"Only you can protect us from these imaginary enemies! Join up today!"

I have watched a film called Act of Valor.

If you haven't heard of it, that ought to give you the idea.

Act of Valor features elite US soldiers playing themselves, and has the whole-hearted backing of the US military. Who, with their usual deftness, have once again managed to create propaganda that causes foreign viewers to cheer whenever one of the Americans in the movie gets shot.

Us foreigners aren't the target market for this film, of course. Young American men are. The purpose of Act of Valor is to get kids to enlist, and join the Warrior Brotherhood That Always Does The Right Thing No Matter The Cost and if you think that sounds hokey then you're not going to enjoy this movie's script. The stuff in between the firefights is sufficiently painful to watch that I'm glad I didn't pay to see this movie. It might justify a two-dollar rental fee.

I'd heard about this film, so I was expecting jingoistic bullshit with awesome action scenes, and that's pretty much what I got. Spoilers follow, but the plot's so formulaic that it's almost impossible to spoil. The Expendables is a plot-twisting masterpiece compared with Act of Valor.

(The Expendables also has more laughs. It is impossible not to enjoy Terry Crews' shotgun as much as he does.)

The great problem you have if you're making a movie about how US Special Forces badasses keep Americans safe from terrible people is that US Special Forces badasses almost never actually do that. They may keep other soldiers safe, and they may do nifty headline stuff like finally allegedly killing Osama Bin Laden (it's weird to me that there's so little interest from the conspiracy-theory types about how no actual public evidence that they really killed Osama was ever presented...). But guys like this can only actually directly protect civilian Americans if someone comes to America to attack those civilians.

Which hasn't happened for rather a while.

The US national-security bureaucracy and its various allied "terrorism experts" insist that there are many terrible plots that they have thwarted, and would no doubt make thrilling movies, but they can't tell us about any of them for reasons of national security. After Obama promised the "most transparent" administration in history, he has continued, and expanded, the Bush policies of classifying every document in sight and refusing Freedom Of Information requests because they're asking for "state secrets" (or giving you a document with everything redacted, or just lying and saying the requested document doesn't exist). The reason why you can't see the document, or learn about the many serious terror plots, is as secret as the documents and plots themselves. Even documents that are already public can now be retroactively re-secret-ised, which is a bit of an own goal as it lets the public see how innocuous classified documents now often are.

So sure, maybe a great and secret war is being waged against terrorists, or evil aliens, or demonic Nazis from the moon; who can say? I'd feel much happier if I could think that this is a good explanation of why the only thwarted plots that're ever made public are so totally lame.

You know the ones. FBI informant or agent encourages idiots to consider terrorist attack. FBI agent or informant provides plan. FBI agent provides fake explosive. FBI arrests freshly-minted "terrorists". Meanwhile, the TSA spends a lot of money and pisses off a lot of people and catches no terrorists at all. But they've got a big old list of people who are so dangerous they shouldn't be allowed on a plane, and also so cunning that no evidence to justify their arrest can be found; clearly, this system is for your own good, citizen!

Back in the real world, as I've written before, if you actually have a domestic terrorism problem, you damn well know about it. The USA does not have such a problem. So it's a little difficult to come up with an enemy for the brave soldiers in Act of Valor to fight.

Worse yet for the poor scriptwriters, if the bad guys actually managed to get across the US border, then deploying Special Forces badasses to kill them is illegal, unless you declare martial law. If you want to make a movie about that then the enemy has to be aliens or North Korea, aliens of course being by far the more probable.

You can get away with deploying soldiers within the borders of your non-totalitarian country if those soldiers are building sandbag walls in a flood or protecting black children from racist idiots in 1954. But just whacking dudes in the street while the police stand there slack-jawed remains, for some reason, unacceptable, even if the dudes being whacked are Muslims.

If I were writing the film I'd just set it in Ficteeonistan and have our heroes striking terrorist training camps or something, but I suppose even 18-year-old American boys must by now have noticed that people trained in such places only ever go on to kill Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, not in Florida. So the poor Act of Valor scriptwriters had to come up with a threat that was almost at home. You know, not at home quite yet, but... heading in that direction.

