Man on Fire

On September 24, 2004, CNN reported charges brought against three US Navy SEALS in the death of an Iraqi detainee, part of a much larger damage control investigation in the wake of the Abu Ghraib photo crisis ­ an investigation that has now quietly expanded to 222 abuse cases, 54 of which resulted in detainee deaths. One reason this particular set of charges managed to push the story back out of media limbo was the involvement of SEALs, who have become cultural icons. That’s why, before I try to explain what this latest investigation indicates, I need to indulge in a bit of cultural criticism.

Last September, just before I was off on a trip out of the country, my 18-year-old son brought home a Blockbuster DVD of the Denzel Washington hit, Man on Fire. I have avoided watching films that feature guns and fireballs on the marquees ever since I worked as the military advisor for the reprehensible Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage. But on this particular day, there was a three-hour space, and it seemed an opportunity to do something with my son that he wanted to do, even if it was just catching a flick.

Man on Fire was well-written, expertly acted, skillfully directed, and edgily edited with plenty of rattling cameras, whip-pans, and jump-cuts for a jaded generation raised on music videos and ‘reality’ TV. It is a modern filmic myth, perfectly suited to the Pyrrhic last gasp of the American empire. Washington’s character, a Special Operations veteran struggling with anesthetic alcoholism and the grim memories of his imperial adventures, is drawn into a complex Mexican kidnapping scheme as the bodyguard for a terminally intelligent and charming little girl ­ an American ex-pat child named Pita living in dark and dangerous Mexico City.

In an early reveal-scene with a former spec-ops colleague, a dissipated but likeable ex-pat, Rayburn, played by Christopher Walken, Washington’s character, Creasy, asks, “Do you think God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done?”

Rayburn replies simply, “No.”

This is a sly male-revenge-fantasy film in more ways than one. It uses the emotional manipulation of Pita’s character (brilliantly played by Dakota Fanning). There is an almost easy-going character development in the first half of the film that draws the audience in emotionally to Creasy’s guilt and pain, Finally, Man on Fire’s fine acting almost makes believable that favored film trope in the United States ­ the salt ‘n’ peppa buddy-team ­ always reassuring to America in its stubborn denial of our racialized reality. Washington is a black actor who has consistently had strong crossover appeal with white audiences.

The question about God’s forgiveness and the fact that Creasy carries, reads, and commits to memory portions of his Bible (which the cosmopolitan Creasy quotes in Spanish to a Mexican nun, before telling her he is a “lost sheep”) are combined with a hypnotic and elegiac background score that clearly make Hollywood-God one of the film’s main characters. And God intervenes with an epiphany for Creasy when he attempts suicide with his pistol and the bullet fails to fire. Drunk and crying in the pouring night rain with his favorite song, Linda Rondstadt’s Blue Bayou wailing away (I told you this film is manipulative), he calls his friend, Rayburn, and asks what it means when a bullet fails to fire not letting on that he has attempted to blow his own head off. Rayburn then shares some Hollywood-concocted spec-ops lore that “a bullet never lies.” This is Creasy’s road to Damascus, whereupon he becomes Pita’s surrogate father, as her own treacherous (Mexican) father plots to have her kidnapped for the insurance (and will die by the same truthful bullet later in the film).

Act II is Creasy and the child falling into filial love, whereupon Pita is kidnapped. Creasy is gravely wounded in a heroic attempt to foil the sequestration, the plan goes sour, and Pita is killed.

This is the cue for Creasy to become the instrument of God’s justice, of course, and even before he is mended from his ever more Christ-like wounds, he begins to hunt down, systematically (and even sexually) torture, and exterminate every participant in the kidnapping and ostensible murder of fair Pita. The audience is carried along on its well-massaged emotions, and we are invited to revel in the cruelty of Creasy cutting off a crooked Mexican cop’s fingers one at a time as part of Creasy’s interrogation.

In a fine imperialist flourish, the honest but ineffectual Mexican police stand aside while the American warrior Creasy delivers God’s justice in a lethal wave of violent masculine revenge energy, until the denouement when Creasy walks willingly to his death in exchange for Pita (who it turns out is alive after all), telling her he is going “home to Blue Bayou.”

Creasy, who believed he could not be forgiven by God, instead serves as God’s instrument of war and is redeemed.

“As one of the most pervasive forms of cultural narrative in industrialized societies,” writes Rosemary Hennessy in Profit and Pleasure (Routledge, 2000), “commercial film serves as an extremely powerful vehicle of myth To some extent the scripts that do get picked up manage to be supported because they already articulate a culture’s social imaginary ­ the prevailing images a society needs to project about itself in order to maintain certain features of its organization. This social imaginary is not simply encoded in a film or decoded by the viewer from the film’s formal structures. Rather, the mythic meanings of films are the effect of a social and dynamic process of meaning-making in which their production and reception participate. Any film text comes to make sense by means of the historically available modes of intelligibility ­ a variety of assumptions about reality ­ through which the spectator chains together the film’s signifiers into a meaningful story.” (pp. 144-5)

Linda Kintz, in her study of right-wing Christianity, Between Jesus and the Market (Duke University Press, 1997), calls this social imaginary the “national popular based not on content but effects.” Her thesis and subtitle are “the emotions that matter in Right Wing America.” (pp. 60-61)

In every proto-fascist conjuncture, there is a destabilization of both the material foundations of middle-class existence and its belief systems, and in those periods of destabilization, like our current de-industrializing post-modern period, there is “no anchoring effect to link emotions and desires to meaning.” (pp. 60)

But people need emotional attachment to something, and if one security-structure disappears in a period of dislocation they will seek out other meaning-making structures to re-anchor those emotions. The thing that the Right has well understood, and that the Left is only just now grasping, is that there is no persuasive appeal to critical thought or logic because these meanings are beyond the reach of tested interpretations.

