January is one of the few months of the Hollywood calendar without big movie releases. It used to be a post-holiday wasteland for dumping movies the studios didn’t want to promote. But over the last several years, this wasteland has turned into the season for patriotism, including important movies like “American Sniper.” A bunch of these movies have made a lot of money, because the market for patriotism is real, however disdained in Hollywood. So this year we get another one, “12 Strong,” based on the Doug Stanton book “Horse Soldiers.”
The book was a best-seller and it’s easy to see why: You’ve got cowboys and space age technology. At the same time, you’ve got a remarkable true story about Green Berets deploying to Afghanistan after 9/11 to prepare for the invasion. The first men to take the fight to the Taliban bring with them the American way of war — high technology, including new developments in airstrikes — but they have to fight in the ancient way in the mountain deserts of Afghanistan if they’re going to prepare for a high tech assault on the capital, Kabul. They are completely cut off from any protection or reinforcements and have to survive in what they call a “target-rich environment.” Failure would mean no one would find their bodies. A bunch of them are family men. They all take these risks.
In this ancient world of tribes and clans, we get to see that aspect of the American military that separates it most from the rest of society: honor. This is the reason we need these movies and it is what moves us each year to see them; this is why men buy all the new books written by Special Forces operators, as well as by writers who get a hold of a good story. At some level, Americans believe in honor; but it seems impossible to locate it any more in public life. Who is left to embody it? Who suffers for America in a way that leaves hope of success and even triumph? These twelve men and all the others like them. We cannot watch them without marveling at their virtues, but also at a society that breeds or at least allows such men to thrive.
First, this is a movie you should see. It’s well done, including shocking and thrilling action set pieces, and it is morally convincing, as true stories should be. It reveals things about America we can both be proud of and surprised by. It is also an implicit answer to the anti-military movies typical of post-Vietnam Hollywood. We see American troops, armed to the teeth, in a terrifying situation, in a savage world. How will they conduct themselves? In this story they retain their American ethics, the intelligence necessary to deal with every human and natural obstacle in their path, and the hope that there’s life beyond war, if they can make it that far.
The film owes its success almost entirely to the story and the cast. The director is new to the work and the writers rely far too much on cliché dialogue and movie conventions. But when it comes to seeing the manliness you want to see in a war movie, you get exactly what you’re looking for. You get the handsomest leading man in Hollywood, Chris Hemsworth, as well as fine actors like Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, and William Fichtner in supporting roles. You also get the most interesting actor-writer-director in Hollywood, Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the box office and critical successes “Sicario,” Oscar-nominated “Hell or high water,” and “Wind river”, which he also directed.
The story should remind viewers of Kipling’s famous “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Americans and Afghans of various ethnicities and faiths have to band together to achieve a common purpose in the story, however different their politics ultimately are. They have to forge bonds of friendship strong enough to trust each other with their lives, in full knowledge that, even with success, the friendship would be short-lived. There is much to say for the paradox of the situation, which is why a great writer would have been useful. We almost never see this in Hollywood movies anymore, just like friendship between men has almost disappeared, with the exception of war movies.
This is a movie I liked so much I wanted to improve its failures. That’s of course not possible, but I can help you when you go watch it. The failures of the dialogue are not a big problem, because it’s everything you’ve always heard in any number of other movies. It doesn’t stand out. The problem is that this obscures things none of us see much of at the movies and most of us can never see in reality, such as honor. The dialogue about honor is much less important than what we see about honor.
Some of these things we know. American soldiers are not prepared to look at how strange strangers are — they are friendly and can become attached when they are shown friendliness or when they see needy people they feel they should protect. This has both foreign policy implications and implications for American moral character. The soldiers act on American principles; they think they should solve problems for others. Their sense of their own powers is tied up with claims to do justice.
But their experience is particular and the rest of America doesn’t know about it, including the politicians and general officers who decide their fates. Without wanting to, Americans bring the American way of life with them even into a desert, even into a war. But most of the world and almost all warzones are not and cannot be Americanized. This is why American wars should be limited. The strains put on policy would become harder and harder to bear.
