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Jewish World Review May 19, 2000 /14 Iyar, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Macho Military Makes Comeback --
RECENT MOTION PICTURE box office returns confirm a surprising and significant national trend: A quarter century after the Vietnam war's demoralizing conclusion, America has renewed its love affair with macho men in uniform. Despite well-publicized attempts to feminize our military, despite all the efforts by a kinder, gentler defense establishment to deploy its personnel as peacekeepers and social workers, the public prefers tough, no-nonsense fighting men.

In recent weeks, two old-fashioned, gung-ho action epics took turns at the No. 1 position on the list of leading motion picture attractions. In the superb, provocative Rules of Engagement,. Samuel L. Jackson. plays a Marine colonel and heroic Vietnam vet who leads a daring rescue of a besieged U.S. embassy, but kills dozens of civilians in the process. Political hacks in the White House make him a scapegoat for the sake of expediency, but his old battlefield buddy Tommy Lee Jones. handles his defense in the dramatic court martial. As written by James Webb, Ronald Reagan's one-time Navy secretary and himself a Marine officer in Vietnam, Rules makes clear its preference for a warrior's timeless code of honor over self-serving Washington weasels who betray our magnificent military.

Although the World War II submarine adventure U-571. avoids the controversial moral issues raised in Rules of Engagement, it offers the same admiring vision of classic military virtues. In a daring top secret mission to capture crucial Nazi codes in 1942, the movie's undersea warriors always place the success of their assignment above their personal welfare, and do not hesitate to bloody their hands to accomplish their purpose. The junior officer (Matthew McConaughey),. thrust into his first command, also learns a crucial lesson from an old salt and chief petty officer (Harvey Keitel). who serves under him: As the expedition's leader, he must never display a moment's uncertainty in his decisions.

Despite their virtually all-male casts and limited appeal to women, both U-571 and Rules of Engagement qualified as surprise smash hits and continue to draw enthusiastic audiences. Two years ago,. Saving Private Ryan. overcame similar obstacles to become a huge box office blockbuster - displaying a similarly sympathetic, even adulatory view of America's citizen soldiers. Most recently, Gladiator overwhelmed its box office competition by extolling the same ancient military virutes. The hero, a courageous Roman general before he's enslaved and brought to the arena, tries at all times to live up to his motto: "Strength and honor."

Contrast the performance of these traditionalist battlefield sagas with the less enthusiastic reception for recent films taking a more "modern" approach to the military. Demi Moore's ludicrous G.I. Jane,. Meg Ryan's. moving but preachy Courage Under Fire. and John Travolta's. grotesque shocker The General's Daughter. all focused on struggles of women to win acceptance in today's armed services. All portrayed military brass not only as incurably sexist, but appallingly corrupt. Such films may vary greatly in their aesthetic excellence (or awfulness, in the case of G.I. Jane), but they inevitably fail to connect with the present pro-military mood.

A quarter century ago, some members of the war-weary public greeted returning Vietnam vets as "baby killers." Now, Americans of every political persuasion express appreciation for the service of national heroes like John McCain. What's more, most people enjoyed his tough-guy, take-no-prisoners style of self-expression.
Patriotic Demi
Whatever voters thought of McCain's approach to the issues, everyone agreed that his military background and he-man virtues represented the very essence of his appeal. Along similar lines, any list of potential running mates in both political parties prominently features the names of distinguished Vietnam veterans - including McCain, Colin Powell, Tom Ridge, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry and Gray Davis. It's been decades since service in the armed forces represented such a seemingly significant advantage for ambitious politicians.

All around us, we see signs that the John Wayne military image may become an icon again rather than a joke. Both political parties currently call for sharp increases in the defense budget. Thirty years ago, impassioned public debate revolved around millions of Americans who wanted to avoid military service at all costs. Today, similarly impassioned debate revolves around millions of other Americans - primarily gays and women - who demand the chance to serve.

At the moment, military uniforms seem suddenly sexy. In last year's rancid melodrama, Eyes Wide Shut,. the fashionable character played by Nicole Kidman confides to her physician husband Tom Cruise her feverish fantasies for a Navy officer she's glimpsed across a hotel lobby. She says she's ready to sacrifice her marriage and her glittering home to follow her obsessive attraction to the man - despite the fact that she knows nothing about him except his handsome appearance in uniform.

This attitude seems light years removed from Jane Fonda's 1977. response in the Oscar-winning Coming Home. - which portrayed her torrid affair with the disillusioned, anti-military, bearded paraplegic vet Jon Voight,. who replaces her strutting, super-macho, uniformed husband, Bruce Dern.

Many factors may contribute to the new attitude toward the military. For one, the fascination may stem from the fact that the armed forces have never seemed so distant, so distinct from the population at large. Despite the obvious public interest, in fact, recruitment levels remain dangerously low.

We also live in a era nearly 10 years removed from the confusing dangers and mass killing of a major war.

The comeback of the military personality may also connect with a reborn interest in manliness in general - with testosterone making the cover of Time magazine. After eight years of honoring SNAGS (Sensitive New Age Guys) from the White House to your house, we all seem hungry for an older male image - of discipline, self-sacrifice, outspokenness, honor and unabashed patriotism. These are characteristics that our military, despite all efforts to keep up with the times and trends, never quite managed to forget.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Michael Medved