26 June 2010

You realize they're mocking us, right?

One of the biggest shockers to come out of the infamous "Rolling Stan" article was the unofficial nickname of Gen. McChrystal's raucous inner circle:
There's a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. They jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority. After arriving in Kabul last summer, Team America set about changing the culture of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led mission is known.
For those of you who were hiding under a rock, "Team America: World Police" was a satire from the makers of South Park released in 2004.  Among its more memorable scenes is the "Team America" theme song:

Team America has long been a favorite movie of mine, and it's occasionally mentioned by former Army Ranger/think-tanker/blogger Andrew "Abu Muqawama" Exum.  His CNAS colleague, Tom Ricks, also admits to being a fan of the movie as well.

To Team America's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, nothing is sacred.  They revel in lampooning both the left and the right at every given opportunity.  In Team America, we see lavish ridicule heaped upon naive pacifists, politically-active-yet-uninformed actors, the gross impotence of the United Nations and action movie cliches.  Even Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's "wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs" essay is given its own special, albeit crude, rendition.

But the very name, "Team America:  World Police", often embroidered on patches velcroed to the back of pilots' helmets, is a statement on the world's sole superpower's sometimes reckless adventurism and often jingoistic view of the world.  In Team America, foreigners speak stereotypical nonsense, all major landmarks within a nation are a stone's throw away from another, and distances for exotic locales are given in the number of miles from the American shore.  Yet, for many, "Team America" is often adopted as a source of pride.

Team America isn't the only critique that's frequently misinterpreted as pro-military triumphalism.  Take the legendary "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from Apocalypse Now, an iconic scene within the Army Aviation community.  What many look at with wistful pride is a statement on how not to fight a war.

The farther Martin Sheen's character travels through Vietnam and into Cambodia, the more humanity sinks into a savage, Hobbesian state.  One soldier shows lax discipline and lights off a smoke grenade for no reason.  Others fight among themselves to be the first to bed a Playboy bunny in a squalid mud hut, the last observation post before the Cambodian border.  And then we have the nasty little issue of Colonel Kurtz during the climax of the movie.

The soldiers of the air cavalry--strutting about in stetsons and yellow neckerchiefs--show no interest in assisting in the mission to bring Col. Kurtz to justice.  Instead of selflessly fighting their way to their objective out of a sense of duty, they assist Martin Sheen's character in his mission when they discover that the infiltration route takes them along a beach that is perfect for surfing.  Mounting up in UH-1 and OH-6 helicopters, they gracefully swoop over the Vietnamese countryside towards their objective, surfboards in hand.

The battle below is sheer bedlam.  As is par for the course in many counterinsurgencies, heavily armed guerrillas mingle among women and children.  In some cases, women are insurgents, with one saboteur throwing a grenade into the cabin of a medevac Huey.  The Hueys fire rocket pods with seemingly little regard for civilian casualties in a scene which would make General Petraeus cringe and Ralph Peters squeal with glee.

It's strange, therefore, that this scene is so celebrated in our organizational culture.  True, the cinematography and choreography of the helicopters, descending like Wagner's Valkyries into Valhalla, is little short of spectacular.  Yet, when we see Lt. Col. Kilgore place "kill cards" on the bodies of dead Viet Cong troops, we should be reminded of the fact that this is precisely what not to do.

Focus:  Are there any other scenes--from movies, television or literature--that are celebrated when taken out of their original context?


petriv said...

Bruce Springsteen song "Born in the USA" is good example of this.

The lyrics are pretty much critical to US administration, yet Reagan election campaign in 1984 wanted to use the song during the campaign.

jumpinjarhead said...

I suppose your statement "It's strange, therefore, that this scene is so celebrated in our organizational culture. " is referring to that "culture" you describe previously in the context of Gen. McChrystal's former "Team America" staff (one hopes it is indeed "former"). I can assure you that at least from my perspective (such as it is of course) from 34 years' service as a US Marine officer, including combat in 2 "wars" and a number of lesser occasions of "unpleasantness," anything from Apocalypse Now or the other movies of that genre is certainly not "celebrated" by me or any other military professional with whom I have served.

Greyhawk said...

Whooaaaa, dude - please don't tell me the USAF general in Dr Strangelove is not the very model of a modern major general, because you have already left very few of my Icons of Freedom intact here in the Arsenal of Democracy.
I mean, I'm looking at my t-shirt collection with great sadness and confusion now...

jumpinjarhead said...

Not to worry Greyhawk. Strangelove predates the post-modern genre to which I was referring so your icon (not sure if you meant General 'Buck' Turgidson or Brigadier General Jack Ripper) is undiminished. ;-)

Greyhawk said...

Ripper or Turgidson - either! Both fine Americans! The rest of us sleep under a blanket of freedom they provide! ;)

Christopher said...

Jack Nicholson's monologue as Col Nathan Jessup on the stand in A FEW GOOD MEN (or as one wag described it ONE GOOD SCENE, i.e. this one). Most people totally miss the point.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this sort of thing, but have always interpreted it as less of a case of not-getting-the-joke and more of a refusal-to-be-mocked. If you take an insult as a badge of pride, you get the last laugh.