Act of Valor, SOF, and Strategy
Last week, I saw Act of Valor with Robert Caruso, Dan Trombly, and Alex Olesker in a packed DC cineplex. This is a review-as-analytical essay, commenting not necessarily on the movie itself but the larger nexus of art, strategy, politics, and ten years of war.
First and foremost, Act of Valor is what its makers intended it to be: an operational demonstration of a unique—but fragile—capability the United States and a few select other nations possess. The film depicts Special Operations Forces (SOF) engaged in counterterrorism direct action missions. According to Roger Spulak, special operations are “missions to accomplish strategic objectives where the use of conventional forces would create unacceptable risks due to Clausewitzian friction.” Overcoming these risks, Spulak argues, requires a force “that directly address the ultimate source of friction through qualities that are the result of the distribution of the attributes of SOF personnel.”
As Admiral William McRaven argues, special operations direct action missions leverage the ability of a small group of highly trained individuals to achieve initial superiority over fortresses and numerically superior enemy forces through a matrix of sound planning, training, execution, and operational security. James D. Kiras warns against a belief that individual missions alone can have strategic effect as opposed to campaigns conducted in concert with general purpose forces (GPF) that maximize the relative advantages of both SOF and GPF. As the war film A Bridge Too Far graphically depicts, distributed elite light infantry without support from heavy forces do not fare well in war. SOF in the last ten years face less well-equipped opponents than the Wehrmarcht and have far more powerful standoff support options available to them, but the general problem certainly remains.
Kiras’ book, an adaptation of his PhD dissertation, argues that Allied decisionmakers misunderstood SOF in Northwest Europe WWII campaigns and wasted them on missions better suited for GPF. The true potential of SOF—which might have been better used to raise havoc in German supply depots and command and control nodes—was thus squandered. SOF generate cumulative material, psychological, and mortal pressure on opponents with raiding, stay-behind networks, and guerrilla operations. More ambitious roles for SOF have also been devised. The father of SOF, Orde Wingate, saw his Chindit force as an alternative to the grinding and purposeless Anglo-British slog through the jungle in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. SOF can also take the lead in Unconventional Warfare (UW) missions that involve the training and leading of foreign armies against enemy main forces or guerrilla armies. NATO and Gulf special forces probably (by the gist of the open source reports) helped wage a UW campaign against Gaddafi in Libya, helping to organize native forces on the ground in concert with tactical air support.
Act of Valor is squarely within the “handful of heroes” mode of SOF lore. As a Hollywood film, this is understandable. As much as reviewers of Act of Valor strove to distance the film from Charlie Sheen’s 1980s band of Ralph Lauren models-turned-commandos, the primary difference between Act of Valor and Navy SEALs is that the Act of Valor takes its subject matter seriously. Both films, however, depict the SEALs as engaging in operations with immediate and powerful strategic effect. In Act of Valor, the SEALs directly prevent what could have been a devastating act of terror against the United States and annihilate a Chechen-Ukranian-Mexican-Phillipino terror network. In Navy SEALs, a similarly threatening terror network is destroyed in a considerably more unrealistic fashion, but the direct action is still presented as “all-or-nothing” for dramatic effect.
In reality, the strategic effect of individual direct action missions is far more ephemeral. Even the killing of Bin Laden, while important from the framework of American politics, cannot really be said to be as large a strategic landmark in the War on Terror as the 2001 destruction of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The former was a single direct action, the latter a sustained strategic UW campaign that eliminated a government and dislodged a tenacious armed group from an important base of operations. What is unmistakable in Act of Valor is that this is a truly unique and rare capability that gives the United States strategic options other powers do not possess.
From the French and Indian Wars to today’s “shadow wars,” a combination of global power projection capabilities and a strong core of well-trained men gives the United States an ability to wage global special operations from the land, sea, and air. Though the film couches this capability within the technical language of HALO jumps and submarines, we shouldn’t forget that a certain 19th century “overseas contingency operation” in Libya was essentially a prototype UW mission headed by the elite warriors of their day. Even before the United States became a global power, it had global interests. It protected those interests by using special operations to accomplish what would be otherwise have been militarily impossible for the young Republic.
