What Red Dawn Really Has To Say About War

An essay taken from Wolverines: Reflections on Red Dawn


For as many people who love Red Dawn, it seems like there is an equal number of people who hate it. Just read any article on the internet about the film and you’ll see the phrases “pro-war,” “militaristic,” “xenophobic,” “paranoid,” “jingoistic” and “nationalistic” come up frequently and not in a positive light. On the other side of things, there are people who believe that the film glorifies militarism, armed conflict and patriotism and love it for that. I believe that both assessments of the film miss the point, as the film’s take on war is more complex than what meets the eye. War is not exactly glorified in the film and at no point do the characters speak any significant jingoistic lines. Instead, the film focuses on the true costs and realities of war as it relates to civilians to an American audience that had largely escaped the suffering brought on by war during the 20th Century. Although the setting of Red Dawn is unique, the basic story certainly isn’t.

To say that the 20th Century was bloody would be an extreme understatement. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 million people were killed in World War I and somewhere around 70 million around the world were slaughtered in World War II. In addition to the two major wars, there was the Holodomor, a Soviet-made forced famine in the Ukraine that killed off at least a few million, the Armenian Genocide which claimed the lives of about a million, around 2 million killed by Poi Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and numerous other atrocities and conflicts around the globe. Chronicling the violence and suffering of the world between 1900 and 1999 would fill up volumes. Despite the fact that a large percentage of the world’s population suffered through violence, war, tyranny, oppression and/or famine at some point in the 20th Century, the American civilian largely escaped hardship, despite the United States’ involvement in many conflicts over the course of the century. I believe that through Red Dawn, director John Milius challenges the American public’s ideas on war that have largely been formed at more than an arm’s distance from the actual fighting. By setting the conflict on American soil, the perceptive American audience might find themselves contemplating some of the hardships that war brings upon civilians and showing more empathy for that burden. Although Milius certainly uses Red Dawn as a platform to advocate for a strong national defense and he’s by no means a pacifist, the film suggests a very sober approach to armed conflict and brings home the true gravity of war to a disconnected American public.

While American civilians may have been distant from the consequences of war, the same can absolutely not be said about the citizens in America’s Cold War archrival, the Soviet Union. The Soviet death toll in World War II added up to well over 20 million between civilian and military deaths, with widespread destruction (some of the scars from the war can still be seen on the Russian landscape). We suffered somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 war deaths and statistically insignificant civilian casualties during the war. Barring a few anomalies (minor sabotage and Japanese balloon bombs), the mainland USA came out of the war unscathed. In fact, coming out of the war with our industries and infrastructure intact while the rest of the developed world suffered significant damage over the course of the war allowed the United States to rise to the position of the post-war world’s dominant superpower. The Soviet Union rose as a challenger to the United States’ position of the world’s sole superpower shortly after World War II in spite of the widespread death and destruction caused by the war. The sacrifices made and hardships suffered during the war by the people of the Soviet Union were deeply ingrained in the national psyche. The film brings up the question of the American public’s stomach for total war in a world with nuclear missiles pointed right at Hometown, USA. We know that our enemies in the Soviet Union proved that they could deal with extreme hardship, death and destruction – would we be willing to undergo that kind of sacrifice as a society as a means to win a war?

There are certainly some parallels between the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union and the fictional Soviet occupation of the United States in Red Dawn,and I believe these are more or less intentional. When Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner describes Denver being under siege and the citizens living off “rats, sawdust bread and sometimes each other,” I couldn’t help but to make the connection to the famed sieges of Stalingrad or Leningrad and the harrowing tales of the suffering of the civilians of those cities amidst the block-to-block fighting. Just as Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa caught the Soviet Union off guard and unprepared, the Soviet invasion in the film caught us in the same manner. There are famous stories of Soviet commanders dismissing reports of German attacks during the kick-off of the invasion, and I would imagine that reports of Soviet troops falling out of the sky in Colorado would have been scoffed at initially as well. The Soviet occupation of the US encompassed much of our most productive agricultural land. The actual Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union took away much of their best agricultural regions in the Ukraine, forcing them to fight the fight of their lives with a hand tied behind their back. The loss of the oil fields in Texas and grain producing regions in the Great Plains would have a similar effect on us. Red Dawn allowed the perceptive American viewer a chance to imagine and contemplate some of the hardships suffered by Soviet society of a generation or two earlier and what war actually means when it’s on your doorstep.

