News from the Front: Contemporary American Soldiers in the Culture Wars
Lt Col Reed Bonadonna
In this paper, I will discuss some representative depictions of soldiers and military forces in contemporary American Culture. My purpose will be to identify certain points about the perception of the soldier which I believe military people need to understand, which have moral implications, and which may indeed call on us to reconsider some of our own self-perceptions and practices. I realize that some may consider this method to be suspect. In the first place because popular culture artifacts are too trivial and ephemeral to be thus taken seriously, and in the second because the media industry often appears to be unhelpfully and obtusely anti-military. In order to answer or anticipate these objections, I offer the following. I intend to treat these forms of art as a species of myth in which reality, aspiration, fear, and fantasy may be said to combine. Popular culture may be sometimes spoken of as a kind of collective dream in which a society enacts its misgivings about the past and anxieties about the future. I may be accused of paying attention to the artifacts of pop culture beyond their desserts either as works of art, that is aesthetically, or as moral texts.(1) Especially towards the end, I will refer at times to higher or academic products in effect for cross-validation. I have found similar anxieties expressed at different levels and in different media. Many of us may wonder, as we enter a new millennium, a postmodern, perhaps post military age, what will be the cultural image and role for the military. I cannot hope to come up with a final or completely satisfactory answer to this question, but I want to suggest that this question is being worked out in the popular, literary, and academic culture of America as we speak.(2)
For the purposes of my survey, I have chosen to omit most specimens of self-depiction, and am limiting my survey to the last decade, both in origins and subject matter: the Gulf war standing as a handy point of departure, and perhaps a watershed. By limiting my survey I may be accused of asking for it, but I think that I am justified in setting aside, for the purposes of a survey of contemporary American cultural life, both self-congratulatory hagiography and historical panegyrics.
First, the bad news, and no surprise: in sum, the military is being demonized in the media. The military is being pictured as a dark, misogynistic place where careerism and groupthink are corrosive of individual integrity, and where a dedication to the use of force in the service of state policy often leads to the misuse of force and even to a predilection for solving personal problems with criminal violence.(3) Let us realize this with out getting panicky or paranoid on the subject, or retreating into a neo-Kiplingesque pose of misunderstood virtuousness. The most noticeable trend, or motif, that I have noticed in recent depictions of the soldier in contemporary film especially, is the persistence of the image of the military man brought low by the lawman. The scene of the man with the badge or law degree taking into custody the man in uniform has almost replaced that of the marshal locking the guy in the black hat in the town jail in American film iconography. In the contemporary setting the lawman is usually younger, nicer, and righteous, compared to a macho, corrupt or superannuated senior officer. The scene is played out in The General’s Daughter, A Few Good Men, The Rock,, The Siege, and repeatedly on the television series JAG. The senior officer under attack and eventually under arrest in these films is not always irredeemably wicked. In The Rock and The Siege, the characters played by Ed Harris and Bruce Willis are admirable in some ways. Harris acts out of an intense concern for the memories of men killed under his command and for the welfare of their families. Willis is initially reasonably reluctant to allow American soldiers to impose martial law on New York City after a rash of terrorist attacks. But both wind up using military force in inappropriate and eventually disastrous ways. Two conclusions may be drawn from this meeting of character and story, or character and fate, as Aristotle would have it. The first is that no amount of good character is sufficient to restrain someone who can wield great power. This observation may be said to apply to all who hold power, not just to senior military officers. The second is that the trouble with these men is not that they are bad, but that they are soldiers. Their training has taught them too well how to apply force, so that they consider it a panacea. In The Siege and The Rock they must be brought to heel by the good-looking young lawmen played by Denzel Washington and Nicholas Cage. The age gap which appears in most of these movies is significant, since it suggests that the military men represent an anachronistic order, even a kind of original sin, while the man of law is the new man in the new world, a world governed by law and rationality rather than by force. In The General’s Daughter, although the lawman is also a soldier, a warrant officer working in CID, in the course of the movie he moves from a strong sense of identification with the army and his soldierly role to a rejection of both. “No sir, I’m not a good soldier” says John Travolta to the general who has concealed his own daughter's rape at the hands of her fellow cadets. The Navy lawyer played by Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men may be said to move in the opposite direction. He comes to take his military role more seriously as the movie progresses, although this affirmation takes place solely through his prosecution of the Marine colonel played by Jack Nicholson.
