War on Terror Westerns and the specter of imperial decline

by Shakti Jaising

Many in recent months have called attention to the U.S. government’s racialized and xenophobic rhetoric in response to both the Coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. In the early stages of the pandemic, Donald Trump declared himself a “wartime president” and spoke of defending the United States against the “Chinese virus.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] A few months later, the President and others referred to protestors of police violence as dangerous “terrorists” and called for military force to “dominate” them. The brutal state repression of these protests, coupled with the pervasive language of “terror,” led some commentators to conclude that the War on Terror had come home—and that we had entered a moment in which the U.S. government’s “rhetoric, legal framework, and military tactics developed over 20 years of the global war on terrorism” were being redirected against its own people.[2]

While it might appear that the War on Terror has only now “come home,” in fact, this imperial war has since its inception in the early 2000s generated an interlinked internal and an external dynamic, so that home front and battlefront have never been simply opposed to one another. In addition to increased military expenditure,[3] war has led simultaneously to the further arming of police forces within the United States.[4] Indeed, while the U.S. military has engaged in—what political commentator Michael Ignatieff, in the buildup to the Iraq War, termed—“imperial policing,”[5] police forces within the United States have come to resemble quasi-military units, especially in U.S. inner cities.

These developments are to a large extent the product of a neoliberal U.S. state that invests in “military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets” (Harvey 2). A neoliberal conception of the state’s role has meant privileging defense spending at the expense of spending on infrastructure and social services, including public health.[6]

In places like Iraq, imperial policing paved the way for U.S. state-backed “disaster capitalism” that, for a while, “breathed new life into the faltering U.S. economy” (Klein 14). Iraq’s public services were “raided,” as Naomi Klein notes, and made into “market opportunities” (6). Relief and reconstruction contracts were then farmed out to large corporations like Bechtel and Haliburton that feed the U.S. military-industrial-complex. Until the onset of the Great Recession of 2007-2008, this war-based disaster capitalism yielded “one of the fastest-growing service economies in the world” (Klein 15). Meanwhile within the United States, the arming of police forces led to intensified targeting of poor, underfunded, and racially segregated urban neighborhoods,[7] ultimately fueling capitalist takeover and gentrification.

But despite the actual linkages between domestic and foreign arenas of U.S. imperialism, political rhetoric as well as cultural representation have shaped imaginations through promoting a seeming “clash of civilizations.” Especially during the last decade, Hollywood has played a crucial role in animating this racist opposition—thereby distracting from military failures abroad and economic and political tension at home. In fact, when reading statements of top-ranking U.S. military officials in the recently released Afghanistan Papers, I found it hard not to think of Hollywood—for instance when these officials complain they did not know which “bad guys” they were fighting in Afghanistan. Here military officials express confusion about why the United States remains involved in Afghanistan and about what it has achieved after the government has spent $978 billion on the longest war in U.S. history. But their statements also betray disappointment— over not finding the clear “enemy” or antagonist they had been given to expect by government propaganda and by Hollywood’s narratives of moral, racial, and civilizational clash.[8]

From the unique vantage point provided us by recent events, this paper looks back at a key genre of the post-9/11 period —the War on Terror Western[9]—that exemplifies the ways in which Hollywood has kept alive faith in imperial policing, in spite of failed wars and imperial decline.[10] In particular, films of the last decade—such as the blockbuster hit, American Sniper (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014) and the relatively modest success, 12 Strong (Dir. Nicolai Fuglsig, 2018)—have helped revive waning faith in U.S. supremacy amidst the realities of military failures and economic collapse. These recent films have narrated the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by reactivating the affect of the post-9/11 moment, especially its fetishization of cowboy masculinity and its framing of the “Muslim world” as a frontier for U.S. expansion. But in addition to narratively defending the U.S. military-industrial-complex and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these films have “clash of civilizations” plots that obfuscate the economic context of those employed by the U.S. military, the largest public sector employer and a vital means of accessing healthcare and education in a nation committed to cutting and privatizing essential services.

