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Neocons at the Aughts’ Box Office

[1]2,724 words

Remember the 2000s?

It was a simpler time. For most of the decade, smartphones were non-existent. Twitter did not drive the news. People still bought CDs. Not every movie at the theater was based on a Marvel character. Jnco jeans (the horror!) were in style.

It was also the time when neoconservatism ruled the political landscape. It wasn’t just an ideology limited to Washington, DC; the media also pushed it. I remember the absurdity of local radio stations pairing Nickelback songs with George W. Bush speeches in the lead-up to the Iraq War. 24 was a hit show, and its primary message is that we should allow the deep state to stampede over every law and civil right to defeat terrorists. It wasn’t like today, where TV programs and movies incorporate anti-Orange Man themes. The popular media was neoconned.

Two popular, critically-acclaimed films best typify the neocon era. One came out right after 9/11. The other was released a month after Bush was reelected. The first was geared for red-blooded Americans who saw the non-Western world as a threat. The second impressed upon the audience the need to intervene across the world to secure human rights. They were Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda. The two films represented the duality of neonservatism’s appeal. Black Hawk Down displays the martial facade of the ideology; Hotel Rwanda expresses the liberal sensibilities of neoconservativism, pleading that only America can help these poor non-Western children.

Both of these films would not likely be made today – at least, not how they were produced in the Bush years. The times have changed: neoconservatism is out of style. The Woke Left isn’t comfortable with white saviors coming to the rescue of non-whites. They’d rather see them as the villains than the heroes.

Regardless, a review of both films reminds us of how America was convinced it should act as the world’s policeman.

Black Hawk Down is a fairly based film. The entire movie is about high-T white guys blowing away savage Somalis. Outside of a cowardly informant and a scared family, every Somali is shown as a potential threat. Both women and children fire upon American troops. The city of Mogadishu itself is a hostile volcano in pitch-black Africa. No white man is safe there. The viewer comes away with the impression that the Third World is really like this, and only American military might can keep it at bay.

The film depicts the Battle of Mogadishu, which was a black eye to American foreign interventionism in 1993, at the beginning of the Clinton administration. The battle resulted from a bungled operation where two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and nineteen Americans were killed in the ensuing rescue operation. President Bill Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia shortly thereafter. We were there acting as the world’s policeman, standing guard against perfidious militiamen who defied international law and oppressed their people. The similarities to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were not subtle.

The film was produced before 9/11 (it was released only three months after the attacks), but it had a message that was very post-9/11. Black Hawk Down doesn’t show the Mogadishu operation as an inevitable failure of foreign interventionism; the film claims that it failed because Washington didn’t provide sufficient support. The film also argues that America should have stayed and avenged the fallen, not abandon the place. These colors don’t run.

The film may feature the most “Hey, it’s that guy!” list of actors in human history: Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, and Ewan McGregor starred at the height of their early-aughts’ glory. Tom Hardy and Jeremy Piven have bit roles. There are at least eight other actors you will recognize. Only one of the American soldiers is fully non-white, and he’s a black guy who has maybe two lines. Nearly all of the others are clearly white, with a few white Hispanics. All of the soldiers are Army Rangers or Delta Force, so this lack of diversity is accurate. Even today, these two elite branches remain very white.

The plot is quite simple. The soldiers go into Mogadishu to capture militia commanders loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Adid. Things go wrong from the start. The Americans encounter stronger resistance than expected and a young recruit (played by Orlando Bloom) is badly injured in an accident. Then the helicopters are shot down in ambushes, and the casualties begin to mount. Surrounded, the Americans fight a desperate battle for survival against hordes of dark-faced militiamen and try to escape from the city. Most of the film is one long-running battle sequence. It’s not a film that leaves any doubt as to who the good guys and who the bad guys are.

The racial aspect – likely unintentional – is very reactionary. Even the Pakistani UN Peacekeepers sent to rescue the Americans are portrayed negatively, taking take their time getting to the battle zone and refusing to drive the exhausted heroes to safety. The message is clear: Americans can only count on themselves for survival.

The Delta Force operators are Homeric heroes in Black Hawk Down. They’re capable of throwing grenades into distant windows, a handful can hold off hundreds of enemies at once, and they fearlessly answer the call of duty. The film’s most powerful scene (based on actual events) has two Delta operators volunteering to go in and protect the survivors of the second downed helicopter until the main force can get there. They know they will have no reinforcements and will be on their own for several hours. In essence, it’s a suicide mission. However, they accept it and hold off hundreds of savage Somalis until they both meet their end. Neither one of them doubts their mission for a moment, and bravely fights to the death against impossible odds.

