“Lone Survivor” is a passion play for America’s civic religion

Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s film about the doomed 2005 Navy SEAL mission Operation Red Wings, was a pop-cultural phenomenon. The film made $100 million in less than two weeks of release, and Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze posted a picture of a theater in Texas that had cancelled screenings of other films due to the popularity of Lone Survivor. The film’s reception by eggheaded Coastal Elites was more mixed, but critical reviewers were nearly unanimous in drawing comparisons to Mel Gibson’s 2004 megahit The Passion of the Christ. The comparison was made so often that in a piece titled “5 reasons the Left is hating Lone Survivor,” one exasperated Patriot said “enough with the The Passion of the Christ references already…nearly every negative review of Lone Survivor brings up Gibson’s epic.”

The similarities between both films are deeper than just the onscreen violence, though. The comparison is ubiquitous partially because so few films are so devoted to visiting excruciating violence on their heroes and gazing on it in such detail. However, the film’s reception and the cultural space it occupies are totally different than in the cases of other violent films. Lone Survivor and The Passion share more in common than just violence: both are martyrdom narratives. Lone Survivor is received and defended with the same vehemence as a movie like Gibson’s crucifixion epic because the military occupies a quasi-religious space in the American national imagination.

Lone Survivor opens with a credit sequence over real footage of BUD/S training, and takes about half an hour before the discovery of the four-man SEAL team deep in hostile territory that precipitates the film’s brutal battle sequence. During the SEALs’ fight for survival, the four are shot with Kalashnikovs, blasted by rocket-propelled grenades, repeatedly forced to leap off cliffs, and endure bodily harm that most people can’t fathom. The sequence and the real-life events it recalls are meant to impress upon the audience valor, sacrifice, and great physical courage (It’s also meant to recall the event that precipitated America’s posture of endless war. Berg has told interviewers “The cliff jumps were reminiscent of September 11, jumping out of the towers.”).

However, Lone Survivor isn’t unique in its depiction of graphic violence. Plenty of films—12 Years a Slave, for instance—depict gruesome, durational violence. 2013’s Academy Award winner for best picture is undoubtedly brutal. The violence includes a group lynching, rape, a long sequence in which the main character must stand atop his toes to avoid being hanged, and an even longer sequence in which the slave Patsey has the flesh whipped off her back. It’s “visceral, graphic, [unrelenting,] and so very, very bloody.” However, neither 12 Years a Slave nor any other movie in memory has earned all these comparisons to The Passion.

Lone Survivor shares with The Passion a unique symbolic resonance, not just a visual one. The violence in Mel Gibson’s pre-Vatican II opus is the violence of religious martyrdom. The signifiers of Christ’s martyrdom are unique—the crown of thorns, the Via Dolorosa, the crucifixion—but the narrative is universal. In Shi’a Islam, for instance, the martyrdom of Imam Ali commemorated during the Holy Day of Ashura has its own vocabulary but shares the same tropes. Ali and his retinue chose to face an insurmountable force, were brutalized and martyred, and in death provide us an example for how best to live. Lone Survivor resonates because it tells a secular martyrdom story beatifying the sacrifice of its military heroes. Continue reading

Malala Yusafzai, Malalai Joya, and “the preferably unheard” in America

Two heroic activists, one household name.  Malala Yusafzai (l) and Malalai Joya (r)

Two heroic activists, one household name.
Malala Yusafzai (l) and Malalai Joya (r)

In 2012, the world was shocked when 15-year old Malala Yusafzai was shot in the head in an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban. Yusafzai’s activism went global—she is the youngest Nobel prize nominee in history, and is currently discussing her memoir, I Am Malala, on America’s most prestigious outlets. Yusafzai is an astonishingly courageous person. However, there is a reason that we in the West hear from Yusafzai and not from other women around the Muslim world. Whose voice is amplified and whose is ignored supports a deeper narrative. As Arundhati Roy says, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” The fact that most Americans have heard of Malala Yusafzai but almost none have heard of Malalai Joya reveals the narratives that undergird Western imperialism in the Muslim world.

Yusafzai’s history as a women’s rights advocate is inspiring: she began blogging pseudonymously for BBC Urdu at the age of 11, describing life in the Swat Valley under the rule of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Following the attempt on her life, she was rushed to the UK for the surgery that saved her life. Journalist Assad Baig says that at this point, it became “a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. The Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalized.” Continue reading