Remember the war in Iraq?
Sadly, I didn't think so. Between all the truly grave dangers facing our country -- the economic crisis, the election, Sarah Palin's wardrobe malfunction -- it's easy to see how a thing like a war, with real people dying, could get, well, misplaced.
But you can still see some action from the war, albeit fictional, at your local multiplex, where a three minute commercial for the Army National Guard plays like a coming attraction for a Gallup poll. I had gone to see a comedy, actually, but ended up with a first-hand look at how the powers of broad-brush painting can roll over more nuanced arguments like an armored troop carrier.
There's till time to catch Warrior, a high-octane, big-budget music video-cum-recruiting tool for the National Guard. According to a Guard press release, it's been showing on more than 3,000 theaters and on over 27,000 screens across America for the past month. If you go to see a PG-17 or R movie, you've likely run right into it. "Warrior" rocks, it rolls, and it takes a few liberties with the truth. But as government work goes, two out of three ain't bad.
The video pairs the songwriting of Kid Rock with the NASCAR heroics of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (John McCain's daughter, Meghan, said in an interview that she bonded quickly with Sarah Palin as the two sang Kid Rock songs together on the bus.) Together onscreen, Kid and Dale make a forceful case for the men and women of the Guard (actually, mostly the men), seen in intercut images patrolling the streets of an unspecified Middle Eastern village and, later, rescuing people from wildfires and being honored in parades. The message of service, loyalty and relief work is, of course, compelling.
Equally compelling, though, is the subtle subtext that Warrior shields. It's a neat trick for a music video to both honor the service of brave American troops and at the same time distort their mission just a tad, but Warrior manages just that. Nuanced, it's not, and the song's opening lines come in the form of a middle finger to anyone who's opposed the Iraq war.
"So don't tell me who's wrong or right when liberty starts slipping away.
And if you ain't gonna fight, get out of the way.
Cause freedom ain't so free when you breathe red, white, and blue."
I sat up in my seat. Don't tell me who's wrong or right? Did Kid Rock just say that? I was dumbfounded. Who are the "who's" he's talking about, I wondered. Liberals? Terrorists? Iraqis? Nancy Pelosi? Toby Keith sang much the same kind of jingoistic nonsense after 9/11 ("'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way," were the nuanced words he chose), but this time I was watching a recruiting film ostensibly paid for with my tax dollars.
Could the Pentagon folks behind this ad really be insinuating, after all these years of misdirected war, that it matters little who's right and who's wrong when our country's resolve is tested? I don't want to rain on the parade or anything but it does matter, Kid. Determining these things constitute the most basic due diligence a nation can perform before sending its troops into battle, and not getting "out the way," figuratively speaking, is, at last check, still a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy.
I forgot about unwrapping my Whoppers and paid closer attention to "Warrior." What a letdown, I thought, to see the heroic images of troops leaving their families onscreen being subtly co-opted to support such an inaccurate position. That this has apparently become an official stance of the Pentagon -- this is a high-profile, official recruiting tool, after all -- felt sad.
Back to our film. Onscreen, the troops are patrolling. They discover a cache of weapons in a house and tensions are running high. Dale Jr. is still racing and Kid Rock is still screaming. A soccer ball squirts out into the path of the American patrol. After an excruciatingly long pause, a Guardsman kicks the ball back to a young boy, who, with his big doe eyes, bears an uncanny resemblance to Elijah Wood in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Guardsman smiles, kid smiles and all is well with the world.
That such a tense standoff concludes with a sappy Mean Joe Greene toss-the-kid-the-jersey moment belies the fact that not all of these run-ins end so easily. Moreover, it struck me that the fictionalized mission of the Guard in "Warrior," even in three short minutes, seems to be as ambiguous as the current one in Iraq: drive around, look for weapons and don't accidentally harm or get harmed by any kids. Good guidelines, obviously, but they don't exactly make a case for war in real life.
More problematic is Kid Rock's delivery of the refrain, and the song's very title: "I'm an American warrior. Huh! I'm an American warrior, citizen soldier. Awwwwwwwww!"
It's the warrior part that struck me as odd. True, it's followed in the song by the slightly less melodic qualifier "citizen soldier," but the implication that American soldiers are descendants of the defenders of Thermopylae is misguided. It may be well-intentioned, certainly within a recruiting video, to pump up the troops with a cool moniker like "American Warrior," particularly for those ones who already own the DVD of "300," but the Army misses a basic point here: the United States is not, not has it ever been, a warrior culture. We're not Spartans and we're not Huns. American forces, most specifically the National Guard, are citizen soldiers, something the video tries to makes clear. But by subjugating that term to the more fearsome and steroidal "Warrior," especially in a film with nary a female soldier to be found, we make a potentially dangerous step towards self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, Spartans wouldn't have kicked the ball back to those kids and therein lies the difference.
As this unexpected coming attraction faded to black, I took a second to catch my breath. As movie theater ads go, "Warrior" is impressive. But while it tries hard to quickly conjure the feel of a film like Black Hawk Down, it also manages to evoke something the Army most certainly didn't intend--the 2005 marionette satire by the creators of South Park, "Team America: World Police," and specifically that film's profanity-laced theme song, "America, Fuck Yeah." That comedic ditty ends with a litany of hysterical shout-outs to just about every group Warrior seeks to reach for real: Wal-Mart, McDonalds, NFL, porno, rodeos, and, comically, sushi eaters.
It's difficult to knock a National Guard spot without coming across as unappreciative and downright unpatriotic. But I think of the comedian Mort Sahl, who once said that the title of a documentary about Wernher von Braun, the father of the U.S. space program and a man who also created the V2 rocket for the Germans, should be amended from "I Aim at the Stars" to "I Aim at the Stars (But Sometimes I Hit London.")
"Warrior" aims high enough but gets dragged down by its own weighty battle ax. A commercial imitating life imitating an animated puppet parody? That's nuance everyone can appreciate.