July 30, 2015
Hollywood surprised itself earlier this year by producing an Iraq war movie that was a blockbuster—American Sniper has earned more than half a billion dollars so far, starring Bradley Cooper in the role of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. The film also produced intense cultural criticism about the way it narrowly represented the war, portraying Iraqis as little more than turbaned bullseyes for American valor.
Now comes the trailer for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an action film about the attempt by military contractors working for the CIA to rescue two diplomats from an extremist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The film, directed by Michael Bay, is being touted as a cross between Black Hawk Down and American Sniper. The early reviews—I mean the early tweets—are highly favorable. If the trailer is an accurate indicator, or the director’s filmography (Bay also brought us Pearl Harbor and Transformers), the star-spangled hype is probably on the money, and we will be the poorer for it.
I haven’t seen the film yet—it comes out in January, so press screenings are months away. I contacted Mitchell Zuckoff, who wrote the nonfiction book on which the film is based, as well as a publicist for the studio that is producing the film, but they declined to say what’s in the movie. The main hints are the attention-getting trailer (please take a look) and the cast of characters on the IMDB site. There is apparently no Libyan character who merits a last name—there is just a “Fareed” and “Fareed’s wife.” The other apparently Libyan characters have no names at all; one of them is described as “Bandolier Militiaman” and another is “Camo Headwrap.” Who knows, perhaps 13 Hours will be loaded with rich historical context, but Bay, whose films have grossed $6.4 billion, according to his Twitter bio, is known for other things.
One of the problems with Hollywood war movies is that they rarely tell us what we need to know about the wars we engage in. It’s certainly true that American soldiers often perform heroically in the wars they fight—I have reported from Iraq as well as Afghanistan and have seen it first-hand. It is also true that American soldiers don’t always behave honorably (I have seen this too), but Hollywood doesn’t often shine a light on it. Studio executives prefer to back movies we are willing to buy tickets for, and crowd-pleasers tend to have heroic narratives in the John Wayne mold, which is why for every Apocalypse Now or Three Kings there seem to be a dozen American Snipers or Lone Survivors.
Yet the real problem with conventional war movies is their historically negligent portrayal of the people Americans fight against. The Iraqis or Afghans or Somalis or Vietnamese in our most popular war movies tend to be stick figures at best, snarling animals at worst. This is not only epically unfair to the people upon whose lands we have chosen to fight our wars, it hurts us as well, because we just consume more of the intellectual junk that leads us to believe we are always the good guys and they are always the bad guys and the people we kill always deserve it.
And there’s a genre twist in the trailer for 13 Hours, which portrays military contractors as heroes. It’s true that some contractors have acted bravely in the warzones where they were lucratively employed to fight, and some have been killed (including two in Benghazi), but their overall record is terrible. Military contractors—traditionally referred to as mercenaries—are one of the poxes of the new American way of warfare. When I was in Baghdad in the early years of the occupation, military contractors were among the greatest perils to human life, because they were all but unaccountable and acted like it. Driving around Baghdad in an unmarked civilian vehicle, I worried more about being shot by one of the Blackwater cowboys than being blown up by a car bomb. Yet now they are being packaged as a new type of American war hero, a sort of mercenary chic.
Yes, it’s only a movie, and one we’re not able to see until January. But movies seem to do more to shape our understanding of warfare, valor and foreigners than any other form of popular culture, and it seems we are heading toward another feel-good brainwash.