“The intensity of mattering, while ideologically constructed, is nevertheless ‘always beyond ideological challenge because it is called into existence affectively [emotionally].'” (Kintz, pp. 61)

Robert Connell, writing in Masculinities (University of California Press, 1995), said, “In gender terms, fascism was a naked reassertion of male supremacy To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will’, thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier.”

“A bullet never lies.”

Emotionally resonant wisdom of a divinely sanctioned male death cult, manufactured by the way on the laptop of a script writer, who is not feeding the culture but interacting with it as it acquiesces to the slaughter in Southwest Asia we can revel now in the bombing of Fallujah.

In a sense, then, Man on Fire was the cultural recoding of precisely the rationale deployed within the American culture as the troops were deployed into Iraq. A mission, sanctioned by God to deliver his retributive justice, that rationalizes the suspension of ineffectual law in favor of raw masculine violence against the caricatures of Evil, and that might require that we commit torture and even murder to serve a higher call for justice and order. Creasy, disguised as a black man to divert us from the fascist content of this film, is the strong, violent father ­ a constant in the emotional cosmos of Mussolini, of Franco, of Hitler, and now

So we needn’t be shocked when we hear that SEALs are committing torture and even murder. Nor should we be taken aback when we discover that there are dozens of these cases that are no longer worthy of even page 10.

We have been studiously ignoring these realities ever since it came to light that Special Forces were supervising torture and massacres in Mazar-i-Sharif in November, 2001, ably and thoroughly documented by film maker Jamie Doran in Massacre at Mazar.

The same cultural interaction that combines producer and viewer as participants in the meaning-making of male revenge fantasy films, signals to ‘journalists’ what is and is not appropriate. If the story cannot be mapped onto the emotional terrain of imperial America, then it is not done at all. It is disappeared or spun as an aberration from our God-given destiny as bearers of the light to the deviant brown people of the world. That Denzel Washington is himself brown not only does not change this message, it gives it Ameri-nationalist cover a color decoy.

Rumsfeld’s own revenge fantasy organization is the ultra-secret P2OG, or Proactive Preemptive Operations Group, a Phoenix/MACSOG on steroids designed not only to respond to terrorism but to provoke it in order to justify a preordained response. As I’ve said in the past, you can be sure there will be no black operators among the actual P2OG because at bottom they will be considered unreliable. Sorry, Denzel. Special Ops is waaaay negrophobic.

Mere SEALs and Delta operators, unlike the Hollywood representations of them as paragons of diversity, are the units in the US military with the absolute lowest numbers of African Americans, as is the CIA’s covert operations branch. Only an occasional token and thoroughly hegemonized negro is allowed.

But we need all the myths in a basket, and Hollywood accommodates: Imperial myths, melting pot myths, and hegemonic military masculinity myths, to “articulate a culture’s social imaginary ­ the prevailing images a society needs to project about itself in order to maintain certain features of its organization.”

Those real features are the oil patch where the real military is obliged to do the real wet work, and the prisons and torture rooms that are needed to terrify the inconvenient population into submission. Without the myths, without Denzel’s tragic pose and truthful bullets and his willingness to saw the fingers off of Mexicans to get the information on time to protect the innocent from Evil, how are we to co-sign Abu Ghraib and Mazar-i-Sharif?

We aren’t even seeing the victims any longer; the corpses on ice while the young GI leers over the lifeless face, the naked bodies piled on one another, the hooded men hung by their handcuffs. (Zillah Eisenstein called the women involved in Abu Ghraib “gender decoys,” and it’s her I partially plagiarized above.) Thousands of new photographs have been repressed, and we get Man on Fire, redeeming himself before God with unspeakable violence.

Or we get Michael Moore, showing us the PTSD victim, blasted out of his skull on morphine, talking about becoming a Democrat. Everyone is spinning the soldiers.

In fact, Moore’s interviewee will probably not become a Democratic Party activist. More likely you’ll see him in five years ­ not as a redeemed warrior, but under a highway bridge with a cardboard sign.

But that does not make a comforting myth. We cannot achieve the cathexis we need here, the psychic and emotional attachment to the world that is “beyond ideological challenge because it is called into existence affectively.” No one wants an affective attachment without a happy ending. We are Americans, and we deserve what we have, and we are innocent as long as the blindfold is on.

We don’t know what is happening in Abu Ghraib and Mazar-i-Sharif, because we don’t want to know.

Vote. Take Prozac. Go to the movies.

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee. His periodic essays on the military can be found at http://www.freedomroad.org/home.html. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is bthn@mfso.org.

Goff can be reached at: sherrynstan@igc.org


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