The Real “Culture of Defeat”
At the Atlantic, Michael Vlahos described the video game Modern Warfare 3 as a harbinger of a growing “culture of defeat” fit more for a warrior culture in love with the spectacle of apocalyptic battle than a liberal democracy:
Hence MW3 is no parable of “The Long War” where U.S. soldiers fight for freedom and democracy among the outcast margins of civilization. Instead this is battle to the death with the Mordor of our age, a terrorist coalition lead by Russians that have brought fire and sword to the peoples of the West. New York in ruins, Paris in ruins, Berlin in ruins—yet unlike the ring saga, as our fighters lay waste to endless infestation, they lay waste to our world as well.
I have a different take, although I commend Dr. Vlahos for bringing such thoughtful analysis to a game that I mostly associate with angry, profane 12-year olds yelling at me through their headsets in the multiplayer mode.
First, MW3 is a poor candidate for the War on Terror cultural zeitgeist. The single-player storyline plays on fears about the fragility of our larger society that are frankly very old. When the terrorist protagonist declares (constantly) that all it takes is the “will of one man” to set the world on fire, the series taps into fears of ideological destruction from within as old as the French Revolution. There is little connected to the War on Terror beyond specific platforms and period-appropriate uniforms and weapons. The tired geopolitical plotlines (“Russian Ultranationalists” with nuclear weapons) are 1990s Steven Segal fare. Finally, as one commenter observed, the single-player campaign is not what most play first-person shooter games for. Focusing on the single-player mode would be like reviewing a movie solely through a detailed analysis of its trailer.
There is, in fact, a “culture of defeat” in American entertainment. And it has little to do with videogames. Post-Vietnam, post-Watergate American action and war cinema come with a bunch of embedded cliches, which I’ll bullet point.
- The government is secretly engaged in a morally transgressive conspiracy that goes up to the highest levels.
- The hero is either a morally conflicted agent of the state (or a former one) or a innocent victim of the state that fights back.
- The cause for which the hero thinks he’s fighting for is either an outright lie or fraught with moral peril.
- The hero risks becoming a bad guy in his fight against the villains, or is morally or psychologically polluted by his experience in a lost war.
Now, these tropes are all fairly old too. But they embedded themselves as a cultural reaction to Vietnam, Watergate, and the general sense of malaise and loss of faith in institutions. Even something as dumb as Predator boils down, in the end, to a CIA conspiracy that nearly gets Ah-nuld killed. Lethal Weapon and Rambo introduced the pernicious action movie stereotype of the out-of-control vet crippled by the horrors of war. Apocalypse Now made Vietnam into a kind of grotesque fantasia. These cliches are so widespread that it even has colonized the science fiction universe.
A generation of filmmakers also came of age during that period with pronounced antiwar and antigovernment biases. The Iraq and Afghan wars have seen a stream of movies and television series that reflected these tropes. Perhaps the most blatant mainstream product was Green Zone, a wish fulfillment fantasy in which a buffed-up Matt Damon exposed The Conspiracy Behind It All with the help of a pretty journalist and a bunch of nauseating shakycam action shots. Then there was the critically overrated Hurt Locker, with its portentous Chris Hedges quotes about war being an addictive drug and unrealistically autonomous EOD team. Even 24, an action series most see as jingoistic, reverted to the 1970s paranoid thriller formula of the government, not the terrorists, being the real enemy.
There is your “culture of defeat.” The blunt truth is that a good deal of Hollywood is predisposed towards seeing the worst about the US, its wars, and the people who fight them. The tragic thing about this very typically American formula is that it ascribes American strategic difficulties to deliberate and often conspiratorial moral perfidy rather than poor choices, incompetence, structural problems, or intellectual myopia. It’s, in a sense, hardly different from the kind of narrative that 9/11 Truthers push. These are films for people that somehow think the Iraq War was all about the oil.
It’s ironic that, given the fixation with Vietnam tropes, few filmmakers have ever bothered really to look at just how the US failed in Vietnam. One of the few films to actually do so was Phillip Noyce’s 2002 adaptation of The Quiet American. We can see the perennial American penchant for state-building as war strategy, naive faith in the ability of the US to solve deadly political conflicts through technocracy, and ineffective meddling in others’ domestic politics in microcosm through the character of Brendan Fraser’s aspiring democratizer Alden Pyle. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s certainly better than the vast majority of American Vietnam thrillers. When strategic outcomes have gone south in US history, its usually been the fault of the Alden Pyles rather than the Cigarette-Smoking Man.
Yes, there’s a culture of defeat in American entertainment, but it’s in the cinema. I’ll just play with Modern Warfare 3's angry gun-toting tweens instead of wasting my time and money at the movie theater.