Americans as Killers

National Review‘s critique of the new Western film Hostiles, with Christian Bale in the lead role as a cavalry officer, condemns another example of “Hollywood Hates America, Again.” But I found it to be just the opposite: metaphorically patriotic and movingly inspirational. It and the new film 12 Strong about the initial U.S. Special Forces team that penetrated Afghanistan after 9-11 were unusually two excellent war movies that I enjoyed on the same weekend. Both highlight America’s violent national character, but reassuringly.

Twelve Strong is a grandiose patriotic delight about hitting the Taliban and al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s murder of 3000 Americans in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Special Forces mounted on horse back collaborate with Northern Alliance rebels to overthrow the ghoulish tyranny brutalizing Afghanistan and harboring terrorism. The rebel general is initially skeptical of the Americans, especially their inexperienced commander, expecting they will primarily call in U.S. air strikes and not fully expecting the added panache of their ground combat leadership.

Footage of 9-11 and of Taliban executions of women defying their hyper Islamist theocracy respectively motivate the Americans and their Afghan allies, amid plenty of falling bombs from B-52s and rockets from old Russian launchers. Watching Americans successfully intercede in distant and remote Afghanistan only days after 9-11, helicopters braving snow and sandstorms, magnificently recalls what is too often taken for granted: America’s sometimes seemingly effortless global reach.

Hostiles is far more nuanced than the drama in Afghanistan. A retiring cavalryman is ordered to escort home a long imprisoned but now dying Cheyenne chief whose cause East Coast newspapers have popularized, prompting a presidential order for his release. The cavalryman, witness to countless Indian atrocities, despises Indians and initially resists the order. His commander reminds him he’s himself no angel.

Comanches raid a farm, slaughtering children, baby and father, with only the traumatized mother surviving, discovered by the small cavalry contingent escorting the shackled chief and his family. Forewarned by the chief, the cavalry and prisoners are themselves attacked by the Comanches, with Cheyenne captives helping their captors’ defense. Later they must all contend against white hunters who kidnap and assault the frontier widow and the chief’s daughters.

Through these travails across stunning western scenery the cavalry officer grows to respect and befriend the formerly despised chief whom he faithfully delivers to his mountain homeland. The officer’s longtime sidekick is a courageous black cavalryman who preaches at funerals and sings hymns to Jehovah around evening campfires, while the officer, struggling with his own combat demons, reads Julius Caesar’s military memoir in Latin.

At the finale, the officer is confronted by white gunmen who resist the chief’s burial on their land, despite the order from President Benjamin Harrison. The cavalryman complies with his duty and represents the armed force of legitimate and righteous authority. His dwindling but doughty multiracial team of men and women, to recall a 1990s phrase, looks like America. Their journey, bloody and haphazard, is ultimately accomplished, and parallels America’s national journey.

Hostiles starts with a D. H. Lawrence quote, which the National Review column cites to evince anti-Americanism: “The essential American is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” The heroes of Hostiles and Twelve Strong are killers, expert in their craft, which they practice in defense of the innocent and in pursuit of justice. Ordained by law, they kill Taliban, al Qaeda, Comanche raiders, hunter rapists, and lawless white gunmen. They facilitate approximate decency and civilization.

Reputedly Herman Goering assured his Nazi cohorts that Americans could make refrigerators, not war. He would die by his own hand, in American captivity, facing an American noose. May those like him, who murder and terrorize, long fear and face American killers who are “hard, isolate, stoic.”

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