When it comes to Hollywood war films, instances of US Exceptionalism are abundant within them and shown through the “America as the Hero” trope. This can be seen in movies as far back as the 1940s all the way up to today. The war films that I will explore comprise of three different wars that the United States participated in; World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Afghanistan. Through each of them I will explore how US Exceptionalism is pushed to be perceived as virtuous to the audience. The first and foremost movie is Fury, directed by David Ayer in 2014, the second movie is We Were Soldiers, directed by Randall Wallace in 2002, and the final movie is 12 Strong, directed by Nicolai Fuglsig in 2018. Within these three movies there are common themes that coincide with the “ideal” America; the few (Americans) against the many (enemies), a largely white and male cast as the soldiers, and scenes of prayer. These coincide with the idea that to be successful within the United States, you must be a White, Christian male. I argue that while Hollywood does push the idea of American Exceptionalism through war movies, they covertly push a very specific type of Exceptionalism that pertains to a certain race, gender, and religion.
To briefly cover it, the term US (or American) Exceptionalism first came about in the 1930s (Pease). According to Pease, American Exceptionalism portrays the United States as a free and just nation whose ultimate goal is to lead other nations to freedom. In war movies, this is shown by producing America as the liberator who comes to save besieged countries against “evil” regimes, such as those that are Communistic and Socialistic. According to Vlahos, the display of military movie marathons on public television, particularly on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, is an example of how America celebrates its victories of war, thus promoting our superiority within the rest of the world (69).
In the movie Fury, we are given the story of five American men in a tank crew in Germany towards the end of WWII, in 1945; Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Norman (Logan Lerman), Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), and Gordo (Michael Peña). The film ends with all the tanks in the cavalry destroyed but one; the one of our heroes. While waiting around their disabled tank, the Americans find out that a platoon of around 300 Nazi soldiers are coming their way. Instead of running, and most likely surviving, they decide to stay and fight. The movie ends with all but one of our heroes dying, however, in their valiant battle, they managed to kill hundreds of enemies. The final line is said to our lone survivor “Hey, you’re a hero, buddy. You know that?” (Fury). In the film, We Were Soldiers, it is set in late 1965 in Vietnam. The main character of this film is Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson). His mission in the war is to lead a troupe of around 400 men against over 4,000 Viet Kong enemies. In the final encounter, when it seems that the Americans will lose, reinforcements arrive, winning them the battle. Finally, in 12 Strong, we are told the tale of 12 Green Berets who are deployed to Afghanistan shortly after the events of September 11, 2001; Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Peña), and Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), amongst others. Their main goal is to fight against the Taliban and thus, the war on terror. While our heroes do team up with Afghani Northern Alliance fighters, they are eventually abandoned by them. However, even though our heroes are wildly outnumbered, this does not stop them from continuing their mission. The final battle is between the 12 Americans and a huge legion, presumably thousands, of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. However, the Northern Alliance returns when all seems lost and America wins the battle against Terror.
The first issue that I will address with each of these films is the predominately white casting of the main characters. In Fury, of the five main characters only one is not white, Gordo. In We Were Soldiers, the main actor of the movie is white, not to mention that a large portion of the supporting cast is also mainly white. In 12 Strong, while I did not list all of the cast of the 12 members of the Green Berets, only two of the actors are not white and of these two, one of their characters, Sam Diller, is given a very Anglicized name, despite the Hispanic background of the actor. The United States boasts of being a nation of equality that has “tolerance for diversity”, however, Hollywood does not promote this perception (Pease). Other than the obviousness of the casting, in each of the movies, white characters are promoted as better. In Fury, there is a part where Gordo, the only person of color, speaks in Spanish. He is swiftly criticized by Wardaddy, who says “Hey, you want to talk Mexican? Join another tank, a Mexican tank. This is an American tank, we talk American.”, despite the hypocritical fact that Wardaddy is fluent in German and speaks it many times throughout the movie (Fury). In 12 Strong, were it not for the Afghani soldiers of the Northern Alliance joining forces with our 12 heroes, then victory would have been impossible, however, in the end all the credit goes to the Americans. Both of these scenes are examples of the rejection of the ethnic-Other within American society.
Another thing noticed with the casting is the absence of females as soldiers. In each of the movies, women are either portrayed as wives waiting back home or potential love interests for the male heroes. While this is comprehensible for Fury and We Were Soldiers due to their timeline in American history, in the movie 12 Strong, the war in Afghanistan started in 2002; women had long since been a part of the military. While it can be argued that 12 Strong was based off of a true story, it does not excuse the fact that in movies, where you can be as imaginative as you want, women were excluded from positions where they would be portrayed as saviors.
Another commonality within the movies is a storyline of a small number of American soldiers going against an exceedingly large number of enemies; in Fury it is 5 men against 300 adversaries, in We Were Soldiers it is 400 against 4,000, and in 12 Strong it is 12 (and then some) against thousands. However, in each of these instances of overwhelming odds, the small group of Americans always come out victorious. According to Hughes, “US exceptionalism rewrites history so as to produce US identity as something innately virtuous…” (534). This in itself pushes the preconception in these movies that America is truly the superior country. How else would they have been able to win such an improbable battle if it was not their divine mission? Which leads me to the next point; there are references of Christianity that are pushed within two of the three movies, Fury and We Were Soldiers.
The biggest instance in Fury is with the soldier who goes by ‘Bible’. Simply from hearing his nickname, you are able to get a sense of his character. Before their final battle, Bible says to the other men; “But what we’re doing here is a righteous act, gentlemen…there’s a Bible verse I think about sometimes…it goes: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?...” and I said, “Here am I. Send me.”” (Fury). By having one of the heroes directly reference the Bible, it pushes the belief that war, regardless of how dirty it can be, is God’s will that has been graced upon the United States to ensure global freedom. In We Were Soldiers, there is also an instance of prayer that the main protagonist, played by Mel Gibson, performs before he is sent off to Vietnam. Vlahos mentions that the use of Christian rhetoric has been tied together with American Exceptionalism, particularly in politics, for decades (68). Many presidents have made claims to American Exceptionalism; from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who stated that world freedom was a Christian ideal, to Ronald Reagan, who claimed that God entrusted the freedom of the world onto the United States (Hughes 545; Vlahos 68). This rhetoric has revealed itself in wartimes as a way for Americans to justify the violence that comes with war.
The aspirations of American Exceptionalism play a big part in the identity of many Americans. According to Pease, it is through these aspects that “…U.S. citizens conceptualized and legitimated the uniqueness of their national identity.” Exceptionalism makes Americans want to be the heroes in fictional and nonfictional stories; that is why certain genres of film and literature are extremely popular within the US, such as, Western, Superhero, and War. Through these genres the United States can be portrayed in exactly the precise way that will reinforce the idea of Americans being exceptional when compared to other nationalities. However, as shown through the three films in this essay, while US Exceptionalism boasts of freedom, Hollywood pushes a particular category of what represents the incomparable American; that is the White, Christian, heterosexual male.
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