America’s Hero’s Quest: Superheroes and the War on Terror

by zanepokorny

3400 words—WHEN robotic bad-guy Ultron introduces himself to the Avengers in the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, he tells them, “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace: your extinction.” Like most villains in these kinds of movies, Ultron is a visionary who will go to extremes to remake the world as he sees fit. His final plan is to kill all biological life on earth by lifting up a city and the ground beneath it on giant rockets, then crashing it down meteor-like, leaving only Ultron and his robotic copies left standing. Fortunately for all life on earth, the Avengers come together despite their differences and defeat Ultron before he carries out his wicked schemes.

The same pattern of conflict and violent resolution between superhuman opponents abounds in nearly every fantasy, science fiction, and comic book movie these days. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, the most powerful and evil wizard of his time, seeks to dominate or kill anyone who is not a pure-blooded wizard. In The Hunger Games, a totalitarian government and wealthy elite class rule over the oppressed masses, enforcing their subjugation by selecting individuals from around the country and forcing them to fight to the death on television. In the Terminator franchise, humans develop an artificial intelligence, “SkyNet”, that takes control of the military’s infrastructure and destroys the world in a nuclear holocaust, leaving a few survivors to battle skeletal machines in a nightmarish world of concrete and irradiated bones. In Star Wars, the ragtag Rebel Alliance fights the overwhelmingly larger and more organized Galactic Empire, led by the evil Emperor Palpatine and his dark enforcer, Darth Vader. Almost without exception, the denouement of each story sees the hero violently clash with, and ultimately vanquish, the villain, thus restoring balance to the city/world/galaxy.

We’re all familiar with at least some of these movies, and though they wear different costumes, we recognize the heroes and villains in each as instances of the same archetypes, acting out the same broad themes of good versus evil. We find dastardly, plotting bad guys who seek to destroy or radically transform the world, and good guys who, though they really just want to go home and live a happy, peaceful, normal life, end up saving the day through sudden and decisive acts of bravery and tremendous violence. The stories share a quality of escapism and simplified conflict resolution that is necessary when there are only a few hours to introduce characters, put them in peril, and then conclude the action. Few of us would argue that problems play out so neatly in reality. It is troubling, then, how the way we view the American military and fight our battles in the age of the “War On Terror” is increasingly coming to resemble a summer blockbuster in both its myopic objectives and the near guarantee of sequels to come.

The story we see in these films is an old one, hewing closely to the pattern that Joseph Campbell, a mid-twentieth century writer and scholar of mythology and world religions, lays out in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. George Lucas himself admits the influence of Campbell’s work on Star Wars. In that book, Campbell defines the “monomyth”, the classic template of the hero’s journey that he argues has been around just about as long as people have told stories: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” From that format comes the farm boy who becomes a Jedi, the humble hobbits who return as conquering heroes, the mild-mannered student or meek scientist who is transformed into a mighty superhero.

Although the story is much the same each time, there are two different backgrounds against which the story unfolds. The first category is made up of those stories that take place in a reality roughly resembling ours, while the second comprises stories happening in a time other than now or a place far from here (sometimes both). For example, most superhero movies and arguably the Harry Potter franchise fall into the first group, while Star Wars, The Hunger Games, and the Terminator films fall into the second. Interestingly, the roles that the heroes and villains play are consistently opposite to each other in the two categories. In the first category, the heroes defend the way things are, while the villains act as usurpers. In the second, the heroes are almost invariably rebels fighting against an oppressive ruler who had already won and upset the balance sometime in the past.

By so neatly having the heroes and villains switch roles depending on whether the story is set in the now or somewhere (or when) different, films all implicitly argue that the world we have now is a good one and we should fight to keep things the same rather than look for too much change or dream of a better future. The world may seem imperfect, but it is the best of all possible ones—and the present-day, “good” world in these stories could be said to generally hew to Western liberal values (let’s generalize and say those typically include that democracy is the best form of government, individual freedoms should be maximized, and reality can be understood through a framework of scientific materialism, but there’s still a little space for some light spirituality or mysticism, so long as it doesn’t contradict any of the aforementioned ideas).

That we accept the necessity of our heroes’ actions, which would be morally indefensible in most other circumstances, rests on this foundation, because the second quality these movies all share is that the heroes succeed on their strength and will to commit terrific acts of violence in order to dispense justice. In the final battle of Man of Steel, Superman and his Kryptonian foe General Zod fight across the city of Metropolis, punching and kicking and heat-ray-blasting their way through countless buildings, before Superman is finally compelled to break Zod’s neck to stop him from roasting a few innocent bystanders with his laser-beam glare. Superman cries out in grief at having to take a life, and he is comforted by his love, Lois Lane—and we viewers are meant to be convinced by Superman’s remorse and Lane’s comforting that although murder is a terrible thing, this one was justified to stop more deaths, conveniently ignoring the hundreds or thousands of other civilians who probably died off screen in the skyscrapers that Superman and Zod destroyed five minutes before. Similar acts of destruction on a city-wide scale take place in most other superhero movies.

The threat of villainy is so great in many of these films that the heroes must go beyond the purview of whatever official law enforcement exists in that world, whose abilities and resources are usually too mundane and impotent to take on these otherworldly threats. Try as they might, the police and military in many movies simply can’t keep up, and so the heroes must go beyond the limits of law and conventional morality to save the day, often committing acts that are grossly immoral if we stop and think about them for one moment, but appear heroic because the soundtrack is uplifting and their actions resolve the plot, and, most simply, because they are the protagonists, and good guys do good things, right? In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for example, the protagonists cannot be called anything other than terrorists as they blow up the research facility of a computer corporation and maim numerous police officers in their efforts to stop a machine that hasn’t even been invented yet.

Star Wars provides many great examples of dissonance: The protagonists commit so many egregious acts of violence in the original trilogy alone that it’s hard to see why anybody would like the Jedi in the first place. In an early scene in A New Hope, Luke and Obi-Wan go to a bar, where Luke is confronted by another patron, who I’m pretty sure goes unnamed in the movie, but apparently is called “Dr. Evazan” in the script. Let’s look at the encounter between the two heroes and this bar patron:

Dr. Evazan: He doesn’t like you.

Luke Skywalker: Sorry.

Dr. Evazan: I don’t like you either! You just watch yourself! We’re wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems.

Luke Skywalker: I’ll be careful.

Dr. Evazan: You’ll be dead!

Obi-Wan Kenobi: This little one’s not worth the effort. Now let me get you something.

The patron then pushes Luke and makes a move at Obi-Wan, who responds by immediately pulling out his lightsaber and cutting off the man’s entire arm before looking calmly around the room as though to say, “step up, I’ll kill you all,” and sheathing his lightsaber. Certainly this is a seedy bar in a rough part of town, but Obi-Wan is a Jedi, who we’re told time and again are paragons of peace and justice throughout the galaxy and are gifted with superhuman strength and other abilities that help them achieve these ends. Dismembering a stranger at the slightest provocation clashes badly with these values, unless we believe that the actions done by a good guy are good simply by virtue of their having been done by the good guy.

Later in the movie, Luke and the Rebels destroy the Death Star, saving the battered Rebel Alliance from annihilation and freeing the galaxy from the threat of a weapon so powerful it can destroy whole planets—and killing the millions of Imperial soldiers and personnel stationed on board in the process. Were they all evil? Or were some just doing their jobs, perhaps conscripted against their will? Such ambiguities are not important in a movie like this.

Examples like these are common in these films, and they teach us that those who would do violence to us deserve to be punished in like terms, that killing and destroying them will end the cycle of violence rather than perpetuating it. Perhaps these movies are so popular because they are pure escapism, because we can easily tell who’s who and we know from the start that good will prevail, because the real world is vast and exhausting, meaning is hard to come by, good and evil seem obfuscated by countless shades of gray, and victories seem hollow or too hard won to give us solace. We know these movies are not truth but reality simplified, a wish fulfillment where strong characters do what we can only dream of doing. Things would be simpler, after all, if evil-doers would simply stand up and identify themselves, distinguish themselves as figures whose values diametrically oppose ours now and forever, with no chance of reconciliation, and we could just punch, crush, explode, or shoot them into oblivion. At the end, we’re told that the heroes live happily ever after, and as the credits roll and the lights go up, the illusion is broken and we go back to reality. It is nice to play make-believe sometimes, imagine that our problems could be so easily solved, but almost nobody thinks that this is really true. Right?

On 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush gave his “War On Terror” speech to a joint session of Congress, shaping US foreign policy for the twenty-first century. “Who attacked our country?” Bush said. “Al-Qaeda.” A group whose goal is “remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere. …These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. …They stand against us because we stand in their way.”

He went on, “every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” In the penultimate scene of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan confronts Anakin Skywalker, who we the viewers know has already turned to the Dark Side. “You’re either with me, or you’re my enemy,” Anakin says. “Only a Sith speaks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan responds. (This, of course, is itself an absolute statement.)

In his speech, Bush said, “Now, this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. …Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” This is presented as a battle of ideologies, with the rise of extremist groups like ISIS representing a threat to our very civilization, an assault on our culture. But we wage war against corporeal targets first. Our bullets and bombs shatter bones and tear flesh, and we seek out individuals to punish. We show our cultural dominance through overwhelming force and precision drone strikes. Their effects on such intangibles as culture, religion, belief is less easy to discern, but we must believe that they nevertheless do have one.

The way the United States has gone to war recently, with an increased focus on special operations involving smaller groups of soldiers and precision strikes, seems to focus almost entirely on the enemy as a physical manifestation that must be fought on physical terms, no matter how much rhetoric we hear about a cultural war between the West and Islam. In 1980, the United States created the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an organization meant to track and kill terrorists worldwide. This article from The Atlantic gives great insight into the JSOC’s history, purpose, and methodology. Much of the military’s philosophizing about how to defeat terrorist organizations around the world following 9/11 was concerned with, as one officer noted, “cutting the head off the snake”, destroying a terrorist network by eliminating its leadership, and JSOC now excels in manhunts—SEAL Team Six, the men who killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, comprises the U.S. Navy component of JSOC, and bin Laden is only the most infamous of the targets JSOC has killed.

We can see many parallels between this kind of action and the action that unfolds in heroic narratives. A small group of highly-trained, physically mighty fighters, who stand up for truth, justice, and the American way, confront and destroy individual villains who seek to radically transform the world. Battles ignore traditional lines of division, like country lines or rules of combat that protect civilians, and traditional institutions seem ineffectual to protect us against this great evil. Increasingly wondrous technologies are employed, proving our intellectual and material superiority, but such weapons are also desperately needed against an unconscionable foe willing to unleash horrors against innocent populations if given the chance. Bold, decisive, and murderous action is rewarded.

The perceived neatness and efficiency of this kind of combat instead of widescale war holds great appeal as a new, less destructive form of warfare, but despite many successful missions, the persistence of terrorism in the Middle East and its effluence into the Western world has proven that, as stated in the article, “the so-called decapitation approach to counterterrorism was no silver bullet”. That the good guys have dragged dictators like Muammar Ghaddafi and Saddam Hussein out of their dens, that we tracked down and killed men like Osama bin Laden and “Jihadi John”, is not lamentable, but it is insufficient. The rotten ideologies of terrorists and other baddies do not live and die by the breath in their lungs, but get passed on to others who see us as oppressors with every intent of doing violence to them as we have already done to their families and friends.

This is not to forgive terrorists and extremists or say they are undeserving of their fates, but merely to humanize them. Humans can be sinful, reprehensible, wrong, ignorant, and misguided, but they are still human, and to cast them as the other is to deny them their humanity and make it easier to ignore the beliefs that motivate them. In our movies, the villains are often defined by their otherness through the hideous forms they are given: they are the alien invaders of The Avengers, who speak in subhuman snarls; the twisted cyborg Darth Vader, whose severed limbs and coffin-like suit make him less than a whole man; the mutated and scarred forms of Emperor Palpatine or Voldemort; or robots, non-human impersonators, like Ultron or the Terminator.

Their twisted otherness signals to us that they are the manifestation of the evil they spread, both its cause and terminus. It bloats and distorts them, taking away any humanity they may have once had. It is through the destruction of their bodies, then, that the world will be freed of their blight. Evil is not argued or reconciled with, nor is it absolved through diplomacy or consultation. It is smashed, stabbed, shot, bombed, and obliterated. The good guys, on the other hand, are specimens of physical perfection. Think of the sculpted bodies of Captain America, Superman, Batman, Wolverine, the unimaginable wealth and intelligence of Iron Man, Batman, Doctor Strange, their tenacity, discipline, and moral virtue, which most often manifests as a willingness to do what others won’t, to trust their own consciences instead of relying on the guidance of institutions.

Evil takes a form that is easy to identify and therefore rout. In the final movie of the Hunger Games series, the hero, Katniss Everdeen, says “We all have one enemy, and that’s President Snow. He corrupts everyone and everything. He turns the best of us against each other. Stop killing for him! Tonight, turn your weapons to the Capitol. Turn your weapons to Snow!” After the Emperor’s death at the end of Return of the Jedi, we see scenes of celebration from around the galaxy, as though the death of one man instantly freed a myriad of planets from the shackles of oppression, as though the Emperor personally enforced their subjugation each and every one. Evil displayed this way makes it impossible to fathom that our enemies might want the same things as us, like peace, love, and stable communities, and yet disagree about the best way to achieve them.

In short, these narratives tell us that life is good, and whatever social problems we might have are a small price to pay, because any conceivable alternative that does not align with our values would be immeasurably worse. There is some flexibility in our society—after all, we value individual freedoms above all else—but people who think truly differently from us represent an existential threat that must be not understood, but eradicated.

Evil is a useful concept because those we call evil deserve no further attempt at understanding or reconciliation. They are the other, they threaten our way of life, and not only are we free to destroy them but in fact are morally obligated to do so. So long as we continue to settle for the label of ‘evil’ and seek no further understanding, there will always spring up a new foe to be labelled as such, just as we can rest confidently at the end of every film knowing that however totally the villain was destroyed, another will rise to take his place. In his 20 September speech, President Bush said, “…Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” The war will not end until each and every foe is defeated.

This is war as Zeno’s Paradox. Each defeated foe, each successful manhunt or precision bombing, brings us halfway to victory, only to have another group spring up in their place. The target keeps moving back. Violence undoes, divides, destroys, in a primal manner that supersedes ideologies and is indifferent to country lines, ethnicities, religions, or cultures. Violence begets violence.

At the end of each film, evil is, if not routed outright, at least banished back to its shadowy haunts for a while. We leave the theater unambiguous about the world’s fate. Soon, we will return to watch it all play out again. Our movies mirror this truth: no matter what costumes our heroes and villains wear as they seek to destroy each other, they will always return to the screen next summer.

For more reading on this topic, I recommend the essay “The Tragedy of the American Military” by James Fallows. His thesis is essentially that the American people have become so distanced from the realities of the military that it has become almost an object of fantasy rather than composed of real people, with all their flaws and susceptibilities. He calls the United States a “Chickenhawk nation”, meaning the American people are “willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously”. In the story, he notes that our military is considered “the finest fighting force in the world”, and politicians and the press talk about it with “overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money”.

Like any good team of superheroes, it has the best weapons and technology, the most rigorous training, the deepest treasure chest—and, of course, the moral high ground. A retired admiral quoted in the story says that the military is professional and capable, but he “would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.”

Our culture, with its pervasive use of violence as entertainment in its movies, shows, and video games, glamorizes this narrative. The article also provides a good description of how the modern military-industrial complex unfolds, particularly the way in which politicians are heavily inclined to support the military because of the money that the research and production of new military technology brings to state economies.

EDIT 10 March: Here is another good article on this theme, written by a bomb disposal technician who has done tours in Iraq. He writes that “our country has created a self-selected and battle-hardened cohort of frequent fliers, one that is almost entirely separate from mainstream civilian culture”, and refers to the conflict in the Middle East as the “Forever War”, the longest conflict in American history, and one with no end in sight.