So in Act of Valor, you've got these Filipino Muslim suicide bombers. (Total Muslim suicide bombings in the Philippines since 9/11, and possibly ever: One. Total Christian suicide bombings: Also one - possibly accidental. The Philippines have seen quite a lot of other bombs - generally used by Muslims against Christians - but no bomb-vests to speak of.)

Act of Valor has two main bad guys, one a cartoonishly evil hardcore Chechen jihadi and the other a wealthy, vaguely Bond-villain-ish international drug smuggler who, for no reason other than that they've known each other for a long time, is cooperating with this other guy who wants to blow up a bunch of Americans. Perhaps the drug smuggler reckons that having the US populace stuck at home terrified of going out and getting blown up will... increase demand for cocaine...?

Anyway, the drug dude decides to lie low for a while because he's discovered the CIA are after him, but he doesn't mind if his known associate goes on to become Public Enemy Number Minus Ten Million for the entire population of the USA, because how bad could that be?

Bang bang bang, blah blah blah, this soldier's wife's got a baby on the way, gee I hope he doesn't suffer a glorious and honourable death in the single most clichéd way any soldier can do that, and now the suicide bombers are going to be smuggled into the USA through tunnels created and controlled by Mexican drug smugglers. Who for some reason go along with the plan, too, because Catholic dope-dealers who want a lightly-guarded and porous US border have so much in common with Islamist terrorists who want to turn the USA into a full-blown police state.

Being charitable, one presumes the Mexicans don't know what the stuff being smuggled into the States through their tunnels is. If they did, then they'd be the ones killing all the jihadis, and the Special Forces badasses could stay at home.

The good guys go on to stop the bad guys in a series of really quite good action scenes that kind of look like a few rounds of Call of Duty 9. Along the way, various soldiers playing themselves have to read lines that would drop to the floor like lumps of lead even if Daniel Day-Lewis read them. And then the credits roll.

(The acting of the soldiers-playing-themselves really is dire. This script would always do a miserable job of establishing characters, but... is acting really that hard? They're playing themselves, not King Lear. But never mind; just fast-forward through the talking, definitely through any of the talking when they're wearing civilian clothes, and you'll miss nothing. I find that this technique also turns Revenge of the Sith into a pretty good movie.)

Act of Valor contains a strange mixture of what I presume is pretty authentic military equipment and procedures, and action-movie clichés. Explosions, for instance, tend toward the Hollywood ball-of-fire, and everybody who gets shot, except one dude at the end, dies instantly, unless they are American. And a digital SLR camera with a consumer zoom lens on it somehow takes useful pictures of people miles away, and, more importantly, makes that motor-film-wind noise when it does it, even though most of the target market of young men who want to kill people have never even touched a film camera.

There are also a lot of beepy computer noises and moving-box special effects involved with the use of drones and other high-tech cameras. And a Binocular Shot or two.

The thing that stood out most for me, though, was that nobody, goodie or baddie, ever seems to question the core of the head terrorist's plot, which is that a bunch of high-powered suicide vests blowing up in major American cities will somehow cripple the whole country.

So... you Americans are pussies compared with Englishmen, right?

Because Londoners were famously stoic even when a whole country was trying to bomb them flat every damn night. Or, for a more recent version, England didn't turn a hair when the IRA kept shooting people and blowing stuff up. But suicide-bomb the Mall of America and the Precious Moments Chapel and watch the US... economy... crash... for some reason.

But heck, maybe it would. An awful lot of Americans just sort of lost their minds on 9/11, and many still haven't come back, despite the fact that Americans have to invade countries on the other side of the world to find some more foreign terrorists with an interest in attacking them. Perhaps a bunch of suicide bombers would be just what's needed to finish off the freedom and justice that are supposed to be the USA's hallmarks.

