Friday, February 22, 2008

An Officer And A Gentleman: The Return Of American Militarism

I'd been meaning to write a piece yesterday about what I thought was my very insightful observation that this week's events in Kosovo serve as a sort of bookend for the "liberal hawk" movement that began with the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia and later passed through Afghanistan and Iraq, with less than stellar results. But Matthew Yglesias already got there in this American Prospect piece.

So instead I'm going to put the "liberal hawk" dynamic into the broader context of the rehabilitation of war as a foreign policy tool in the post-Viet Nam era, a theme which will allow me to trot out for the first time my "An Officer and a Gentleman" theory of American military renewal.

Of course, liberals were the last to sign on to the idea that America could use its military as a positive force in the world, and it took the crisis of conscience of the Yugoslavian tragedy to push them over the edge. The rest of the country had been seduced by the precision missiles and video game graphics of Operation Desert Storm. But it's easy to forget that before American triumphalism (reborn) could reach the sands of Kuwait, it had to pass through the moral vacuum of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the slapstick shores of Granada, and the cocaine-fueled police action in Panama.

The halting and tenuous progression from covert operation to training exercise to limited ground assault over the course of a decade illustrates the degree to which it would have been inconceivable in 1980 -- the year that Ronald Reagan proclaimed Morning in America* -- to deploy the American military (upon which any American resurgence depended) in a grand campaign. Not just because the nation would not have stood for it. The kids just weren't having it. Running against Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll for possession of the cannon fodder generation's soul, the old military virtues of discipline and self-sacrifice weren't polling so high.

Enter Richard Gere, tattooed and shaggy haired, on a motorcycle. Like the bastard child of Easy Rider, he's an outcast and a misfit, only instead of heading out to the counter-cultural frontier with its now-discredited promise of freedom and transcendence, he has turned back for one last chance to come in from the cold: OCS, Officer Candidate School. Upon his arrival, Gere's nemesis, Louis Gossett Jr., summarizes the moral calculus that has brought the candidates and the country to where they now find themselves: while he, Gossett Jr., was serving his country in Vietnam, they were off getting high. Now it's time for penance.

The rest of the movie, down to the theme song performed by a newly rehabbed Joe Cocker (Joe Cocker, for crine out loud), is a brutal rejection of the excesses of the wayward left during the Sixties. Love no longer ushers in the Age of Aquarious. It lifts us up to where eagles -- and not doves -- fly. David Keith's repressed perversion immediately signals him as the film's "hidden threat". And sure enough, it's his ultimate awakening to his "real self" (that Holy Grail of the self-actualized generation) that gives the movie its tragic turn, since it turns out that his "real self" is nowhere near as compelling for the town girl he's been romancing as his officer's bars.

Richard Gere, on the other hand, knows better than to let anything as insignificant as his authentic self (a seething cocktail of self-absorption and inferiority complex) get in the way of accomplishing the task at hand. And the task at hand is to restore the image of the military's patriarchal values, in this case by kicking Louis Gossett Jr.'s ass (actually his balls) in an Oedipal coming-of-age ritual, and by making military dress uniforms look sexy again. By the time he returns to the factory to sweep Debra Winger off her feet and onto the back of his motorcycle, he has embraced the value of the Army's tough love. Whereas the previous generation had let it all hang out, Gere rides off with the girl because he has learned how to suck it up.

A year after the film's release, American forces were braving the dangerous shores of Grenada. The long march that would culminate in the rise of the liberal hawks had begun.

*Thanks to Justin, I stand corrected. (Morning in America was actually Reagan's campaign theme in 1984.) See comments for why I left it in the post.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Foreign Policy   

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