“Lone Survivor” and the Historical Legacy of Violence and American Militarism

Mark Wahlberg stars in "Lone Survivor:" a violent ode to 'Murica.

Mark Wahlberg stars in “Lone Survivor:” a violent depiction of the Afghanistan War. This conflict has surpassed the Vietnam War in terms of sheer length and ambiguity.

Americans are a violent people. Whether in a wartime or civilian context, we like to shoot guns, and we are good at killing people with those guns. This is an indisputable fact. The U.S. has by far the highest rates of gun ownership in the industrialized world, and, as the Washington Post reported shortly after the brutal Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, the U.S. is only outranked in terms of gun violence by developing nations in South Africa and South America.

Many Americans unfortunately view violence as the go-to solution for all kinds of vexing problems. Historically, this has always been the case, and this obsession with firearms shows no signs of letting up in the 21st century. Indeed, a good many Americans take gun worship to a bizarrely fetishistic level. You can almost picture any number of the country’s self-proclaimed gun nuts spending their Friday nights hung from ceiling chains while wrapped in shiny leather and stroking one of their 300 AR-15s with scented oils.

American gun-nuttery begets an entire culture of violence that affects both domestic and foreign affairs. By mixing a jingoistic belief in American cultural superiority with an already insane domestic devotion to the proliferation of firearms, the U.S. has created a Frankensteinian, militaristic cultural monster that has reaped much bloodshed over the decades.

The prime characteristics of American cultural militarism are its embracing of violence as a means to an end, its idolistic bowing before anything with a trigger and ammunition, and its belief that America can do no wrong. Over the last few decades, American culture has become increasingly militarized both on a foreign and domestic level. The militarization has become so strong that even sensible gun regulation fails to become law, and the American military is seen in some circles as an unassailable institution, rather than as a collection of individuals who are to be admired and respected, but not unconditionally worshipped.

Consider the recent snafu over the film “Lone Survivor,” a war epic starring Mark Wahlberg that’s based on a memoir by former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell; the lone survivor of an Afghanistan mission that went bad. L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson lambasted “Lone Survivor” as “a jingoistic snuff film” that drains all nuance from the Afghanistan conflict in order to create a “Rambo”style war porn spectacle that espouses simplistic notions of American Exceptionalism and military superiority. “These four men were heroes,” Nicholson writes, “but these heroes were also men. As the film portrays them, their attitudes to the incredibly complex War on Terror…were simple: Brown people bad, American people good.”

Part of Nicholson’s critique centered on the fact that Luttrell’s memoir was heavily ghost written by British novelist Patrick Robinson, who may have added more Taliban fighters to the story than were present during the actual events. This created additional scenes of violence that helped to spice up the film (Hollywood has long called this tactic dramatic emphasis). Nicholson was criticizing the film rather than the real-life soldiers upon whom the movie was based. But in right-wing American circles, criticizing the military, in either a real or fictionalized context, is considered grounds for extreme chastisement. Hence, when radio slime-ball Glenn Beck got wind of Nicholson’s criticism of the film, he went on the air and called her “a “vile, repugnant, and ignorant liar.”

Beck is nothing less than a shameless sycophant who built a multi-million dollar media empire by feeding gullible conservatives a steady diet of paranoia mixed with simmering white person resentment. So when his listeners heard that Nicholson had criticized “Lone Survivor,” they responded in a manner befitting of today’s right-wing jerk menagerie. As Salon reports, Beck’s minions went on Twitter, the world’s preeminent outlet for conflict resolution, and called Nicholson, among other things, a “military hating bitch.” Over at Beck’s website, one of the many commenters claimed that Nicholson meant to “demean the service of our soldiers,” a move that said commenter found “beyond words for me.” This online brouhaha over a movie lays bare the danger inherent in American militarism: it sanctifies violence as the highest form of patriotic expression, and it demands, in true authoritarian style, that the military be above criticism.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs hundreds of thousands of lives.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs millions of lives.

