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Where Is Rambo When You Need Him?

Does the Hollywood conditioned U.S. public have unreasonable expectations for the war against terrorism?

November 6, 2001

Does the Hollywood conditioned U.S. public have unreasonable expectations for the war against terrorism?

Foreigners coming to the United States are often shocked by the quality of U.S. news coverage. It’s not that it’s bad. What worries them is that, as far as international news is concerned, it is usually non-existent.

Even in major U.S. cities, top newspapers keep no correspondents in foreign countries and use dispatches from news agencies to cover world events. Front-page headlines tend to concentrate on local news and sports events, while the world news section is often the thinnest in the edition.

But this doesn’t mean that Americans are completely ignorant about the world around them. They know it’s a dangerous place full of terrorists and villains. They have seen maybe a thousand Hollywood thrillers dealing with Middle Eastern terrorists, Latin narco-terrorists, renegade factions of the Irish Republican Army and assorted European “bad guys” usually sporting a sinister —yet unplaceable — continental accent.

Of course, everybody knows that Hollywood’s creative minds bring their own inimitable perspective to every subject they treat. Historians who bother to see such films as The Patriot (about the American Revolutionary War) or Pearl Harbor (which tackles the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941) usually come out of the theater shaking their heads.

Similarly, movies about current affairs and present-day wars are made based on a pre-fabricated formula. This is best illustrated by Rambo: First Blood II, the 1985 Sylvester Stallone movie.

In this movie, John Rambo is a highly trained, extremely brave Green Beret and Vietnam veteran. He goes on a secret one-man mission to Vietnam to check out rumors that more than ten years after the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. POWs are still held captive by the Communists. He takes on Vietnamese camp guards and their sinister Russian sponsors, as well as various U.S. government officials who apparently had a nasty hidden agenda when they sent Mr. Rambo into the jungle.

Needless to say, all enemies are defeated, prisoners are freed — and our hero comes home victorious. Not only does he accomplish his mission, but in the process he also pays the Vietnamese back for the defeat they had inflicted on the American military. Never mind that the defeat was painfully real, while the payback took place on the silver screen. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the score has been evened out.

The movie’s sequel, Rambo III, proves even more relevant today. This film, released in 1988, takes place in Afghanistan — the very country where the United States could use Rambo’s help today.

In an ironic twist of history, the film unites the muslim Mujahideen and the indestructible Rambo in a joint effort to rescue Rambo’s former commander, Colonel Trautman, who is being held captive by the Russians. Thanks to Rambo’s intervention, Colonel Trautman is rescued — and the Afghan freedom fighters defeat the Russian invaders.

The movie is even dedicated to the brave people of Afghanistan — particularly the anti-Russian mujahideen. Ironically, it is the very same kind of mujahideen warriors — today fighting alongside the Taliban — who are proving very difficult for U.S. forces to defeat.

Over the years, truth about military conflicts has increasingly started to resemble fiction. Starting with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Americans have been fed news footage about U.S. bombings of hostile nations that increasingly resembled video games — except that the graphics quality was much poorer.

Viewers get to see blurred images — which they are told are military targets on the ground — going up in smoke in what are reported to be bomb strikes of pinpoint accuracy. The only thing missing, it seems, is a joystick to make that news footage truly interactive.

The current situation in Afghanistan is tailor-made for the appearance of John Rambo. The bad guys are really bad. They dress funny, they look mean and they spout hatred of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — in short, everything America holds dear. They have committed real-life acts so daring and atrocious that even the most fertile Hollywood imagination has never been able to come up with anything even remotely similar.

Now, the mission is clear: to capture the head bad guy, Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, and to bring him to justice. Who is better fit for the job than Mr. Rambo?

No wonder official Washington feels pressure for some quick, spectacular success. Although U.S. President George W. Bush warned the nation not to expect immediate results in the war on terrorism, the nation wants to see concrete action. It wants special forces going into caves in Afghanistan to ferret out Mr. bin Laden.

And yet, a month after the bombing campaign began, no top terrorists have been captured or killed. Why, the American people ask? Rambo movies and similar Hollywood fare (à la Arnold Schwarzenegger) provide a convincing explanation. Clearly it must be because cowardly government officials are for some inexplicable reason afraid to give Mr. Rambo free rein.

Except what looked so easy on screen proves to be far more difficult — and bloody — in real life. The danger is that the Bush Administration will succumb to public clamor for some highly visible action — with disastrous consequences. Maybe the world doesn’t need Rambo after all.