[When former soldiers–this one, anyway–think back to combat episodes, specific episodes, often we get a serious case of the shoulda-couldas. We ask ourselves the big question: What if? And we are left with no answers. What if “he” moved left instead of right? What would he be like if he had lived? Would we be friends? None of that kind of reflection goes into a John Wayne Hero-pic. No trace of PTSD in the characters, ’cause everything turns out just right. The good guy, always Wayne, always wins.]
A Modest Proposal
Jen Hayden reported in The Daily Kos about California Republican State Assemblyman Matthew Harper’s proposal to declare May 26, 2016 as John Wayne Day in California. She wrote:
“The state Assembly defeated the official ode to John Wayne … after several legislators described statements he made about racial minorities and his support for the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee and John Birch Society.”
Now, I like John Wayne movies. Here is a little about one I like that he both starred in and directed, The Green Berets. This film is schmaltzy and could have been written by the Pentagon’s propaganda office. But there is one scene in the movie that is cinema verite to me. It is the scene at an ARVN camp where an American catches a VC spy stepping off distances of likely mortar targets within the compound. e.g., between the gate and the ammo dump. While the film is nearly romantic in its depiction of GIs, I patrolled out of an ARVN camp that looked nearly exactly like the one on the screen. No idealism on that mission.
My platoon operated out of there for a few days. We slept on the ground, defecated in a trench, and dodged mortar rounds that harassed us at night. And get this, there was a Vietnamese barber inside the bunker line giving shaves. I got one. I remember thinking at the time that this guy with a razor to my throat might just slip, but those were crazy times and I felt safe. At least, I didn’t care. Back to John Wayne.
Hayden’s article quotes liberally from an interview Wayne gave to Playboy magazine wherein he comes off, at minimum, as a raging racist and politically as far right as the late Charlton Heston, he of NRA fame. That doesn’t make him any less of an actor, but it does make us remember that there is a difference between people of character and people as characters. John Wayne wore uniforms of all services, usually with high rank, and he did the men he represented proud. But he was still acting.
John Wayne played heroes and we loved him, on screen, for his roles. The good guy in his proverbial white hat always saved the day, always overcame adversity, always did away with the enemy. The part that so many movie goers miss is that playing larger than life people on the silver screen does not transform a flesh and blood person into a real live hero. In his non-thespian life, Wayne never ran into a burning oil field, never fended off German U-boats, never fought his way up a hill to demolish a machine gun bunker. None of that makes him a bad man. It just doesn’t make him a hero.
Heroes and Heroines
Americans have a strange fascination with and misunderstanding of heroes and acts of heroism. Sports stars and movie stars morph from heroes and heroines to “idols.” In today’s all volunteer service we refer to the whole lot as heroes, thereby making the word meaningless. If everyone is a hero, then no one is. Yet, setting aside first responders for the sake of this argument, isn’t the military the likeliest place to define, find, decorate, and commemorate the brave? Yes it is, but they can sure screw it up.
There are plenty of heroes fighting our wars right now. Plenty. But sometimes the military feels it has to manufacture heroes, probably to help sell the necessity of a particular war to the American public, the voter, the taxpayer. And then the lies begin.
Remember Jessica Lynch?
Private First Class Jessica Lynch found herself in a situation she could never have dreamed she’d be in. During the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq Lynch and her Army Reserve maintenance company were ambushed. Lynch was knocked unconscious and taken prisoner. Media, aided and abetted by military publicists, turned this tragic incident into a pulp fiction novel in which Lynch fought off her attackers (lie) even though the M-16 she tried to shoot jammed and never fired a single round (truth). Although held in captivity for nearly a month (truth), she was never, as reported, tortured (lie).
There was no need to make up this lie. The truth is that Lynch and her company should not have been in that specific place at that specific time. First of all, they were reservists rushed into an unpopular war and asked to do things they were not trained to do. Second, they were a maintenance company, not a combat outfit. Third, they were lost. The Army screwed up. Instead of hanging the debacle on a scapegoat, as they may just as well have done, they wove a fantastical tale.
Remember Pat Tillman?
Although I have written about Pat Tillman recently, the highlights of his story bear repeating in this context. He was the fatal victim of fratricide in Afghanistan after having survived two combat tours in Iraq. The brass up Tillman’s chain of command simply could not (would not?) convey the truth of the circumstances of his death. Again, the truth panicked the Army and they chose to lie.
To her credit Jessica Lynch rejected the false adulation heaped upon her and even testified before Congress that her “story” was false. In this, she acted heroically. Pat Tillman left an enviable life to serve his country in what he perceived as its time of need. For this, he was a hero. John Wayne was a movie star.