It's a weird sort of... aggressive cowardice. The USA is now so afraid of any terrorist attack or shooting spree that anything with flashing lights on it is treated as a city-paralysing bomb, drawing a picture of a gun gets you suspended from school, and half the country will take your side if you work yourself up into a hysterical frenzy over sharing a plane with some foreigners.

I wonder if the absence of actual domestic terrorists has something to do with the USA's ongoing erosion of human rights. If you'll cut down every law in the land to get at the devil, but there's not actually a devil out there to catch, you'll keep cutting down laws, and making publically acknowledged hit lists, and imprisoning people indefinitely without charges or trial... forever. There's no end-point.

What really blows my mind is that many of the people who're happy to trade any amount of freedom for alleged security against these un-detectable threats and abstract concepts, and who want to add "except for Muslims" to a surprising number of laws, also say that the US firearms death toll is an acceptable trade-off for the right to bear arms.

Six Three thousand people died in the 9/11 attacks.

An easy ten thousand a year die in firearm homicides in the USA.

That's unfortunate, say firearms enthusiasts, but it's the price of that right.

Well, yeah.

And the price of not groping, X-raying and partially undressing people getting on a plane is that people will be able to get on a plane with a Swiss Army knife, or a steak knife, or even a gun. But, as has been demonstrated on the numerous occasions when the TSA have failed to prevent someone carrying a gun onto a plane, that doesn't matter at all unless that person actually decides to use the gun, which they almost certainly won't, because the USA does not actually have a domestic terrorism problem.

(Exactly how many weapons the TSA has failed to stop people carrying onto planes is of course unknown. What we do know is that nobody's hijacked any planes with them. We also know that nobody could, since the universal assumption now made of any plane hijackers is not that they just want the plane flown to Cuba, but that they intend to kill themselves and everyone else on board. It doesn't matter if they smuggle light machine guns onto the plane now; when the hijackers have to change ammo belts, the remaining half of the passengers will beat them to death with their bare hands.)

And yet, according to many of the people who say ten thousand homicides a year is just the price of firearms freedom, no imposition on people's rights in the name of the War on Terror (or Drugs) is too great. Because invisible Islamists are lurking everywhere. And you, yes YOU, could be one of the incredible badasses that are all that's standing between Us and Them!

God, listen to me rabbiting on. As a reward for making it this far, here are some movies you can watch that are sort of like this one, except good.

Jarhead; not much action, but that's actually very much the point of the film.

Generation Kill; bleak, funny, actually realistic, and featuring one Marine playing himself who can actually act.

The actual documentary Restrepo, which has a fair bit of shootin' in it, and allows soldiers to be honest about why they're doing what they're doing, even if their answer is "fucked if I know!"

I watched Act of Valor yesterday. Today I watched The Godfather, because I'd never seen it.

The Godfather is about family, and honour, and power, and killing. So is Act of Valor, and I found the comparison instructive.

19 Responses to “"Only you can protect us from these imaginary enemies! Join up today!"”

  1. ThomasFerraro Says:

    Thank you.
    One point of correction: just shy of 3,000 people were killed directly in Sep 11 attacks.

  2. Stark Says:

    Oh come on it wasn't that bad... the acting may have been mediocre but the character arcs were... ok,I can't do it. It was terrible. I've seen better acting, and writing, at a 2nd grade christmas pageant.

    I'll admit I watched it, and enjoyed it, for one reason only. The fast boat extraction scene. Cause I mean, really, miniguns on speedboats.



    'Nuff said.

    (Well, ok I guess I should mention the amazing ability of people to crouch behind a medium truck whilst two mini-guns (!) are blasting the side of it and somehow not end up being minced where they stand. Apparently they invested in serious amounts of ballistic plating inside the vehicle)

  3. mech Says:

    A touch irrationally aggressively anti-American in this post Dan, what's the go? Out of interest, have you spent much time in the US?

    • michaelshewitt Says:

      Can't speak for Dan... but I have spent quite a bit of time in the US.

      It's quite fashionable in the political centre/left - a position that I consider myself to occupy - to US-bash; I make many people uncomfortable with my open liking for the place and its people.