Much of my emphasis in what follows will be on American Sniper, which not only enjoyed tremendous commercial success but also elicited much controversy. However, this film’s links with 12 Strong are also crucial to examine in order to identify the key attributes of the recent turn in cinematic representations of the War on Terror. Both American Sniper and 12 Strong deny the actual waning of U.S. dominance, which the Great Recession and now the pandemic and subsequent state repression have brought into particular relief. Ultimately, their nostalgia-filled, reactionary, and revisionist narratives of the post-9/11 U.S. wars lay bare—and hence allow valuable insight into— the cultural politics of an empire in decline.

The War on Terror Western

The Western genre has its roots in the United States’ history of settler colonialism. As Shohat and Stam have pointed out, Westerns typically

“place us at a historical moment when the penetration of the [U.S.] frontier is already well under way, … and when there is little likelihood that Native Americans will mount a successful resistance to European occupation.” (115)

Across these various settings, the Western plot involves a self-willed white cowboy rescuing “civilized” Europeans from native—deemed “savage”— populations in order to, in Richard Dyer’s words, establish and maintain the frontier “between established and unestablished order, a border that is not crossed but pushed endlessly back” (33).

After having enjoyed its heyday between the 1930s and 1960s, the Western “made something of a comeback in the United States in the post-9/11 period” (Kollin 28). The Western’s conventions provided familiar language and iconography through which U.S. politicians and cultural producers framed the War on Terror. In the days following 9/11, President George Bush Jr. instrumentalized his Texan background to model himself as a modern cowboy who could capture Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive.” At the same time, mainstream media framed the New York fireman as a cowboy figure,

“a guardian of the homestead, a manly man… particularly suited to protecting and providing for the isolated American family in perilous situations” (Faludi 286-287).

Subsequently, political thrillers including television series like 24 (2001-2010)
as well as films like Taken (Dir. Pierre Morel 2008) and Argo (Dir. Ben Afleck, 2012) drew on the codes of the Western, often by featuring “U.S. hostages… in need of a liberating cowboy hero …[to] bring them back home safely” (Kollin 4). Moreover, if the traditional Western drew on and perpetuated Frontier mythology, based on “the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation or displacement of the Native Americans who originally inhabited” the United States (Slotkin 10), then with the start of the War on Terror this Frontier mythology was re-invoked and “‘Indian country’ …relocated overseas” (Kollin 23).

The 2008 film Taken exemplifies some of the ways Western codes were being nostalgically revived in post-9/11 cinema.

Like Taken, Argo’s plot revolves around U.S. hostages in need of cowboy intervention.

The resuscitation of the Western in the immediate post-9/11 context enabled a cultural defense of the U.S.’s political and economic incursions into the Middle East and South Asia. But the genre was being invoked in these early years not merely for the purpose of justifying war. Susan Kollin notes that some cinematic releases of the first decade of the War on Terror drew on the Western’s settings and character types in order to raise questions about the genre’s fundamental opposition between savagery and civilization that was born out of the U.S. history of settler colonialism. For instance, In the Valley of Elah (Dir. Paul Haggis, 2007) raised questions about the “personal and social costs of sending sons to war” (Kollin 154); and The Hurt Locker (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) “unsettle[d] divisions between savagery and civilization” (Kollin 163), by sensitizing viewers to Iraqis’ daily experience of war. Such films channeled the anti-war sentiment expressed by large numbers of people in the United States and around the world.[11]

The 2007 film In the Valley of Elah drew on conventions of the Western to question war. Katheryn Bigelow’s 2008 release, The Hurt Locker questioned the cowboy masculinity of its protagonist, a U.S. soldier in Iraq.

By the second decade of the War on Terror, however, such questioning of war had been disappeared from U.S. cultural production. In this decade public opposition to the U.S. wars was muted— symptomatic of the retreat of the anti-war movement, and growing resignation to unsuccessful, endless militarism, especially amid mounting economic insecurity in the aftermath of the Great Recession. With military failures on the warfront and economic desperation on the homefront, the U.S. government used the capture of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 and subsequent troop withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 to shift public discourse and promote the perception that the War on Terror had ended successfully—even though deadly air raids and drone attacks continued as the U.S. military struggled to contain new terrorist formations like ISIS.