The idea that the American military should not be critiqued, lest critics face alarming accusations of treason and even death threats, is the byproduct of American militarism. On the domestic side, this trend manifests itself in a truly irrational cultural bias that favors the right to own and operate nearly any type of firearms without restriction. You don’t have to be a hippie pinko peacenik to support some gun limits: even most gun owners support background checks. But such has been the militarization of American society on all fronts that even basic gun regulations are viewed by the Gestapo/NRA as assaults on American freedom itself. The idea that guns and the military are above critique is a belief rooted in the regenerative power of violence — that violence can create rights out of wrongs. Hence, gun nuts think that a only “good” person with a gun can prevent a “bad” person with a gun from committing violence, and neo-conservatives think that American military force can “fix” foreign countries.

Unfortunately, the regenerative power of violence, and the type of gun-worshipping militarism that it produces, is as idea with deep historical roots. On the domestic side, blame the frontier. In a previous post I discussed how the frontier nurtured American gun culture, but its influence can’t be overstated.

In his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, historian Richard Slotkin identifies frontier violence as a key component of American national mythology. Early American culture was shaped by the notion that the New World, populated as it was by “savage” native peoples who didn’t know how to utilize its bounty, had to be “liberated from the dead hand of the past and become the scene of a new departure in human affairs.”* Guns were the preferred tools of this “liberation,” as the American frontier became a killing ground in which white Americans nearly obliterated the nation’s native past to bring about that “new departure” that became the United States. Slotkin reminds us that violence was integral to this transformation. The idea that Americans “tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness” by killing the Indians who were “the special demonic personifications” of that wilderness are “the foundation stones” of American historical mythology.*

When the regenerating power of violence transformed the frontier from “savage” outpost to “civilized” America, it also shaped an American notion that frontiers of various kinds must constantly be subdued with violence in order for the U.S. to retain its supposed moral and cultural superiority. Way back in 1970, the late American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that “there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of.” Hofstadter argued that recognizing the American propensity for violence was crucial: “In our singular position,” he observed, “uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world.”* This statement is nothing if not prescient today. The modern militarized culture creates new frontiers out of urban crime areas, sites of mass shootings, and pesky foreign countries where gun-carrying Americans must regenerate the U.S. through violence, both at home and abroad.

Consider our current cultural unwillingness to view American overseas military endeavors with a more critical eye. As historian Susan Brewer writes in Why American Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, U.S. government leaders have consistently sold their war aims to the general public by packaging them as “official narratives” of propaganda. “The official narratives,” Brewer notes, “have presented conflict as a mighty clash between civilization and barbarism in the Philippines and Word War I, democracy and dictatorship in World War II, freedom and communism in Korea in Vietnam, and…civilization and terrorism in Iraq.” These “official narratives” draw on a long tradition in which Americans have used violence to assert their alleged cultural superiority via “the message that what is good for America is good for the world,” and it is this type of militaristic thinking that has, over time, created America’s distinct culture of violence.*

The result has been the seeping of cultural militarism into all aspects of American life to the point where it even influences reviews of war movies like “Lone Survivor.” U.S. soldiers, nay, the military itself must not be criticised, because to criticize the military is to criticize America, which is above criticism. Taken to its logical extreme, this type of thinking threatens to ideologically reshape the U.S. along the lines of a military junta; a type of government that has committed some of the worst atrocities in human history, from Argentina, to Chile, to MyanmarPolitical scientist (and Vietnam veteran) Andrew Bacevich calls this development the “New American Militarism,” in which “misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions…have come to pervade the American conciousness.”* 

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they've been given in Iraq and Afghanistsan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begats more violence in a never-ending cycle.

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they’ve been given in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begets more violence in a never-ending cycle.

The militarization of American society, both in the military and civilian spheres, is a dangerous development that threatens the fundamental identity of the U.S. a small “r” republican nation. Militaries are, by their very nature, authoritarian, deeply hierarchical institutions. This is why they are good at protecting nations but bad at ruling them: authoritarianism and democracy don’t mix, which is why the U.S. (for now) has civilian control over its armed forces. But the problem runs deeper than mere soldier worship. A highly militarized society is also a paranoid society that will inevitably degenerate into an irrational orgy of circular violence in the name of regenerating its supposed previous greatness. Such societies are also intolerant of dissent, incapable of rational argument, and paralyzed by the limited options presented by itchy trigger fingers.