      I'm hard pressed to think of an American of my acquaintance that I did not like - good, good-hearted people in the main.

      But I fail to see "irrationally aggressive" anti-American sentiment that you do in this post. Sure, some things might be uncomfortable to read if you are an uncritical observer of the US - but nonetheless accurate.

      What was Dan's thesis?
      1. the movie was a contrived, extended recruitment device
      2. the spectre of domestic terrorism is largely a fiction
      3. the American populace is at greater, verified risk from within due to the proliferation of weapons

      I've not, and will not see the movie, so cannot comment on the first. But the latter two seem pretty accurate to me.

      • MikeLip Says:

        Well, it's a little America-bashing, and even as an American I agree with many of the points made. I see that we are being beaten not by terrorists, but by ourselves, and of the goal of terrorism is to make us captive and blindly obedient to an overbearing government, then we ARE being terrorized on a daily basis by the people we elected. It sure saves the jihadists a lot of money on airfare! I'm not sure what happened to that fabled American courage, but it sure seems to have vanished, if it was ever real.

        • dan Says:

          "We stand for more freedom unless it's not a freedom we like, in which case we refer to its restriction as patriotism!"

          • MikeLip Says:

            Maybe I'm confused but I'm not really seeing how your comment relates to mine. It seems obvious to me and should be to any citizen of the US that terrorism was a godsend to our government. They can do more or less anything, do it in the name of keeping us safe, and jail us if we aren't safe enough. Perhaps we are here as a warning to others to not go where we are going. Good lord, I'm only 55, and in my lifetime I have seen a HUGE infringement on civil liberties and the dignity of people. It hasn't always been this way kids. It wasn't that long ago I got on an airplane to Boston with a 3" long serrated blade knife, with no comment from security. They knew I had it since the metal detector caught it in my pocket and they looked at it and handed it back. Oddly, the plane made it to Logan with no incidents.

      • mech Says:

        The bit that particularly prompted me to post:

        "You can get away with deploying soldiers within the borders of your non-totalitarian country if those soldiers are building sandbag walls in a flood or protecting black children from racist idiots in 1954. But just whacking dudes in the street while the police stand there slack-jawed remains, for some reason, unacceptable, even if the dudes being whacked are Muslims."

        It is (as you said) very fashionable on the left (and in Australia in general really) to bash the US. It is amazing to hear what people have to say about a country they've never been to and only have ever read about (and through quite a distorted lens).

        One acquaintance of mine has spent much of the past 10 years telling everyone who will listen how evil the US is and how ignorant Americans are, only to actually finally visit there and come away gobsmacked at how wrong his impressions were.

        As an Australian-American currently living in the US I am of course incredibly biased in my argument here. But I suspect Dan doesn't have the full picture and is being unnecessarily harsh. By all means there is plenty to criticize about the US, but it can be done without hyperbole that may have been meant in jest but is actually pretty offensive. People who think that all these criticisms are perfectly justified will of course think that it is not offensive. Just sharing my view - I don't think I'm going to convince anyone, I was keen to know how much involvement Dan actually has with the US though.

        • dan Says:

          Today's post may clarify my views.

          I am entirely aware that there is a remarkable range of local cultures in the USA, and that "Americans" are not really a generalisable group. I do not believe "Americans" are all ignorant Evangelical warmongers.

          I doubt, however, a trip to the USA would cause me to suddenly realise that the things US Presidents keep getting re-elected for doing have never actually been done.

          • mech Says:

            A trip to the USA might mean you're a wee bit nicer to the US in your posts ;)

            Damage.com: I know, hence me saying at the end of my post I realize it's in jest, but to me it crossed a line with how aggressively anti-American it was. Just sick of how people choose their targets - I understand why they do, but it still annoys me that in Australia the US gets a special place for whinging about how terrible it is, and little credit for the good it does.

