America’s Damaging Love Of War Films, Part 1: The Veteran-Brand

Image by Romain Hiest from Pixabay.
This is the first of a mult-part series of articles about America’s love of war films and their role in shaping American society following 9/11. This first installment defines what I call the “veteran-brand,” the understanding of which will be integral to the rest of the series.

Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, filmmakers noticed an uptick in patriotic sentiment, and churned out films to appeal patriotic audiences. This revived an “America” fandom: an audience base that wanted to see and hear about Americans triumphing over “evil,” and so the majority of these films were actual war films. The protagonists in these films became symbols for America itself, and through the repeated use of several character elements, forged a brand which became synonymous with American patriotism. “Patriotic” lead protagonists were overwhelmingly combat veterans, and they were straight, white, males. Though these depictions were likely incidental given that heterosexuals,[1] whites, and males constituted the majorities of their respective demographic categories across the total American military force[2], the “veteran-brand” became so iconic that viewers became unable to dissociate it from patriotism, and other manifestations of patriotism became unrecognizable as such. In 2014, the film American Sniper grossed over $350 million at the box office.[3] As of 2019, it was the second highest grossing war film behind 2017’s Wonder Woman;[4] 13 years following 9/11, the veteran-brand had reached a zenith. Society elevated veterans to a higher social class than non-veteran civilians, and to the top tier in the hierarchy of American “heroes”. Despite the fact that “hero” is a subjective term, other figures in American society such as Caitlyn Jenner and Colin Kaepernick who rose to prominence for actions praised by many as patriotic were chastised by those who bought into the veteran-brand. The actions of actual famous war veterans were cited and used to devalue the societal contributions of both Jenner and Kaepernick. Yet, in a voraciously pro-veteran America, the numbers of veterans who suffered from PTSD[5] and those who commit suicide[6] remained (and still remain) constant, and in some cases have increased. The veteran-brand has degraded American society by ignoring whole demographics of American patriots, thereby creating a metric against which it is impossible for the vast majority of Americans to measure, a metric of which even most veterans fall short, thus compounding the factors which lead to veteran depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.

The veteran-brand is a symptom of the “civilian-military divide”. Most simply defined, the civilian-military divide is a mental and emotional disconnect between American veterans and non-veteran civilians. The logic follows that veterans hold a valuable perspective on American society that is impossible to attain without having served in the military. During the Vietnam war, the civilian-military divide manifested in the form of focused rage at the war itself on the veterans fighting it. Upon returning to the United States, some Vietnam veterans were even spit upon and called “baby killers”.[7] This moment was a blot on America’s past. One can therefore appreciate the cultural shift from one of universal condemnation of veterans to the current one of universal adulation. Military service represents to civilians a clear, favorable connection between veterans and their country. The veteran-brand evolved from civilian envy of this connection. Aligning with the veteran-brand allows people to signal their patriotism regardless of their contribution to American society. By calling attention to oneself by heralding one’s “support” or adoration of veterans, one is branding oneself as patriotic. Additionally, the American flag gains its value through the veteran-brand. To those who buy into the brand, if anyone shows “disrespect” to the flag by, for example, burning it, or refusing to stand when the national anthem is played and the flag is raised, then those people are ultimately disrespecting veterans, and must therefore be labeled as un-patriotic, even when the offender cites patriotic reasons for their behavior. This pattern is turning Americans against each other.

Since 9/11, Americans have become increasingly divided over what constitutes patriotic action and what does not. At the heart of this rift is a deep admiration on all sides for what the nation represents. The differences abound largely over who gets to represent the nation; American heroes. In the next article we will question what it means to be a hero in modern America, how that meaning has been restricted, and why some people are universally accepted as such while others are rejected.

Read Part 2, here.

[1] Gary J. Gates, Lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women in the US military: Updated estimates, (Los Angeles: The Williams Institute, May 2010).

[2] US Department of Defense, Total Force Military Demographics, (Washington, DC, October 2016).

[3] “War (Sorted by US Box Office Descending),” International Movie Database, https://www.imdb.com/search/title?genres=war&sort=boxoffice_gross_us,desc.

[4] IMDb.

[5] US Department of Veteran Affairs, Overview of VA research on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Washington, DC).

[6] US Department of Veteran Affairs, VA Releases National Suicide Data Report, (Washington, DC, June 18, 2018).

[7] Bob Greene, “Vietnam Vets Recall Their Homecomings—Often Painfully,” Deseret News, February 4, 1989.

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