The United States is finding the occupation of other nations more and more challenging. Witness the clueless US soldiers or contractors who burned a dozen Korans at the Bagram Air Force Base trash dump in Afghanistan. The uproar in response has only begun.
Then there were the ace troopers who filmed themselves urinating on corpses. And let’s not forget the perplexing US assault that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Plus a host of other disasters. We’re failing at Occupation 101. Economic challenges at home only add to the difficulty.
Meanwhile, as the US tries to control an occupation AND be the nice guy, dictators like Bashar Assad in Syria and Omar Bashir in Sudan employ classic scorched earth counter-insurgency tactics and hold onto power. In such a frustrating quandary, what is a poor superpower to do? Washington and Pentagon leaders have decided to fall back on what they feel the US does best: Secret killing.
In Part One of this story, I suggested there were similarities between the new US military doctrine of Special Ops hunter-killer teams and Dexter, the popular novel and TV character who is an upstanding police forensic expert by day and a gruesome psychopathic killer by night. Dexter calls his killer persona his “dark passenger,” a killer “dressed in red, white and blue 100 percent synthetic virtue” who kills only people who deserve to die.
In Part Two, we go to Hollywood.
The US government wants its war machine to look good when the budget crunch is on. So with our ten-year Iraq occupation going south and Afghanistan headed in that direction, it’s understandable the Pentagon might want to shill its new, shiny War Doctrine in the marketplace of popular culture.
After two controversial wars, we’re now watching a situation in which Israel could attack Iran, but do it so ineffectually that it would pull the US into what could snowball into a Third World War. This is happening in the context of the Arab Spring upheavals that suggest people around the world are rising up and demanding the removal of the repressive yokes around their necks. China and India and Brazil are on the way to being competitive peers in the capitalist rat race. This dynamic is already driving gasoline prices higher and higher. The future is getting very troublesome and foreboding to contemplate for the average American.
So what better time to crank up the Pentagon propaganda machine and assault the popular American public mind with a thrilling distraction like Sylvester Stallone and Rambo, who single-handedly won the Vietnam War on the screen after the United States had failed to do it with millions of troops and materiel.
I’ll let Tom Clancy, the master, establish the nature of the new feature film Act Of Valor. Clancy wrote a preface to the novelization of the Act Of Valor screenplay by Kurt Johnstad. The novelization is now on grocery store thriller and romance shelves all across the nation. Although his name is in 60-point type at the top, Clancy, who has become an industry in himself, only “presents” the book, which was actually written by Dick Couch and George Goldorisi, whose names are in much smaller type at the bottom. Here’s Clancy’s opening sentence:
“Navy SEALs are Olympic athletes that kill people for a living.”
That’s a marvel of a sentence that exploits admiration for the Olympics and the idea of athleticism at the pinnacle of excellence and then presents the killing of other human beings as the equivalent of an Olympic sport. Cool! It also establishes the reverent tone of the movie, which, as the advertising touts, is “the ultimate in action adventure … starring active-duty Navy SEALs.”
Clancy writes that when he heard that SEAL leadership was planning this movie and popular novelization he reached out to them. It seems he had no trouble getting his crack action thriller writing team the mission to produce the novelization. This thriller, we’re told, is different from all the other assassin and serial killer thrillers on the grocery store shelf: This one is the real deal.
But is it?
There is really no way for the ordinary citizen to know if anything in the movie and book is “real” as far as what an actual Navy SEAL hunter-killer team does, because SEAL activities are so absolutely secret, especially the unpleasant, illegal and embarrassing aspects of SEAL missions. What SEALs really do is not what’s most real about this movie and book. What’s most real about the movie and the book is that they are both pure forms of pop culture propaganda mobilized in the war to occupy the American mind.
The movie and book will certainly help the Pentagon obtain greater funding priority for its developing Special Ops program. Plus, ironically, cultural products like Act Of Valor will take the pressure off efforts to lift the government secrecy that keeps most Special Ops missions from public consciousness and, more importantly, reduces political accountability.
Our runaway national security culture is so corrupted we’ve reached the point where military operations done in the name of tax-paying American citizens are effectively either kept secret from those citizens or cynically employed as public relations. Many Americans subscribe to the notion that imperial policy hoses resources overseas that are desperately needed at home. Such a policy can only be sustained in a democracy as long as the home voting public is kept in the dark about what’s really going on overseas. Citizens need to be distracted and occupied by what the Romans liked to call “bread and circus.” Act Of Valor and other War On Terror genre thrillers are very much part of that distracting circus, and as such they work to take pressure off efforts to get at the real story.
