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US Values, Moral Accommodation and Remembering Vietnam

A Popular Culture Essay

While Hacksaw Ridge suffers from Gibson’s aesthetic psychosis for wrenching agony and gore, this doesn’t overwhelm the story of Virginia pacifist Desmond Doss who, along with his brother and mother, was regularly beaten by his drunken father. The father is a WWI veteran suffering a harrowing case of PTSD. One of the marvels of the film is how we're made to sympathize with this bastard, played by Australian actor Hugo Weaving. In a key scene, Desmond (Andrew Garfield) comes very close to actually shooting his father for beating up his mother, but instead declares he will never touch a firearm again. The movie is about how Doss adjusts to the military towards the end of the war. He eventually earns a Congressional Medal of Honor. Gibson does broach new ground for a war film in American pop culture; in the eras of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, a determined pacifist as hero/protagonist would have been unthinkable. Some may recall Gary Cooper as a Tennessee pacifist in the military in the 1941 film Sergeant York; York overcomes his character shortcoming to become a sharpshooter who kills dozens of Germans. This was the popular message in 1941.

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Mel Gibson with actors on the set of 'Hacksaw Ridge'Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Mel Gibson with actors on the set of 'Hacksaw Ridge'es to advance our national interest.” McCain goes on at great length on how “exceptional" the US is and how great our “values” are. We are a nation “distinct from all others in our achievement, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.” The assumption is that our values are always morally exceptional and the world reveres us for it.

This is the Age of Trump, and I do appreciate a good line of bullshit as much as the next guy. We’re all assaulted and overwhelmed by so much information from all quarters that material like the McCain op-ed is how we establish meaning in this bizarre culture -- especially in the upper reaches of society where the decisions on war and peace are made. Facts and truth are overrated. Son and grandson of famous admirals, John McCain and his POW story have become iconic; the man functions as a flesh-and-blood Mount Rushmore figure. So he can say virtually anything and have credence.

The trouble is -- and this is why his op-ed is insidious -- it’s all emotional platitudes that pollsters know resonate with much of the public. An open-minded, honest reading of the history of the Vietnam War, where McCain earned his iconic status, does not bear out the image of the United States as a beacon of moral values. Sure, the United States has a lot going for it, and I’m glad to stand up for the good things. When and where actually applied, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are magnificent documents. But it’s dishonest or naïve to suggest the rights they provide and the justice that’s possible under them is available to everyone; as all honest Americans know, those without power must fight very hard and have significant financial resources to obtain the justice ballyhooed in the Constitution.

story | by Dr. Radut