Guest Piece by America’s History Teacher, Larry Schweikart
American filmmakers have not forgotten about war. Some may find it surprising that they have not entirely ignored heroes. We have a raft of films since the Iraq War (most of the anti-war) that focus on the ordinary grunt. We watched Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) precariously defuse bombs in Iraqi towns. Our anxiety over returning to a normal life back home rose with each kill from the “American Sniper,” Chris Kyle.
The senselessness of putting outposts in the middle of nowhere (“The Hornet’s Nest,” “The Outpost”) was buried beneath the tenacious stands of usually outnumbered Army Special Forces troops in Afghanistan. Stranded and isolated soldiers in a scuzzy craphole in Somalia left us enraged that the military didn’t flatten the whole city in “Black Hawk Down.”
There were two big takeaways from all of these movies: America still produces heroes. But America no longer produces victories.
Whether the setting is Iraq, Afghanistan, or, going back to 1944 Europe with “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, there is little in the way of a victorious USA for Americans to cheer. Increasingly the phrase, “we fight for each other” has been the staple of why anyone ever risks his life in combat.
In “The Hurt Locker,” Jeremy Renner played an excitement/danger junkie whose specialty was disabling bombs in war-torn Iraq. With the equally-cliched phrase applied—“I just do my job”—Renner’s character, Sgt. James drags his bomb unit into increasingly more dangerous situations. Viewers are left with the takeaway that these soldiers are so screwed up they can’t possibly return to ordinary life—a motif replayed in “Black Hawk Down,” “American Sniper,” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
And indeed it is absolutely true that in combat no soldier is singing the “Star Spangled Banner” or thinking of lofty ideals of freedom or democracy. Instead, staying alive through the next salvo of artillery, getting safely on the ground in your helicopter, or getting out of the Somali streets alive is pretty much the all-encompassing focus. But that doesn’t mean it was the purpose for which soldiers or sailors put themselves in those positions. Those motivations were and always will be more than “fighting for the guy next to me.”
Still, the heroes without victories has been probably the most oft-repeated story line of the last three decades. In the cult classic “300” (2006) King Leonidas leads his Spartans (ultimately, only 300 of them) to delay the massive invading Persian army long enough for the rest of Greece to mobilize. In the end, Leonidas and his fellow warriors lay dead on the battlefield cliff, with no victory in sight. The viewer is left only with the words of the messenger Dilios sent back that the sacrifice of the Spartans has bought time for Greece to avenge them. It is a similar story to that of the 2004 version of “The Alamo” with Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. However, here the filmmakers did not end with the smoking ruins of the body-draped mission, but continued with Sam Houston’s final stunning victory over the larger forces of Santa Anna that gave Texas its freedom.
To other “outnumbered and alone” sieges of a similar nature, “The Outpost” (2020) and “The Hornet’s Nest” (2014) portrayed the vulnerabilities of American forces deep in the Afghan mountains. Their locations are extremely difficult to supply, and they are significantly outnumbered. In “The Outpost,” in particular, the incompetence of a new commander makes the overall unwise placement of the station even more dangerous—but fortunately for the soldiers he was removed before he could do too much damage.
In each case, the questionable tactic of using Americans as essentially bait came through loud and clear, with the not-so-subtle message, “If our commanders were following this strategy, how could we ever hope to win?” It was a throwback to the Vietnam movies (usually made well after the Vietnam War) such as “We Were Soldiers” (2002) and a 1989 classic that I think ranks as the best all-time Vietnam movie, “The Siege of Firebase Gloria.” RIP Gunny. In all these, soldiers were lures bring an enemy that had superior numbers into the open so good old American to apply overwhelming firepower to their enemy. Even when helicopters (“Gloria”) or aircraft with napalm (“We Were Soldiers”) saved the day, all the survivors knew that “Charlie” would just be back again. There was no sense of marching to Hanoi to end the war decisively.
Tom Hanks’s squad in “Saving Private Ryan” actually had no mission actually related to the war. Quite the contrary, their job was to save one particular private from becoming a casualty. It was, however, a noteworthy twist by screenwriter Robert Rodat that, in the end, the squad actually does both its mission-less mission and contributes to the Allied victory by (with the help of Private Ryan) holding the bridge.
Thankfully, there are exceptions to these popular plots. “The Patriot” (2000) features a reluctant warrior drawn into a larger cause as he understands the sacrifice of his son to liberty. In “12 Strong,” Army Rangers achieve the first victory of the Afghan war both through their fighting and diplomatic skills. And in “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (2016) the “Outpost” motif is again employed, except unlike the Alamo or Hornet’s Nest defenders, the contractors defending the CIA complex find that although they take casualties, they can defend their ground just fine without the relief that the Obama administration (particularly Hillary Clinton) refused to authorize. The 2019 version of “Midway” is no less lacking in its depiction of warfare at sea that came to a war-changing conclusion when American fliers sank four of Japan’s finest aircraft carriers. Although the end “crawl” paid homage to sailors and airmen on both sides who died, nevertheless there was no question who won the battle . . . or the war.
In each case, whether it’s an isolated Chris Kyle dueling his Muslim counterpart, or a number of cut-off American Rangers and Mountain Division troops stuck in narrow Somali streets, the message is frequently “You’re on your own.” Indeed, an even darker theme undergirds many of these films: “You’ll be so screwed up from combat you can never truly return home.” Of course, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in World War II experienced every bit the same brutality and loss, yet the vast majority of them not only came home, but dug in to make the United States more powerful than ever. As the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy showed, heroism for its own sake is noble and pure. It changes the individual. But heroism in a winning cause is even more important, for it changes the world as well.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author with Michael Allen of the New York Times #1 bestseller, A Patriot’s History of the United States, author of Reagan: The American President, and founder of the Wild World of History, a history curriculum website for high schoolers complete with curricula that have teacher guides, student workbooks, tests, maps/graphs, and over a dozen video lessons with each course (www.wildworldofhistory.com)
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