This article was originally published on my Wordpress blog on May 12th, 2014, as an assigment for my Spring Term Media Studies class with the byline: "Alex Anderlik is a senior in the Class of 2014 at Phillips Academy but hails from Missoula, Montana. When he's not wasting time on the Internet, he's trying to figure out how to waste more time on the Internet. You can reach him at google.com/+AlexAnderlik."
Few figures are as revered in post-9/11 American mythology as the courageous soldier, nobly sacrificing his (rarely ever “her”) life to protect the purity of his wife, family, and country half a world away. A recent New York Times article lampshades its own telling of Sergeant Shane Savage, whose “signature injuries” of head trauma and a crushed leg cast him into a “familiar arc” of depression, instability, and addiction caused by dramatic over-medication.
The Times is all too eager to throw him back into the front lines; it repeatedly calls his struggle a “War on Pain,” reminding me of the “War on Terror” paradox: apparently, Americans think the best way to alleviate the horrific consequences of war is to start another war against them.
The story of the article is, for the most part, a thinly-veiled derivative of the master narrative of American manhood. As a soldier he is tough, aggressive, and fearless: in fact, the article says that’s all he wanted to be. At 6’5” and sporting a six-pack, Sergeant Savage fit the perfect mold of the masculine protector. In fact, he re-entered the military after three tours because he missed the “brotherhood” its ranks offered him.
When he suffered horrific physical and emotional trauma during his military service, his subsequent suffering is not truly credited to his attackers (let alone the machinations of war itself) but to the medication which subdues, distorts, and weakens him. Neither he nor the article seem to hold a shadow of a doubt about sending young adults into battlefields to begin with.
While I’m certainly not doubting the awful effects of pharmaceutics which sometimes do more harm than good, I’m skeptical of the “cure” for his medicine: “his grit, his family, and a radical experiment in managing pain without narcotics.” Sergeant Savage found his respite in the very hallmarks of the American Western: donning a pair of cowboy boots, hopping on a horse and spending time with his loving nuclear family.
The Hollywood image of the “Wild West” has reclaimed mainstream American obsession ever since 9/11 – at least, it has been an unbelievably consistent trend, as outlined in Susan Faludi’s thorough book, The Terror Dream. She recounts the (largely untrue) frontier narratives of Native Americans attacking Midwestern outposts, kidnapping their women and deflating the perception of America as a righteous nation kept safe by burly men with shotguns.
This story jolted back to life in September 2001, with Muslim extremists playing the role of the assumedly savage, dark-skinned enemy, widows of World Trade Center workers filling the shoes of the stereotypically innocent, virgin victims, and George W. Bush stepping up to provide a template for the men of America: athletic, outdoorsy men holding guns and shoot-first attitudes.
In fact, I got the impression that this article does not consider war the true cause of Savage’s suffering to begin with. Doctors are the real villains here, and the author reassures readers that insurance providers are “cracking down” on medical professionals. The piece closes with a somehow positive spin on pain, which it describes as Savage’s new lifelong companion. In short, the resolution of this narrative is for Savage to just “deal with it.”
After all, what makes the hyper-masculine lone ranger stereotype maintain such high esteem is not his experience of hardship, but rather his ability to (in colloquial terms) “take it like a man.” What makes a martyr a martyr is the acceptance of self-sacrifice for a noble cause; if Savage numbed his pain away with medication, he would not be enduring hardship and would therefore be stripped of his heroism.
In this narrative, succumbing to pain is considered weak, and avoiding danger to begin with is considered cowardice. Men aiming to fill the role of masculine hero must eagerly jump into battle and never leave. Even if they return from war dazed and broken, they are immediately thrust into a new, metaphorical war. The only path to peace is paved with unconditional domination of the enemy, whether that enemy is the concept of terrorists or the existence of pain itself. These are wars that no one can truly claim to win; the only way to survive is to be invincible.
Sergeant Shane Savage is this story’s Superman: though he was wounded in battle, his steely resolve and gritty individualism represent the narrative of an America whose moral beliefs are unflappable: exterminate the enemy at all costs. Anything else would be to show weakness, and thus break the image of invincibility.