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American Hero

American Hero,
by Larry Beinhart

From Chapters 23, 25 and 31
(edited by Gary Gordon for a reading)

[Note: This is an inspired book,
heavily footnoted, tremendously insightful and provocative--
much more profound than the movie version, Wag The Dog.
Please buy a copy today.]

(Beagle is a director hired by the U.S. government to create a war. To get a sense of what mobilizes people to want and support war, and what doesn't work, he sets up a studio and views war films...)

Beagle sat alone in the dark.

In front of him was a touch-sensitive computer screen. With it he could call up images or run entire films on any of the ten HDTV screens set into the curved front wall of his video room.

Having viewed thousands of hours of film and tape, Beagle had selected what he thought somehow defined the essence of America’s sense of itself at war. From the chosen images he had composed something that was between a history and mythology. A high-tech ten-screen version of the American Iliad. Now he was going to play that story for an audience of one, himself, in the belief that it would make him understand what sort of war he would have to direct to make his country happy.

Center Screen. Tearing Down the Spanish Flag. Just an image. A leitmotif. A trumpet call from a distant silence to start the epoch.

A flagpole against the sky. A pair of hands enter the frame. They take down the Spanish flag. They hoist Old Glory.

That was it in its entirety, shot in 1898 when America declared war on Spain. It was the first commercial war movie.

Then on Screen 1, up in the left-corner, appeared Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1934 documentary, Triumph of the Will. Hundreds of thousands of uniformed members of the Master Race march, turn, salute, stand, sing, heil! Hitler rants. It is the declaration of the German people that they have turned themselves into the machine that will rule the world. This is the image that they will sell to the world and the world will believe in even long after Hitler is dead and the war is lost.

On Screen 5, upper right-hand corner, the other beginning: December 7th. Quiet, peaceful Hawaii. Formations of Japanese planes appear, buzzing through the silent skies.

The sneak attack. The Japanese catch American boats sitting at anchor in the harbor at Honolulu. Battleship Row, pride of the American fleet, turns into the stinking black smoke ruin. Ships on fire. Sailors running. Two sailors with a machine gun fight back, firing at the sky. One falls. The other keeps firing.

Tearing Down the Spanish Flag was not shot in Manila or Havana. It was shot on a rooftop in downtown Manhattan.

It was a terrific commercial success. The producers, Blackton and Smith, followed it up with the more elaborate Battle of Santiago Bay, the triumph of the American fleet over the Spanish in Cuba. That one was shot in a bathtub. The battleships were cutouts and the smoke of the naval guns came from a cigarette puffed across the camera lens by Mrs. Blackton.

The gargantuan rally that Triumph of the Will showed to the world really took place. However, the rally was staged for the camera. This may not sound particularly striking today, when all life--personal life, sporting life, political life--is rerouted around prime time. But in the thirties reality was still presumed to be real and photographs didn’t lie.

Victory in the West came up alongside Triumph of the Will. Hitler’s armies smashed through Belgium and Holland into France on Screen 2.

One by one, Beagle filled the screens with images of the enemy triumphant.

On the left the Nazis marched into Paris, conquered Yugoslavia and Greece, North Africa, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.

Wake Island, the fall of Singapore and of the Philippines came up on Screens 4, 5, 9, and 10 as Japan marched forward (cowardly) and the Americans fell back (heroically). John Wayne watched the Bataan death march. The victors put the vanquished in brutal prison camps to languish and die.

Casablanca came up on the Center Screen. To Beagle there was something defining about it. In the rhythm of the history he was creating, weaving, imagizing, it deserved to come out of the dark and be center-screen. It was the moment of choice-- that’s what it was-- when we from selfish absorption to commitment. Everyone had come to Rick’s Café Americain; the refugees-- Czech, German, Jewish, Rumanian and more-- Loyal French, Vichy French, a Russian, and the Nazis. And everyone’s fate was dependent on what Rick decided to do.

Once Rick decided, all the images changed:

  • Screen 1: The Desert Fox
  • Screen 2: Battle of Britain
  • Screen 4: Empire of the Sun
  • Screen 5: The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Screen 6: The Nazis Strike
  • Screen 7: Divide & Conquer
  • Screen 9: King Rat
  • Screen 10: Bataan


  • Screen 1: Battle of El Alamein
  • Screen 2: Sahara
  • Center Screen: CASABLANCA
  • Screen 4: Destination Tokyo
  • Screen 5: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
  • Screen 6: The Rat Patrol
  • Screen 7: Sink the Bismarck
  • Screen 8: Stage Door Canteen
  • Screen 9: Stilwell Road
  • Screen 10: Flying Tigers

    By the end of Sahara, Bogart and his six guys, including Frenchie, a Brit, and a black Sudanese, had captured an entire company of previously invincible Nazis.