The U.S. today finds itself at this particular crossroads. After fostering a culture of gun violence born in the frontier and nurtured in countless wars, both domestic and foreign, official and unofficial, America in 2014 cannot seem to wrest itself from the idea that violence solves all problems. Thus, no matter how many school kids are blown away with assault weapons; no matter how many brown people are ripped to shreds overseas; and no matter how many American soldiers are killed or maimed in the name of the American empire, a militarized society ensures that there will always be those willing to defend to the death their right to own a bazooka and watch movies like “Lone Survivor” without criticism. So strap on your concealed carry holsters folks, ’cause its gonna be a bumpy ride.

* See Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 3-4.

* See Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds., American Violence: A Documentary History (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 4.

* See Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philipines to Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

* See Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.

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  1. One thing that I can’t escape now that I live in Australia is how insane the level of violence is in the US. My friend and I looked it up. Australia, a nation of 22 million, averages around 300 murders a year. Oakland, where I’ve spent my adult life while I lived in the States, and coming in at about 400,000, gets around 150 murders per year. Oakland is a violent city, but by no means the worst. I’m no mathemagician, but the difference to me is mind blowing.

    When I was younger, before I’d spent much time away, it didn’t seem to bother me as much. After living in Europe, and now here in Australia, whenever I go back I’m more and more affected by the murders around me. I don’t necessarily think of the poor victim or their family, I simply think how crappy it is to live with people consistently getting murdered around you and not know a different way.

    I’ll be staying over here…

    • Yeah, and you know, it’s not even the actual level of violence that’s most striking; rather, it’s the broad-based acceptance of violence and guns as a way of life that I find unsettling. I generally support the right to own a gun, for example, but that’s different from this insane fire arms fetishism that grips so much of the U.S. population. As I noted in the post, I think there’s a whole bunch of reasons for these trends, and I especially think the frontier mentality still plays a big roll.

      • I’m definitely pro-firearm. I come from a family of hunters and responsible gun owners. An armed population doesn’t have to be dangerous. But we’ve got a desperate population for whatever reason. Firearms and desperation don’t mix well.

        • Yeah, I basically agree with your point. I grew up with an outdoor background that included hunting, so I have no problem with owning and using guns. But why someone feels the absolute need to maintain military-style arsenals baffles me, and speaks to bigger pathological issues in society that easy access to guns only exacerbates.

  2. America doesn’t have a gun problem, America has a gang problem. A gang problem exacerbated by the failed war on (some) drugs. However despite that the FBI UCR data has shown a decline in homicide and violent crime since the peak in 1992.

    And conversely, passing draconian gun control measures didn’t stop Australia’s homicide and violent crime rates from increasing. Which is the same thing that happened in Britain. As the CDC determined years ago, there is no correlation between gun control laws and any measurable reduction in crime or violence.

    So from that perspective, gun control is a non starter, unless you don’t live in reality and believe, “Just because it never worked before, somehow it will work magically this time.” Russia has very strict gun control and worse rates of violence. Switzerland has very high gun ownership and very low rates of gun violence.

    In half of America you can go into a gun shop, drop your cash, pass a background check, then walk out with a heater on your hip. The insane part is that 4 out of 5 homicides take place in the other half of America where you can’t.

    • While I generally support most gun rights, the U.S. most certainly does have a gun problem. There are some gun control measures that could help, but yes, most wouldn’t be of much use if for no other reason than there are already so many guns out there. The problem isn’t gangs, or drugs, although those do exacerbate the issue. The problem is the American culture of violence, and in particular the bizarre, cult-like obsession with firearms that renders any reasonable debate on the issue of gun violence a pointless exercise that immediately descends into paranoia and conspiracy-stoking. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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