The Monopoly On Patriotism: America’s Damaging Love of War Films, Part 3.

This is the third of a multi-part series of articles about America’s love of war films and their role in shaping American society following 9/11. This installment examines two divisive moments in America, a pair of case studies in recent history when non-veteran public figures rose to prominence only to be unfavorably compared against veteran counterparts.

Read Part 1, here. Read Part 2, here.

When famous Americans who contradict the image of the veteran-brand are recognized for making sacrifices in order to protect attacked populations, they have been met with criticism and opposition. For example, in 2015, when ESPN awarded the “Arthur Ashe Courage Award” to Caitlyn Jenner for coming out as a transgender woman, a rumor spread that Jenner’s runner up was paraplegic Iraq War veteran Noah Galloway. The rumor carried the sentiment that Jenner was less deserving of the award than Galloway. A meme perpetuating the rumor was shared across social media more than 100,000 times. ESPN responded to the outrage by saying that there was no runner-up for any of the awards they presented that night, and thus maintained that Jenner was deserving of the award.[1]

Still, the controversy caused a cultural division in America. A similar thing happened in 2016 when professional football player Colin Kaepernick opted not to stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. When asked why, he claimed to be doing so in protest of the systemic oppression of black people in the United States. Many Americans, including President Donald Trump, contrasted Kaepernick’s display of patriotism with that of former NFL player Pat Tillman.[2] Tillman left the NFL in 2002 to become an Army Ranger, and later died in combat.[3] Tillman’s actions were used to label Kaepernick’s patriotic act of protest as “unpatriotic,” even though Kaepernick risked his reputation and career in order to draw national attention to the victimization of an entire race of Americans.

The assertions that the societal contributions of a transgender woman and a black activist were somehow less worthy of recognition than those of war veterans were not universal. Some Americans were able to see the actions of Jenner and Kaepernick for what they were: risks of reputation in order to bring attention to minorities who were being victimized, who were in need of protection. But because they did not fit the veteran-brand, their heroism was hotly contested.

In order for civilians like Jenner and Kaepernick to be more widely accepted as heroes and patriots for their actions, those who subscribe to the veteran-brand would have to accept that in the narrative of modern American society, society itself is an antagonist. But according to Australian sociologists Kim Toffoletti and Victoria Grace, Americans prefer their antagonists to be real life foreign people, particularly terrorists from the Middle East. Even prior to the release of American Sniper, Toffoletti and Grace were able to observe that, “the two most critically and economically successful of these films, The Hurt Locker (US$16,400,000) and Redacted (US$65 million), focus on the actions of American soldiers in Iraq, unlike the other three movies [in the study], which primarily centre [sic] on what happens to soldiers, their families and communities at ‘home’ in the USA on return from service.”[4] Of the films in their study, the ones which preached the futility of the war, and therefore the futility of the actions of the veteran protagonists, performed much poorer than the ones which maintained the image of the veteran protagonist as an American hero. Even when Chris Kyle was depicted as having marital troubles while home from the war in the film American Sniper, his complicity in the damage to his marriage was excused by the filmmakers because he was supposedly born to the higher purpose of protecting the United States and American veterans overseas. And when Kyle finally retires from the military, his marriage returns to normal.[5] In other words, all of the suffering in the film was depicted as being causally linked to the war rather than American society, a war which was caused by foreign enemies. When Kyle retired and ceased to interact with the enemy, all goodness was restored.

American Sniper and other war films thus allow viewers to micro-dose themselves with exposure to the real-life war through narrative. Once the film is over, viewers can then detach from the reality of the war and of the enemy, which causes indifference. Towards the end of their study, Toffoletti and Grace concluded that “…filmic depictions of the war in Iraq generate indifference by confronting us with… our own indifference that we’d rather not see.”[6] This suggests that, first, indifference toward the real-life war in Iraq was a defensive response to one’s inability to contribute to one’s own abnormally high level of freedom and safety enjoyed per one’s status as an American citizen. That contribution, according to the veteran-brand, could only come from combat veterans. Second, when exposed through film to the image of veterans paying the price of freedom and safety, one risked being shamed about their lack of an equitable contribution, and so they responded with indifference to their own indifference. Jenner and Kaepernick were likewise shamed because their societal contributions were not perceived as equitable to the freedom and safety they enjoyed.

A perfect storm of psychological responses to the reality of war sets up American citizens to think divisively. The next article will be the last in the series. In it we will examine how American civilians contribute to American society just as much as veterans, and also how the veteran-brand may be compounding the rates of veteran PTSD and suicide.

[1] Aaron Sharockman, “No, Iraq veteran wasn’t runnerup to Caitlyn Jenner for ESPN courage award,” PUNDITFACT, June 4, 2015, Accessed May 13, 2019.

[2] Kate Tayor, “People are saying Nike should have featured Pat Tillman in its new ad about ‘sacrificing everything’ starring Colin Kaepernick,” Business Insider, September 4, 2018, Accessed May 13, 2019.

[3] Taylor.

[4] Kim Toffoletti and Victoria Grace, “Terminal Indifference: The Hollywood War Film Post September 11,” Film-Philosophy 14, no. 2 (October 2010): 65.

[5] (Berg 2013)

[6] Toffoletti and Grace, 81.

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