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'12 Strong' proves Hollywood still believes only American lives matter in war

The new war film is colonialism masquerading as unabashed propaganda.
Image: 12 Strong
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Towards the beginning of their collaboration in "12 Strong," General Abdul Rashid Dostum (played by Navid Negahban), leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, tells American Captain Cal Spencer (Chris Hemsworth) some hard truths. Spencer wants to immediately engage with the repressive theocratic Taliban, riding his horse bravely through the mountains to avenge the recent September 11 attacks. But Dostum tells Spencer that he and his 11 other American soldiers are too valuable to be put at such risk. If 50 Afghans die, Dostum says, it's no big deal. If one American is killed, the United States will pull out of the war, and the Taliban will win. Even the Afghan warlord recognizes that American lives are exponentially more important than the lives of his own people.

Dostum isn’t just pointing out a truth of the Afghan war; he's pointing out a truth of most American war films. Hollywood movies like "12 Strong" — whether set in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan — are always focused on American heroism and American suffering, even when Americans are really bit players in overseas civil conflicts. As a result, Americans in film are presented as the only people on earth who have stories worth telling, and the only people on earth whose lives are of real consequence.

Not coincidentally, this is also the logic of colonialism: America's goals and interests are what matters, and people on the opposite side of the world who get in the way are just cannon fodder or, if they're lucky, supporting characters.

The mechanics of colonial propaganda are particularly clear in "12 Strong," which is unabashedly patriotic and militaristic. The film is based on the experiences of Alpha 595, a real team of Green Berets sent to Afghanistan after 9/11 to help local Afghan forces — the Northern Alliance — defeat the Taliban.

The story is presented as a straightforward (and historically accurate) morality play. It is an unquestionable truth, from the film's perspective, that the war is necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks on the American homeland. The fact that in the 1980s the United States funded the Taliban, and foreign mujahedeen fighters like Osama bin Ladin, in order to undermine the Soviet Union is never mentioned.

Dostum, meanwhile, is presented as an enlightened campaigner for women's rights and an upright man; his role in the killing of what may have been thousands of Taliban POWs shortly after his collaboration with Spencer doesn't make it into the film. On the other hand, the Taliban leader is presented as a typical Hollywood supervillain, complete with a dramatic murder setpiece in which he murders a village schoolteacher in cold blood meant to establish his sadistic bona fides.

The Taliban really did perpetrate, and continues to perpetrate, atrocities. Whether the film actually cares about those atrocities is another question. The main focus of the film, to no one's surprise, is on the Americans and their families. The concern of three or four American wives is given much more space in the movie than the deaths of dozens or hundreds of Afghans. Hemsworth as Spencer furrows his brow when the Taliban leadership shoots the farmers and herders they've conscripted when the poor men try to surrender on the battlefield. The film of course doesn't cut away from the action to show the grieving widows or children of these men the way it occasionally cuts away to show the American homefront.

The deaths of Taliban fighters are mostly important because they weigh (slightly) on Spencer's conscience. The campaign in Afghanistan is his first combat experience, and the fact that he has to blast dozens of people away upsets him. But a combat-hardened veteran reassures Spencer that feeling bad about other people is what "keeps us human." So Spencer is a better person because he feels bad about shooting Afghans. In other words, the massacre serves essentially as a valuable growth experience for the Americans.

Image: 12 Strong
The horsemen cometh.David James / Warner Bros. Pictures

All of this is unsurprising in an American film dedicated to celebrating the American military. But putatively anti-war films also focus almost exclusively on American stories and American characters. Classic Vietnam films like "Apocalypse Now" (1979), and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) condemn the conflict because of the corrupting effect it has on soldiers and veterans, not because of the damage it did to the Vietnamese. In fact, one of the narrative twists in "Jacob's Ladder" (1990) is the revelation that, dosed with an illicit experimental drug, American soldiers in a (fictional) American platoon murdered each other. More than 1 million Vietnamese fighters, and untold civilians, died in the Vietnam war, but Jacob's Ladder (re)imagines it as an internal American conflict. The Vietnamese in the film are, literally, unreal.

War films about recent American imperial endeavors follow a similar script. Iron Man (2008), the most financially successful films tied to the Afghanistan conflict, isn't really about Afghanistan at all. It's about the internal politics of a US armament company, the CEO of which sometimes jaunts off to Afghanistan to kill terrorists and save cheering innocents. Ang Lee's anti-Iraq-war downer "Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk" (2016) is set entirely in the United States, as a bunch of Iraq War heroes are trotted out at a football game as a propaganda exercise. The film shows the soldiers' disillusionment and PTSD, and depicts the war itself as violent, brutal, and pointless. But, again, the violence, the brutality, and the pointlessness are illustrated almost exclusively through the war's impact on Americans, even though exponentially more Iraqis were killed and terrorized in the conflict.

In "12 Strong," Spencer chastises Dostum and the Afghan forces for not seeing the "big picture." Dostum is, supposedly, easily distracted; he has political goals other than fighting the Taliban. The Americans, though, understand the real priorities. They control the skies, the film assures us, and can see the landscape more clearly in all its complexity. The truth, though, is that in the majority of Hollywood war films, Americans see only themselves. The rest of the world is just a backdrop for our stories. Everyone else's dead bodies just add to the glory or pathos of some American star.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."