Winning the Afghan War — In Hollywood

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W.J. Astore

A new movie, “12 Strong,” is opening on January 19th.  I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for it while watching the NFL playoffs.  It’s being advertised as America’s first victory in the “war on terror.”  Based on a popular book, “Horse Soldiers,” it features American special operations troops charging into battle on horseback.  The synopsis of the movie (at Fandango) describes it as follows:

“12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani (sic) horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that, despite those “overwhelming odds” and being “outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy,” U.S. troops prevail.

Watching the trailers on TV is a surreal experience.  You get the impression the U.S. cavalry sounded the charge and won the Afghan war in 2001.  You’d never know U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan in 2018, facing a “stalemate” and a resurgent Taliban that controls vast swaths of territory, and that U.S. forces face a “generational” slog to an endpoint where victory is indeed ill-defined.

Even though America is treading water in the Afghan war, Hollywood has cherry-picked an episode from the early days of that war, in the tradition of a John Wayne movie (like “The Horse Soldiers“).

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The Wild West has been reset to Afghanistan with U.S. troops as the new sheriff in town, with the Taliban serving as the “savages” in the old Western tradition.

It’s the U.S. cavalry to the rescue, in the wild Afghan mountains.  Yet highlighting this one episode in America’s quagmire war in Afghanistan is more than misleading.  It’s as if the Japanese made a film about World War II that began and ended with Pearl Harbor.

Remember when Candidate Trump boasted that, when he became president, Americans would win so much, we’d get bored with winning?  “Believe me,” he said.

Maybe this is believable … at the movies.

American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions

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In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I focus on the “alien” nature of U.S. military interventions.  Here are some excerpts from my article:

The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn’t changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens’ shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while — you won’t be surprised to know — thoroughly thrashing said aliens.

Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle — with Will Smith’s cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman’s kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet’s “sole superpower.” Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own “mission accomplished” moment?

In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, the never-ending destructiveness of the wars that followed, coupled with the U.S. government’s deployment of deadly robotic drones and special ops units across the globe, alien invasion movies aren’t — at least for me — the campy fun they once were, and not just because the latest of them is louder, dumber, and more cliché-ridden than ever. I suspect that there’s something else at work as well, something that’s barely risen to consciousness here: in these years, we’ve morphed into the planet’s invading aliens.

Think about it. Over the last half-century, whenever and wherever the U.S. military “deploys,” often to underdeveloped towns and villages in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it arrives very much in the spirit of those sci-fi aliens. After all, it brings with it dazzlingly destructive futuristic weaponry and high-tech gadgetry of all sorts (known in the military as “force-multipliers”). It then proceeds to build mothership-style bases that are often like American small towns plopped down in a new environment. Nowadays in such lands, American drones patrol the skies (think: the Terminator films), blast walls accented with razor wire and klieg lights provide “force protection” on the ground, and the usual attack helicopters, combat jets, and gunships hover overhead like so many alien craft. To designate targets to wipe out, U.S. forces even use lasers!

In the field, American military officers emerge from high-tech vehicles to bark out commands in a harsh “alien” tongue. (You know: English.) Even as American leaders offer reassuring words to the natives (and to the public in “the homeland”) about the U.S. military being a force for human liberation, the message couldn’t be more unmistakable if you happen to be living in such countries: the “aliens” are here, and they’re planning to take control, weapons loaded and ready to fire.

Other U.S. military officers have noticed this dynamic. In 2004, near Samarra in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, for instance, then-Major Guy Parmeter recalled asking a farmer if he’d “seen any foreign fighters” about. The farmer’s reply was as simple as it was telling: “Yes, you.” Parmeter noted, “You have a bunch of epiphanies over the course of your experience here [in Iraq], and it made me think: How are we perceived, who are we to them?”

Americans may see themselves as liberators, but to the Iraqis and so many other peoples Washington has targeted with its drones, jets, and high-tech weaponry, we are the invaders.

Do you recall what the aliens were after in the first Independence Day movie? Resources. In that film, they were compared to locusts, traveling from planet to planet, stripping them of their valuables while killing their inhabitants. These days, that narrative should sound a lot less alien to us. After all, would Washington have committed itself quite so fully to the Greater Middle East if it hadn’t possessed all that oil so vital to our consumption-driven way of life? That’s what the Carter Doctrine of 1980 was about: it defined the Persian Gulf as a U.S. “vital interest” precisely because, to quote former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt description of Iraq, it “floats on a sea of oil.”

Consider it an irony of alien disaster movies that they manage to critique U.S. military ambitions vis-à-vis the “primitive” natives of far-off lands (even if none of us and few of the filmmakers know it). Like it or not, as the world’s sole superpower, dependent on advanced technology to implement its global ambitions, the U.S. provides a remarkably good model for the imperial and imperious aliens of our screen life.

Read more at TomDispatch.com.

America’s Wars as Bloated Hollywood Productions

Age of Extinction, indeed (Source: Wikipedia)
Age of Extinction, indeed (Source: Wikipedia)

W.J. Astore

Like so many bloated Hollywood movies nowadays, America’s wars may bomb, but they always produce their own sequels.

