For war movie aficionados, Red Dawn was much more than entertainment and story-telling. It was in some ways profound military, moral and geopolitical commentary. For this reason it’s possible for Jonah Goldberg at the National Review to maintain interest in this subject throughout a number of posts, amounting to a discussion thread concerning a war movie (admittedly a B grade movie from Hollywood’s perspective) on a major and well visited blog. It just isn’t possible adequately to summarize or reproduce the beginnings of the thread or its evolution (you can find the posts here, here, here and here). But the last one stands out as needing a response. A few salient quotes follow.
I hate the Soviets as much as the next guy. Well, actually much, MUCH more than the next guy since I actually had to live there for 25 years. Unlike you, I actually took an oath to defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic (during my naturalization ceremony). And unlike you, I actually voted for Milius (for NRA board). But I am less enthusiastic about the “Red Dawn” than a lot of your readers …
Some sentiments are very boneheaded. Remember the scene where a Soviet detachment tried to sneak upon Wolverines using a tracking device carried by the mayor’s son? They were defeated and the captured prisoners executed. In response to their mention of the Geneva Convention Patrick Swayze says “Never heard of it”. That’s just a callous answer and a much better one would explain that systemic Soviet violations of the Convention (depicted earlier in the movie) legally made the Convention non-binding for the American side too. Furthermore, when one of the Wolverines asks “What’s the difference between us and them?”, Swayze replies “We live here”. This is just monumentally stupid. By this logic in 1945 the Nazis were morally superior to everybody else because they were fighting on their own territory. I’m afraid this dialog will be repeated verbatim in the remake –
only the point will be made by the Taliban or by the Iraqi members of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Well, perhaps so, and perhaps there is no possibility that the remake of Red Dawn can ever be anything other than morally indignant given its origins in Hollywood. But this response above, while taking on the appearances of moral superiority, fails in one major aspect of ethics. It assumes that something, some action, some position taken by the U.S., cannot ring true because of its very origins, or have any deontological import regardless of the apparent ease with which the moral equivalence argument is invoked.
Let’s admit right up front that perhaps Swayze should have said something like “we are Americans and they aren’t” rather than “we live here.” It would have been better and easier to defend. But we shouldn’t expect too much from High School students, and his answer is good enough for a dialogue starter. At least he gets the sentiment correct. He doesn’t flounder in inaction and hand wringing over his moral right to defend himself and his family and friends.
Evil and excess will announce it’s presence in every endeavor given man’s moral turpitude. The fact that the U.S. has had some breaches of ethics in our history (very few of them, in fact) doesn’t make us comparable to the Soviets any more than it makes al Qaeda comparable to American fighters in the war for independence. Location is irrelevant; the theoretical framework for the action is everything.
Still need more? Okay. Let’s try this. Robert Kaplan’s magnificent book Imperial Grunts has a stunning introduction entitled “Injun Country” (one cannot claim to understand the global war on terror before reading this volume). It’s a very erudite discussion of the roots of imperial defense of the homeland, and not just for Great Britain. It’s orientation is America, and her defense began soon after she was a country by ensuring that her battles were on the periphery of the domain (or beyond).
The turn of the century found the United States with bases and base rights in fifty-nine countries and overseas territories, with troops on deployments from Greenland to Nigeria, and from Norway to Singapore. Even before the 9/11 attacks, special operations command was conducting operations in 170 counties per year. Defense of the realm is not a new phenomenon in American history.
The moral equivalence argument, if one wants to make it, is easier than simply pointing to a comment in Red Dawn. It’s also dumb given the profound differences between the U.S. and the Soviets. The Soviets wanted to control the world, just as Hitler did. Their aspirations involved complete domination, and no amount of adherence to rules of engagement, law of armed conflict or various conventions would have made them noble.
Conversely, the U.S. has never even once entertained the idea of ownership of the wealth of nations conquered during war or rule over her people. Even now the U.S. is spending wealth defending South Korea so that it can pursue its ridiculous “sunshine diplomacy,” and gives Japan an umbrella of protection so that she doesn’t have to go nuclear to ensure a defense against China. Do you doubt it? Jettison the umbrella of protection and see how fast Japan develops nuclear weapons. Also consider the costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom against a backdrop of the U.S. acquiescing to the notion of negotiations with Iraq to achieve a SOFA (status of forces agreement) for future presence of troops.
The U.S. has been a force for good in the world, and the Soviets have been a force for evil. The inability (or refusal) to acknowledge this is why Hollywood will never create a movie about Iraq or Afghanistan that does well as the box office. It’s also why, in the words of one individual with whom I have discussed these ideas, “it took me a while thinking about it, but after reading your posts, I’ve come to the conclusion that we and the Georgians are right and the Russians are wrong, simply because that’s the way it is. We are Americans and they aren’t. They are Russians. We have a right to defend our homeland overseas, and Russia doesn’t because they are an evil regime.” Sure, one can argue that the noblest intention can be marred by morally ugly actions carrying out those intentions, but that’s a reason to change those ugly actions, not the intentions or the campaigns.
While one may argue for isolationism and against intervention overseas due to various reasons (not the least of which is that there are unintended consequences to such actions), there are also unintended consequences to failure to act. For those who wish for complete disengagement overseas, they should be careful what they wish for. Battling jihadists on American soil may mean witnessing this evil in real time, with fighters gunning down women and children in shopping malls, suicide bombers at large industrial complexes and buildings, destroyed electrical grids and poisoned water supplies.
America learned long ago (at the time of expansion into the Western frontier) to defend her homeland by ensuring that her battles took place elsewhere. She also learned in short order not to make stupid moral equivalence arguments concerning men and regimes who intended evil for others.