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When Hollywood wages war: the myth of peace-loving American innocents triumphing over evildoers has long been a staple of Hollywood movies. But in the current war, Patrick McCormick warns, such simplistic movie plots provide false comfort and lead us astray. (culture in context).

IN THE MINUTES AND HOURS AFTER U.S. AIRLINERS cannoned into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, reporters and politicians looked for words to describe these horrors and give some comfort to their stunned audiences. Almost instinctively many of them reached for Pearl Harbor as an analogy, and by dinnertime nearly every anchor and pundit on the airwaves had made the connection.

The comparison to Pearl Harbor worked on a number of levels. Like December 7, this surprise attack on American soil came out of the sky in the early hours of the morning, caught our government and military defenses completely off guard, resulted in the slaughter of thousands, and embedded unforgettable images of carnage in our national psyche.

But the deeper appeal of Pearl Harbor is that we remember Japan's 1941 assault on Hawaii as the opening act of America's favorite and most successful war, that "good war" that transformed a second-class world power wracked by the Depression into a military and economic juggernaut. Talk about a second Pearl Harbor and a "new war on terrorism" casts Americans not as stunned and grieving victims of a massive terrorist attack but enraged innocents, awakened from our isolationist slumber and preparing for a holy and victorious crusade against international terror.

Indeed, the mention of Pearl Harbor and a new war tap into larger cultural myths about Americans as a peace-loving but heroic people, tough to provoke but impossible to defeat. In dozens of Hollywood thrillers the hero is a well-meaning innocent, an amateur who stumbles into the middle of some foreign intrigue.

This American bumbler usually lacks the cunning or polish of his opponents and makes some nearly fatal mistakes in the film's opening sequences. But by the movie's end our enraged innocent is always victorious, and the vanquished gang of foreign agents or terrorists rues the day they awoke this sleeping giant. As Captain Renault tells Major Strasser in Casablanca, "We mustn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918."

Hitchcock, the master of this formula, sketched out its rough draft in The 39 Steps (1935)--where the hero was a Canadian--and honed it to perfection in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959). Here Bob Cummings and Cary Grant play American innocents foiling Nazi and communist plots to undermine our way of life, and when Hitchcock tosses the movies' villains from the top of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, he is sounding a battle cry against all the enemies of his adopted nation and promising audiences everywhere that the United States will always prevail over her foes.

Half a century after these Hitchcock thrillers, Hollywood still likes plots about naive innocents fighting off foreign intrigues, though today's cinematic amateurs create much more pyrotechnical mayhem than Cummings or Grant. In the three Die Hard movies Bruce Willis is an off-duty cop with an uncanny knack for stumbling into nests of foreign terrorists and an even more predictable penchant for blasting them to smithereens. In Patriot Games (1992) and Air Force One (1997), Harrison Ford plays a CIA analyst and a president who take up arms against foreign terrorists and successfully defend the American homeland and way of life. And, of course, in Pearl Harbor Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play a pair of gee-whiz farm boys who grow up to be mighty warriors repelling the Japanese invasion of America.

In the movies, the myth of Americans as enraged innocents and an attack on our homeland (and its landmarks) always generates a call to arms. So the real-life assault on New York and Washington first evoked comparisons to Pearl Harbor and then triggered the media and the president's seemingly inevitable call for a war--indeed a crusade--against international terrorism. As Neal Gabler noted in a September 16 New York Times column, American audiences, long schooled in Hollywood films, know what follows such an attack: swift and deadly retribution. "American movies always end in catharsis--with the terrorists captured and order restored ... Americans believe the nation will triumph. We believe it because we've seen this movie before."

BUT REALITY IS MORE COMPLEX AND FRUSTRATING THAN A myth or a Hollywood plotline. So as our leaders have beaten our plowshares into swords and launched a protracted war against terrorism, we should take a long, hard look at America's perception of itself as an enraged innocent and ask if waging a new war is the best answer to our present troubles.

The characters in Hitchcock's thrillers may have been naive innocents who stumbled into foreign intrigues, and America in the early 1940s may have been a relatively minor player in geopolitics and the global economy. But 60 years later the U.S. is hardly an innocent or an amateur. During the second half of the "American century," we have been the 800-pound gorilla in global and Mideast politics and economics. The only remaining superpower, we have the planet's largest nuclear arsenal and are its premier weapons merchant.

We are also the greediest consumers of the world's resources and have been "McDonaldizing" the planet by exporting our consumerist society into every corner of the globe. As Joni Mitchell noted, we "pave paradise and put in a parking lot." America doesn't stumble onto the world stage; it swaggers.

And, unlike in the movies, our declarations of war have often been disasters. Korea was fought to a stalemate that has lasted half a century. And though the Gulf of Tonkin resolution gave "Landslide Lyndon" B. Johnson the overwhelming support of Congress for the war in Vietnam, over the next decade America's longest war proved to be LBJ's and America's Waterloo. Even after dropping more munitions on North Vietnam than had been used by all the combatants in World War II, we were unable to blast this tiny Third World nation into the Stone Age, into a surrender, or even into a draw.

And two decades into America's long-running "wars" on crime and drugs, we spend $40 billion a year to keep 2 million people locked up in the world's largest archipelago of prisons and use our tremendous military might to shore up Central American oligarchies with human rights records that would embarrass China, but we haven't made a dent in the price or purity of street drugs. Why would we be more successful in an international "war against terrorism," particularly one waged against a nation--Afghanistan--that proved to be the Soviet Union's "Vietnam"?

NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO POPE JOHN XXIII wrote that it is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated," and two years later the bishops of Vatican II called for an entirely new attitude toward war. In the U.S. these words have largely fallen on deaf ears.

American movies and politics continue to have tremendous faith in war and the use of force, though we are always urging weaker or smaller nations (like India, Pakistan, Ireland, Israel, and Palestine) to beat their swords into plowshares. Our politicians and pundits regularly urge us to respond to social ills like crime, violence, and drug addiction by waging low-intensity wars in our poorest neighborhoods, even though these wars have proven to be endless failures.

And a decade after the Cold War, the White House and Congress want us to put our faith in a missile defense system that could trigger a new arms race--and couldn't have stopped a group of low-tech terrorists with box-cutters. So it's probably no wonder leaders in Washington and elsewhere are now pursuing yet another interminable and undefined war.

It's understandable that in a moment of grief and rage we would reach for a familiar myth to give us some comfort and courage. But we can't let our decisions be governed by simplistic and misguided Hollywood plots that fuel our patriotism while leading us astray. This summer Michael Bay's big-budget Pearl Harbor turned out to be a terrible movie. Let's hope President Bush's new version doesn't prove to be an even bigger disaster.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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