        • damage.com Says:

          Well, I think that last sentence that you quoted--"But just whacking dudes in the street while the police stand there slack-jawed remains, for some reason, unacceptable, even if the dudes being whacked are Muslims"--is more sarcastic than came across to you. That is, Dan isn't honestly surprised that we don't shoot down Muslims here; he doesn't believe that we do, and he doesn't think we're that bad. He's cracking a sarcastic joke at our dainty reluctance to do so, rolling his eyes all the while. I think. I dunno, the guy plays with thermite and lashes buttloads of sparklers together!

  4. mech Says:

    (I mean outside of making fun of this obviously ridiculous movie btw, which sounds like it's fair game).

  5. havoc10mm Says:

    I haven't seen the movie myself, but I concluded it to be something similar to the review here. I'll catch it on HBO. Eventually.

    However, being that I am a citizen of the United States and would be considered by many to be pretty far right/conservative (including being a fairly prolific gun-nut), I have to say that I agree almost entirely with the latter half of the diatribe.

    The liberties taken (how's that for a double meaning) in the various wars on xxxx (drugs, terrorism, violence, poverty, speeding, drunk driving, car theft, religion, atheism...) are absurd. There doesn't seem to be anything that can't be justified for the chilluns.

    Yep, there's gun violence in the USA. There's all kinds of violence here. (lets not get into traffic fatalities) Blaming inanimate objects though? That's psychotic. Telling the 99.9995% of people that own guns (or fly on planes or dabble in intoxicants or whatever) that they aren't allowed to do or have something because the dangerous people (who would be varying degrees of dangerous regardless) MAY actually hurt someone? That's a FAR more dangerous proposition.

    Basically, all the people that scream for the government to do "something" about whatever pet-peeve they have, need to sit down and shut the hell up. Getting Congress involved is an extremely reliable way to make the problem a lot worse and waste enough money you need to use scientific notation to keep track of how much.

    If we quit voting, will they all go away?

    As for American courage? There's still plenty of it. But it generally minds its own business. So it doesn't hold press conferences or run for office. There are a lot of smart people here. Unfortunately, as a group, we're pretty damn stupid. (I'm sure it's like that everywhere, but you can't forget America Exceptionalism. Whatever we do, we tend to do BIG, good or bad.)

  6. Popup Says:

    Regarding the thesis that 'American gun proliferation leads to shootings', there's a lot to be said. While it sounds perfectly plausible, there's also a lot more to it.

    (There's the obvious counter-example of Switzerland, where there are more guns than in America, but much lower homicide rate.)

    Steven Pinker discusses the subject in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. There's a large internal variation within the US, with the north and north-east is on a level not too dissimilar to other OECD countries, and the south significantly more violent. He believes that there's a sociological explanation and claims that the US was 'modernized' before it was 'civilized'. In other western countries people gradually traded violence for safety and gave 'the authorities' a monopoly on violence, but in places like the Wild West there was no reliable justice so people did not give up their arms. This has then led to a society where 'self-help-justice' and 'honour' has become important and accepted.

    (Look also at the famous study where they called people 'asshole', (as popularized by Gladwell).)

    This quickly escalates into shootings if weapons are at hand, but the root cause is not the guns per se.

  7. Gridlock Says:

    How did you get 6,000 dead on 9/11? IIRC it was half that.

    A strange thing to be nitpicking about but there you go. And yes, we English just have a cup of tea and send in THE POLICE. When you encounter terrorists you treat them as criminals, not warriors.

    • JamesC Says:

      Oh and then we shoot them several times because they happened to have the wrong colour of skin. We brits might not be quite as nuts as the US but we're not far behind. Just look at the rights that the last government gave away and this one are.

      Ok we have had a domestic suicide attack however as pointed out we previously had decades of domestic terrorism and didn't seem to go as nuts about it.

  8. Romberry Says:

    Dan, thanks for this post and the follow-up. I'm an American citizen and a veteran of the US armed forces. Far from overstating things, you have hit the target dead on. The United States since 9/11 has lost its collective mind and seems to not be able to shred its Constitution and abandon the very rights and freedoms that so many of us thought made our country special fast enough.

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