(I will concede that it is refreshing to hear a leader end a speech with “God bless America” and recognize it as more than political pandering.)
I have been teaching American foreign policy for a long time now, and for as long as I can remember I have shown my students the classic Western film High Noon as a way to give them insight into the enduring beliefs about ourselves and the nature of the world around us that animate our conduct of foreign policy.
I originally wrote the comments below as background for my students to give them some context when they watch the film (I’ll be showing it in class today and Friday). But I’ve also been thinking about it in relation to the discussion of foreign policy that has emerged in the current presidential campaign.
As most of the Republicans (Rand Paul the notable exception) seeking the White House have argued over and over again, the world is a dangerous place with enemies that America must confront head-on, with force, lest everything we stand for fall to ruin. America is all that stands between global order and global chaos. We lead not because we desire power, we lead because we must, because no one else will, because no one else is capable.
Lindsay Graham, while an afterthought in the polls, is representative of this perspective, one shared with most of his GOP rivals, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (though her rhetoric while bellicose is far less apocalyptic), and even with the much maligned (by Republicans) President Obama. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July on the threat of ISIS and his plans to militarily intervene in Iraq and Syria to defeat extremism and stabilize the Middle East, Graham said:
This is the 1930s all over again, and this ISIL threat is something that will come our way soon if we don’t stop it over there … There is no substitute for winning this conflict. There is no substitute for America.
President Obama, speaking at West Point in 2014, while stated in more measured terms, expressed the very same sentiments about America’s role in the world:
[I]t is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come. .. The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.
What follows are the comments I originally wrote for my students:
High Noon (1952) is both a product of its times, the early years of the Cold War, as well as a reflection of our enduring collective political values and beliefs. In other words, High Noon tells us much about how Americans see themselves, and how we saw (and I would argue) continue to see America’s role in the international arena. When you watch this film I think it will come as no surprise that High Noon has been screened in the White House more often than any other movie.
The metaphors in the film operate in two ways. First, the character of Will Kane (Gary Cooper) serves as a metaphor for the post-WWII United States. Kane is the archetypal Western hero evidencing the best qualities of the American character: courage, steadfastness, and devotion to justice.
Some of the background details of the film serve to underscore these embedded values. For example, in the pivotal church scene, the congregation is singing this verse from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; / He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: / Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! / Our God is marching on.
This implies a divine mission to set affairs aright, a mission that men of courage will meet. By failing to act, the townspeople condemn themselves in the sight of the Almighty, an idea made clear in the piece of scripture, Malachi 4:1, that the pastor reads, which evokes similar visions of both righteousness and judgment:
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the
LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
At the same, the challenges Kane faces in the film are reflections of the challenges the United States faces in the new reality of the Cold War. Just as Kane is a metaphor for the US, Hadleyville, the town where the action takes place, can be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII international system.
The setup for the story is that Kane, having cleaned up Hadleyville after a long struggle, is hanging up his gun and badge and retiring. This can be seen as the film’s equivalent of the American victory in World War II. After a brief time of peace and quiet, the bad guys – the Frank Miller gang – return to Hadleyville and once again threaten the peace. Here the film equates the threat of communism with the fascist tyranny of the war years.
The central question is how Kane and the townsfolk, and metaphorically the United States and the rest of the world, will respond to this new threat.
Speaking to Michigan’s party faithful at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference over the weekend, Jeb Bush made his critics’ case for them.
Riffing on his foreign policy credentials, and arguing that the next president will need to foster international peace, he said:
I know how to do this because, yes, I am a Bush.
Jeb has spent a lot of time arguing that despite the family name he’s his own man. Which I guess is plausible if you ignore the family’s big donors and all those holdovers from his brother’s and father’s administrations in top policy positions in his campaign. (For example, 19 of 21 of Jeb’s foreign policy advisers worked for one George or the other or both, including Paul Wolfowitz and Stephen Hadley, chief architects of W’s war in Iraq.)
Having declared in last week’s debate that his brother “kept us safe” while 9/11 happened on his watch, Jeb has apparently decided to embrace rather than run from his family’s legacy, especially on foreign policy, Iraq War I, Iraq War II, 9/11, Afghanistan, and all. This could finally signal that the candidate has figured out how to respond to questions about the family business he’s hoping to inherit.
As campaign communications go, his Mackinac declaration has the virtue of being short, succinct, to-the-point, even kind of high-energy. “Yes, I am a Bush,” will sound great in a campaign ad.
A Hillary Clinton ad.
My friend Rory was 23 when he took his own life two years ago. He had come home from his deployment to Afghanistan physically intact. But not all wounds are visible.
He went to Afghanistan in January 2011 as a member of Fox Co., 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. By the time his unit rotated home in August 2011, Rory had spent much of his eight months in country walking combat patrols as a SAW gunner and then with an explosives-detection dog, tasked with finding IEDs before they could kill or maim his buddies.
I don’t know much about what Rory went through during his tour; he held things close when he was home in Michigan. His parents knew some, and found out much more after he died, things they keep to themselves.
I think about Rory often, when I see his folks at church, when we share a meal together, when I read their posts on social media. Two years on, they continue to suffer; the pain of their loss still bites deeply. And there is little any of the rest of us can do to comfort them but offer love and support. And even that doesn’t feel like enough.
I think about Rory when I meet students in my classes who are themselves veterans of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think about the burdens they might carry, what unseen scars they may bear.
And I think about Rory when I read stories like that which appears today at The New York Times, chronicling the agonizing struggle of another battalion of Marines that has been plagued by suicide in the years since returning from their own earlier deployment to the same region of Afghanistan where Rory served.
The Times report tells the story of the 2/7, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, which went to Helmand Province in 2008 and who in eight months of combat duty suffered more casualties than any other Marine battalion that year. But the real story is about what happened when they came home. And their story in its basic outline is Rory’s story as well.
Almost seven years after the deployment, suicide is spreading through the old unit like a virus. Of about 1,200 Marines who deployed with the 2/7 in 2008, at least 13 have killed themselves, two while on active duty, the rest after they left the military. The resulting suicide rate for the group is nearly four times the rate for young male veterans as a whole and 14 times that for all Americans.
Suicides among former service members has reached epidemic proportions, but as the Times relates, recognition of the crisis has brought us no closer to knowing how to handle it.
For years leaders at the top levels of the government have acknowledged the high suicide rate among veterans and spent heavily to try to reduce it. But the suicides have continued, and basic questions about who is most at risk and how best to help them are still largely unanswered. The authorities are not even aware of the spike in suicides in the 2/7; suicide experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs said they did not track suicide trends among veterans of specific military units. And the Marine Corps does not track suicides of former service members.
The Times story is heartbreaking and important. Read it. And think about Rory, his comrades, and all those they have left behind.
They are casualties too.