12 Strong: American Exceptionalism in movies
Anthony Fu, Dr. Austin A Mardon
December 23, 2022
Venture for Canada, Antarctic Institute of Canada
The War on Terror campaign, launched by the US in response to the attack on September 11, has become the longest war in US history. It cost the US alone over $20 trillion and the death of over 6600 US military personnel, while many other countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, suffered even more monumental losses–millions were displaced, over 900,000 deaths, and major cities obliterated. Since then, new scholarship has focused on why the US reacted with such intensity (Holsti 2010, 381). Within the academic community, some scholars have engaged with the theme of exceptionalism to explain the drastic change in US foreign policy. While the term “exceptionalism” is not rigorously defined, “American exceptionalism” primarily describes the unique but consistent way Americans perceive themselves and the rest of the world; more specifically, Americans view their government and people as inherently more virtuous. Concurrent with, yet independent of, these events has been an increase in scholarship on the relationship between popular culture and world politics and a widening acknowledgement of the effects one may have on the other (Robinson 2014, 451). As Kangas argues (2009), “popular culture and international relations do not exist in isolation” and artefacts of popular culture serve to connect the politics and the public (322).
To connect American exceptionalism and popular culture, this paper will examine and connect the movie 12 Strong to existing scholarships on US produced movies to examine the methods by which American exceptionalism is manifested and propagated. This paper argues that the depiction of War on Terror, specifically through the depiction of American families, local Afghans, and the Taliban, in US war films perpetuates American exceptionalism, which ultimately promotes the War on Terror campaign.
Popular culture and world politics
Since the end of the Cold War, the field of international relations witnessed a surge of interest in popular culture as a new type of research material. Scholars have recognized popular culture’s potential in introducing new perspectives to examine international relations (Robinson 2014, 451). For instance, through his examination of popular culture, Nick Robinson revealed essential characteristics of “American exceptionalist thinking” that had not been identified by previous research (459). Furthermore, there exists extensive literature on the relationship between popular culture and international relations and the significant influence one may have on the other.
Firstly, popular culture serves both as the limit and origin of official politics. Not only does the plausibility of government actions and policies “depend on the ways in which the public understands international politics,” the official vision of international politics is also “constructed out of the resources offered by the society” (Weldes 1999, 118). The medium by which politics is understood and constructed is the “mundane culture of people’s everyday life” (Weldes 1999, 119). Secondly, as Kangas argues, popular culture “plays a significant role as sources of knowledge of politics and society,” as it renders official documents and policies sensible to the public (322). Popular culture and international relations, then, do not exist in isolation.
While scholarship on the theme of exceptionalism can be found centuries back, it has not been rigorously defined by the academic community. In the case of the USA, exceptionalism is considered a core concept that underpins American nationalism and generally describes the USA’s perception that its nation and people are more virtuous than others (Robinson, 2014, 455). Kalevi Holsti identified the sources of American exceptionalism in its constitutional settlement, religion, history, and “assumed superiority of its political, economic and social institutions” (398). Holsti also outlined some key characteristics of American exceptionalism (384-96):
A responsibility to liberate others. This consists of three components: a perception that the USA’s political and economic institutions are superior; seeing entire societies as suffering from corrupt or malicious governments; and the belief that the only way to save the world from totalitarianism is the universal implementation of the American system.
The alienation of non-Americans. Those that are considered outside of the Western world are often portrayed as uncivilized, violent, and inferior.
Victimhood: the USA often sees itself as a victim, uniquely targeted by malicious forces. American militancy is regarded as reactionary to the evil forces, which are often portrayed as beyond reason or negotiation, and is never the source of international insecurity.
It must be noted, however, that while these characteristics are interconnected, they do not necessarily always appear in all cases, nor are they mutually exclusive. Various circumstances may exhibit different characteristics of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism and 12 Strong
In this section I will analyze 12 Strong and explore existing research to explore how these characteristics of American exceptionalism can be manifested through films. The film was selected because of its success as a war movie and its connection to the American government. Not only has the film grossed over $70 million worldwide and was nominated for People’s Choice Awards of 2018, but the film also received abundant support from the American government, in the form of training and equipment from the US Special Forces. The movie tells the story of a team of US Special Forces, led by Mitch Nelson, that was sent to Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11. The twelve men team was tasked to work alongside Afghan general Dostum, earn his trust, and ultimately defeat the Taliban forces in the northern region. The analysis of the movie will be focused on the depiction of American families, the Afghan General and his troops, and the Taliban.
A distinctive characteristic of American exceptionalism is the presumption that America is the target of the evil forces and the subsequent notion that America’s use of violence against those evil forces are naturally justified. As Terence McSweeney (2014) argues, war films often focus on the negative effects of war on American families, most notably the separation of family members, and portray Americans as the main victims (4). 12 Strong depicts the separation of family through the interaction between one of the protagonists, Hal Spencer, and his family on the night before deployment.
