Lone Survivor is Nationalistic War Porn (And That’s a Bad Thing)

Lone Survivor is Nationalistic War Porn (And That’s a Bad Thing)

Kill people for your country. It will be so cool.

Kill people for your country. It will be so cool.

Lone Survivor is a movie that recounts the events of an ill-fated Navy SEAL mission that happened in Afghanistan in 2005. While on their mission in support of Operation Red Wings, a SEAL fire team was discovered by innocent civilians.  They then had to choose between killing the civilians and ensuring their own security or releasing the civilians, knowing the local Taliban would probably be alerted and this would compromise their mission.  The SEAL fire team released the civilians and were consequently ambushed by a Taliban force. All but one of the Navy SEALs were killed.

Now Lone Survivor has done well at the box office and the reviews have been generally favorable. A number of people on my various feeds have lauded the heroic exploits of the SEALs and the fact that they made the right choice in a tough situation.

However, think Lone Survivor is a classic example of nationalistic war porn; it is movie that capitalizes on real life conflicts by turning the utter tragedy and evil that is war into a spectacle and in the end serves to reinforce nationalistic ideology that serves to justify the next real world conflicts. 

Nationalistic War Porn is not new.

The tactic of casting war in a positive light despite its brutal reality is nothing new.  Nations, politicians and those who seek to profit from war been trying to make war honorable and even sexy in the minds of young men for centuries. After all, Dulce et decorm est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”) was not a slogan from this century. No matter where and when you look, it appears societies have always spun tales celebrating the exploits of their heroes and held such people and such actions as honorable and good. Where ancient propagandists used poems and song, Lone Survivor uses cinema and Michael Bay style explosions.

Nationalistic War Porn makes militarism and imperialism morally acceptable and cool.

The impact of modern nationalistic war porn is the same as ancient war porn: it shapes the values of our society to enable militarism and imperialism. By showcasing the sacrifices and exploits of these men amid the spectacle of a war that can be safely viewed on a screen, Lone Survivor is encouraging viewers to honor and respect similar men and similar exploits. This encourages the viewer to adopt a deferential, even reverent attitude towards veterans and the military in general or fosters this attitude where it is already present. It even subtly instills in the mind of the viewer that if they were ever to perform similar actions (possibly by enlisting in the military and serving in a war) they too would be deserving of this type of recognition and honor. Such movies highlight a clear path to identity and respect that many young men are searching for. The sum total of all of this is a society that increasingly sees wars as a noble endeavor and volunteering to fight in them as a good thing. This is despite the fact that wars have caused untold misery and killed literally millions of people in the last century alone.

Nationalistic war porn identifies and dehumanizes our nations enemies. 

Nationalistic war porn also cultivates an “Us Vs. Them” mentality. In the U.S. this vague “Them” has shifted a number of times since the Cold War; we are always looking for an enemy to square off against. War porn makes us fearful of some external threat, which in turn justifies the outrageous spending that goes into our military, all in the name of defense as we invade country after country.

War porn encourages viewers to see members of their nation (in this case the U.S.) as special and set apart from the rest of the world. We begin to see human beings outside the lines of our maps as different kinds of humans, if human at all. This dehumanization of “The Other” allows us to encourage or passively accept whatever is done to them by our nation, especially in war.

This all has a diffuse but real impact on our foreign policy and the lived experience of other people. Because of the place the U.S. has on the world stage, the values and views of our citizens directly contribute to our nations actions on the world stage. War profiteers in the military industrial complex and the politicians in their pockets can rely on our passive acceptance or even favorable views towards war to allow them to get away with sending our military into unnecessary wars for the sake of their profit. The favorable view of war in the U.S., shaped by movies like Lone Survivor, have very real consequences for the lived experiences of people around the world.

Fundamental Problems with Nationalistic War Porn

Some might suggest that there is not a problem with movies like Lone Survivor.  After all, even if conceded that war is a moral evil, these men were willing to serve, made the right moral choice in a difficult situation, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice for it. Shouldn’t they be honored and respected?

I understand this line of thinking but it hits on one of the fundamental problems with nationalistic war porn: such narratives are always inherently dishonest.

Nationalistic war porn like Lone Survivor always “cherry pick” real or fictional stories while conveniently ignoring the larger realities and contexts of war. Lone Survivor conveniently ignores the larger context of the War on Terror to give our troops and nation the unquestionable moral high ground when this could not be further from the truth.

By conservative estimates over 100,000 civilians died in Iraq and 15,000 in Afghanistan.  That number climbs much higher when we discuss people killed by starvation, displacement, crime and disease which are more indirect consequences of war. This death toll also does not reflect psychological trauma, maiming and injuries, and the future cost of wars and conflicts that history has shown will arise from the political instability we have sown in the region.