Similar themes are pursued in the films Crimson Tide (Osiel 27), Wag the Dog (and the novel on which the film is based, American Hero), Courage Under Fire, and Broken Arrow. The figure of the military man as pure villainy appears in American Beauty (see Stone review of Once an Eagle). The film Three Kings is better as a work of art than any of the others I have mentioned, and it presents a generally more sympathetic picture of American soldier, but even here the soldiers are only able to act honorably once they have radically distanced themselves from a self-serving military organization dominated by amoral careerists.
The sole exception may be the James Webb’s Rules of Engagement. In this depiction, Webb is calling for a separate ethos and even legal approach based on military needs and the demands of military necessity. His film is an honorable entry in the argument in that it does not evade the consequences of an officer ordering his men to fire on civilians. The film’s deus ex machina conclusion, a rousing acquittal of the officer accused, seems unearned in a dramatic sense as well as unresolved in a moral one. Webb’s film takes a lonely position in a one-sided polemic, and it suffers from a desire to take on the world and to finally brook no objections, just as in the film the opinions of un-uniformed outsiders, government officials or media types, are irrelevant or worse.
The idea that character is not enough, that anyone wielding power, especially if he be trained in the military’s ethos of violence, bears constant watching, is strongly played in Seymour Hersh’s May 2000 New Yorker article “Overwhelming Force.” Hersh accuses then Major General Barry McCaffrey of inciting an engagement with retreating Iraqi forces, and of using devastating and disproportionate force in answering the few rounds that the Iraqis may have fired: all of this happening after the cease fire. In the first sentence of this long article, Hersh says that McCaffrey, son of general, Phillips Academy and West Point grad, now head of the federal drug enforcement office, has “best resume on the army.” McCaffrey is our Cincinnatus, a leader in peace and war. Or is he? In Hersh’s version he comes across as a berserker, a law unto himself. The article strongly implies that, if this is best that officer corps can produce, and if even he may not be trusted to show good judgment in the all important matter of restraint of force, then the military is obviously in need of greater controls in the form of press oversight, which, as Hersh points out was severely limited in the Gulf, and in the form of legal and executive control from the top, since the army’s internal investigation did not lead to the conclusion Hersh believes it should have. The factual merits of Hersh’s case aside, his presentation of the facts leads to a similar conclusion to the ones we seem to be intended to take away from The Siege and The Rock: that military virtue is virtue of a very specialized kind, and of dubious value, even dangerous, outside of the narrow setting for which it is intended. Military virtue is, in fact, akin to vice.
The viciousness of the military world is painted in vivid colors in a story from Tom Paine’s collection Scar Vegas. A Marine general is arrested on the eve of his retirement after shoplifting women’s clothes at the PX and subsequently beaten up by a fellow general at the guard shack. The accused general thinks of himself as worthless but for his fearlessness and ability to lead in combat. He says that he adopted women’s dress as way of dealing with his memories of war and perception of his own shortcomings. The other Marines in Paine’s story make the cross-dressing general seem quite normal, his peccadillo an understandable escape from a milieu of outrageous male behavior. One officer has a rat marked USMC in “blood red” ink on his shoulder at the officer’s club. A formal mess night is depicted as a scene of drunken, beer can-eating mayhem (so different from the rather dull affairs I have attended!) But for all of their scatological, wretched excess (or Paine’s hyperbole), the one thing that the Marines cannot bear to witness, even at the height of their bacchanal are most “threatened” by, is the spectacle of cross-dressing and its implied problematizing of the connection between macho manhood and soldiering.
