One of the pleasures of the Godzilla franchise is its depiction of an intergovernmental organization known as G-FORCE. Its purpose, servile to the United Nations, is to develop combat procedures and weaponry in the event of another giant monster attack – probably an alluring notion to Japanese directors in a time of voluntary de-militarization. It allows for love triangles, time travel and psychic rapprochement with Godzilla himself, but it also paints a candy-corn daguerrotype of military power as we have come to consider it onscreen since 1945. It bears lingering traces of the cockpit-cams in Star Wars films, but also flirts with James Bond storylines, 007 himself being a consolation prize for the decline of the British Empire.
The most prismatic is M.O.G.E.R.A. (Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Robot Aero-Type), a bird-beaked steel colossus that can break itself into different types of tactical vehicles: a boat, a drill, a spaceship. Piloted by a colorful crew of matinee 20somethings, it’s as vast and potentially destructive as the evil it was designed to deter – an unintentionally hilarious stand-in for war itself in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (For the curious: it was built by G-Force following the failure in 1992 of their weaponized Mechagodzilla.)
The new also-silly action film Act of Valor, which I reviewed for The L Magazine a few weeks ago, is about the opposite: proof that war can be cheap, lightweight and deadly effective. Part of the deal for ticket-buyers is that the movie’s heroes are the real deal; the plot concerns a tight-knit team of Navy SEALs, portrayed by real Navy SEALs. They appear without their names in the credits, which is another way of saying there’s no particular evidence that they are really on active duty, but implicating any skepticism on the viewer’s part in a bigger challenge to said viewer’s loyalty or patriotism. I had a few ideas I wanted to embellish upon in light of the recent spotlight thrown upon on Special Forces operations, especially after the raid in January that freed two nonprofit workers – one Danish, one American – held hostage by Somali pirates.
Act of Valor is a type of propaganda that plays on both personal and national aspirations, drawing a line of reverence between an average-joe viewer and the finely honed killing machines beefcaking it up on the screen. The aim of war movies since the dawn of cinema has been to bring soldiers and joes closer together as types, simultaneously reaffirming the state’s right to demand blood from its citizens and the citizens’ rights to have their sacrifices recognized. This idea was especially prevalent during World War II, when America’s economic recovery went hand in hand with its suppositions of moral superiority for taking a stance against the German, Italian and Japanese armies. But for reasons probably related to blossoming social mores and the end of the draft, the idea of the everyman recruit stuck around until the Reagan Administration.
Since then, imaging has begun to play on more personalized notions of what constitutes a soldier’s personality – indeed, military culture at large. When it comes to the armed forces, Indiewood and Hollywood features alike are imbued with a breathless respect for form, thoroughness, precision – in a word, organization. Delivered in sweeping helicopter shots and procedural monologues, our new moral equivalence comes from a worship of authority, whether it’s a missile tracking system, or a brotherly code of conduct. War becomes less a force of national influence, and more a backdrop for ritualistic subcultures and fantasy tales of derring-do, spun around members of a shit-talking, guild-like work community. The films of Michael Bay – particularly The Rock and the Transformers films – constitute a steady thread of big-box outsider admiration for the zealotry and hardheadedness of fantasy-world military personnel, stirred in with delirious fantasies of widespread death, mayhem and conspiracy.
Today, Tom Hanks is making a movie about Richard Phillips, held hostage by Somali pirates in April 2009 and saved in a Naval Special Operations raid. He broke contract with Kathryn Bigelow as they were prepping a South American action thriller; now she and journalist / Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal have elected instead to dramatize the Team Six raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. Rather than hair-raising numbers of troops, there is instead a fecund, popular image ripped from the worst 80s actioners but somehow made real: a nimble unit of elites who can strike anywhere, at any time. It is the best-possible salvo on a wounded military conscience, the perfect wedding of human and technological merit.