Act of War deliberately sidesteps the political debates surrounding the wars, counterterrorism, and the expansion of special operations forces themselves, if not entirely successfully. But criticism of its omissions has been rather overblown. While Alyssa Rosenberg argued that the movie would have been better if it explored “the question of whether we could avoid circumstances that create more opportunities to put SEALs—and all soldiers—in extreme danger” it is not clear that doing so would have actually made it a superior film. There are plenty of post-9/11 “issue films” that are little more than didactic expressions of domestic politics, treating Rosenberg’s question as an invitation for extended cinematic op-ed pieces advancing tired and sometimes conspiratorial criticisms of American foreign policy.
Hollywood has saturated the market with such films, and even ostensibly apolitical actioneers like Safe House end with the hero leaking to the media to spite what he believes is a corrupt and irresponsible government. The clear subtext of Safe House is that the real enemy is within—the terrorists who assault the complex midway through the movie are doing the bidding of a rogue CIA agent (another Hollywood cliche). Such films fail both artistically and politically by failing to grapple with the reality that real—and foreign—enemies exist, focusing instead on the alleged enemy within. Because these films only see the American government and its “rogue” agents as the enemy, they reduce complex global problems to narrow extrapolations of domestic political disputes and political paranoia. Since al-Qaeda, a dastardly group of killers straight out of Movie Thug 101 casting already exist, why do movies like Safe House continue to rely on the same set of tired conspiratorial cliches?
Some, like Green Zone and Lions for Lambs, are barbed criticisms of the George W. Bush administration, with Green Zone’s Matt Damon (who leaks at the end too) as a kind of cinematic Bradley Manning playing the role of the once-loyal soldier who decides to expose everything. Other films, like Syriana, while much more morally complex, are still direct homages to 1970s conspiracy thrillers that feel anachronistic at best in the 2000s. And when juxtaposed with foreign conspiracy thrillers like the Brazilian Elite Squad: The Enemy Within or Costas Gravas’ Z that actually take place in countries with a history of “deep state” politics and extensive corruption foreign to American shores, Syriana's homage to The Parallax View and The Conversation becomes even more out of place. Gripping, yes, but plainly a exaggeration of reality that appeals to the biases of those who would take Top Secret America's unintentionally hilarious fearmongering seriously. As Joshua Foust often writes, the truth is far more boring. The world does not need another film filtered through Julian Assange’s worldview.
One of the greatest strengths of Act of Valor as a film is that it also bucks a consistent trend in post-9/11 films by treating its subjects as professionals rather than making them mouthpieces for antiwar diatribes or casting them as damaged, unstable victims—cinematic cliches that both originated with the first crop of post-Vietnam films. As Alex Horton noted, even the best films about the Iraq War still cast their protagonists as loose cannons. Hurt Locker, Horton explains, goes much farther than poetic license in its portrayal of its complex antihero:
In one of the final scenes, the team is called out to assess the damage of a VBIED detonation. James spots a possible escape route for the triggerman, and in a wildly implausible decision, takes his team into three separate alleys in the dead of night. Shockingly, one of the men is nearly carted off by militants. Instead of a close call changing the way James thinks about his leadership, he keeps on with his reckless self. In the end he learns nothing. Of course, who knows what happens when he comes back to the FOB to find a stack of Article 15s.
Act of Valor has a kind of respect for its subjects that most other films genuinely lack. The SEALs are, while professional, still mortal, and suffer from the inevitably lethal results of fog, fiction, and the actions of their opponents. The Bandito Brothers’ reliance on amateur actors is actually a plus in this respect, and their clipped readings have an earnest quality that is more artistically effective than the nonetheless impressively choreographed and mostly CGI-free action sequences in communicating a degree of realism. While the film’s advertising highlights the realism of its action sequences, it missed an opportunity to take advantage of the cinema verite quality of its nonprofessional cast. Most of the viewer’s engagement with them, unfortunately, comes through a ponderous voiceover cast as a framing device.
This is not to say that Act of Valor can escape the politics of the wars even if its auteurs believe themselves to be politically neutral. The film, while not propaganda, originally began as a short training film and its vestigial origins are at times visible. And it not only highlights the existence and uniqueness of SOF but (rightly) demands the viewer’s respect and admiration for the men who make missions like Operation Neptune Spear happen. And while the film is essentially a montage of direct action sequences, it is not immune to larger political subtexts. Perhaps the biggest one is the film’s avoidance of Iraq and Afghanistan.
