Entertaining or not, movies like ’12 Strong’ show the difficulty in trying to understand the Afghanistan War from within.
Another January, another film that plays off American fear of foreign invaders. Hot on the heels of 2017’s Patriots Day and 2016’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, comes 12 Strong, a film about the early days of the Afghanistan War. And it will come as a shock to nobody that critics aren’t exactly impressed with the movie’s historiography. The AP’s Lindsey Bahr, in an otherwise favorable review, notes that “politics and consequences, both before and after this mission, are of little interest to the filmmakers.” Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Nashawaty more openly dings the movie for its disinterest in anything other than “unfiltered American heroism,” noting that 12 Strong has zero interest in the “decade and a half of frustration, casualties, and ultimate stalemate that lay ahead.” Read what critics have to say, and a common theme occurs: perhaps 12 Strong is an appropriate vehicle for star Chris Hemsworth, but it is painfully ahistorical, a movie without any sense of the endless road ahead for American soldiers.
This raises a difficult question. As many critics have also pointed out, we are now in the 16th year of the Afghanistan War with no end in sight. This is a war that has persisted nearly three-times as long as World War II and a whopping five times longer than the Korean War. How, then, can Hollywood expect to make sense of a war without the necessary distance to evaluate it? Is it possible to make the definitive film about the Afghanistan War even as the conflict rages on in another country? History suggests not.
No American war has escaped revisionist histories or reevaluations of wartime themes. In 2014, The Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver offered an overview of how our culture’s perception of World War II had changed over time. During the war, he argues, the movies had erred on the side of being “patriotic flagwavers and somewhat hazy accounts of derring-do.” It wasn’t until the war had ended that the narrative began to take on a more introspective bent. Pulver points to movies such as Bridge on the River Kwai as examples that “began to undermine the sense of moral certainty around the war,” and a second wave of World War II movies began to treat the war’s veterans with more nuance and clarity. Films about post-traumatic stress, for example — like John Huston’s Let There Be a Light, a documentary about PTSD that so frightened the military they confiscated the print shortly before its world premiere — eventually became commonplace, and a generation of moviegoers were presented with a more nuanced version of the conflict than ever before.
But some gaps persist to this day. While recent films have explored the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in greater detail, many contemporary World War II movies were keen to wallpaper over the cracks in the facade of the All-American Man. “Through the 1950s, the troubled vet routinely surfaced as a character in film noir, often as the villain,” wrote Star-Telegram‘s Tim Madigan in an essay on the unwritten history of World War II PTSD, “[but] the lingering horrors of war otherwise retreated from the public conversation, often overshadowed by communism.” And then there are the countless films that focus on the whiteness of American soldiers, despite the many men and women of color who served. Steve Rose recently wrote about this in The Guardian, pointing out the complaints many had at the “whitewashed” history present in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and using Dee Rees’s Mudbound as an example of a more intersectional war film.
More recently we’ve seen this play out with the Vietnam War, a war whose cinema evolved quickly and violently to outgrow the jingoistic narrative present in many war films. John Wayne famously attempted to create a pro-war Vietnam movie with his 1968 feature The Green Berets, but contemporary reviews weren’t kind — the New York Times called it “vile and insane” — and history has been less kind still to Wayne’s government-sanctioned retelling of the war. Over time, films capturing the events of the Vietnam War focused less on the chaos of the overarching narratives and more on the concept of solidarity with the men around you. Film historian Steve Neale has described the country’s withdrawal from Vietnam as undermining the American “victory culture,” creating a void that made it difficult for Hollywood to process the meaning of the war. Many Vietnam War films became about the person standing next to you, the bonds of brotherhood that formed in combat, even when the combat itself failed to adhere to any morality or reason.
Still. As the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and even some of our most recent wars can lose their meaning without diligence. In college, I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Harry Haines, a Vietnam veteran who has worked tirelessly to resurface the experience of gay soldiers during the war. In 2014, Dr. Haines wrote about an alarming trend he saw in the current generation of would-be soldiers, describing how the “public memory of the Vietnam War has been hijacked to rationalize a new phase of aggression” against countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. “We don’t live in times that are simply dangerous,” he concludes, “we live in times that are seemingly absurd.” How can you write a history that continues to exist in present tense, that demands continued public support and good publicity from the home crowd? If even the Vietnam War can fade into obsolescence before our very eyes — if our own histories, written in ink, are twisted and reshaped — then what hope do we have of making sense of something as murky and confusing as the war in Afghanistan?
Perhaps we already know the answer. In his review of 12 Strong, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy notes that the film most closely resembles that Vietnam “classic” The Green Berets. Calling out the movie’s “simplistic, one-dimensional politics and lack of of historical perspective,” McCarthy ends his review with a delightfully back-handed piece of praise: “What they’ve made is, from the American perspective, a feel-good movie about Afghanistan, something it took Jerry Bruckheimer to figure out how to do.” There’s the only history of the movie that needs be written.