While packing up for deployment, Hal’s wife approaches and tells Hal: “I’ll love you when you get back”. Together with crossed arms, a disappointed expression, and a poorly lit room, this scene promotes melancholy and conveys to the audience two important notions. Firstly, deployment–both the dangers that come with it and the separation itself–means that the wife is burdened with not only the concerns of Hal’s safety, but also the sadness that separation naturally entails. This is so insufferable that his wife “cannot love” Hal while he is away. Secondly, the lack of surprise and drama in the wife’s reaction shows that such moments are not a rare occurrence and American families are, quite unfortunately, commonly subjected to such sorrow.
Before exiting the scene, his wife says to Hal: “you tell him, I’m not doing your dirty work for you again”. It is later revealed that “him” means Hal’s son, who walks in right after, clearly upset, to say farewell to his father.
Hal: Hey buddy
Hal’s son: Leaving?
Hal: Yeah, I got to go.
Hal’s son: How long?
Hal: Don’t know.
Hal’s son walks away in disappointment.
Hal, with a smile: Hey, you know I love you right?
Hal’s son turns back to look at Hal one last time but doesn’t say anything.
Throughout the interaction with his son, Hal rarely makes eye contact with his son and looks mostly at the ground, while his son, upset as he was, stares into his father’s eyes. This scene conveys to the audience Hal’s guilt of leaving his family again and the disappointment that Hal’s son feels. Additionally, Hal's smile when he told his son he loves him shows an attempt at consoling his son, which further adds to the melancholy. The cumulative effect of these portrayals, as McSweeney states, is “the depiction of the American soldiers as the principal victim of the war on terror, not the Iraqis and Afghanis who died in their hundreds and thousands” (4).
Alienation of Non-Americans
An underlying theme within American exceptionalism is the hierarchal depiction of Americans and everyone else, where the USA is perceived as the pinnacle of human civilization and others, especially those outside of the western culture, are seen as inferior. Arabs in American films, as Jack Shaheen (2003) argues, suffer from “systematic degradation and dehumanization” that is “deeply ingrained in American cinema” (172). They are often portrayed as rude, uncivilized, threatening “others” that are fundamentally against American values and they often have limited spectrum in characterization (McSweeney 2014, 2). 12 Strong reiterates these stereotypes through its depiction of not only the Taliban, but also General Dostum’s army that the protagonists are supposedly in alliance with.
Throughout the film, all Taliban warriors are dressed in all black burqas and, apart from the leader of the Taliban who is mostly shown with a terrorizing grin, there is no depiction of their emotions whatsoever. Additionally, to further alienate the enemies, the movie shows the Taliban leader asking terrified young girls spelling and math questions, only to confirm their education level, then executing their teacher in front of them. During the final battle of the movie, the Taliban leader once again epitomizes pure evil by executing his own soldiers that were abandoning their post. Despite having minimal screen time, the Taliban is portrayed as inhumane as possible.
Contrary to the blatant and unapologetic dehumanization of the Taliban, the degradations of the Afghans on the American’s side are more subtle, where their differences are presented in their mannerisms. Soon after American supplies were air dropped to their campsite, local Afghans are seen grabbing everything they see, while the protagonists, equally in need of the supplies, must negotiate with the locals to “buy back” their supplies. Furthermore, when handing over a bottle of vodka as a gift, Mitch leans forward and uses both of his hands. The General, on the other hand, picks it up with one hand without even looking at Mitch or expressing gratitude. Later, when tension in the room arises, two of General Dostum’s soldiers immediately bolt up and start pointing their guns at the Americans, while the movie shows only one American soldier responding after. These scenes present the Americans as more polite, calm, and restrained, and General Dostum is characterized as rude and unorganized.
Obligation to save others
The justification behind America’s prolific intervention around the world is the belief that America is superior, and it is responsible for disseminating freedom and democracy around the world. As Stacy Takacs (2014) demonstrates, War on Terror is often depicted as “humanitarian intervention” and a “show down between good and evil”, where the US motive is nothing more than to “eliminate the bad guys and then come home” (154). In 12 Strong, American military interventions are shown favorably; they are seen as an integral part of the liberation of Afghanistan and are received with praise and gratitude from the locals.
Despite only having twelve men, as opposed to General Dostum’s two hundred plus, the US tactical team is depicted as the central force against the Taliban. During the first battle, Mitch is engaged in close range gun fire with the Taliban. But as the rest of Mitch’s team moves up to support him, only three of General Dostum’s troops are seen fighting alongside, while the rest, including General Dostum, watch from a distance. The importance of the tactical team is further emphasized when Mitch and his team are greeted by the locals in the city that they liberated. Locals have moved their cars to the side of the road, creating a path for Mitch to go through, and many locals are throwing roses and waving at the US soldiers. Through such positive depictions of US military intervention, the War on Terror campaign is further justified.
Further understanding of the War on Terror and discussions on whether it is justified requires an understanding of the popular culture that it reflects and is built upon. The central purpose of this paper has been to examine the prominent ways that American films reflect and propagate the ideals of American exceptionalism, and ultimately promote the War on Terror campaign. Building upon existing research, this paper analyzed 12 Strong and was able to identify numerous representations of the central ideas of American exceptionalism in its depiction of American families in the context of war on terror, its dehumanization of non-Americans, and its glamorization of American intervention.
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