Every young American boy watching Black Hawk Down would want to be one of those soldiers. Nobody is more badass than Delta Force. They emerge as mythical heroes, with superhuman capabilities and endurance. The young viewer would also be struck by the inhumanity of the enemy and the lack of justice for the fallen. You would want to sign up to be a hero, too, after watching the film. Not surprisingly, Black Hawk Down helped military recruitment for the War on Terror.

The movie does not contain a humanitarian message favoring foreign intervention. None of the troops seem to make life better for the Somalis, nor do the Somalis seem to be worthy of or even want a better life. Foreign intervention is demanded to defend our national honor. We have to show strength in a hostile world, and we can’t let a band of hoodlums frighten the mightiest nation in the world. The American global imperium isn’t maintained by the effeminate libs in Washington, but by manly white guys from Middle America who pray daily and put country before their own lives.

It’s a noble vision of the American imperium, but false. It’s not the Chad general from Texas who represents our foreign policy; it’s a Jewish manlet who never served.

This kind of propaganda hoodwinked Middle America into supporting the Iraq War. It wasn’t about helping the Iraqi people or some grand quest to spread democracy. In their eyes, it was about defending America and showing these Third Worlders we don’t run from anybody. It’s the Jacksonian tradition in foreign policy, as Walter Russell Mead would call it. It’s not about high-falutin’ principles or concern for the Third World. It’s all about honor.

This is a noble spirit that can be found in our people throughout the ages. However, it was corrupted by the neocons and exploited for ends antithetical to those who held to it. The same people who said we needed to invade Iraq claimed three years later that we need to legalize illegal immigrants. Saddam Hussein had more respect for American sovereignty.

[2]By contrast, Hotel Rwanda is not an appeal to the Jacksonian sensibility. There isn’t even a clear American character in the movie. The film is rather a call for Western interventions for the sake of poor Third Worlders. The film is set during the Rwandan genocide and follows the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager who saved the lives of hundreds of Tutsis. For readers who may not be familiar with the genocide, Hutus, the ethnic majority, slaughtered the Tutsis, the ethnic minority of Rwanda, who were also the favored group of the Belgian colonialists. In typical Hollywood fashion, the film falsely claims this ethnic distinction was concocted by the Belgians. In reality, the Hutus and Tutsis existed before the white man came; the white man just codified the differences.

This anti-Western bias differentiates it from Black Hawk Down. While the whites are unquestionably the good guys in Mogadishu, they’re seen as the oppressors in Rwanda. At the same time, however, whites are the only ones who can end the suffering and stand up for human rights. Colonialism is blamed for the genocide, yet whites are expected to send a large military force to stop it. Blacks can’t be trusted not to slaughter themselves.

The plot has the protagonist (played by Don Cheadle) navigating the corruption and inhumanity of Rwanda to save his mixed Hutu-Tutsi family and protect the other Tutsis he is sheltering. Paul is a dedicated, WASP-influenced businessman. He has no time for ethnic hatred or politics because he’s too focused on running the hotel. He refuses entreaties from Hutu radicals who want him to join their militia. He believes that his business acumen and powerful connections will protect him in times of trouble. While these traits do help him, they prove insufficient. The only thing that can protect Paul and his Tutsi friends is the West.

But the West, as is pointed out by a sympathetic UN colonel, views the Africans as dirt not worth saving. The film indicts the West for not intervening to stop the genocide that killed nearly a million people. Except for Cheadle’s character, the good Africans don’t have any real agency. They’re helpless victims of socioeconomic factors and colonialism that requires the West to rescue them and right their wrongs. The bad Rwandans are either bloodthirsty monsters or corrupt scoundrels. Hotel Rwanda does not convey the impression that Africans can be left to their own devices. They still need the evil white man’s help.

The white characters have far more agency. Most are well-meaning folks who want to save the Rwandans. But, as in Black Hawk Down, the politicians back home won’t allow them to do so. There’s the aforementioned UN colonel who feels guilt that the Tutsis aren’t given the same priority as European tourists. There’s the cameraman (Joachim Phoenix) who laments how his graphic footage of the genocide won’t spur whites to come to the rescue. There’s the white priest who walks away crestfallen when he learns that the UN won’t accept his African orphans. It’s a subtle version of the white savior complex, a much-maligned trope in our time.