Witness the current dismal attention given to WikiLeaks and to whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, both now caught in legal quicksand. It’s for good reason that the Obama administration is harsher than its Republican predecessor in hunting down and prosecuting whistleblowers and leakers. The situation is getting worse, not better. As Act Of Valor makes clear, the star of this new secrecy cult is the SEAL hunter-killer team concept.
The plot in Act Of Valor takes our Olympic athlete killers “from Chechnya to the Philippines and the Ukraine to Somalia.” At one point they’re off the coast of South America on an aircraft carrier. There’s no doubt lots of cool special effects, lots of crashing around and lots of blowing up things. Our Olympian heroes, of course, stick together through it all. Until the action builds to a final firefight for the future of America that takes place — why is this not a surprise? — on the border between the United States and Mexico.
At this point, you almost expect a cameo coda with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (as Sancho Panza on a donkey) plugging for Special Ops budget increases.
I can see young men running out of theaters ready to sign up for the SEALs, even if they know it’s the hardest uphill climb in America and that 80 percent of those who try will wash out. This naturally recalls the Vietnam War and the pop song “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Special Forces Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. The odds to achieve elite status back then were apparently even worse.
One hundred men will test today,
But only three win the Green Beret.
And who can forget John Wayne’s 1968 war propaganda film The Green Berets, an epic directed by The Duke that has become a laughing stock in the war film genre. Check out its corny trailer and the final scene where Colonel John Wayne walks on the beach as the sun sets over the South China Sea — in the east. As Hollywood war propaganda goes, it’s a very low bar for Act Of Valor to reach for. From its trailer, Act Of Valor looks much more hip and artful within the genre of schlock War On Terror thrillers. Plus, in The Green Berets, no one would mistake the aging John Wayne for an Olympic athlete. He’s more like a lost water buffalo looking for a drink.
Propaganda and the Road to War
Back in the 1960s, the Frenchman Jacques Ellul wrote a great book called Propaganda in which he described propaganda not as the instilling of lies by sinister forces but as a sociological reality of power in modern democratic societies. We’re saturated with propaganda. As individual citizens of a modern technological culture, we’re lost in an impossible morass of competing propagandas. This is the reason we feel so nostalgic for anything remotely authentic. But, then, it’s now gotten to the point propaganda even sells us authenticity.
In this cacophony of messages in American culture, the archetype of the killer is at the top of the heap. He or she is the person who removes obstacles and gets things done. James Bond and Mike Hammer are two popular figures of the fifties that come to mind. One of the things that made Bond so sexy was he had a license to kill that he used often. Mike Hammer was famous for using a .45 to blow away anyone who got in his way, including a lot of dames.
D.H. Lawrence said, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
When the old ways don’t work anymore, when things get confused and when the going gets difficult, a significant school of Americans don’t turn to sociology, history or dialogue with others for answers; they think about killing something and how that will somehow solve the problem.
In the midst of the Vietnam War historian Richard Slotkin wrote, “The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means of that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”
The trouble is that in 2012 we’re not just starting out Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the west and the Philippines and beyond. The rest of the world is more effectively rising to meet and question our imperial destiny. All this means the process of defending the mythic idea of American Exceptionalism has become a more furtive, back-shooter mission. The brash, direct and up-front image of a Teddy Roosevelt is a thing of the past. Today, the image of Tom Clancy’s beloved Olympic athlete killers are the ones cast to play the imperial role. Unlike the solitary Bonds and Hammers, these elements work in teams and are equipped with the most sophisticated communications and surveillance capacities and the most lethal weaponry in the history of mankind.
I would certainly not dishonor these men and women for their incredible athleticism and skills. I would not even say they’re not unfortunately sometimes necessary to have around. What worries me and many Americans are the leaders we elect who order these Olympians to do what they do. And the secrecy they thrive on to keep accountability and criticism at bay. There are future debacles out there just waiting for leaders to set them in motion. US government support for Israeli belligerence toward Iran is at the top of this list right now.
If the past ten years is prologue, Americans have good reason to be scared.