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A different view of Iran's soldiers

A movie takes on the myths that underlie the Islamic Republic: who fought in the war with Iraq, and why.

September 14, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — The plot may seem familiar: A group of wayward and foulmouthed young men volunteer to go to the front because of their devotion to their bomber-jacket-wearing ringleader. They are wisecracking, rude and undisciplined, singing bawdy songs and breaking prohibitions against smoking and gambling. But eventually they become heroes, proving themselves on the battlefield.

But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, such a less-than-holy depiction of the men who fought the "War of Sacred Defense," as the 1980s conflagration with Iraq is sometimes called, was groundbreaking.

Director Massoud Dehnamaki's iconoclastic 2007 film, "Ekhrajiha," or "The Rejects," struck a deep chord among Iranians accustomed to seeing the war that transformed the country as a noble cause fought by pious Muslim recruits.

Dehnamaki, a war veteran turned hard-line militia leader turned rabble-rousing newspaperman turned would-be Oliver Stone, says he was inspired by his love of war movies such as "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan" to write and direct what would become the most popular Iranian film of all time, and the first to spawn a sequel, which began casting in July.

"This film shattered a cliche and made it clear that the War of Sacred Defense was not limited to a special stratum," Dehnamaki says. "Everybody was involved."

With tensions building between Tehran and Washington over Iran's nuclear program, Dehnamaki's film also contains an inherent warning for America: The same seemingly irreligious and materialistic Iranian youth the West is banking on to eventually moderate Iran will defend their country against any foe.

The movie questions the very myths about war upon which the Islamic Republic rests: namely, who from Iranian society fought in the war, out of which strata they hailed and why they fought. As the hero, Majid, risks his life to walk through a minefield to clear the way for an offensive, the images rushing through his head are not fantasies of 72 virgins in heaven, but a shot of the woman he loves, his memories from a stint in prison and a grandfatherly cleric back in Tehran.

"If the country is attacked, everyone will go to war to defend it," Dehnamaki says. "All of them love their nation."

Just as Vietnam shaped the domestic politics and international policies of the U.S. for decades, the Iran-Iraq war, which ended 20 years ago Aug. 20, continues to play a profound role in Iranian society, politics, foreign affairs and even filmmaking.

Tensions between Iran and Iraq stretched back decades, centuries if you count the struggle between the Ottoman and Persian empires for control over the Middle East.

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein's troops crossed the Iran-Iraq border. Despite the warnings of some of his advisors, Hussein was convinced that he could quickly seize oil-rich territory and weaken the zealous Shiite Muslim clerics who a year earlier had declared an Islamic republic in Iran.

Instead, Iranians rallied behind their new leaders and fought back, eventually bringing the war to Iraqi territory and solidifying popular support for the ruling clerics.

Fearful of an Iranian victory, the U.S. and Arab states began overtly and covertly backing Hussein while ignoring his excesses, which included using outlawed chemical weapons on soldiers and civilians. The casualties mounted. Missiles struck cities. Hospital wards filled with the wounded and amputees. Mothers and wives shrieked in grief over fallen loved ones. Cemeteries devoted entire sections to the fighters.

Like Stone, Dehnamaki served in the war he chronicles. At 16, in the mid-1980s, he defied his parents and went to the front. Within a few months he was wounded, but insisted on going back to fight once he had recovered.

He eventually rose to become a commander of the Basiji militia, the religiously motivated and lightly armed volunteers who raced across minefields in human wave attacks on Iraqi positions.

The characters in his movie resemble those he led, he says. They were good-humored, smart-aleck toughs, some of whom volunteered to go to battle on a whim and wound up finding faith and meaning on the front. He keeps in touch with his soldiers.

"Some of them were martyred and some others are living their normal lives," he says.

By the time the war sputtered to an end, as many as a million lives had been lost in a conflict that profoundly changed both countries.

In Iraq, the war's dynamics sharpened the divide between the Sunni Arab government in Baghdad and the country's pious Shiites and rebellious Kurds, both culturally or religiously close to Iran, defining the battle lines in the civil conflict that would engulf the country after Hussein was toppled in 2003.

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