The film’s argument is similar to that of Black Hawk Down. Only American/Western military power can make the Third World’s villains stand down. There is, however, no question of honor or national interest at work here. There is no American blood to avenge or national security interest in Rwanda. We’re needed there to protect the people and their human rights–it’s all about “doing the right thing.”

The moral case was used by neocons to argue for the Iraq war. The middle Americans who loved Black Hawk Down were convinced that we needed to invade Iraq because Saddam was a threat to our country and supported terrorists who killed our people. It evinced weakness to do nothing. The more-liberal minded folks who cried over Hotel Rwanda were convinced to support the war with arguments that Saddam was a dictator who oppressed his people and Iraq needed freedom. The intervention was done to help the Iraqi people, not to fortify American honor.

Over time, this argument prevailed as the primary reason for why the Iraq War was necessary. Once American forces got into Iraq, it was clear that Saddam hadn’t had weapons of mass destruction and that he had not been supporting terrorists. Thus, the national security reason was no longer valid. Neocons thus had to fall back entirely on humanitarian reasons for justification. Although Iraq had been safer and more stable under Saddam than during the American occupation, they didn’t have democracy.For the neocons, that’s reason enough to see the invasion as a noble mission.

The humanitarian argument is now the main reason offered for other foreign adventures. We have to stay in Afghanistan forever to protect women’s rights. We had to kill Gaddafi to protect the freedom-loving rebels. We needed to intervene in Syria to protect kids from being gassed by the rebels Assad. Much of the current warmongering over Iran centers on how the mullahs allegedly oppress their people by not letting them use Tinder and forcing their women to wear veils that lightly cover the back of their hair (the horror!). The Jacksonian arguments are in play in Iran as well; many pundits wave the bloody shirt of American soldiers who were allegedly killed by Iranian bombs in Iraq and the threat Iran supposedly poses to American forces in the region. But in other conflicts, our national honor and security play no part. Nobody believes the Taliban will invade the US if we don’t stay. No; it’s all about Afghan women’s rights.

The films discussed are very much a product of their time. Black Hawk Down is far too “racist” to be made today. Imagine the reaction to a new film that was one, long scene of heroic white guys mowing down black enemies. Hotel Rwanda portrays Africans too negatively and is too immersed in white savior tropes to make the woke crowd happy. The belief that America can solve all the world’s problems is also less common today. Enough people remember the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to fall for this insidious message now.

Jingoistic films like Black Hawk Down have been made in the last decade, but they are inferior and less about non-whites versus white. Examples include Lone Survivor, American Sniper, and 13 Hours. They also often incorporate the humanitarian reasons for intervention in their plot. The hero of American Sniper witnesses the atrocities committed by the terrorists against the Iraqi people and believes that his work helps Iraqi civilians. His primary motivation, however, remains avenging American blood. Clint Eastwood, who directed the film, knows what themes appeal to his audience.

The 2000s were certainly a strange time that none of us should want to go back to. The movies were better, but the politics are nothing to envy. The neocon moment, unlike the Trump moment, was fortified by the culture and supported by the establishment. There were other neocon-esque movies, series, and music besides the works discussed above. Soon after Bush’s reelection, the culture took a stridently anti-Bush turn, and Hollywood produced several films that bashed the neocons, such as V for Vendetta. But the damage was already done, and we still have troops all over the Middle East. The patriotic flicks made a return in the later Obama years, but most Americans were too cynical to believe the “we have to attack them there so they don’t come here” arguments anymore.

The establishment still wants America as the world’s policeman, but the people and culture are no longer for it. Middle Americans watched too many of their sons come back in boxes, or else physically or spiritually ruined, for no reason at all. They will not support another Iraq. And nowadays, the Woke Left thinks the West is the problem and is outraged by anything resembling the white savior complex. The new Hotel Rwanda would require Wakanda’s intervention, not America’s.

In our fractured time of alternative media sources and low-IQ superhero movies, it’s difficult to rile up the American people for war like the elites were able to do just fifteen years ago. We lack the common pop culture of that time – outside of Marvel and Star Wars escapism. Every blockbuster has to be suitable for a Chinese audience. This bodes well for the establishment’s attempt to set us on the war path to Iran. They can no longer sell us another dumb war at the movies.