    Over on the right the United States began to strike back in the Pacific.

    After that, America was on a roll. There was no stopping it. It was half-real, half-myth, and the two were mixed shamelessly.

    Center Screen-- The Battle of San Pietro. ...Shot within range of enemy small arms or artillery fire. While all around the Center Screen men ran, leapt, dashed, charged into battle, the American soldiers fighting their way up the spine of Italy walked into battle.

    So extraordinarily ordinary.

    Bang! Planes were flying over Germany and against the Japanese. Real ones like Memphis Belle. Fake ones like Memphis Belle, the feature film that had been made fifty years later about the documentary. Twelve O’Clock High. Victory Through Air Power (Walt Disney’s endorsement of bombing civilian targets), Flying Leathernecks (John Wayne), Bombardier, which showed that we need have no moral qualms about bombing cities-- though that was one of the Nazis’ crimes-because our bombing was precise. How precise? The crewman says: “Put one in the smokestack.” Bombardier: “Which one?” Crewman: “Center one”. Bombardier: “That’s easy.”

    The Center Screen’s gone black again. But underneath it, Screen 8, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fight the war. Bing Crosby sings for war bonds. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Glenn Miller, Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope and a lot of girls with breasts and legs whose names have been forgotten. Bette Midler in For the Boys, sing and dance and make that war, which was the good war, just a bit more of a fun war.

    Center Screen. Next big plot point-- The Longest Day-- D-Day.

    Now the screens explode into action. Lots more color. Less black and white. More fun, less grim. The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, The Heroes of Telemark, Battle of the Bulge, The Bridge at Remagen, Operation Petticoat, Stalag 17, The Great Escape, War and Remembrance, The Guns of Navarone, Is Paris Burning?, Hell in the Pacific, Too Late the Hero, McHale’s Navy. Lots of stars, as if one of the secrets of the war was that they were all there, mixed in with the regular Joes.

    Fade to Black.

    Pause. Rest.

    Korea. Those mean, barren hills. The snow. Americans beaten. Americans in retreat. Not many good films out of that one. Not many films at all, in fact. Men in War. Pork Chop Hill. All the Young Men. War Hunt. Documentary footage. Clips from MacArthur. Nothing on the Center Screen. All the images were small.

    Cut to: Vietnam.

    Sound from Screen 2. A picture of a very ordinary-looking guy. “The first time that I knew I killed somebody was another incredible sense of power,” he says. “They were gooks, they weren’t like you and me. They were things.” This was a documentary. Frank: A Vietnam Verteran. “...Everywhere I went I had a weapon... Where else in the world did you have this kind of freedom? I was not Frank Barber. I was John Wayne. I was Steve McQueen. I was Clint Eastwood.”

    Revelation: No one can stand that much reality.

    Cut to: Fiction. Born on the Fourth of July. 84 Charlie MoPic. Gardens of Stone. Go Tell the Spartans. Hamburger Hill. Platoon. A Rumor of War. Full Metal Jacket. Casualties of War. It was not good. Legless cripples. Lies and mendacity. Burning children. Drugs. Drug addicts, crazed veterans with guns. The fiction was more garish than the news, but the story was the same. Rapes. Ambushes, booby traps, balls shot off. Burning huts.

    Had it been that bad? Had all the ideals turned to madness and sadness. Had Americans become the Nazis? Occupying a foreign country. Taking reprisals on civilians. Lidice become My Lai. It must have been the Luftwaffe flying those B-52s, doing to Hanoi what they did to Rotterdam and London.

    No progress, just morass. No conquest, just despair. Troops defying their officers, killing their officers. And their officers, mechanical monsters without, apparently, a clue as to how to win this war. Bigger bombs and small results.

  • Screen 1: Apocalypse Now
  • Screen 2: Friendly Fire
  • Screen 4: Who’ll Stop The Rain?
  • Screen 5: The Deer Hunter
  • Screen 6: Coming Home
  • Screen 7: Welcome Home, Soldier Boys
  • Screen 9: The Boys in Company C
  • Screen 10: The Visitors

    How did Americans go from John Wayne to that?

    Beagle went back to the preprogrammed montage. There was an inevitability to what was to come. There had been a second wave of Vietnam films. They had, by now, not just created, but established a revised memory of what had happened...

    Beagle punched up the Center Screen. Uncommon Valor came on.

