Why Do You Love This?

Nike is a far better symbol for America than Columbia. Not only is Nike appropriate as the Goddess of Victory (Success in almost 90% of our military conflicts), but also as the Goddess of Just Doing a Thing. We do. We don’t think; frequently before, but especially after. For all America’s positive traits, we are not a nation of reflection.

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Some months back, I posted an essay claiming that American society places an extremely high value on violence. If this is true, the Western is easily the most “American” style of film.

After all, consider the subtext of every Western: Justice (read: violence) dispensed from the twin barrels of a righteous sawed-off shotgun. Others will fail you. Society will fail you. The law, most of all, will fail you. Your convictions, backed by a six-shooter (and a high-powered rifle for that guy on the rooftop), never will.

It doesn’t get more American than that.

Before I watched Unforgiven, I had never enjoyed a Western. Unforgiven, though, is perhaps less a Western than it is a deconstruction or critique of Westerns. Unforgiven took apart the myth of frontier justice and replaced it with something far messier and far uglier.

It asked the quintessentially un-American question: Why do you love this?

The violence of Unforgiven is merely pervasive; its consequences are inescapable. Reformed gunfighter Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) is coaxed out of retirement by the Shofield Kid to track down and kill two men who had disfigured a prostitute. Before leaving, Munny recruits his former partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). Aside from the two bandits, their main adversary is Little Bill (Gene Hackman), the local sheriff who let the bandits off easy.

By the end of the film, everyone’s dependence on violence to solve problems cost Logan and Little Bill their lives, left Munny without his best friend, and stripped the Schofield Kid of his innocence and humanity. Logan’s wife was a widow. Munny took to drinking again. Little Bill’s house would never be finished.

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If Unforgiven is the perfect deconstruction of the Western, than Spec Ops: The Line is the perfect deconstruction of the first person shooter (FPS). The Line, just like Unforgiven, dares to ask us “Why do you love this?”

Your character, Captain Martin Walker, enters Dubai searching for an American unit that had stayed behind to help citizens who were unable to evacuate before sandstorms leveled the city. You forge into Dubai, assuming your gun will solve every problem, just like every FPS ever.

After you are ambushed by enemy fighters, your team suggests you fall back to radio for help. It is the smart thing to do, but it is not the FPS thing to do. Walker decides to push deeper. So he, and you, do.

After leaving a trail of dead fighters behind you, you come to find out that they are the refugees. You have been killing the very people you came here to save. Walker, who is really just your avatar, pushes on.

Soon, the American soldiers trapped in the city attack you. Your teammates raise questions about killing your fellow Americans. Walker calls them traitors and claims self-defense. So you trudge onward, leaving American corpses in your wake. Finally, you lead an all-out assault on the US base to kill the American commander.

The real climax of the game is near the story’s midpoint. I won’t spoil more than I already have, but suffice it to say that the above-mentioned scene was so intense that I had to set down my controller and walk away. I needed air. It was so intense that the game’s designer said that the player shutting off their console was one of the game’s possible endings.

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Spec Ops: The Line takes apart the FPS by doing everything that FPS’s do, then adding a sliver, just a fraction, of realistic consequences. By the end, Walker’s violent problem-solving takes away his teammates, his sanity, and depending on your interpretation, his life. Dubai’s refugees and their American protectors have been wiped out. Those who survive are trapped in a desert without water. And all the while, the game taunts you with its loading screens.

Do you feel like a hero yet? (It was self-defense. Come on, it’s not my fault!)

How many Americans have you killed today? (They were attacking me! *Pause* I am killing a lot of Americans…)

Do you even remember why you’re here? (Yeah, I’m trying to find Conrad. Wait, didn’t I come here to rescue refugees?)

This is all your fault. (Fuck.)

Spec Ops: The Line dares you to keep going, while repeatedly asking, “Why do you love this? Why are you still playing? Is this fun? Or do you think you have to? You know you’re just making things worse, right?”

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After Unforgiven, I will never be able to enjoy a classic Western. I can’t even watch Star Trek: Into Darkness without wondering how many civilians were killed in a starship’s crash. After Spec Ops: The Line, I find myself pondering civilian casualties in AC-130 gunship missions. I feel like I’m committing genocide in Borderlands.

We are a nation of violence, but not a nation of reflection. You can’t tell me those two things are not related.

If we thought about our lives and about society the same way that Unforgiven makes us think about movies or Spec Ops: The Line makes us think about video games, I imagine our world would be a far better place in which to live.

People behave differently when they think about the consequences of their actions. After all, “it’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

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4 thoughts on “Why Do You Love This?

  1. But aren’t classic westerns often just the good guy killing the bad guy to help save a town, a woman or a child? I mean, doesn’t the bad guy usually deserve to die?
    ********************************
    “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

    • Most certainly!

      That said, here’s the issues I still have: Often, the use of force is not a last resort. Often, the protagonist must work against the law or authority to “solve” central problem – If you don’t like a lawful decision, shoot it until you do! When those two don’t apply, the problems are unrealistically black & white and the consequences of killing to save someone or something are never explored.

      Westerns serve as American myths, both explaining American society and justifying it. I would suggest we should take a closer look at those justifications.

      You’ve seen a lot more Westerns than I have. What’s your take?

      • There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to American Western films. In general, early westerns tend to be more black and white, both in presentation and in narrative conflict. There’s a virtuous white hat (often a lawman) and an evil-to-the-core black hat and their roles are mostly unwavering. Usually it’s the bad guy who pushes things to the point of violence, not allowing any other recourse because “lead is the only language he knows.” This practice of making a bad guy unchangeable to lead the hero to do “what’s necessary” isn’t limited to just western films either. It also prevents exploration of the complexity of the situation–or any real-world parallels–by eliminating the complexity altogether. In the same way, it provides mythical (read: unrealistic) analogues for real life good guys (Us Americans!) and bad guys (anyone else who might not agree with what we “stand for”).

        Also, Westerns are often very homogenized character-wise. It’s a white dude against a dirtier, meaner white dude. Women are sidelined and silenced, African-Americans are enslaved or absent and Native Americans are the savage enemy. Obviously, that’s not the case for every western, but it is a rather narrow view of American history.

        I write as if I’m some kind of expert on Western movies, and I’m not. You mention Unforgiven, and that’s an interesting beast. Little Bill is the sheriff in the film, and he’s the bad guy! But, as you argue, is he the ONLY bad guy? Munny is a mean SOB too, and he leaves more bodies in his wake than Little Bill does. I don’t want to get too deep here, but clearly we’re into more complex territory than Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger.

        If you’re interested in more complex or outright revision western films, you can look earlier than Unforgiven. An incomplete list of some of my favorites include: The Serachers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or most any other Westerns made during the Vietnam War.

        A lot of these films play with traditional western (movie) conventions to comment directly on violence, masculinity, racism/sexism and the veracity of the common understanding of American (western) History. I know that’s all very vague and general, but it’s something to chew on.

  2. Jeff, I couldn’t agree more with pretty much all your analyses here. All of that stuff was sort of running through my head when typing my reply, but you said it better and clearer than anything I had going on. I’m also pumped you threw down some more complex Westerns. I will be checking those out this summer.

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