“This kind of war, you’ve gotta believe in what you’re
fighting for.”

John Becic

– John Wayne in “Back to Bataan”

Arguably, we’ve been at war for two years. Sept. 11 incited
America’s expansive War on Terror – through which we’ve already
overthrown the Taliban and Sadaam. We’re slowly battling al-Qaida
and we’re considering the cases against North Korea and Iran.

As a nation, we’ve justified these actions with an impregnable
vision of good, evil, and avenging justice. Collectively, we’ve
narrowed our understanding of right and wrong and we’ve dutifully
made a robust, heroic leader out of our president. We’ve done all
this hoping that we can rid the world of terrorism and ride happily
into the sunset.

In other words, we want the post-Sept. 11 world to play out like
a western with John Wayne in the saddle. As Americans looked to the
Duke’s one-dimensional, red-blooded characters for comfort and
stability throughout much of the 20th century, our current reverie
in hero-worship is explicable – if juvenile and ill-fated.

In many ways, Wayne’s gruff performances – in westerns and
military films alike – established the standard for American heroes
both on and off the screen. Almost invariably, Wayne portrayed a
plainspoken protagonist struggling to right egregious wrongs. His
characters possessed a cloudless and simplistic set of morals
paired with a powerful desire to see justice served in the most
basic sense. A Wayne hero, strong and unyielding in his presence,
has little patience for rhetoric or weakness and is prone to
intense but judicious violence. Essentially, whether portraying a
cowboy or a soldier, Wayne repeatedly glorified the American hero
and in wartime, soothed our suffering national psyche.

With this sort of stalwart legacy, is it any wonder we’ve
conveyed the attributes of one cowboy onto another? Given that
President Bush has an analogous image of straight-talk and vigorous
health and that the tragic events of Sept. 11 gave him immediate
righteousness, his rise to hero status is not surprising. Even
though he’s a desk jockey instead of cowpoke, Bush enjoys
undeniably comparable circumstances to those the Duke often
navigated successfully. Accordingly, our strong desire for a
wartime hero and faultless leader allowed us to further thrust
Wayne’s attributes upon Bush – whether they were warranted or
not.

The problem with this naive transference of heroics is that Bush
does not live in a morally unambiguous western or military film.
Americans may feel more secure with a reliable iconic president in
office, but that feeling does not go very far in creating actual
security and stability. The increased political strength and
capital Bush enjoys only encourage him to further cultivate his
heroic image – despite the serious hazards it presents in the real
world. For instance, as part of his newfound Dukedom, Bush makes
his war cries with absolute conviction even though his world has no
moral absolutes. He operates without qualification or nuance – two
elements that ought to play heavily in decisions that risk the
lives of soldiers and civilians. While the final consequences of
Bush’s fervor are unknown today, we can observe that his
overzealous convictions have strained many important international
friendships and preceded the loss of many military and civilian
lives. Given the current situation, perhaps we should reconsider
the value of a hero with such a lack of circumspection.

In a time of distinct international instability and fear, we are
finding irrational comfort in a simplistic illusion of a
gun-slinging hero. Just as Wayne often alleviated much of the
collective guilt and pain Americans felt in response to the wars of
the 20th century, Bush provides us with a sense of irreproachable
unaccountability. It seems we can believe in the righteousness of
the War on Terror simply because our Duke President has infallible
judgment and moral fortitude.

As a final disquieting thought on our current hero worship,
consider that even Wayne wasn’t always the hero America needed. In
the 1949 film “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” Wayne’s marine colonel
embodied the heroic characteristics described above but still could
only win the battle – not the war. With the hard edges of his
American heroism, Wayne could not lead America out of war and its
aftermath. In the end, he could not be the lasting hero America
needed. Can Bush?

No. Heroes of John Wayne’s iconic style don’t exist and we have
to stop creating them. We need to elect a new hero.

Strayer can be reached at lstrayer@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *