Lone Survivor, A Review

by Michael Carson

Lone Survivor – one of the inspirations for this site’s earlier “Why Does Hollywood Love Navy SEALs?” post – has finally been released. Contrary to expectations, Americans do not seem to have war fatigue, at least with respect to war entertainment. The movie topped the box office last week at 37 million and shows no signs of slowing down in future weeks. Rather than discuss whether the war is in fact an extended recruitment video or an authentic portrayal  of heroism – which seems to be where the debate has settled – I’d like to comment on the role of authenticity in justifying failure and explore the continued cinematic appeal of dying well in a hopeless war.

Few critics deny the movie entertains – and all take a few moments to assure the reader that they feel the protagonists to be heroes – but some do take issue with what they see as a lack of context. Why did the soldiers have to die here, who is responsible for their deaths, etc? Maybe, these critics hint, the SEALs did not have to become heroes at all if not for someone else’s mistakes (this begs the question: is someone born a hero or made one through death?). Defenders claim that the movie offers an impressionistic take, an “apolitical” snapshot into a war fought bravely by brave men. They make the case that a good movie is not about context, but about the text, the facts (and boots) on the ground, which mean something in and of themselves. One review claims Lone Survivor might be the most scientifically “realistic” war movie of all time. Context, says another review, titled, somewhat confusingly, “Invincible Men Who Break and Bleed,” would muddle the movie’s “step-by-fateful-step study of human endurance.” The movie, these reviews suggest, is more of a study than entertainment, a faithful recitation of non-fiction fact.

A poem by Hugh MacDiarmid has long fascinated me for a variety of reasons that I will not go into here (feel free to picture me like Dorian Gray, re-reading it after deployment patrols in my make-shift attic/chu). Written in response to A.E. Houseman’s hagiographic “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” MacDiarmid’s “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” runs as follows:

It is a God-damned lie to say that these

Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.

They were professional murderers and they took

Their blood money and their impious risks and died.

In spite of all their kind some elements of worth

With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

What MacDiarmid writes is not false. What he claims is, in a sense, brutally honest. Of course, anyone not besotted by materialist ideology would see that while what he accuses these soldiers of might be superficially true – they did take money and they did volunteer and they did murder – it purposefully leaves out important aspects of the story; to frame the actions of the British regulars in this way misses that the soldiers had bought into an alternative ideology, one that instructed them that the entire civilized world would fall apart and all hell would break loose if the Germans defeated the British and the French at the first battle of the Marne.  These soldiers might have been misled, uncouth, and unimaginative, but they were hardly “worthless.”

MacDiarmid’s poem points to the utter inanity of claiming a two-hour movie about the Afghanistan war, an entertainment, to be an empirically verifiable science experiment where, depending on the parameters of the experiment (the numbers of Taliban involved, etc.) heroism can be deduced or found wanting. Some reviews have wrathfully dismissed criticisms of Lone Survivor, i.e. “it’s a God-damned lie” to accuse these men of being anything less than heroes by describing the movie as anything less than sublime. We will call these inverted MacDiarmids and treat them accordingly. But equally obnoxious are those critics that refer back to the reality of the experience, as if the fact of its happening (or not happening) automatically discounts questions about the mission’s success and the mission’s role in the war as a whole.  MacDiarmid’s poem serves as a helpful corrective here. It does not prove that mercenaries who fight and die in the name of democracy to be villains anymore than Lone Survivor proves that they should be feted like latter-day Achilles; but the poem does prove the relativity of honesty – that a portrayal can be straightforward and authentic and still be a God-damned lie.

Most people accept as a truism that all stories have context. The problem here is that context – twelve years of war, many American deaths, countless Afghan deaths, a broken country, shattered families, psychological trauma, often terrible leadership, sometimes incompetent soldiering, billions of dollars, the misuse of patriotism, etc. – does not make for an enjoyable story.  Movies by their very nature provide not just a willing suspension of disbelief, but a willing suspension of context, or perhaps a willing suspension of disbelief is just another way of saying a willing suspension of context. The majority of moviegoers go to a movie to forget about the world not to remember it.  So while detractors point out discrepancies and others argue that if the director had just stuck to the facts, it would have been all right, they miss the point. The debate should not be over the movie’s accuracy, but the extent to which it indulges our expectations, and whether we are ok with them being indulged in this way.

Kitsch comes in many forms and nothing is more kitsch than the idea that you can have an exclusive moment, an incandescent text, shorn of context – that we can sample the sublime on our own terms. Accurate wounds and realistic falls down mountainsides do not automatically surmount kitsch. Appeals to military records and eyewitness accounts do not negate it either. Continued self-referential asides like, “You can die for your country; I’m going to live for mine,” might seem refreshingly ironic, yet this facile irony ends up being a – particularly virulent – strain of kitsch. If we are not in a Disney movie, we tend to feel safe and among the world of realism and men; but we have made everything sentimental now – from war experience to hangovers to the Holocaust – by producing easily digestible lowbrow art to explicitly not think about the horribly complicated histories which we lack the mental resources or intestinal fortitude to confront.

Lone Survivor claims to capture the horror of war. What this really means is that it captured war in a horror movie format and then stuck patriotic candles in the finished product. The last movie to gross this much in January – a month traditionally given to mindless shoot-‘em-ups – was Cloverfield, an horror/action film where aliens come to earth and, as is their wont, destroy New York City.  I went to see it a week or two after returning from Iraq with another soldier from my unit. During the movie, the government calls in the US Army to kill the aliens. Over and over again they save the civilian characters. The task is largely hopeless, and the soldiers die brutally, yet there was something eminently satisfying watching them kill these obviously evil (and bug-like) creatures without inhibition and dying manfully in the process. My friend turned to me and said, “ah shit, we just got back.” We laughed. We thought we were enjoying a moment of irony, but in truth we were engaging in kitsch. We wanted to believe our war was as simple as this with obviously evil aliens who needed to die and we needed to die killing. Americans, we imagined, needed us to save them. The sentimentality made us feel good and it accurately and authentically reflected how we wanted to feel even if we were discussing a plaintively absurd – and imagined – alien attack and our dying at alien hands.

Rudyard Kipling, the literary giant who helped popularize jingoistic kitsch in patriotic adventure stories before the First World War, stories undeniably enjoyable, eloquent and ironic (often with endings where the heroes die), lost his son to a shell fragment in the First World War. After the war, he wrote a series of epitaphs for the different types of people killed during the war. One of the epitaphs he calls “The Common Form.” It reads:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

If we want to talk of heroism, of war, we should start with lying, not authenticity. We should not debate the number of Taliban killed at this or that particular engagement or if the bullet did or did not go through Luttrell’s leg, but we should ask who lied to whom and why the lying had to be done and if the lying was worth it. We should ask how much heroism has to do with lying to ourselves – as a society, as families and as soldiers – and why we love the lies. We should ask ourselves what self-evident truths have to do with these fictions and why we feel the need to turn them into bite-sized consumable experiences we indulge on our own terms. Above all, we need to question why we died, why we enjoy imagining ourselves dying – as Americans, Britons or Afghans – with so many corpses lying round; in other words, what is it about our lives and society that make these peculiar martyrdoms so attractive?