Paine’s story may be described as postmodern both in its freedom from verisimilitude, and also in the world it depicts, one in which characters are free from traditional constraints. Although the threat of legal sanction is invoked in Paine’s story, more important for Paine is the need for to elide military indoctrination in destructiveness through the creative act of cross-dressing.(4)
Why are these people saying all of these bad things about us? I think that we have to admit that they have been handed a fair amount of ammunition. The past decade has seen a number of highly publicized military trials and investigations into military misconduct, from Tailhook to the Aberdeen drill sergeants to the sexual allegations made against the army’s top enlisted man and by the armed forces senior female officer. Most tragic of all is the case of the Oklahoma bomber, the ex-soldier who, on one view, brought home the rule of force as taught to him in the Gulf War. Soldiers have stood at the dock, often having to answer for crimes committed, if not in the line of duty, then in a misapprehension of what was allowable while on duty, or of what constituted a soldier’s duty. The cultural link between warfare and criminality is surely not new. It has been made by Homer, by Chaucer (in “The Knight’s Tale”), by Shakespeare (in the characters of Coriolanus, Iago, and of Prince Hal’s companions Falstaff, Pistol, and Bardoff) . It was a persistent theme of English literature in the century after their Civil War (Brodsky 42). In American popular literature of the early 19th century the upper-class army officer as villainous debaucher was practically a stock figure (Kemble 26). It is easy to see how these depictions represented anxieties on the part of their societies: occasioned respectively by the decline of chivalry, bitter memories of Cromwellian military dictatorship, and egalitarian dislike of the military caste as represented by the newly formed service academies. In twentieth century literature, the officer has sometimes had strong fascist leanings, as in the soldier novels of James Jones and Norman Mailer. Today, after a notably brief post-post Vietnam period of revisionist pro-military films, and despite a tendency to laud the courage of soldiers safely remote in time, as in Saving Private Ryan and Glory, the soldiers of our own time are most often depicted on the wrong side of the law, with lawyers being granted a notable reprieve from their own very mixed reputation for the purpose of assuming rectitude in this role of brake on military force misapplied.
I would like now to put these depictions into perspective and to briefly suggest what, if anything, should be our response. First, I am not so naive as to rule out that much of the sentiment involved in the works I have described, maybe especially in the very nasty ones like The General’s Daughter, emerge from an unthinking hostility to anything military and a mercenary willingness to exploit any scandal or misperception to sell tickets and to make money. I will also note that war and criminality have been linked because of some undeniable affinities: both involve violence, war involves its own species of criminal activity, the war crime, and last and perhaps most significant, the anarchic relations among sovereign states or actors that leads to war is one that is characterized by lawlessness. The Frenchmen Deleuze and Guattari write that the “War Machine” is in fact at odds with the state apparatus that it putatively serves. The soldier in their account is a “nomad”: someone who exists outside of and in opposition to the orderly apparatus which the state tries to construct. Until an enforceable and agreed upon code of International Law is devised, the relations among states will resemble those described by Hobbes as maintaining among individuals before the advent of states, in which the hand of every man (or in the modern case, nation) is raised against the other. One of the reasons that military justice and the military court martial, from Billy Budd to The Caine Mutiny to Breaker Morant, have been such attractive subject for depiction is that the question of culpability, not just for a particular misdeed, but for the crime of war itself may be addressed, as it were, judiciously.(5)
It is not from journalism or creative works alone that we get the sense of a call for increasing legal or quasi-legal controls on the military. In his excellent study of military ethics, Obeying Orders, Professor of Law Mark Osiel calls for a raising of the bar with respect to standards of responsibility in the trying of individuals for war crimes. The imposition of greater legal controls on soldiers is more than a cinematic dream or a professorial recommendation. In fact, this tendency has been in development since the beginnings of the just war tradition, and has had help from the seventeenth and eighteenth century publicists like Grotius and Kant, from the Hague and Geneva accords, and from the Nuremberg trials. Its growing importance is attested to by current joint doctrine on Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), by Michael Ignatieff on the war in Kosovo, by Marine General Anthony Zinni writing on the increasing importance of the staff judge advocate (SJA), and by the increasing attempts on the part of the United States to spread and export the law of land warfare and the idea of legal constraint on war.(6) The increased presence of legal matters in military affairs, and of the judge advocate on military staffs, is in part due to a changing international climate and in part to the rising number of peace operations. The anarchy of traditional international relations is becoming seen as insufficient. The aspiration, if not yet the practice, is towards a setting in which law rules the exercise of military force, in a jus ad bellum sense: governing the circumstances under which nations go to war, in the form of coalitions to preserve order, and in the sense of jus in bello by dictating the conduct of war and military operations other than war through a law of land warfare more scrupulously applied, Host Nation Support agreements, and Rules of Engagement. The films Rules of Engagement and The Siege both depict military operations other than war (their subsets Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and Homeland Defense respectively). The desire for greater legal controls over military operations and for greater accountability on the part of the soldier for his actions is a part of our weltanschauung and hopes for the future.