Look at the latest news from Iraq and Afghanistan.  These wars have persisted for more than a decade, with several re-releases to include “surges” and repeats.  The latest from Iraq is preparations to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, which promises a repeat of the level of destruction visited upon Fallujah in 2004.  In this there are echoes of Vietnam: in Mosul, we may have to destroy the city to save it.  Five Iraqi brigades, most likely supported by American airpower and some American troops on the ground (air controllers and Special Forces), are poised to strike as early as April.  Doubtless they’ll prevail, at least for the moment, as the city and its civilians pay a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat.  Mosul will be “liberated,” but just look what happened to Fallujah, which after the American “victory” in 2004 is now a devastated city retaken by elements of al-Qaeda in 2014.

(As an aside, it’s interesting that the New York Times uses the word “epic” to describe the Battle of Fallujah from 2004.  Surely a better word is “catastrophic.”  What is epic about a battle that destroys a city, a battle that is ultimately inconclusive?  Check out Bing West’s book about Fallujah, whose title, “No True Glory,” captures the frustrations and contradictions of that battle, mainly from the American perspective.)

Moving to Afghanistan, the latest is that American troops may stay longer than expected (surprise!).  Despite all the talk of “progress” in Afghanistan, the takeaway is the following section, from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s recent visit to Afghanistan:

“Despite the aid of American air power, 2014 was the deadliest year for Afghan forces since the start of the war in 2001, and many Afghan and Western officials in Kabul believe that 2015 will likely be worse, particularly with less support from Western allies. That has begun to change the conversation about the possibility of slowing down in the [American] withdrawal.”

In other words, expect more micro-surges of American troops and assets in the coming years, as well as more reports of “progress,” however temporary or illusory (at least America’s best and brightest learned from Vietnam not to talk of seeing light at the end of tunnels).

America’s wars are much like the “Transformers” franchise of movies: thrilling and seemingly conclusive at first, with much talk of missions being accomplished, followed by sequel after sequel of repetitive battles, increasingly loud and destructive, signifying vapidity and intellectual bankruptcy even as a few profit greatly from them.

And no one (certainly none of the producers at the Pentagon) seems to be able to pull the plug on green-lighting ever more sequels to these wars.  Even when they bomb.

(For a different perspective on how recent Hollywood movies support American warmaking through myth-making, see Peter Van Buren’s insightful article “War Porn” at TomDispatch.com.)

Quick Thoughts on the Oscars

Sally Field in Norma Rae
Sally Field in Norma Rae

W.J. Astore

I love movies but I can’t say that I love Hollywood.  My wife and I sat through the interminable Academy Awards last night; we should have received an Oscar for patience.  What amazes me is the lack of thanks the winners express to movie-goers.  You know: the little people who shell out $12 or more a ticket to see roughly two hours of often mediocre entertainment.  Instead of thanking the fans, most Oscar winners celebrate themselves (with perhaps a nod toward their fellow nominees) while thanking their publicists, their agents, various power-brokers in the industry, and so on.

Want the Academy Awards to move faster?  Have the winners take the stage, accept the Oscar, thank the Academy and the fans, and sit down.  And shut up.

Hollywood has a certain contempt for the working classes — you know, the people who keep them in their “Capitol” lifestyle (which is why “The Hunger Games” trilogy truly captures the zeitgeist of the American moment).  I was disgusted in watching the Oscar preview to see ordinary Americans caricatured as crumb-infested, couch-ridden, half-naked, clinically obese morons.  Yes, I’m not immune to humor, but to depict the fans who ultimately pay your salaries and keep you living the high life in such a luridly abusive way shows a contempt that is far too common among our “elites,” Hollywood included.

I enjoy Ellen Degeneres.  She has a light touch, good comic timing, and she knows how to zing the audience.  But her “Who wants pizza” skit was unfunny and ungenerous — no pun intended.  Once again, part of the joke involved whether the assembled Capitol beauties were going to stiff the pizza delivery man.  Ha ha.  Let’s pass the hat and take up a collection to pay for the pizza we ordered.  I’m not surprised many of the assembled elect couldn’t find a dime to kick in — they’re so accustomed to their Oscar freebies.

Hollywood has always catered to narcissists.  Nothing new there.  But there was a time when Hollywood celebrities knew how to accept awards (and their glamorous lifestyle) with a certain amount of class, while thanking, even respecting, the fans who make it all possible.  Last night was not of that time.

I suppose the ultimate measure of Hollywood’s contempt for its paying audience is the poor quality of its movies.  Want to make better movies, Hollywood?  Start by treating the working classes with a measure of common courtesy — along with some empathy based on respect for their challenges and sacrifices.

A last comment: It was nice to see, however briefly, a scene from Norma Rae (1979), featuring the great Sally Field as a factory worker trying to unionize her place of work, a gutsy dynamo fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions.  Where is that movie today, Hollywood?  When was the last time you made a sensitive, sympathetic, and generous movie about the tough struggles of American workers?  There must be a few, but none that stick in my head.  Help me out in the comments section, dear reader, if I’m missing some obvious recent examples.