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Lone Survivor and the Post-Vietnam War Syndrome

Flag waving is something many of us expect to see in Hollywood war films.

By "flag waving" I do not mean mindless patriotism or jingoism. I mean those moments in a film when issues of national identity are raised in a positive way. War is a national effort, and so we should expect to see signs of national values, beliefs, and causes in films about war. Some of that flag waving is done gracefully or artfully and some of it is not.

Even anti-war films participate in this. In finding fault with a particular war, the film will present a set of values as an alternative to those that motivated the war. Frequently those alternative values are presented as the "true" values of the nation; the values that motivated the war frequently are presented as a corruption of the nation's original good intentions.

So I noticed the lack of flag waving in a new film about the American war in Afghanistan, Lone Survivor (starring Mark Wahlberg). The film presents the motivations of its U.S. Navy SEALs as personal and emotional rather than national and political. The men became Navy SEALs because of the personal desire to challenge themselves. The film starts with a voice-over by the lone survivor: "There is a storm inside us.... An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and farther than anyone could think possible."

They fight mostly for their fellow soldiers, and because it is their job to fight. Hardly a word is said about the larger mission of the United States military in Afghanistan in 2005.

(I have not read the book on which the film is based, so I cannot say if the authors handle this aspect of motivations differently.)

I recently finished leading a senior seminar that compared some literature of the Vietnam War with some literature from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Motivation was one of the biggest differences my students noted in the literature of the two eras. One student brought Lone Survivor to my attention, as his paper focused on this generational difference, and lent me a DVD "screener" of the film.

In two memoirs we read, Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic and Home Before Morning by Lynda Van Devanter, the authors discuss their patriotic and idealistic selves before their tours of duty in Vietnam; this highlights the level of their disillusionment after their tours. The protagonist of Tim O'Brien's novel Going After Cacciato has lengthy debates with himself and others about his reasons for fighting in Vietnam, and while those reasons do include personal motivations, patriotism and politics are also much discussed.

The students noted the absence of such discussions, and especially the general absence of nationalism and patriotism, in two books written by veterans of the war in Iraq:The Yellow Birds (novel) by Kevin Powers, and Love My Rifle More Than You (memoir) by Kayla Williams. There is little talk of politics, national agendas, and patriotism in either book. The soldiers in both books seem to have joined the Army for personal reasons -- such as economic opportunities or proving their merit to themselves or to someone else. The soldiers discuss their reasons for joining the Army, but they hardly mention the nation's reasons for fighting a war in Iraq. They seem to be fighting because it is their job to fight and because they are loyal to their fellow soldiers. They are not fighting for the ideals that sent Kovic and Van Devanter to Vietnam.

My students believed U.S. soldiers in Iraq, at least as depicted in these books and in some documentaries they watched on their own, demonstrated a kind of post-Vietnam War syndrome. Kovic and Van Devanter were upset because they felt their government had lied to them, and their texts were fueled by that sense of disillusionment and anger. They had expected better of their military and political leaders. They thought they were bringing justice and freedom and democracy to South Vietnam, but their experiences told them otherwise. However, if Williams and Powers represent the contemporary situation accurately, soldiers in Iraq seemed to expect their government to lie -- or they seemed indifferent to their government's agenda, since they had their own. (Incidentally, this assumption of governmental dishonesty is shared by nearly all of my students.)

Kovic and Van Devanter told stories of lost innocence. Perhaps the U.S. soldiers in Iraq did not have an innocence to lose.

Some of these dynamics are evinced in Lone Survivor. The soldiers fight for each other, not for a national cause that is ever discussed. The reason for U.S. forces being in Afghanistan is not mentioned. They just are.

This does not mean the film has no sense of good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are clearly Al-Qaeda forces. They are bad because they have been terrorizing the local population and because they have been killing U.S. soldiers. They are not portrayed as a threat to the United States itself. The Navy SEALs do not attribute their willingness to fight to justice or democracy or freedom or any ideal other than their love for each other and their desire to challenge themselves.

This silence could be attributed to the war being represented. How do you tell a story about a war that most people do not support? One poll in late 2013 indicated that more than 60 percent of Americans felt the war in Afghanistan had not been worth the price. One way to tell a story about that war is to confine the story to the soldiers and not their cause. Americans may not support the war, but they do support the troops.

Thinking about this, I rewatched Black Hawk Down. It is the story of a war that, perhaps like the fighting in Afghanistan, seemed futile -- international efforts to help the citizens of Somalia who were caught in the collapse of their country. The film foregrounds a sense of futility with its epigraph from Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

But the film has many of the markers of the usual war film, scenes intended to justify or explain the national values that sent soldiers into Somalia. It clearly discusses the reasons for U.S. troops to be there, and it clearly presents those reasons as good -- feeding the starving population, fighting that bad guys who are withholding the food.

Black Hawk Down also has some typical war movie scenes. Soldiers talk about their reasons for being in Mogadishu. Some express contempt for the people they were sent to help, and other soldiers express the higher -- we assume more American -- ideal of doing good in the world, protecting the innocent, etc. It also has scenes of soldiers expressing their love for each other; they agree the national motivation for the war may be cloudy, but their personal reasons are clear: to do their job and to protect each other.

War stories (fiction and films) can be seen as methods of national recuperation and rehabilitation. They attempt to heal the wounds to the national psyche by showing how the violence that caused those wounds was worthwhile or that the nation survived the violence with its basic good intentions intact. This is important to do for wars the nation won, since even victory comes with great pain, but it is especially important for wars the nation lost.

My class discussed an example of this idea of rehabilitation: Universal Soldier, a 1992 film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. In it, two U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War are involved in a massacre of citizens: Lundgren's character is killing everything he sees, and Van Damme's character tries to stop him. They kill each other, but their bodies are preserved for a secret military program. Years later they are revived as super soldiers in a secret weapons program, but when they are deployed they resume their previous fight. Finally, the good soldier wins by killing the bad soldier. (Cythnia Fuchs discusses this movie and others about the Vietnam War in her essay titled "What Do We Say Happened Here?: Memory, Identity, and the Vietnam War.")

Whether or not you admire the cinematic achievement of Universal Soldier, the film can be seen as illustrating a battle within the American psyche that results from the Vietnam War. What experiences of that war indicate the nation's true nature? Which soldier represents the heart of the nation? Universal Soldier would be the story we tell to reassure ourselves that the bad soldier in the nation's heart can be defeated; ultimately, we are the good soldier.

Black Hawk Down would be the story we tell to reassure ourselves that our intentions in Somalia were good, however messed up that situation was, and that our soldiers were brave.

Lone Survivor is oddly quiet about the reasons for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It may not be doing much of that national rehabilitation that other war films attempt. It may not be reassuring the nation of its motivations or the success of its mission in Afghanistan. Through the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers, the film may be offering no moral larger than the national and personal survival of the ordeal.

+ + +

One interesting difference between almost all other U.S. war films and Lone Survivor is the involvement of the "native." An early scene in the film represents Al-Qaeda members terrorizing an Afghan village and beheading a local man. That same village is instrumental in saving the Navy SEAL who survives the mission, and it fights off the Al-Qaeda members who come to capture him. The leader of the Al-Qaeda attackers is killed by the village leader and not by a U.S. soldier. This differs from so many films that show Americans solving the problems of "natives." And the motivation of the villagers is their own. They are honoring their own code of Pashtunwali, whereby a guest is protected as if he were a member of that community, and not adopting some American code of conduct. In this sense, the film does not depict the Americanization of Afghanistan.