Even given these practical manifestations of the rule of law over force, there are two essential, logical weaknesses in this world view. The first of these is that force and law cannot be entirely separated, and that those who uphold the law cannot eschew force. The films try to elide this difficulty by arranging for the law men to trump the military men in the use of force (Nicholas Cage enlists the aid of secret weapon Sean Connery) or through bureaucratic ambush. Despite whatever misgivings they may have, the American people are stuck with us, unless they are going to expect the Justice Department, FBI or LAPD to implement the National Military Strategy. Police forces are necessary even for a law-abiding population, and military forces will continue to be needed even in some future utopia in which international law is granted the same degree of rational, willing compliance that is accorded by individuals to domestic law in any working national society. The second problem is that the law cannot make us wise or good. The bureaucratic procedure of the functionaries of the law is no substitute for moral value in the individual or state, as Max Weber reminds us (Kilcullen 8). This fact accounts, I think, for the forced, formulaic nature of the triumphs of law in may of these films (I include Rules of Engagement), and for the implausibility of the personal conversions that are asserted, as in that of the Tom Cruise character in A Few Good Men.(7)
The positioning of legal standards as in effect a substitution for self-restraint, for character, is a significant one that goes to the heart of what I believe has been a persistent theme of these conferences, which is the debate between rules and standards, or law and character (Osiel 233). In general, soldiers believe in the efficacy of the soldierly virtues to see them through, while civilians often warn us that these will not be enough. I know that this is a simplification and a misrepresentation of some people’s views, but I believe that as a generalization it will stand. It is also interesting that the soldier and the lawman against whom he is played in many of the films I have described are both liminal figures in the sense that they occupy a dangerous moral gray area. The mystery writer Raymond Chandler described his ideal fictional detective as a man who could go down the mean streets without becoming mean or tarnished himself: Someone who, unlike Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz or his cinematic embodiment Colonel Kurtz can look into the heart of darkness without its seducing or overwhelming him. It was also Chandler who decried the fact that police work called for the best men, but that there was nothing in it to attract the best men. Whether or not Chandler was right about the profession of lawman (and through his fictional character Philip Marlowe he certainly and credibly imagines a superior person working as a detective), this is perhaps the great question for us, both as individuals and as collectively the armed forces of our country: are we good enough to do the job that we have under the conditions facing us in the new century? We generally believe that we are, but others suspect that we will bear close watching.
To conclude, I would like to suggest a formulation that I hope pays due deference to the soldier’s moral self-confidence while making allowance for the doubts of others, too. Soldiers’ belief that they are able to police their own ranks, in a moral sense, through their subculture’s standards and self-applied specialized legal code, although challenged and even a subject of anxiety in contemporary culture, is based on a foundation of the history of the soldier as moral exemplar going back to the origins of our culture. Although he has often erred, the soldier has even more often been a teacher rather than a erring student of moral questions. I want to underscore this role while at the same time acknowledging that it is a long time since western civilization at large has looked to the soldier, as it did in the times of the Greek spearman and medieval knight, as its principal moral personification. Contemporary culture is giving vent to anxiety about the soldier’s readiness to meet the moral demands, temptations, and dilemmas of a future in which his traditional methods and outlook may be insufficient and his historical proclivity to criminal behavior pushed nearer the surface.
