…Which Shows that Rosa Brooks May Be Overplaying the “Villain Narrative”

Apropos of my last post on overwhelming public support for the military, Rosa Brooks believes that three narratives tend to dominate public perception of servicemembers:

Lacking examples of human complexity, we turn servicemembers into stock characters in well-worn narratives: the Hero, the Villain, the Victim..Together, they make it remarkably difficult to have a nuanced or clear-headed national conversation about our military and its role in society.

[The hero narrative is] a favorite trope of the political center and right, and since 9/11 it’s become part of our official national narrative…The key terms in this narrative are “courage,” “sacrifice,” “selflessness,” and “heroism” — the characteristics said to inhere in every member of the armed forces — along with “gratitude,” the emotion the rest of us are officially dedicated to feeling.

On the political left…many…fall back on an opposing stereotype: the soldier as villain. In this narrative, those in the military aren’t heroes at all — instead, they’re enthusiastic purveyors of brutality on behalf of a hegemonic hyper-power.

Others reject both the “soldier as hero” narrative and the “soldier as villain” narrative, preferring what may look like a tempting middle ground. In this final stereotype, individual servicemembers are viewed as ignorant pawns, duped into military service to their own eternal detriment.

I think Brooks’ explication of the hero and victim narratives is more or less accurate. However, her understanding of the villain narrative seems to rely as much on tropes about the left as the narrative itself relies on tropes about the military. Brooks:

“Nobody has yet proven that abusive men … seek out the military — attracted by its violent culture — but several scholars suspect that this is so,” Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict suggests darkly.

Even the recent military sexual abuse scandal has fed into this stereotype about military personnel. Amu Baghwati, executive director of the Servicewoman’s Action Center, describes the military as “a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography.” Another critic links “the rise of a culture of extreme sexual abuse in the military” to the “brainwashing of American soldiers to become brutal killers.” In this vision of the American military, there’s nothing resembling heroism or sacrifice; instead, there’s endless suspicion and boundless brutality.

I simply do not understand what about the first two claims is so objectively slanderous to all who serve in the military. In my experience, abusive men thrived in the military’s culture of regressive accountability. In my unit, sexism and pornography were openly celebrated. These are not assertions about the essential nature of every Marine with whom I served. Brooks is in great danger of blaming the messenger by implying otherwise.

“Villain”-suspecting attitudes do exist, but it’s inaccurate to assert that the villain narrative is embraced by “many” on the left. As the recent Pew survey makes clear, the villain narrative has no measurable traction among any significant demographic. When the US military withdrawal from Iraq was announced in December 2011, key members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus stated, in part,

At this moment, we commemorate the men and women who have given their lives in this conflict and we salute our troops and their families who have served and sacrificed over the past nine years.

We call on Congress to ensure that Iraq veterans find employment when they return to civilian life. No one who fought for America overseas should have to fight for a job when they come home. And we urge our colleagues to join us in making veterans’ health care a legislative priority. We must build on the progress made by our previous, Democratically-led Congress in strengthening veterans’ health care by providing the largest single increase in funding in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs. No one who fought for America overseas should have to fight for the care they need when they come home.

The victim narrative is far more compatible with most leftist thought on war. Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organization that frequently flirts with leftist impracticality (which was not unrelated to my decision to resign from the group), maintains as one of its three advocacy goals “Full benefits, adequate healthcare (including mental health), and other supports for returning servicemen and women.” Even the ANSWER Coalition, that brokest of broken angry leftist clocks, leans toward the victim narrative in its response to the overwhelming pervasiveness of the hero narrative in US culture.

In my view, the villain narrative struggles for enough air just to survive. Meanwhile, the prevailing hero narrative makes it nearly impossible to speak objectively about the military or war as institutions without being implicated in the supposed slander of each and every recruit to graduate from basic training. That is why, in a five-minute segment profiling CodePink’s protest of a Marine officer recruiting station in Berkeley, The (left-leaning) Daily Show included for ridicule a lead protestor’s rather mundane assertion that “the Marines train people to kill people.”

To be clear, I appreciate Brooks’ effort to break through stereotypes and humanize the two million individuals who join the US military. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that her description of the villain narrative seems based on a mixture of old Vietnam War mythologizing (itself a key element of the hero narrative) with newer BipartisanThink.

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