    Gone were Platoon, The Losers, Gardens of Stone, Full Metal Jacket, all the high-brow, morbid and septic studies in self-hate.

    One by one, Beagle refilled the screens.

  • Screen 1: Missing in Action
  • Screen 2: American Commandos
  • Center Screen: UNCOMMON VALOR
  • Screen 4: Operation Nam
  • Screen 5: Jungle Assault
  • Screen 6: First Blood Part II
  • Screen 7: Strike Commando
  • Screen 8: RAMBO First Blood
  • Screen 9: Delta Force
  • Screen 10: The Hanoi Hilton

    Gone was the moral confusion. Gone was the defeatism. In the new films the Vietnamese were the bad guys, as cruel as Nazis, as treacherous and lying as Japs. The American invaders had become innocent victims. The answer to Rambo’s immortal question, “Do we get to win this time?” was a resounding “Yes!”

    That was it.

    “Do I have it?” Beagle asked himself. “Do I have a fucking movie here?”

    There it is. The central myth. America the Invincible. America the Good.

    Part of Beagle’s genius was the ability to overcome his intelligence and arrogance and cater, shamelessly, to a lower common denominator. The lowest, if possible.

    If football was what America thought war was, then a Beagle-directed war was going to be the goddamn Super Bowl. Unlike baseball, which used anticipation instead of action in the game, football no longer even needed the game. The players didn’t have to do anything. The fans did it all by themselves. Super Bowl was the most hyperbolic version of this effect: two weeks of hype, hysteria, waging, turmoil, media blitz, and ado-without a single block, tackle or penalty, without one ball thrown or kicked or carried.

    The game itself-that final, end-of-the-season, ultimate championship confrontation-was normally a dud. A blow-out. Yet it was never a disappointment. No game was bad enough to diminish the hysteria of the subsequent Super Bowl.

    That, Beagle now knew, was the pace and the shape of a war that America was going to love…

    The first thing Beagle did when he got [to his studio] was run villain footage. Hitler, Joe Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Kaiser Wilhelm, Jack Palance, Erich Von Stroheim. There was just one word, one definition of “villain”-- Hitler. Change the face, change the language, change the rant, but call the character Hitler…

    But the really interesting thing was that in the end the importance placed on the character of the villain was illusory. Bush had done a Hitler bit with Noriega and it didn’t play. Maggie Thatcher had done the Falklands without a bad guy and her splendid little war did splendidly.

    What did she have? She had Pearl Harbor!

    It wasn’t the villain, it was the villainous act, which found its most perfect expression in the sneak attack. Which was also the centerpiece of America’s mythology of itself: Mr. Nice Guy gets sucker-punched, gets off the floor, squares up man to man, turns out to be John Wayne and Mr. Sneak Attack wishes he’d never been born.

    He went back to the Vietnam scenario. He did not yet understand why he felt [it] was wrong… He started running Nam clips. It was clear in less than a minute: jungle. Americans didn’t like jungle wars. Americans liked fighting the Nazis. Americans like Germanic warfare. Mechanized. Civilized. Clean and dry.

    Yet, America had fought the Japs in the jungle. And that had been good. A lot of good films had come out of it. John Wayne had been mostly in the Pacific. There he was again, on Screen 8, in the only pro-Vietnam War movie ever made, The Green Berets, an old, fat John Wayne strutting around like it was still WWII.

    And that was the final insight.

    The real fundamental problem, the structural problem, was that Vietnam was Vietnam. It was never intended to be its own thing. To go back to Vietnam was to miss the point. The point was to be what Vietnam was supposed to be in the first place-a remake-- not for theaters, for television-- of 1942-1945: World War II Two-- The Video.

    He remembered an anthology film-- Going Hollywood, The War Years. It said something pertinent: “A war where there was no doubt about who started it or what we were fighting for or who were the good guys or who were the bad guys. In other words, it was a war that could’ve been written by Hollywood… Gone were the movies of the thirties with their screwball rich people, their fast-talking heroines, their wisecracks about banks, government, unemployment. The war canceled all criticism. A new and total wholesomeness pervaded Hollywood’s America. It was decided that the true character of the nation was just-nice. There were no demonstrations, no complaints, in nice America.”

    That’s what it was really about. The war was just a means to an end. World War II was the war that delivered the proper end. That was the America Bush wanted-- where rich people were respected, banks were good guys, nobody criticized, even the darkies turned out to be nice, and women kept their goddamn mouths shut.

    Beagle had chosen the film that America would make next: World War II Two, The Video.



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