Others we might not know. These men find it very easy to abstract from their own private lives, including families, to a principle of justice at least as universal as America is great. They see 9/11 happen and they know they have to go fight. They’re people like anyone else, until they decide that they will prove their citizenship by killing the enemies of the country. As one of the men explains to his wife, you took a flight to New York a few months ago! It could be anyone you love the next time. Men can withstand war and even thrive; but not this sickening fear that people you love may be exterminated.
But, of course, it goes beyond the people one loves. The country itself is in need of protection. Just like everyone admires the military, but most cannot embody those same virtues, these men love America, but cannot quite grasp how vulnerable America is. Better take the fight to the enemy than deal with what it might mean for the fight to come to America. This doesn’t make for a good strategy, although it seems the right thing to do. And politically, it leads to a catastrophe: The more successful the military is at protecting America, the less the country understands why they’re necessary. Transforming war into the secret blessing and curse of these Homeric demigods in the special forces has bad consequences politically and socially.
This is explicitly the justification of the movie: The story, though true, was a government secret and had to be declassified to publish — but it had to be done, because Americans needed to learn the truth about how safety and freedom are protected. The movie also makes the same point when the letter written by the captain leading the men to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is read on TV. It’s not right to fight the nation’s wars without the nation knowing.
But, of course, publishing the truth then forces the government to explain what’s going on. Why the killing and dying is necessary and useful. What war would lead to what victory in order to return America to its pre-9/11 peace. This is the part that’s missing in the movie and in reality. We hear in the news now that Trump’s administration has so far been no more successful than the previous two presidents when it comes to victory in Afghanistan. It’s been 16 years …
Aside from the politics, there are all sorts of startling facts about the psychology of the men onscreen for us to ponder. The spontaneous anger that leads men to want to fight injustice leads them to take up pretty much any cause that’s compatible with their American principles. If you want to see the experiences that lead to mission creep, the change from a narrow mission to regime change, you will see it’s an all-American problem. It stems from the same psychology that allows these men to ally themselves with perfect strangers because they share honor and a dishonorable enemy. These American men can leave some of their American-ness aside for the sake of the American mission. This is also why strategy needs to address how to restore the pre-9/11 peace. That is the home to which Americans long to return.
Another thing you are not allowed to see, read, or speak in our polite world: sometimes you have to prove yourself in the military by killing people who need killing. Throughout the story, the intelligence and expertise involved in American warfare is emphasized. From the combat veteran sergeant who defends his captain, who’s never gone to war, because he has acquired knowledge; to the planning that makes the mission conceivable and which every individual Beret has to carry in his mind to make sense of the utterly foreign world he’s sent to; to the tactical improvisation and the daring diplomacy required of a captain who plays at being a small king or warlord in order to be able to deal with Afghan warlords.
Yet, for all this emphasis on knowledge, his men trust him because they know he’ll kill enemies without hesitation; and his allies don’t trust him until they see him do it. That’s the price of leadership — and all these soldiers have to live with that knowledge, unlike 300 million other Americans. This is important to know and to learn again and again in a peaceful society.
The greatest thing about the movie is showing the alliance between Afghans and Americans. The story highlights how strange the military is; how strange we all are, because of our American ways; how difficult our great successes are and how fragile from a strategic and political point of view. Everywhere, the political character of war — this is an American war fought for American purposes, among strangers — and the psychology of manliness is all the while on display.
I conclude with this suggestion: We admire these men and we want to see their exploits because we feel in our own lives the lack of some of their virtues. But we no longer have any experiences that could speak clearly to us about the origins and character of these virtues we call manliness or courage or bravery or heroism — and at the same time, we dilute all these words of praise endlessly, because none of us want to feel bad, as well as because we have to adapt them to lives of comfort and peace, not fear and war. But we need reminders, simply to understand what we admire and why.