For the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, a policy-decisive SEAL strike was among more fanciful notions (i.e. a full-scale war with Iraq), theoretically feasible but by no means a sure bet. Clinton’s miniaturized struggles in Haiti and Somalia, coming off of larger Bush victories in Panama and Kuwait, rescaled the value of American life in the eyes of voters; the White House abandoned its Somalia adventure immediately after photos broke of the naked corpse of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. (Clinton preferred cruise missiles anyway, building off of the massive CENTCOM established by the Reagan Administration, burnished by bases in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – prizes from the first Gulf War.)
So for George W. Bush’s policy planners, the political will for small strikes was simply not there. But following 9/11, funding expanded into subsidiary DEA, FBI and CIA projects under different designations and monikers, a broader surge in funding for extra-territorial activity supervised by any official organs of U.S. Law. Connectivity exploded among the agencies, alongside a much more-balleyhooed beefing-up of the Department of Defense, which politics-wise has only become disputable within Congress in the last two or three years. Obama’s foreign policy bona fides benefit from his ability to position the Navy as the zenith of our military power, whereas Bush would have been viewed as picking favorites had he shifted praise so specifically from grunt recruits to specialized units.
The summer after the Bin Laden raid, a Team Six helicopter containing 38 people – 25 of whom were with Special Operations – was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, the worst loss of life sustained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since combat began in 2001. Semi-uncomfortably, the helicopter itself was mourned like a war hero, on account of the Special Forces’ rigidly enforced anonymity. Less than a year later, Admiral McRaven is arguing, maybe accurately, that operations like Team Six offer a better bang-for-your-buck than the U.S. would deserve right now, were it not for their clear-eyed planning and execution. The idea is that symmetrical combat will never begin, thanks to policy tweaks executed one raid at a time.
The legal proceedings that could hamper such an action don’t, because raids like those in Somalia or Pakistan are over before they’ve been noticed by our would-be host governments. And yes: the possibility of a Navy SEAL attack on Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony was bundled with this week’s sensationally ignorant advocacy campaign launched by Invisible Children. The idea that elites from private American companies can build grassroots support to somehow, with the blessed restorative balm of social media, “petition” the Executive Branch to plop U.S. armed forces down on sovereign territory and blow somebody’s brains out without anything approximating due process points to something worse than a mass embrace of the anti-internationalism that liberals disdained coming from the Bush Administration. Albeit doomed, it nonetheless suggests a compulsive binary voting attitude, an American Idol-ization of our worst foreign policy temptations and secrets.
In Act of Valor, circumstances are never ethically questionable, but outcomes are riskier – a realist worldview that perfectly matches Obama’s. Filmmakers Scott Waugh & Mike McCoy make no equivocations about the military’s connectivity to the world, mapping out plot destinations on a beeping “radio” or “scanner” themed grid of pixels, like a Sunday night Fox bumper; as commander in chief, Obama uses the same chessboard, made in the Cold War but expansion-packed over twenty years into the Middle East. The implication is that the lethality of U.S. policy is “canned” somehow, bullets tasting the same on any continent. It is simultaneously more daring and less brave; a Team Six deployment is cheap in relative terms to a conventional attack no matter where you play it. They are globally public demonstrations of superiority, literalizing much of the shadow world alluded to but never specifically ID’d by hegemonists, conspiracy theorists and neoconservatives alike.
Dollars to donuts, I’m pretty sure popular support for conventional combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, or pretty much anywhere else is as low as it’s ever been – a disinterest which may eventually create a nasty political rupture between richer and poorer gradients of both parties. This is in no way to suggest that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or Powell were taking troop casualties or deaths more seriously in their own planning; the current president’s maneuvers are just the wiser political choice, on account of their leanness and publicity value. If Obama were blowing out birthday candles, he couldn’t wish for a better villain to obliterate than the ruthless, desperate, apolitical small-timers off the coast of Somalia.
Call it “flash & awe”. The government today promises skeptical Americans an alt-military, full of unknowable heroes and streamlined beyond culture’s reach; the virtual avatar of a physically Napoleonic strategy. There is an entire world of troop drawdown speculation in which the president has engaged much more cavalierly in Afghanistan, but those decisions are as low-profile as they’ve ever been. Thanks to Bush’s ever-widening net of military bases, black sites and installations, Obama has managed to score his greatest foreign policy victories yet.