Monday, December 15, 2003

Red Dawn semiotics

For all the success of the operation Red Dawn in capturing Saddam Hussein, I was immediately struck by how poorly chosen the name was. While I did not see any of the major papers (here or abroad) refer to the title, Slate did. Timothy Noah writes:

Red Dawn is a campy Cold War-era movie depicting the invasion of the United States by Soviet and Cuban troops. A band of youths from a small town in Colorado (including, pre-Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey) name themselves the "Wolverines" and mount a guerrilla resistance against the totalitarians who murdered their families. ("Don't cry, man. Let it turn into something else.") The tip-off that Operation Red Dawn was named deliberately after the movie is that the two hiding places scouted out by the combat team were code-named "Wolverine I" and "Wolverine II." (Saddam was found near Wolverine II.)

The problem with calling Saddam's capture Operation Red Dawn is that it subverts the righteousness of our action with Orwellian Newspeak. (By sheerest coincidence, Red Dawn was released in 1984.) The U.S. military isn't mounting an insurgency against a foreign invader. It is the foreign invader. The real insurgents in Iraq—its Wolverines—are the Baathists and Islamist extremists who continue to wage guerrilla war against the American occupation and its Iraqi collaborators. By stating this, Chatterbox does not mean to insult our troops or pay any sort of compliment to the Iraqi opposition. In this particular situation, Huge Invading Force = Good Guys, and Scrappy Wolverine Resistance = Bad Guys. Even the most vocal critics of the war usually concede this point. Now the Pentagon has undermined this clarity by introducing an unhelpful vocabulary that invites disaffected Iraqis to make stupid comparisons between the United States and the former Soviet Union. How inept can propaganda get?

I have a slightly different angle at the movie than Timothy. I actually saw the movie for the first time sometime in mid '80-s while still behind the "curtain". It was shown as an example of how Americans misunderstand the peaceful Soviet people and a sample of general violent craziness that Americans liked to exhibit. As I see it now, it was a movie that tried to capture the fears of some, not necessarily small, part of the general American public. Now, almost 20 years after its release it is hard to believe that at the time Americans were seriously afraid of the USSR. One can read only so many articles describing the decrepid Soviet military machine before deciding that no threat was ever there. While I strongly disagree with the sentiment, it is irrelevant for the purposes of this post.

I was rather scared by the movie. I could not understand why Soviet soldiers were shown to be not at all like I knew my classmate's older brothers to be. Or my own father and grandfather. Or really anyone else I have ever met to that point. In a typical Soviet fashion, the movie was presented as a propaganda film exemplifying the true thoughts of Americans and their government. It was inconcievable to me, or anyone else who saw the movie, that movies could be made without governmental approval and censorship. Therefore, if it was made that must have reflected the views of the American government.

I imagine Iraqis have a view much closer to that of this former USSR denizen than of a Georgetown resident. Surely they will see the name of the operation as "proof" of all the ill things said about the Americans, their intents in relation to Iraq and Islam. I also find it unlikely that noone on General Staff would not have seen the movie or associated it with the name of the operation -- after all I did so almost immediately and I saw it once 20 years ago.
Pentagon does seem to have a penchant for dark humor when it comes to naming things. Perhaps that comes from having to deal in increasingly lethal doses of violence, but if we are going to have spokespeople on batallion level, let's not give them extra work to do explaining to Iraqis why USA is indeed the evil empire based on a name of second-rate movie.


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