Lone Survivor also ignores the larger historical context of the war in Afghanistan. Lone Survivor sets up the Taliban as a repressive evil terrorist entity, a sort of War on Terror version of the Nazis. While vilifying the Taliban to act as an antagonist for the heroes of the story (the white Americans) it ignores how the U.S. directly supported the Taliban in the past or contributed to the situation in which they could rise to power.

When considered in an accurate historical and wider context, is this story still something to be celebrated? While I am glad that this SEAL team spared the lives of a handful of civilians the larger context begs me to ask bigger questions. How are those civilians lives now, after we have thoroughly destroyed the entire region?

Our military operations in the War on Terror have directly killed many innocent civilians, even by our own admission. Drone strikes, the standard operating procedure of not slowing down for children in the road (for fear of ambush tactics) and even raids conducted by our elite units have made the deaths of innocent civilians a routine occurrence. Should we only tell the story of the handful of civilians we let live?

While I understand the members of this SEAL team made the right moral choice, and many U.S. service members have made the right moral choice in equally desperate situation, making the right moral choice in war led by the US is like throwing a pot of water on a house fire that you set earlier in the day. Considered by themselves, these right moral choices are the appropriate action to take and even commendable, but are rendered a moot point when considered in their larger context.

Nationalistic War Porn needs to be criticized and stopped.

In short, Lone Survivor and other examples of nationalistic war porn celebrate cherry picked stories, devoid of any historical or wider context. These stories encourage uncritical nationalism and militarism in those that view it. Such stories encourage people to see war as a noble endeavor and volunteering for the military as a high form of service to others. The larger political and military agenda of the United States, which continues to be the largest purveyor of violence in the world, is supported and allowed to continue unabated in part because of the prevalence of these attitudes in our society. After all, the only thing better for a war profiteer than an uncritical populace going along with war, is a populace that actually values war and thinks it is a good thing.

While nationalistic war porn, like Lone Survivor, might be a small cog in a big machine, we should pay attention to it for the production and consumption of such narratives shape our values. Where we do not even think about this dynamic, or attempt to stop it, the status quo will continue and that is bad for everyone.

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About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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17 Responses to Lone Survivor is Nationalistic War Porn (And That’s a Bad Thing)

  1. No, I don’t think films like “Lone Survivor” need to be stopped. They need to be talked and written about. It’s useful to examine and deconstruct jingoism in media, to better understand how governments sell the idea of just war to populations. If you stop these kinds of movies from being made and discussed, what’s left is all the commercials and talking heads that will remain fully in support of war. It would restrict learning, just as restriction of other kinds of porn restrict discussions and learning about responsible sexual behavior.

    We need and benefit from seeing both pro and anti-war movies. Movies offer hyper-reality, a stylized, artistic look at true horror, as well as redemption, that people who aren’t in the military (or service professions) don’t see.

    • no one said stop these kinds of movies from being discussed…we’re discussing them right now. but I think we could agree that in a more ideal world false, propagandistic, jingoistic portrayals of war would not exist because media and that includes mainstream hollywood would seek to accurately and honestly portray war for what it is. the goal is to stop these movies from being produced by talking about them. you can’t envision a world in which these types of movies are no longer being produced without talking about what is wrong with them.that’s just common sense. I don’t get your argument about talking heads. how does the production of these types of movies affect the talking heads? they are both in the same business of promoting imperial war. We should strive to eliminate both by talking about both. How does society benefit from pro-war movies? I don’t understand that. Most people who go the theater don’t want to think critically about the sociopolitical and cultural origins and implications of such a movie. They just want to be entertained or more importantly see another movie which portrays the American military as this benign and moral force in the world. Case in point is my sister who came home from this movie bawling her eyes out. She fell for it hook,line, and sinker and worse received a false portrayal of how American special forces operate in the world. That’s not a good thing. That’s a very bad thing. We do benefit from talking about pro-war movies in the context of our hyper-militarized culture and imperialistic foreign policy. But ultimately society does not benefit from their continued production. The point of an honest discussion about the sociopolitical and cultural origins and implications of such movies is to ultimately construct a society in which pro-war films and war porn no longer exist. Otherwise what’s the point of the discussion?

      • The final sentence of the article:
        “Where we do not even think about this dynamic, or attempt to stop it, the status quo will continue and that is bad for everyone.” That’s a direct suggestion that such productions need to be stopped, and that not stopping them is bad.

        I think you misunderstand the purpose of movies. Their primary function is as a diversion platform by which to sell products. In theaters that means whatever is sold at the concession stand. On TV, it’s what’s in the commercials. Movies also add myths to culture, but that’s an effect of their nature in reflecting the times when a movie is made.

        Movies have no responsibility toward historical accuracy. None. In fact, every film adaptation is heavily refashioned toward more effective storytelling. The film of Lone Survivor does not follow the events of the book accurately, nor do any other movies “based on” real events and characters.

        My point about talking heads is that the pro-war line of propaganda comes at us through news outlets, free media and in the broadcast soundbites from politicians far more often than from movies. Movies offer an artistic balance against the less-skillful MSM.

      • you are correct that pro-war line of propaganda comes at us more through the news media then through movies however I still disagree with your premise. your statement that movies have no responsibility towards historical accuracy is irrelevant. what matters is how people perceive the movies and how that perception translates into how they view actual reality through a false prism. if all you see in movies and t.v. shows is this caricature of the American military as heroic and benign, an entity you should be proud of no matter what, black and white, good vs. evil with the military as the force for good then that is exactly how you are going to view the real thing unless of course you are more aware and knowledgable and anyway those people tend not to go see these movies in the first place.movies like lone survivor may reflect the dominant culture of the times but they also perpetuate that same culture. I don’t understand how a movie like lone survivor offers any type of balance to let’s say guys like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. The message is one and the same regardless of the different mediums through which that message is conveyed.Skill is irrelevant here. We’re not discussing how effective the propaganda is or is not. I agree that this movie is more effective propaganda then loud-mouth talking heads on t.v. news but that’s not the point We’re discussing the effects of the propaganda and whether or not society would be better off without it. You still haven’t made a convincing argument that society is better off with it then without it.

    • a simpler and more concise way to put it would be the ability to engage in critical, enlightening, liberating, and emancipatory discussions about something that is bad like a pro-war film does not require that thing continue indefinitely into the future…the point of the discussion is to galvanize the culture and the society behind getting rid of that thing so that society can progress and become more humane.I mean slavery as a legal institution of American society doesn’t exist anymore? Does that stop us from talking about it? Did the people who fought to get rid of slavery back in the mid-nineteenth century stop themselves because they thought getting rid of slavery would prevent them from learning about why it shouldn’t exist anymore. That doesn’t really make any sense. Learning is not an end in itself. The point of learning is to eventually take action.

      • I forgot to bring up the obvious fact that our First Amendment guarantees the right of artists, writers and filmmakers to lie about history in any direction they please, in support of any political point of view they choose.

      • I’m not arguing they should be outright banned and censored. I’m arguing that it would be beneficial for our society if a natural (meaning not mandated by law) phasing out of these types of movies were to happen and this is what we should work for as a culture and as a society. You are the one who argued that these movies have a benefit for society. I simply disagreed.

      • The benefit to society is that more art is always better than less art, regardless of the point of view expressed in a work. You are free to disagree, but that’s the argument. I don’t agree that restricting the free artistic expression, even of a-holes, bigots and those with an evil agenda is a benefit.

      • again you keep talking about an artificial restriction…i’m talking about a progression of society towards one with more humane values. just like we don’t have regular performances of blackface across this country anymore which you could call a form of artistic expression however vile I hope for a society in which eventually there are no more films like lone survivor.

      • you’re putting forth a straw man argument and a common one at that

      • please only argue points that I actually make…..if you can’t devise a logical way to disagree with what I’ve said then just admit it..you don’t have to resort to strawmen.

      • furthermore in that last sentence the author did not explicitly advocate for censorship…he merely said such productions should eventually stop. I agree. The means by which they stop are an entirely different question and I personally do not favor censorship.

  2. Excellent analysis …I’d like to add the fact that in these movies U.S. special operations forces…Navy Seals, Green Berets, army rangers JSOC etc. are always portrayed as heroes with superior moral characteristics when this could not be farther from the truth. Their missions and tactics are portrayed as inherently good and noble when this could not be farther from the truth. I say this because some people, in their minds, like to separate the big army going in to ruin a country from the smaller specially trained elite forces which are tasked with specific missions. They might oppose the war in Iraq but they still view favorably the deployment of U.S. special operations forces across the globe thinking that they are doing good. Just read Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill and you will be disabused of that notion.

