I made a mistake. I fell for a progressive meme, I fell for the idea that men in war die for their comrades—for the men next to them—and not for their country. I realised my error when I glanced at Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006); the film features a former Marine who laments that he was not “there for” his son more—did not act like a mother to him—and also says that he fought on Iwo Jima for his buddies; and that, further, there are no heroes. It was the “buddies” bit that gave it away; it was just a mite too sentimental—and sentiment always means unreality.
I fell for this meme for a few reasons: in the first place, I had begun to think about the state more critically—and that included its institutions in general, and that included decadent imperial armies. It struck me that perhaps the unit level, the small war band, constitutes a more natural and virtuous level—and hence was less decadent than the large state with its sclerotic bureaucracy and propaganda. After all, boys start with little gangs in their neighbourhood or schoolyard, graduate to amateur football clubs, and these could all be seen as preparations for a war band—ergo, you die for your comrades not for the state abstraction. Further, there is a strong cultural theme encapsulated by the Shakespearean phrase “band of brothers” and also found in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that seems to indicate that the man next to you is what counts.
Yet it cannot be so, not if Hollywood endorses it—and not if it is presented in such a sentimental form. The correct formulation: men die for their nation (tribe) and aspire to become a national hero. This is not to negate the bonds formed between men in a small unit under stress for a considerable time—and there are certainly fraternal associations for former soldiers, and even railway ticket inspectors if it comes to that. Yet this is not what really motivates men to fight, however closely they feel associated with other men in combat.
Why do progressives concentrate on “the band of brothers”? They do so because “the nation”—the entity to which you are born, the tribe or race—constitutes an unacceptable concept for progressives; if its existence is admitted then it means there are inherent differences between people and there is no “human race” as such, or only a thinly constituted common humanity. So the line has to be that “men die for their combat-brothers” and not for the wider extended family. This safely contains anti-progressive sentiment and explains why combat takes place—although it comes over as treacly because although there is such thing as fraternity it is not as close as all that, buddy.
This idea is bundled with the additional notion that there are “no heroes”, just “ordinary joes”—men like you and me, “We ain’t heroes, man. We’re frauds!” Again, this is an egalitarian and democratic notion, since there definitely are heroes in war—and yet heroism suggests exclusivity and inhuman capacity for sacrifices. “Oooh, it’s a bit hard and elitist…” As with skepticism, what we have instead is a pseudo-clever approach designed to debunk heroes.
Flags of Our Fathers contends that an iconic image of American heroism, the flag raised over Iwo Jima, was faked and the wrong men rewarded for the act (the flag had to be put up a second time for various convoluted reasons and it was the second flag-raisers, who raised the flag in relative safety, who were publicly lauded as heroes). This is meant to be a clever debunk, but real heroism is impersonal—the flag raising was symbolic, it did not matter which individual soldiers did it because they were seamless elements in the army and the nation. So the supposed virtuous concern about “who actually raised the flag” was really narcissistic egotism and a chance to destroy symbolism.