I would like to see the services take this as a challenge. Along with the doubts expressed about our ability to fulfill our role is the acknowledgment of the tremendous importance of that role. Soldiers have a responsibility for the future of humankind. In order to discharge some of this responsibility, it may be that a re-evaluation of the soldierly ethos, at least as it has developed over the past century, may be in order. The twentieth century was the century for military men of the Somme, of Iwo Jima, and the Ia Drang. The soldier has had to contend with huge amounts of fire power aimed at him and at his disposal. Call it Blitzkrieg or the combined arms engagement or amphibious warfare: The most persistent image for it in personal accounts has been that of the meatgrinder. In this lethal atmosphere, nearly literally a deadly and indiscriminate “artificial weather,” the soldier has needed above all stark physical courage of an almost inhuman kind, along with the ability to inure himself to his own and other’s suffering. The new soldier of the precision weapon, of peace operations and aid to law enforcement, may need more in the way of an expansive moral sensibility. In this effort, parts of our more remote ancient virtue and medieval chivalric traditions may be helpful. It will also require soldiers sometimes to think and to act in a larger context than ever before, as one for whom peace rather than victory may be the ultimate goal, prowess and courage often less important than wisdom, the ideal he serves global as well as national. The implementation of this change will have to begin with the assumption of a certain attitude: one knowledgeable and deeply respectful of the soldier’s past, committed to asking ourselves whether we are in keeping with the very best that this tradition offers, while also trying to strongly re-imagined this tradition in our doctrine, in our training, and in lives as soldiers. Some specific changes might include those to instill a greater degree of comradeship and conversation between the ranks, a change in the emphasis of certain war games and exercises to emphasize conflict avoidance instead of victory, a reorienting of the training of middle and senior officers towards an emphasis on thoughtfulness, the humanities, and international law. In this way, I believe, the soldier might be restored to his place in the vanguard of western civilization. The soldier is in the unpopular position of having to believe in sin, in irrationality, in the continuing usefulness of force, and of having to remind others of the limitations of law and reason in controlling and guiding behavior. The soldier’s creed should not be merely negative, however. In the film The Crying Game, one of his IRA captors says of the British soldier-hostage played by Forrest Whittaker, “He’s a good soldier. He believes in the future.” A soldier has got to believe in the future, it comes with the territory, even as he or she follows an ancient calling. To aspire, while not knowing the outcome of our actions and efforts, is, Barrie Paskins and Michael Dockrill point out, a vital ingredient in the value of the ethical life of the soldier (185). There is virtue in that. Let soldiers even be seen for a time as Quixotic, if it means that they will come to represent an aspiration that can be understood by all people of this age, and if all of humanity will be the beneficiary.
American Beauty. Dir, Sam Mendes. With Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Dreamworks, 2000.
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World. 1969.
Beinhart, Larry. American Hero. New York: Ballantine, 1993.
Bowen, Mark. Black Hawk Down: a Story of Modern War. New York: Atlantic, 1999.
Breaker Morant. Dir. Bruce Beresford. With Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, and Brian Bond. New World. 1980.
Brodsky, G.W. Stephen. Gentlemen of the Blade: a Social and Literary History of the British Army Since 1660. Contributions in Military Studies. Number 70. New York: Greenwood, 1988.
Broken Arrow. Dir. John Woo. With John Travolta and Christian Slater. Fox, 1996.
Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise. David Allen and David Chacko, Eds. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1974: 387-399.
Courage Under Fire. Dir. Edward Zwick. With Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. Fox, 1998.
Crimson Tide. Dir. Tony Scott. With Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. Hollywood, 1996.
The Crying Game. Dir. Neil Jordan. With Forrest Whittaker, Stephen Rea, and Jaye Davidson. Artisan, 1992.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Nomadology: The War Machine. Brian Massumi, Trans. New York: Semiotext(e), 1986.
A Few Good Men. Dir. Rob Reiner. With Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Universal, 1992.
The General’s Daughter. Dir. Simon West. With John Travolta. Paramount, 1999.
Hersh, Seymour. “Overwhelming Force” The New Yorker. 22 May, 2000: 49-82.
Ignatieff, Michael. “The Legal War.” Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond. New York: Holt-Metropolitan, 2000: 197-200.
Kemble, C. Robert. The Image of the Army Officer in America: Background for Current Views. Contributions in Military History. Number 5. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1973.
