War Games Redux

Allow me to reflect on the latest Hollywood recreation of our country’s military campaigns in the post-911 world. By now, there have been more than a few films that take “actual events” of either the Afghan or Iraq deployments of our soldiers and thus commercialize such historical events. About a year ago, Lone Survivor was on its way to making $125 million at the box office. The movie, starring Mark Wahlberg, dramatized the real war ordeal of four Seals who were sent to “take out a high value, Afghan, target”. The assignment became a classic case of a military cluster fuck (or FUBAR or SNAFU, t0 invoke other service-related snarky jargon). Only one survivor of the original unit of 14 Seals lived to attest to the cruel reality of the well-known adage “war is hell”.

Having watched the movie, I gave props to its apparent ethos of what all soldiers in combat situation embrace, no matter how a mission unfolds: you’re never out of the fight and you cover one another’s back. To the bitter, deadly, end, if need be. Of course, the potential for courage and sacrifice cannot be overtly measured in any of us, whether the fight is in military battle or some civilian, personal struggle involving family, friends or a random encounter with fickle fate on one street or another. War, however, is seemingly the ultimate crucible that can elicit incredibly heroic and selfless sacrifice, the kind that is awarded with metals and formal, ceremonial praise from Generals to the Commander-in-Chief.

As it should be.

Now, a year after Lone Survivor comes American Sniper, with Bradley Cooper portraying another actual U.S. soldier, this time in Iraq. This dramatization of real events involves the sniper who amassed the highest kill count of enemy combatants over four tours in the Iraq conflict. The theme is exactly the same as the Afghan-based tale regarding how much one man, somehow, some way, through grit and guts and determination becomes the stuff of legend.

Interestingly, American Sniper is quite the commercial force, having made over $300 million and counting in box office receipts. Apparently, enough time has passed so that both Afghanistan and Iraq military deployments have now become sublimated in the public’s consciousness. In my estimation, there’s little widespread acceptance or rejection of these military incursions at this point. Each exists as virtual “white noise” in the cacophony of day-to-day life. Let’s face it, most American families have no skin in the game. That is, the vast majority of the American public isn’t directly related to anyone fighting and dying in Afghanistan or once again, in Iraq. It’s those volunteers doing the bidding of the Pentagon.. Know any of them?

My guess is the popularity of these aforementioned war movies derives from the  “based on unbelievable actual events” preface that makes for people wanting to know: what happenedWhy? How? Who?  I suppose,  whether a real case study or penned from the imagination of a screenwriter, it’s essentially an “action” movie, full of human drama. Action flicks often sell tickets. And war movies, from any generation, are pretty much about the action.

I grew up with war movies, mostly ones having to do with the Second World War. My father and uncle served during that global game changer of a conflict, though as a 10-year-old or so I had no idea how much the cinematic, dramatized bravery, sacrifice, the “never quit…cover your buddies’ backs” was essential to victory in the fight against fighting Germany and Japan. What I know now that I didn’t know then was that it truly, desperately, was a war to save the world from real evil forces determined to dominate, subjugate and impose their will on the rest of mankind. Millions upon millions of men and women served during the U.S.’s efforts in that war. Tens of millions would die, world-wide. Any war since involving American troops completely pales in comparison as far as fighting to save a way of life.

Shortly after high school I was drafted into the military, Vietnam-era. I was not sent over (I was in the medical corps, and two scheduled deployments were rescinded. Fate?). Regardless, I felt a strong bond with those who served alongside me in the States, and great respect for those who had been in combat . Working as a surgery tech, I saw the human carnage close-up, under bright surgical lamps as doctors tried to patch the wounded back together.  It was surreal, in a way, however, as I never, not for a second, felt the invasion of Vietnam had the slightest comparative gravity and urgency of World War Two. This “war” in Southeast Asia, always had a trumped up feeling about it. Why would the United States have to fight a country barely the size of California? Really? Vietnam was a serious threat to U.S. security, to the American way of life? What was I missing? And please don’t say my “patriotism”!

In hindsight, ever since that non-voluntary service to save the world from godless Vietnamese Communism, I’ve felt I can assess a real national threat from cynical political, manipulative posturing in using our armed forces. Vietnam was fought, I think it’s safe to say by now, for reasons having virtually nothing to do with our national security. Just check the aftermath: the U.S. bailed out of Vietnam after 10 years and losing nearly 59,000 troops, leaving North Vietnam the de facto “victors”.  Somehow, “to the victor goes the spoils” never manifested itself, as North Vietnam got South Vietnam but gained no control whatsoever over life in the U.S. of A. It thus begs the question: why was it fought in the first place? Should there not be something to lose that motivates fighting to win?

It’s great that generation after generation of young Americans are ready to step up and and answer a call to duty. But it’s an all volunteer military now, and the real combat experiences these volunteers have endured, while as admirable any of those in the Second World War, seemingly need not ever to have been fought in the first place. Apparently, there was never a valid reason for putting any of these soldiers in harm’s way. Again, what was the actual threat? Their sacrifices, while worth praising, of course, weren’t necessary, not really. Unless having more cinematic action narratives and military ceremonies can be said to represent their call to duty.

Unfortunately unlike the video game that uses Call of Duty as its title, our real-life soldiers aren’t computer programs. They are human beings who actually do get blown up, shot apart and often die. When that happens, their sacrifice should connote truly protecting our country from mortal dangers, not as pawns on a political chessboard, or as part of a bait-and-switch propaganda gambit; military casualties deserve a greater legacy than box office totals gained from exploiting their suffering, or video game kill-zone fantasies, or an excuse for sporting event “feel good”  military fly-overs.

About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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