This state-promoted perception of a successful end to war allowed Hollywood writers and producers to risk putting out more conventionally entertaining war narratives. In a few months following Bin Laden’s capture, director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal—with the active assistance of the CIA, Pentagon, and the White House[12]—produced Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a critically acclaimed and commercially successful thriller about the Americans who led the manhunt for the Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bigelow’s film became the highest grossing War on Terror film at the time of its release—making way for a spate of commercially successful, patriotic narratives that in effect rewrote the story of post-9/11 U.S. military exploits.

In the coming years, while the U.S. economy appeared to be in a state of permanent decline, War on Terror dramas moved from being commercially risky to potentially profitable. For example, the television series Homeland (2011-) played out reassuring scenarios of conflict between white American “civilization” and Muslim “savagery.” Simultaneously, film releases like Lone Survivor (2013) offered thrilling action sequences set against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s desert landscapes. Although, as the Afghanistan Papers have revealed, top U.S. military officials did not understand what the U.S. military was doing in Afghanistan and contested the notion that the U.S. presence was improving life for Afghans, television shows like Homeland and cinematic thrillers like Lone Survivor registered few signs of uncertainty or ambiguity.

The female cowboy protagonist of the television show Homeland (2011-) shows no signs of uncertainty regarding the war in Afghanistan. The 2013 Afghanistan-based thriller, Lone Survivor exemplifies how war cinema in the second decade of the War on Terror became more conventional and also more profitable.

With the December 2014 release of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, the fetishized cowboy masculinity of the post-9/11 period was refashioned into profitable entertainment. American Sniper broke box-office records, surpassing even the World War II blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan (1998). [13] It gave the lie to what one reviewer called “a film-industry truism (and, one imagines, a studio-boardroom cautionary tale) that movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan perform poorly at the box office.” [14] Warner Bros. sold this Iraq war film—based on former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir[15]—as an apolitical, “personal story about soldiers,” and the studio “aggressively courted members of the military and veterans groups” by “hiring Glover Park Group, a leading Washington-based consultancy firm.” [16]

The controversy that subsequently arose—around whether the film was glorifying war, or was anti-war as Eastwood and scriptwriter Jason Hall claimed[17]—only added to American Sniper’s marketability. In the United States, the film proved to be a hit among both liberal and conservative audiences; outside the United States, the film’s success was enabled by its blending of action/thriller conventions with those of the classical Western. In addition to the film’s connection to Eastwood, a former Western hero, American Sniper invoked the Hollywood Western through its construction of Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a present-day cowboy, rugged individualist, and exceptionally skilled sharpshooter from Texas[18].

The success of American Sniper gave way to a host of conventional war narratives, including 12 Strong, a triumphalist portrayal of the Afghanistan war, based on the non-fiction bestseller by Doug Stanton, Horse Soldiers (2009). With its iconography of horse-riding cowboy-soldiers, 12 Strong recalled the classical Western and was received as a new version of this genre.[19] Although nowhere as commercially successful nor as debated and discussed as American Sniper, 12 Strong is nevertheless also engaged in rewriting the story of the post-9/11 U.S. wars; the film, moreover, repeatedly reminds viewers of the truth value of the events it represents.

Whereas earlier War on Terror films like The Hurt Locker included brief domestic scenes and shots of street life that suggest a clash between war and everyday life, 12 Strong—like American Sniper— features only hollowed-out buildings and social relations in the areas occupied by the U.S. military. Indeed, both of these recent war Westerns make it hard to imagine domestic life in the Middle East and South Asia lived prior to or amidst war. Further, if The Hurt Locker—like In the Valley of Elah—raised questions about cowboy masculinity, then American Sniper and 12 Strong uncritically celebrate this masculinity. In fact, American Sniper and 12 Strong reactivate post-9/11 nostalgia for the “manly man” and “guardian of the homestead”—indicative of a reactionary and revisionist turn in War on Terror fiction film.