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A Different Kind of War

by Ross Douthat

A review of Lone Survivor

The cliché is that American war films fall into two categories: movies about World War II, which are patriotic, heroic, celebratory, and confident in both the mission and the men, and movies about Vietnam, which are pessimistic, brutal, critical of the mission, and inclined to portray the men as victims, lunatics, or both. And the many exceptions notwithstanding, the cliché gets something right: There is a paradigmatic World War II movie (The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone) and a paradigmatic Vietnam movie (Platoon, Casualties of War), and everyone can recognize the difference.

As of now, I think it’s fair to say we have a paradigmatic movie for our post–Cold War wars as well — for the age of Somalia and Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

There have been war movies in this era that tried to imitate the World War II model — straightforward paeans to the righteousness of American hegemony, like Tears of the Sun and Behind Enemy Lines. There have been films that tried to give our post-9/11 wars the Vietnam treatment: Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs. But the truest-seeming movies have been the ones that have taken a third way: They have embraced the soldiers, taking their side nearly absolutely, while remaining studiously agnostic about the wars themselves.

There are no characters in these movies like Tom Berenger’s vicious Sergeant Barnes in Platoon, no screaming Full Metal Jacket drill instructors or napalm-smelling Kilgores. Instead, the culture of the military is treated generously, the soldier’s vocation is portrayed positively, and the specific missions depicted tend to have a morally admirable purpose. But at the same time there’s an air of pessimism and skepticism hanging over the stories — a sense that while we’re watching good people do their best for righteous ends, the wars themselves may be futile.

I have in mind here a film like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, a true post-9/11 movie (no matter that it was filmed just before the 9/11 attacks), with its Army Rangers fighting their way out of a humanitarian mission gone awry. Or a film like The Hurt Locker, the only war movie to win Best Picture in this era, with its Iraq War bomb squad — battered, traumatized, complicated, war-addicted, but still obviously on the side of right.

Or, now, a film like Lone Survivor, about a Navy SEAL team ambushed in the Afghan mountains in 2005 — another case of extraordinary heroism in a mission gone awry.

Peter Berg’s movie is, in many ways, a straightforward tribute to the troops, heartfelt and uncomplicated. It opens with real-life footage of SEAL training, closes with candid shots of the real-life dead, and in between gives us America’s elite soldiers as we want them to be: a band of brothers, a crew of happy warriors, lethal and decent all at once.

The crucial figures are played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch (late of the Berg-produced Friday Night Lights), Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster. They make up the reconnaissance team that infiltrates an isolated Afghan valley in search of the Taliban warlord Ahmad Shah, with a larger U.S. force, under a lieutenant commander played by Eric Bana, waiting to swoop in once Shah is located.

Shah is there, but the SEALs are out of communication range by the time they spot him, and, before the four-man team can summon support, a group of local goatherders stumbles on their hiding place. The Americans hold them at gunpoint, a brief debate about the rules of engagement ensues, and then the mission is aborted and the goatherders are sent one way while the SEALs head in the other. But the moral choice is not rewarded: Before they can reach safety, a swarm of Taliban fighters pin our heroes down, and the subsequent firefight and attempted rescue mission both go as badly as the movie’s title would lead one to expect.

Survivor is not quite on the same artistic level as Black Hawk or Hurt Locker — less subtle than the latter, less visually remarkable than the former — mostly because Berg isn’t quite on the same level as Ridley Scott and Kathryn Bigelow. But it’s a very solid movie (“very solid” is basically Mark Wahlberg’s middle name at this point), and it leaves you with the same mix of feelings that those earlier films did: an appreciation for the courage and skill of America’s fighting men, a sense that what they do is harrowing and honorable — and an anxiety that there’s no real strategy here, and that the larger missions are being undertaken more or less in vain.

The reaction to Lone Survivor suggests that some people have trouble with this ambiguity. A few reviewers on the left have blasted the movie for being too hagiographic and nationalistic (a “jingoistic snuff film,” an LA Weekly writer called it) — as though Berg and Co. were supposed to pretend that Ahmad Shah was a morally complicated bloke whose henchmen deserved as much celebration as the men who died trying to put him out of business.

Meanwhile, on the right there was a mini-controversy when CNN’s Jake Tapper, interviewing Marcus Luttrell, the mission’s real-life lone survivor, remarked that the movie left him with a sense of “hopelessness,” and a “torn” feeling about the war itself. Luttrell objected, accusing his interviewer — who has reported extensively and sympathetically on U.S. troops in Afghanistan — of suggesting that his fellow SEALs had “died for nothing,” and an online chorus quickly echoed him, casting Tapper as a critic of the troops.

But that wasn’t really Tapper’s point. There’s no question the men in Lone Survivor died for something real — for a morally upright mission, for their country, for each other.

Nine long years of conflict later, though, it takes nothing away from their heroism to recognize — with the best war movies of this era — the potentially Sisyphean context of their task.

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