How We Treat Real American Heroes

OutbreakI just watched Outbreak with my father. He was interested in it, because he had heard that they used the little California town of Ferndale as the primary location. He has fond memories of the town and I figured he would like the movie anyway. So we watched it and he did indeed like it—a lot more than most movies I make him watch. I’d seen the movie a long time ago, so I spent most of it thinking about people like Bradley Manning.

The main character in the film is Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman). He is a typical kind of American movie hero: he does what’s right rather than following orders. But because he is so brilliant, he gets away with it. What I find fascinating about this is that we just love this kind of character on the big screen, but we do not give half a shit about him in real life. In this regard, I don’t think so much of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. The Daniels character seems more to me like John Kiriakou. He’s the guy who disclosed the CIA torture program who is now serving two and a half years in prison for this “crime.” Meanwhile not one of the people who authorized or performed the torture has even been indicted.

This is what Kiriakou said about what he did, “I am proud that I stood up to our government. I stood up for what I believed was right, conviction or no conviction. I mean they can convict anybody of anything if they put their minds to it, but I wear this as a badge of honor. I am not a criminal. I am a whistleblower. The thing that I blew the whistle on is now the law of the land. Torture is illegal and it’s officially abandoned in our country and I’m proud to have had a role in that.” That’s the sort of thing that Daniels would have said.

I was thinking about what would have happened to the characters after the end of Outbreak in the real world. Not only would Daniels have been court-martialed, so would his subordinate helicopter pilot Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr). And so would the two pilots who dropped the bomb over the ocean. Oh, sure: the evil general (Donald Sutherland) would have been held to account. But all the other guys would be told that it didn’t really matter that what they did in the end was right, they broke the law of the military. They didn’t follow orders. And in the end, the evil general would probably end up with a slap on the wrist. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the real world.

Also in the real world: the only part of the society that gets really high marks from the public in the military. I have no particular animus against it. It is sadly necessary for a country to have. But it is a dirty business and one that we should never romanticize. And it is already (in proportional terms) at least a 100 times larger than any of our founding fathers would have been comfortable with. But we just love our huge army. Most Americans would like it even bigger. Combine that with the general belief of Americans that one should always follow the law—always follow orders. This country of ours increasingly gives me the creeps.

Afterword

There is a really positive portrait of the government in Outbreak. That is in its portrayal of the Center for Disease Control. The truth is that all those bureaucrats that Americans mostly think so ill of are working every day to keep us safe. And they don’t do it at the barrel of a gun.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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