Politics & Policy

Lone Survivor and the Racial Politics of War

Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor (Universal Studios)
Contrary to critics, we do not choose our foes by skin color.

Amy Nicholson, the head film critic over at L.A. Weekly, recently characterized the new war movie, Lone Survivor, as a “jingoistic snuff film” whose protagonists are possessed of the “simple” and “hairy-chested” conviction that “brown people bad, American people good.” In acting upon this belief, she set off something of a firestorm.

Were this a rogue view, it would be well worth ignoring. Unfortunately, it is not, for, among a certain sneering subset, the conceit that the actions and decisions of the American military are informed by racial animus enjoys genuine currency. Not content merely to critique foreign policy on its merits — or to argue that America’s reaction to the events of 9/11 and beyond were counterproductive — many of our arbiters of taste prefer to impute pernicious motives where they do not belong. Why did America get involved in Iraq and Afghanistan? Because they “hate brown people,” of course. Why do we tolerate civilian casualties? Because the people being killed aren’t white.

#ad#This view was put most stupidly by the comedian George Carlin, who said during the first Gulf War that

these days, we only bomb brown people. And not because they’re cutting in on our action; we do it because they’re brown. Even those Serbs we bombed in Yugoslavia aren’t really white, are they? Naaah! They’re sort of down near the swarthy end of the white spectrum. Just brown enough to bomb. I’m still waiting for the day we bomb the English. People who really deserve it.

Looked at from any direction, this is an utterly preposterous sentiment. In its relatively short history, the United States has been nothing if not an equal-opportunity combatant. Americans fought themselves during the Revolution (there’s the bombing the English that Carlin wants) and the Civil War; they fought the British during the War of 1812 (there’s more); and they fought the Germans twice in the 20th century — on an industrial scale, no less. Americans also fought the Japanese after they bombed Pearl Harbor; fought the Chinese and North Koreans when they invaded South Korea; and, lest we forget, spent just under a half-century locked in a tense conflict with the Russians, whose experiment with putting the works of Yevgeny Zamyatin to practical use was regarded as an existential threat. Now they are involved in a series of conflicts with Islamic extremists — conflicts that have taken a variety of forms, certainly, but in which the basic enemy has remained constant.

A quick review of America’s wars reveals that the common theme is not the color, language, religion, or creed of the foe, but whether or not that foe is regarded as a threat. And, for better or for worse, the people currently regarded as a threat are brown. Wouldn’t we expect this to be reflected in the cinema? After all, if one is going to make a movie about the war in Afghanistan — a war that, right or wrong, featured American soldiers fighting and killing a significant number of brown people — then one is going to have to show American soldiers fighting and killing a significant number of brown people.

Are we really to believe that this implies a general judgment? And, if so, how should we apply it to other conflicts? If the message of Lone Survivor is “brown people bad, American people good,” then what is the intendment of, say, the WWII movie Saving Private Ryan, in which both sides were white? Is it “white people good, white people with Teutonic accents bad”? What about the mini-series John Adams, which shows the British fighting the British? Could it possibly be that the sides are separated less by their hue and more by their behavior?

By its nature, war is cruel and it is horrible. Nicholson is wholly within her rights to lament that, in Afghanistan, fighting between the United States and the Taliban sometimes led to “an unconscionably high civilian body count.” But why go further? For once — just once — couldn’t we let the observation stand as it is — a criticism based on the merits of the thing, and not one that smugly assigns to one’s dissentients a racially charged animus that, in all but the most extreme of cases, simply isn’t there?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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