April, 2003, Simona Garibay receives a U.S. flag during funeral services for her son, Corporal Jose Angel Garibay, a native of Mexico awarded posthumous citizenship and buried with military honors.
Jarhead's poster features a "dog tag," which guarantees that a soldier may be injured or killed but his body will be brought home and honored for its service to the nation.
The drill sergeant tells the recruits they have no racial identity, only a military one.
Glory depicts the U.S. Civil War's first all-black volunteer company, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment serving under white Colonel Robert G. Shaw.
Glory has well known black actors, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, and develops racial issues complexly but ...
... still uses actor Matthew Broderick as its white male protagonist.
The poster for Windtalkers shows visually the same imbalance, putting Nicholas Cage in the foreground. Here the subtitle further emphasizes the dehuminization of the Navajo soldier: "The Navajo has the code. Protect the code at all costs."
The Navajo language was so complex that it became an unbreakable military code.
But Cage remains the hero.
The special discursive status of minority-ethnic soldiers fighting for the United States has received a new focus in the war on Iraq. The U.S. government has shown an increased willingness to grant posthumous citizenship to "non- citizen" soldiers killed in U.S. military service (full citizenship not being prerequisite for entering the Armed Forces); the majority of these non-citizens belong to ethnic minorities in the United States. In April 2003, the Senate passed a bill awarding immediate citizenship to non-citizen soldiers killed in combat, and since 2004, a Presidential executive order has also made it easier for families of non-citizens killed in U.S. military service to apply for citizenship. Thus, in the war on Iraq, the ethnic-minority soldier's (dead) body became an official pathway to U.S. citizenship (i.e. "sanctioned" U.S. identity). In the light of this current situation, I would like to look back at Hollywood films to consider how they have presented issues of ethnic minorities in the armed forces, and in particular at the depiction of a Mexican-American soldier fighting clandestinely in Nicaragua in Haskell Wexler's Latino (1985). I am interested in tracing how that characterization bears comparison to and differs from the new situation of non-citizen soldiers becoming citizens through dying in Iraq.
Embodying military, ethnic and
Alex Vernon notes in his introduction to Arms and the Self,
As an extraordinary experience, war must challenge the sense of self of those who conduct and endure it: War can harm a person's body and soul; it uproots people, destroys their physical environment and human relationships, confronts all involved in it with violence and suffering, and often the need to inflict such suffering themselves. To a soldier – in particular a professional soldier – the relation between "arms and the self" may have an even deeper existential significance than for the civilian undergoing war.
The military determines a soldier's identity at all times, in peace as well as war. Soldiers have to define and clearly proclaim their affiliation to the collective they serve, and to absorb the value system of this collective into their personal sense of self. In a symbolic sense, the soldier's person is a "body politic,"[open endnotes in new window] i.e. personal identity amalgamates with the soldier's public role. This special relation with the nation is marked by the uniform the soldier wears on his or her "natural" body – which may be injured or killed but will even then retain a political function when this body is brought back to the soldier's country and honored for its service to the nation.
As will be argued here, soldiers' relation to the collective is particularly acute where they serve a country in which they belong to minority-ethnic communities and thus face possible marginalization and othering. They have to willingly risk their natural bodies for a national body that might otherwise reject and eject them.
The representation of ethnic-minority soldiers has a long tradition in U.S. film. After World War II, the "ethnic platoon" (or more aptly, the ethnically mixed platoon) became a conventional ingredient of U.S. war movies. More recently such a script convention shapes the film Jarhead (2005). This film, based on Anthony Swofford's autobiographical account of his experience as a Marine in Gulf War I, opens with a sequence in which a drill sergeant tells recruits that from now on their existence will be defined by one allegiance only – their identification with the military and specifically the Marine Corps. This (African-American) staff sergeant tells his WASP protagonist and comrades,
A later scene in Jarhead, when reporters interview the soldiers , shows that being "green" implies exhibiting patriotism and, in the case of Hispanic soldiers, also gratitude. Ramón Escobar, from Miami and with a Cuban background, professes that joining the Marines "was an opportunity for me to defend America, the country which has given freedom to me and my family"; his Mexican comrade Juan Cortéz from Delano, CA, says he's proud "to defend my country and to serve my country." However, as a film highly critical of the military and contemporary warfare, Jarhead demonstrates that the U.S. Armed Forces are not the great equalizer they pretend to be and that ethnic differences among the marines persist despite the troops' shared experiences and strong sense of bonding.
In Jarhead, as in most other big-budget U.S. war films, the status of ethnic-minority soldiers plays a marginal rather than a major role. Films foregrounding the issue, such as Glory ( 1989 ) and Windtalkers ( 2002 ), are exceptions. The former film presents the U.S. Civil War's first all-black volunteer company (the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment serving under white Colonel Robert G. Shaw). The latter has a plot about Navajo Marines trained to use an unbreakable radio code based on their native language during World War II in the Pacific and their relationships with white comrades who act as their bodyguards. The two films have as a major narrative thread that ethnic-minority soldiers have to fight prejudices as well as the enemy but nevertheless prove their valor and loyalty to the common cause. The scripts have as a theme the need to (re)inscribe the war contributions of ethnic minorities in the nation's historical consciousness, and they indicate that these contributions were shaped, in each instance, by experiences unique to the respective racial group, including that group's specific history of injustice and discrimination. Glory has been acclaimed for its complex portrayal of these issues, while Windtalkers failed, according to most reviewers, because of its reliance on stereotypes. And in spite of their "race themes," both stories still focused on a white central protagonist. As Roger Ebert, reviewing Windtalkers notes,
So far, only "minor" productions have depicted the status of ethnic-minority soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces by using ethnic protagonists , and most of these films have not reached wide audiences — nor attracted academic interest. A film that is especially interesting to take a second look at is Latino, a low-budget independent production of the 1980s that depicts the dilemma of a Mexican-American soldier sent into an operation in the United States' covert war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Although the film was written and directed by Haskell Wexler, not by a member of the Mexican-American community, its script remains firmly focused on its Latino protagonist and the Nicaraguan people with whom he gets involved. The film was partly shot in Nicaragua while the conflict between the Sandinistas and U.S.-backed counter-revolutionaries, the Contras, was still in progress (some of the extras were actual Sandinista fighters). As an independent – and politically partisan – production, the film did not enjoy much theatrical distribution. However, it received a special honour at the Cannes festival in 1984 and was shown on U.S. television. And Chicano studies scholar, George Mariscál (305, n. 20) notes it as "the only film to date whose protagonists are Chicano Viet Nam veterans."