Kilcullen, P.J. “Max Weber: On Bureaucracy.” Online. Macquarrie University. POL264. Modern Political Theory. Available: humanities.mq.edu.au.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. 1948, 1956. New York: Signet, 1961.
1Moskos, Charles, John Allen Williams, David R. Segal. The Postmodern Military: Armed Forces After the Cold War. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Osiel, Mark. Obeying Orders: Atrocity, Military Discipline, and the Rule of Law. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1999.
Paine, Tom. “General Markman’s Last Stand.” Scar Vegas. New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000.
Paskins, Barrie, and Michael Dockrill. The Ethics of War. London: Duckworth, 1979.
The Rock. Dir. Michael Ray. With Denzel Washington and Ed Harris. Hollywood, 1996.
Shocochis, Bob. The Immaculate Invasion. New York: Penguin, 1999.
The Siege. Dir. Edward Zwick. With Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis. Fox, 1998.
Stone, Robert. “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Review of Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer. New York Review of Books. 5 Oct 2000: 28-31.
Three Kings. Dir. David Russell. With George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Warner, 2000.
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War. Washington: GPO.
Wag the Dog. Dir. Barry Levinson. With Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. New Line, 1997.
Wouk, Herman. New York: Dell, 1951.
Zinni, Anthony. “The SJA in Future Operations” Marine Corps Gazette. February 1996: 15-17.
(1) Those who heard my paper at this conference two years ago (JSCOPE 99) may recognize that what follows is very different from the close reading to which I subjected the war novels of Evelyn Waugh. In that activity, I was complicit with the author’s moral concerns and with his sense of the work he was creating as a literary artist. In this case, I am both less attentive to and less respectful of the works under examination.
(2) For more on the postmodern military, see Moskos, et al.
(3) In this context, Hannah Arendt’s distinction between force and violence may be useful. In Arendt’s account, force is the activity of a legitimized group, violence of the marginal individual or group, as in revolutionary violence, and is often an admission of powerlessness (46).
(4) I will briefly mention two popular contemporary nonfiction books: Immaculate War and Black Hawk Down. The American soldiers in these works are well-intentioned and well-trained, but ultimately out of their depth, like the luckless, working-class sailors in Perfect Storm. There is a note condescension in both of these works, but also I believe an earnest concern for the fate of soldiers placed in situations for which their selection and training does not equip them.
(5) By some contemporary readings of Billy Budd, Billy is no innocent victim but is as complicit in the war machine as are Captain Vere and the other officers who condemn him. In The Caine Mutiny, Captain Queeg is exonerated in part because of his desire to shoulder (even if incompetently) the responsibility for national defense at a time when most of the rest of the citizens of the United States were indifferent to it, an indifference which may have invited war. The superiority of the title character of Breaker Morant as a soldier and a person is asserted in part by his solidarity with his fellow soldiers and willingness to assume responsibility for acts he has committed in war.
(6) I owe the assurance with which I can make the last part of this statement to conversations with Marine Majors Dan Riley and John Shelburne, instructors at the Naval Justice School and Students of mine in the Command and Staff Course. Both of these officers have been “on the road” to foreign countries to instruct them in the law of land warfare and related subjects.
(7) The character played by Cruise begins as a notably easy-going Navy lawyer who does not seem to possess any convictions beyond the pursuit of his own pleasures, sports, and social life. When a colleague tells him that the Marines on Guantanamo are fanatical about being Marines, he can answer only with a blank look; he cannot imagine deep conviction of any kind. During the course of the film, Cruise becomes determined to prove that the colonel played by Nicholson is behind the death of a Marine private. By the end of the movie, the Marine corporal whom Cruise has defended (and who has been convicted as the colonel’s cat’s paw) declares “There is an officer in the room!” speaking of Cruise. I suspect I was not the only person watching who was puzzled about what kind of epiphany Cruise is supposed to have undergone. He has been drawn into the case, but he has never been motivated by any deliberate belief, but rather by a simple desire to win, as he would in a softball game. Any conversion which he has undergone appears to be skin-deep and transitory.