Tom Matlack looks at how the romanticization of U.S. Special Forces is linked to dangerous myths about manhood and war.
BAGHDAD | Tue Mar 20, 2012 6:16am EDT
(Reuters) – At least 16 near-simultaneous explosions struck cities and towns across Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 43 people and wounding more than 200, despite a massive security clampdown ahead of next week’s Arab League summit.
It was hard for me to read Michael Kamber’s most recent devastating reality check on our foreign policy in Afghanistan and just how much we didn’t learn in Iraq. I have never been to either country, whereas he has spent much of the last decade there, taking images of crying Marines, dead civilians, and the brutality of war. He called our policy “magical thinking,” the idea that if we just believe hard enough, everything will work out the way we want it to. That was what made it hard for me; like a lot of people, I’m very attached to magical thinking, to mythology. I want to believe in the good guys. The badass Americans saving the day. John Wayne as the epitome of manhood, shooting the bad guys with impeccable moral authority.
I had no further than the cover of Newsweek to find what I was looking for. A pack of macho men in white t-shirts and combat boots charging, covered in muscles and dirt. The man in the lead is screaming like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. There’s manliness for you, right?
“The SEALs,” is all the headline had to say to put my mind at ease and forget about Staff Sergeant Bales, forget about the hundreds of thousands of men and women suffering from PTSD as a result of our war efforts, forget about the civilian damage, and about the fundamental inability of our policy to accomplish positive change in the Middle East. Mythology comfortably reasserted; thanks, Newsweek.
For all my GMP cred, there’s a part of me that wants to believe in that myth of manhood. I want to believe that real men are some form of superhero, all muscles and action. Screw complex, nuanced stay-at-home dads. They are pussies, says some hardwired part of my brain where the neural pathways have been burnt in place by watching too much James Bond and Jason Bourne.
A couple summers ago, I picked up Lone Survivor. The story involves three SEALs who crawl onto a cliff overlooking an Afghan village. The village holds a notorious al Qaeda leader known to be ensconced in a Taliban stronghold, surrounded by a small but heavily-armed force. The SEALs move with painstaking precision and patience to get into position over the course of hours and days, ready to take the enemy out. But just as they have made their way unnoticed into the kill zone, a herd of goats comes up from behind them with an innocent-looking shepherd. They have to make the choice as to whether to kill the shepherd to protect their position or let him go. They guess wrong.
Shortly they are under direct attack from the rear. The SEALs tumble down the cliff. Two are killed and one survives the immediate firefight. The plot of the book is first person account of how six-foot-five-inch Texan, Leading Petty Officer Luttrell, manages against all odds to find his way to safety.
It’s one hell of a tale. But perhaps even more fascinating, as the authors knew it would be, is the backstory of all the training that led up to his becoming a Navy SEAL. The testing of human limits on the beaches near San Diego where men are forced into the frigid water until just before they reach hypothermia, then ordered out to roll in the sand, and then back in the water for more. The bell that they can ring to call it quits, and how they resist ringing it. The forced marches, the dragging of boats up sheer rock in crashing waves. The men who make it and those who don’t, the teeth-grinding tenacity and machismo of it all, is the heart and soul of the manhood creation myth for guys like me. I’m not afraid to admit it. I lapped up every word like so much cocaine to a drug addict.
What’s not to love about the Navy SEALs? They took out Osama bin Laden, for goodness sakes. They saved a 53-year-old American hostage, Richard Phillips, onboard the Maersk Alabama. They rescued aid workers held hostage in Somalia. They took out key al-Qaeda terrorist Saleh Ali Nabhan. And that’s just the shit we know about. And all under a President that some folks love to call inexperienced and soft on terrorism.
According to Newsweek, the budget for Special Operations Command has more than doubled from 2001 to $10.5 billion and the number of deployments has more than quadrupled.
If Desert Storm and every operation since then has been of questionable outcome, up to and including the pending actions in Iran and Syria, these bad boys are the ones who are going to save the day in the best superheroic style. Right?
In the current film Acts of Valor, which features real SEALs in action, one SEAL about to parachute into a dangerous mission turns to another to announce, “I’ll tell you what, the only thing better than this right here is being a dad. Except the whole changing-diaper thing.”
Damn, and I was just getting my buzz going. The magical thinking was so deep I was really thinking these guys could save the world from Mr. Freeze and the Joker.
Right back to the stay-at-home dad and nuanced image of what real men are like. Myth gives way to reality with the usual thud of maturity.
None of what I am about to say is meant to in any way undercut the bravery of our special forces. I respect what they have done when called upon to risk their lives. Nevertheless, to talk about manhood, real manhood, and the reality of the devastating impact of our foreign policy over the last decade, we have to move away from the fantasy of America’s supermen as portrayed in movies and media, and start to look at reality.
Manhood has always been defined by cartoonish archetypes. A “real man,” in our media-saturated subconscious, is the Marlboro man or we are some Bud Light commercial, Batman or Captain America. Somehow these images tend to exclude the father, the husband, the guy who actually reads books and has feelings.
So the idea that we should all genuflect before the ultimate Rambos of our generation, as much as I can get sucked into the idea like any other guy who has been trained to think that way, is flat out wrong. More than that, it’s dangerous.
It’s dangerous because it undercuts the more realistic view of manhood and it’s dangerous because it keeps the magical thinking alive. We’d rather focus on the awesome surgical strike than think through the implications of ten miserable years of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, how many lives have been ruined, and how grim conditions are in the Iraq and now Afghanistan that we have left behind. Of course we’d rather do that; it’s more fun. But part of being a man is accepting responsibility even—especially—when it’s not fun.
Reality is not an action movie. There is no cool-looking poster or pithy catchphrase to fix or justify what we as a nation have done. Magical thinking will get us nowhere. I can’t understand why, in the public discourse, in the Presidential campaign, in the press day in and day out, nobody is talking about just how off base our foreign policy has been. More, it worries me that nobody’s talking about how the men we should look to for inspiration aren’t a few camera-friendly superheroes, but the guys facing manhood in the trenches every day, whether the Marines facing inhuman conditions on the ground, fathers facing unemployment, or dads staying home with their kids while mom goes off to work. If we exclude those men from our images of manhood, we are refusing to wake up from an adolescent dream, and the results will work about as well as magical thinking has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photo— Rennett Stowe/Flickr