An Act of Valor Dissent
Socialist realism is making a comeback in some strange places -- Hollywood and the Pentagon are good examples. Like the Soviet propaganda flicks of yore, the good guys are ten feet tall, and the bad guys are ambiguous nitwits. The action film Act of Valor purports to show "active-duty SEALs," an elite cadre specially trained for covert warfare, in operations "based on true events." For openers, it's hard to quibble about the hype for feature-length propaganda, but it's also difficult to reconcile "true" anything and a Hollywood film crew.
And the nonsense about secrecy is just that. Special Forces, and what they do, haven't been secrets since the Kennedy administration. If special operations are clandestine, you might ask, why is the Department of Defense in bed with Tinsel Town again? If the covert Navy is on a heading from cloak and dagger to Hollywood Boulevard, recruiting numbers should hit bottom in no time. True warriors make poor actors, and the best actors often make implausible warriors.
Beyond advertising misnomers, this film fails as a recruiting incentive and as art. Indeed, nearly two thirds of the early professional reviews are negative. And let's not be too quick to write off the media for their usual liberal bias. This ham-handed attempt to glamorize the Special Forces deserves all the bad press it gets. The whole project looks like a poorly made, and politically fishy, video game.
Kathyrn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) was an award-winning piece of military realism a few years ago because the film had good actors and great writing -- sparse and laced with grim humor. Act of Valor has none of this. Hurt Locker had the look and feel of a documentary, because the director had the good sense to step back and avoid the usual Hollywood bravo sierra.
Who in the Pentagon or Department of Defense thought it was a good idea to show real SEALs fighting a fake enemy? Are we not fighting a real Islamists in what is now approaching half-dozen real Muslim countries? All the real action is in the real Muslim world -- yet Act of Valor would have you believe that the bad guys are Russian drug dealers, Chechens, or Filipinos with weird accents. Are we to believe that the worldwide terror campaign against peace and civility flourishes mostly in the Caucasus or Mindanao?
The problem with national security awareness is not that the taxpayer or potential recruits have a diminished appreciation of military heroes. The problem with retention and recruitment is that the Pentagon, and now Hollywood, it seems, cannot paint an honest picture of the threat -- an enemy with a toxic political theology that inspires suicide bombers. No one dies for ambiguity!
It's a safe bet that every suicide bomber has a clear, albeit necrotic, picture of his enemies -- and those enemies appear to be almost any apostate or infidel in Europe or America. And Islamist clarity, no matter how malignant, covers motives, too: in short, doing God's will, crying "Allahu, allahu akbar" all the way to perdition.
Successful wars have four essentials: a competent militia, an unambiguous picture of the threat, a supportive populace, and a political class willing to be candid about the first three. At the moment, only the first standard has been met -- and the outlook for the other three is not good. For any perceptive audience, Act of Valor does nothing but underline some intractable and longstanding deficits of strategic candor.
The appearance of this film in an election year is also troubling. This is not to say the movies shouldn't have a political spin, but if the film is sponsored by the Pentagon, the tripwire between admirals and politicians should launch a blinding flare. The only thing "covert" about Act of Valor may be the politics.
Act of Valor, ironically similar to recent national security estimates, is a transparent, if not deceptive, picture of the who and the why of a tedious ongoing war. The taxpayer, who pays the bills, and the warriors, who do the bleeding, deserve better from Washington and Hollywood.
Think for a moment about the real subtext of Act of Valor. Through film, the Navy brass seeks to recruit brave men to fight in a series of wars where Europe and America have already surrendered. There is little evidence today that Europe or America is willing to defend the culture that made industry, democracy, and science possible.
The oldest American military decoration is the Purple Heart. The front has a miniature profile of George Washington; the back is inscribed with three words, "For Military Merit." Sadly, this soulless movie, politically correct and trite, has little to do with real heart or real merit.
"We are not going to baby sit [sic] any civil wars." -Barack Obama
G. Murphy Donovan is a Vietnam veteran. He writes frequently about national security and politics.