the long-term effects of war, as reflected in its impact on individuals, but also on the movement of peoples and, by consequence, on culture and society. The Korean War haunts Eastwood’s Walter Kowalski to the point that he conflates his entire reality through the warped and distorted lens of his own prejudices. His life spent working in a Detroit car-manufacturing plant becomes a WWII rearguard action against the Japanese. He even refers to the soldiers he fought and killed in Korea as Japanese, and is unaware that his Hmong neighbors, who he lumps in with the rest of his nameless mass of “Asian enemies,” actually fled their homeland because they had fought on the U.S. side in the Vietnam War.

The film deftly shows how wars that ended roughly 65, 55 and 35 years ago continue to have a daily impact on peoples’ — and nations’ — lives today. I left the theater thinking about the Iraqi interpreters who have worked for U.S. forces for the past six years, to say nothing of the Iraqi refugees that have yet to return home from Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the region. We hear less about Afghan refugees, but I’m sure they exist, as does the problem that will be faced by those Afghans who have cooperated with U.S. and NATO forces once we withdraw.

Eastwood’s movie frames the issue within the context of religious salvation, and in some ways suggests that war can only end through the Christ-like self-sacrificial offering of those who have yet to make peace. That serves his artistic purposes. But for those left behind, in reality even more so than in the film, the war in many ways continues, long after hostilities have been declared over.