While clearly based on real and well-known operations (there is, for example, a direct tribute to fallen SEAL Mike Mansoor) the film shies away from depicting engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In her critical review, Rosenberg accuses Act of Valor of sneakily promoting a legitimation of endless war, as having the acts of valor “take place far from a war zone where we’re actually engaged lets the movie suggest that it will always be necessary for Marines to sacrifice themselves.” This criticism is bizarre, precisely because war films featuring such counterterrorist tropes were made well before the United States embarked in a war on terrorism, and the movie lacks the kind of expansive political endorsement of global war Rosenberg argues. Just because Act of Valor is not a damning, Green Zone-esque indictment of American foreign policy does not mean that it endorses intervention everywhere. But her criticism does raise a troubling question: why does the film seek to keep Iraq and Afghanistan at arm’s length? There’s a far more simple explanation than Rosenberg suggests.
It’s likely that the filmmakers are trying, clumsily and imperfectly, to separate the undeniable heroism of the SEALs from the tangled politics, policy, and strategy of the wars. But since the film is based on real life operations and makes protestations to realism, this separation feels artificial. And like it or not, the film simply cannot escape from the wars no matter how noble the motives of the filmmakers necessarily may be. There would have been no harm in depicting those operations closer to their original contexts, as nothing about Iraq or Afghanistan’s policy and strategy will ever diminish the heroism of the servicemen and women that fought in these theaters. The spy/action movie cliches that characterize the film’s main plot is not a suitable substitute for the heroic reality that the film attempts to depict.
And while the cartel war going on south of the border and the operations of Iranians and their proxies in Latin America deserves attention, but Act of Valor uses its Islamist-narco terror nexus in a lazy and clumsy manner that reflects the superficial way that Latin American security issues are generally treated in American domestic politics. At least the Mexicans at the film’s climax are portrayed as competent and brave men seeking to take back their country. The Mexican tactical operators portrayed are portrayed as equals to the SEALs, and every bit as heroic as the real Mexican Navy Special Forces units that strike fear into the hearts of even the most hard-boiled narcos. Such positive correctives are important to keep in mind even as we recognize the extent of Mexico’s security troubles.
For dramatic purposes, the film also advances the popular SOF image of the “handful of heroes,” failing to expand on the significant vulnerability the film highlights when the movie’s operators are wounded and killed by stray bullets and bombs. McRaven himself has warned about the perils of straining SOF to the breaking point. There is also little conception that an operational or strategic dimension exists to SOF within Act of Valor, which focuses its attention entirely on tactical direct action elimination of terrorists. How are SOF best used in a campaign? As a strategic tool, what are the strengths and limitations of SOF? Act of Valor is silent on those questions, as are most war films featuring special operatives.
Answering them might have meant a different kind of film than the finished (and financially, if not critically, successful) movie that the Bandito Brothers set out to make. But, if executed deftly with an ensemble cast, it might have been very interesting and useful. Mark Urban’s Task Force Black, the only decent open-source history of American and British SOF collaboration before and during the Iraq War Surge, would be a good candidate for adaptation. The book fluidly mixes campaign planning, strategic debates, policy keruffles, and detailed tactical vignettes. While Urban, a British journalist, does not shy away from the political and strategic dysfunction that produced the Iraq War, he is more interested in providing an accurate distillation of events than grinding an axe. There are certainly political, legal, and operational implications that flow from his description of SOF operations, but they flow effortlessly from a holistic reading of the text itself.
In other words, a movie a based on Urban’s book would not only be artistically of interest in its potential for a Traffic-like panorama that moves effortlessly from tactical operators to Whitehall and Washington policy grandees, but it also would be of great policy value. The attention-rightly or wrongly-lavished on Gilles Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers demonstrates that books are not the only things that can have a real policy impact. So any blog readers at the major studios—snap up the rights to Urban’s book ASAP. Don’t wait until Stephen Gaghan or Steven Soderbergh grabs it.
Despite comparisons to John Wayne’s unintentionally farcial The Green Berets, Act of Valor is not a ham-handed mistake. It is not a propaganda piece, though it certainly has a point of view. It has some flaws that go beyond the poor script and the flimsy plot that a different kind of film might have better addressed. But every director deserves the right to express their vision as they see fit, and Act of Valor is a formidable and genuinely moving realization of the tribute that the Bandito Brothers set out to craft. It visibly moved the jaded DC crowd that swarmed the opening night screening I attended. And that in and of itself is an immense accomplishment.