Monday, March 29, 2010

You get the heroes you deserve

When I was a boy, James Bond was a blank slate on which I could project my heroic dreams. If I wanted to imagine battling sinister baddies in foreign lands, Bond showed me how. If I wanted tips on ordering drinks, playing cards, driving cars or bedding glamorous women, Bond had my back. He could ski, rock climb, parachute, and kill with bullets or charm. He didn't have any super powers or any special strengths. He was just awesome. At everything.

For Bond, the means weren't justified by the ends. The means were the ends. The cars and the guns and the subterfuge seemed to be the point. And the conclusion of each movie never did much more than leave me hungry for the next one.

In the post-9/11 world, there's suddenly a surplus of super agents on film with the initials J.B. Just two months after Al-Qaeda's attacks on our homeland, 24 debuted on Fox. The show's hero is Jack Bauer, whose experience in the army, LAPD SWAT and the CIA prepared him to defeat all sorts of awfulness on perilously short timelines. June 14, 2002 saw the premiere of the first Jason Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity. Where Bauer has a gift for solving problems in a day, it took the amnesiac Bourne three movies to figure out his own name. Along the way he discovered he was the world's deadliest man, a government-trained black ops machine.

(I'm far from the first blogger to notice this coincidence. Most only discuss which J.B. would win a fight. A very few go further, such as Considering Bond, Bourne & Bauer.)

Bond stayed clear of any deep thoughts about, well, anything. But Bauer and Bourne are both consumed by questions about the violent tactics they employ and their relationship to the outcomes desired by shadowy bureaucrats and mysterious handlers. For Bauer the choice is clear. If the goal is the advancement or safety of the American people, any course of action is justified. In fact, the US military reportedly had to ask Fox to "tone down the torture scenes because of the impact they are having both on troops in the field and America's reputation abroad." Meanwhile, Bourne's entire fictional raison d'etre is to question the psychological toll that black ops take on the men who must carry them out. His most obvious enemies are specific actors in the American government itself, who brainwashed him at his own behest and turned him loose on a scary world.

In the words of A Few Good Men's Col. Jessup, "we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns." We know this. And we also know that beyond those walls, a different sort of men must be sent to do difficult and sometimes unimaginably painful jobs. Because these jobs are done in secret, we rarely get a clear portrait of those who do them. But they are probably nothing like James Bond, Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, Bryan Mills, John Rambo, Ethan Hunt, Casey Ryback, Dutch Schaefer, Xander Cage and so on.

The way in which we imagine our heroes says a lot about our culture. It makes sense that after 9/11, we were no longer content to imagine them blithely racing Aston-Martins and sleeping with Pussy Galore. (Yes, that was her name.) But what does it say about us that we replaced James Bond with two super agents with similar resumes and initials but directly opposing psyches? Bauer is a man of action, morally questionable, and perfectly at home on the Fox network. He seems explicitly designed to appeal to flag-waving Republicans who believe that torture is not torture if it's conducted by an American. On the other hand, Bourne's very existence confirms liberal fears of daddy-state power brokers and military-industrial complexes. He is efficient, deadly, hampered by doubt and filled with self-loathing. He seems like he sprang directly from the paranoid imagination of an East Coast Democrat. In fact, Bourne Identity director Doug Liman and screenwriter Tony Gilroy are both Manhattan natives and, according to Huffington Post's Fundrace 2008, Barack Obama donors.

The success of the Bourne movies forced a reinvention of the Bond franchise. The 2006 prequel Casino Royale re-imagined my boyhood hero as an emotionally scarred orphan whose steely charm was a defense mechanism against the death and destruction he both prevented and caused.

It's as if on 9/11 our country began a search for meaning that almost immediately left us deeply polarized. We could no longer tolerate a blank slate upon which to project fantasies of control and cool. And so we are left with a soulless spy, a brutal warrior and an angst-ridden assassin. I guess you get the heroes you deserve.

[Ed. - For what it is worth, I am currently reading Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq, a book that offers a realistic portrait of the Special Forces troops that patrol the outer reaches of American interests.]

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