    Your message here is all the more poignant and meaningful given the fact that there are these four retired marines who fought in Fallujah who have been making the rounds on the mainstream talk shows lamenting the fact that the city is now in the hands of the ISIS. The distorted narrative is one that we have come to expect from the mainstream media….the primary victims of the war and the battle of Fallujah were the U.S. soldiers while the Iraqis who suffered immeasurably more and will, no doubt, continue to suffer for decades to come as a result of U.S aggression are treated as non-entities despite the fact that it was their country that was decimated by the world’s most powerful military . Of course they neglect to mention the fact that there was no insurgency in Iraq before the American invasion. I mean wouldn’t one expect the people of Iraq to rise up and resist in the face of a foreign occupier. Wouldn’t we do the same if we were invaded? But I’m quite certain we wouldn’t refer to ourselves as “terrorists” if that were to happen. There was no al-Qaeda before America invaded. The rise of extremism and heated sectarian division was and is a result of the invasion. There are no redeeming aspects whatsoever to the American invasion, and yet the mainstream media is still trying to sell us on this picture of America as benevolent overlord of the world always intervening the with most humane intentions. It’s like the media has learned absolutely nothing from Vietnam. You mentioned the cherrypicking of real or fictional stories about war. How about the media’s cherrypicking of the people who tell those stories? I mean Charlie Rose and all the rest of them picked these four guys to tell the story of Fallujah and the entire war for a reason….because they would stick to the proper narrative…the narrative that will ensure that thirty or forty years from now we will have learned the wrong lessons or no lessons at all and as a result another Iraq, another Vietnam, another Afghanistan will happen and we will be too caught up in blind and irrational patriotic fervor to care about the havoc and destruction that our military is wreaking upon innocent people thousands upon thousands of miles away from here as well as the havoc that is being upon wreaked upon To act like these four guys represent the overwhelming consensus on the Iraq War and why what is happening now in Iraq is happening is transparently absurd. What about Tomas Young? What about all the veterans who came out against the war upon return? What about the harrowing testimony of the fifty combat veterans provided in Chris Hedges book, “Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.” You want to get a true sense of war and the horror that these soldiers as well as Iraqi civilians had to experience everyday????…. then you read this book. What you don’t do is listen to these four guys making the rounds on Charlie Rose and on and on and on…..Anyway excellent job here.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I find it interesting that you make no mention of the Afghanistan family who saved Lutrell and their enduring friendship. This movie did not glorify war. It shows the utter insanity of it. I bet you voted for Obama who has had more troops killed under his watch then all of Bush and now all of a sudden you see the light!

    • Kevin says:

      Vanessa,

      A) The family that saved/befriended him is a nice aspect of the story but I did not touch on it because the main moral dilemma was the SEALs decision to kill or release the civilians. If we want to talk about that, it falls under the exact same criticism that I leveled against the “Right moral decision” of the SEALs; while heartwarming and touching, it is rendered moot by the larger context. Yes civilians and soldiers do share admirable moments in the midst of war, but they are still in the midst of war. These moments do not somehow make war better, admirable or enviable.

      B) I did not vote for Obama. I actually used to be very pro-military/pro-war and during High School was involved in a Jr. Navy program and my end goal was becoming a Navy SEAL (the irony right?). I began to rethink my nationalism and views on war when I lived in Canada while we invaded Iraq. My knee-jerk reaction was to defend the foreign policy of the U.S. and our choice to invade, but then I found our positions indefensible. Eventually I became a committed pacifist as I began to explore my own faith tradition and started following Jesus instead of Christian culture.

      C) There are a handful of movies that show “the utter insanity” of war. This is not one of them. This is an action movie that admittedly added scenes that did not happen. It’s goal was to make money off of war, and it did.

  4. nobodyreally says:

    “Lone Survivor also ignores the larger historical context of the war in Afghanistan. Lone Survivor sets up the Taliban as a repressive evil terrorist entity, a sort of War on Terror version of the Nazis. While vilifying the Taliban to act as an antagonist for the heroes of the story (the white Americans) it ignores how the U.S. directly supported the Taliban in the past or contributed to the situation in which they could rise to power.”

    I will not argue with your statement of our (US) support of the Taliban in the past, but your statement of only saying that the “…movie sets up the Taliban as a repressive evil terrorist entity…” shows that you are not in touch with the reality and of the fundamental beliefs of this organization. To list a couple, it is an organization that wishes to strip women of any position outside the home, has been the cause for hundreds of thousands to die because of starvation after they came into power. I was willing to continue to read without comment until this paragraph. I know this will probably do nothing but open hateful dialog, but you sir should put more thought into the words you write. I respect your opinion, however as is my first amendment right, I disagree.

    • Kevin says:

      Nobodyreally,

      Thanks for your words. I did not mean my piece as a whole or the words you highlighted in particular as a defense of the Taliban. They are an evil group that has caused suffering to many. What I was trying to communicate was that the movie was using them to help create a simple “black vs. white/good vs. evil” conflict when the reality is more nuanced and the situation is more “black vs. black/evil vs. evil.” My piece should by no means be taken as an attempt to exonerate or support the Taliban. This was never my intent though I see my words could have been better chosen.

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