A war story: one day, while patrolling Mosul in late 2006, my staff sergeant noticed a confrontation between AK-wielding men and a small car on the far side of a four-lane highway. After asking for permission, he jumped out of the Humvee and over a lane barrier with two other soldiers. We had a firefight, secured those about to be kidnapped and chased off the enemy. No one was hurt as far as I know. We escorted the family back to base, took down their information. They went back into the city to avoid more kidnappers while we went back into the FOB to avoid the chow rush.
Few of us were under any illusion that the war was going well, but we were quite pleased to do something unequivocally good. We had saved a family. The war might have been a disaster, and our understanding of the overall situation muddled, but we were Americans and we could still do good things. This was important. We could participate in a mistaken war and not at the same time – everything might be a mess, we might be losing men for no good reason, but at least we saved that family, right?
Rory Kennedy’s award winning documentary Last Days in Vietnam also features Americans deeply complicit in the violence unfolding around them finding a sort-of vindication by saving random people. Beginning just before the fall of Saigon, the narrator quickly establishes the approach of the North Vietnamese Army via a digitized red blob (at no point are disabused of this analogy). The American Army is gone. President Ford calls Congress “sons of bitches” for their unwillingness to spend more money, napalm and American lives in South Vietnam. Little effort is expended to explain why the South Vietnamese Army fell “like a house of cards.” We only get shots of the tired American ambassador, and a back-story about how he lost his step-son in Vietnam and did not want to lose the country. Thirty years of war comes down to a depressed ambassador and the gumption of a few embassy personnel.
Which is to say, the documentary effectively dramatizes the embassy’s haphazard evacuation – in the words of Kissinger himself, “another massive screw up” – by staying on the ground level, focusing on the last minute decisions of everyday Americans. When all is said and done, American ingenuity more or less prevails. We save lots and lots of Vietnamese, and the few interviewed seem to be thankful for being saved. The bombs, the protests, My Lai – they register hardly at all compared to the nice Navy Captain who lets the AWOL South Vietnamese helicopter pilot land on his ship. The Vietnam War might have been a mess, the documentary suggests, but at least the everyday Americans, the ones on the ground – as opposed to the nefarious ones high above the ground – were still able to save people, and would have likely saved more if the incompetence and insufficient planning of those in charge didn’t get in the way.
Yet, in the end, the ones on the ground get to do these good American things while disassociating their Americanness from the larger failure, as if it were a germ of goodness somehow at odds with and forever besieged by the government and country they serve. In other words, by separating context from text, we can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and play at David in a tale about Goliath. This epic compartmentalization has become a tradition and of itself. Perhaps it derives from an awkward and deeply flawed (if not actually failed) national reconciliation after the Civil War, or maybe from long experience of blundering our way to victory in the last half of the fourth quarter in every major European War. Either way, the predilection has metastasized, and our media, from our documentaries, to our short stories, to our popcorn-fare, no longer even bothers to justify conflicts on their merits; instead, it adeptly transforms one catastrophe after another into vaguely empowering moral or spiritual victories, of perseverance, comradeship or benevolence in spite of hopelessness, which in turn becomes justifications for future catastrophes.
This last winter’s American Sniper (and the previous winter’s Lone Survivor) captured this dynamic successfully: a man kills nameless hoards out of a desire to be some kind of savior. He makes no apologies. And why should he? How can you possibly apologize for saving people? Our superhero movies – which have for the last few years dominated the box office like no other time in American history – captivate for the exact same reason: everything is an absolute mess, and the convoluted plot goes nowhere, but do the superheroes stop saving people? Never. We take heart that our real and imagined heroes do not give up because we much prefer the simplicity of doing the obviously good thing while giving up on the more complicated politics of defining a universal good. We call this realism. Unfortunately, our desire to save ignores much of what makes that saving a necessity in the first place.
This strange cycle requires a reductive understanding of world politics and human nature, and, if we’re being honest, a bigoted and paternalistic idea of the world outside our borders. This is not to say we should not save people of course. I’m not upset that those marines rescued the Vietnamese from the red blob. I’m not upset that we saved that family from Shia drills and or a Sunni decapitation. I think it a good thing. And yet these people we save have existences outside our saving of them. To use their plight to justify our ignorance of those lives is hardly heroic, and our war stories might be somewhat improved if we spent a little less time talking about the people we did save and a little more on our overwhelming need to see ourselves as saviors.