The last time an American citizen fell under foreign occupation was in 1812 (or perhaps some people in the south might say 1865), barring the invasion of a few remote Aleutian Islands in World War II. Although rationing in World War II brought hardship to American civilians, life was lavish compared to that of our allies in Great Britain and certainly the Soviet Union. When the subsequent conflicts in Korea and Vietnam came, life in America generally went on as usual unless you were one of the young men drafted into service. Due to technological advancements, Americans could watch scenes of combat from the comfort of their living rooms and this became the war experience for much of the country. I believe that Milius must have had the idea that the American public lost touch with reality regarding war at the forefront of his mind when he came up with the idea of Red Dawn. He sought to remind us that the world can be a rough place and to show us what war looks like up close and personal.

Although the film was released in 1984, I believe the disconnection between the American public and war has gotten wider and more bizarre between the 1991 Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of today. It’s true that the heavy reliance on National Guard and Reserve troops during these conflicts made it so I would imagine that virtually everyone at least knows someone who has been over there by now, but the war has brought very little suffering to the members of the American public who have no direct stake in the war. I would argue that the wars have been embraced by many as a form of entertainment. You can get on YouTube and watch videos of IEDs, firefights and all sorts of things of that nature. You can even see it on the news and I know many people (myself included) were glued to the television set watching videos of bombs falling out of the sky on Iraq. I’ll always remember the scenes of a eerily-quiet pre-dawn Baghdad with palm trees and minarets, only to have the stillness broken by missile strikes and air raid sirens. Clips of smart bomb strikes on bunkers and charred retreating Iraqi soldiers on the “highway of death” out of Kuwait became iconic of the Gulf War.

As a personal anecdote, I was in fourth grade during the Gulf War and absolutely obsessed with the war. I remember the school playing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” in the morning over the PA instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. With what little spending money I had, I bought Gulf War trading cards (pretty funny concept, right? I’ll trade my USS Iowa for your Harrier Jump Jet) and other trinkets from the industry that sprung up around the war – shirts with “I’d fly 3,000 miles to smoke a camel,” toilet paper with Saddam Hussein’s face on it, etc. I was glued to the TV watching the latest in military technology: smart bombs, stealth bombers, night vision and so on, used in a complete and utter shit-stomping of the Iraqi Army. I spent a lot of my playtime playing war. It really encompassed my thoughts and imagination. After the war ended I remembered feeling let down and making a comment to my mother that I wish there was still a war going on so there would be something good to watch on TV. Naturally, she gave me a completely horrified look. What can I say, I didn’t know any better. For what it’s worth, later on in life I got to see what war actually looks like when I went to Iraq in 2004-2005 as a Marine Corps infantryman. Of course the Gulf War experience for the Iraqis I talked to that lived through it was a lot different than mine as a kid high-fiving over smart bomb strikes and collecting the trading cards.

As of the date this is penned (in October of 2012), the remake of Red Dawn has not been released, but I feel that as a society we could probably use a Red Dawn again to remind a complacent and safe public what war looks like when it’s happening in your backyard and that it’s not always a matter of our boys pushing some buttons and laying waste to ne’er-do-wells around the world. To be honest, I doubt that the 2012 Red Dawn will have that affect, as the story line isn’t as tangible as the Soviet threat in the 80’s.

Despite claims to the contrary, I see very little that could be deemed true patriotic propaganda or jingoism in Red Dawn in the way of speech or imagery from the American side, although I will concede that one could get “our enemies are bad!” out of the film. The Wolverines’ motivations are entirely human and make no appeals to God, mom and apple pie, free markets, Jeffersonian democracy or the Chicago Bears. Jed puts it very succinctly in the scene where he’s about to execute a captured Soviet soldier when Matt asks him “what’s the difference between us and him?” in an appeal to cancel the execution, to which Jed responds “Because we live here!” followed by dispatching the unfortunate soldier. They fought simply because the Soviets were there and to get revenge for the atrocities committed against their families, friends and community. I think it’s interesting to note that the group’s name comes from the town’s high school football mascot, the focal point of many small towns across America, instead of a name that reflects a broader American identity. I feel it localizes their resistance and makes it more about their community than the larger theater of war.

If the film is full of pro-American propaganda, they do not do a very good job of promoting the idea of a competent and able American government so it’s hard to make the argument that the movie promotes statism. Agents of the US government only surface as the helicopter that saves the Wolverines (ok, that’s significant) and terrorizes the occupying forces initially, radio broadcasts from “Free America,” a botched armored assault on the town and the downed pilot, Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner, USAF. The idea of the Soviets getting through our defenses and catching us off guard would suggest ineptness of the government, whom we trust to provide our general defense against foreign enemies. Although it’s implied at the end that the invasion was eventually repulsed, the film does not show the US military coming to save the day and make Uncle Sam the hero. There’s no saving grace in American exceptionalism in Red Dawn.

The character who appears to be the most enthusiastic about fighting is Robert, who is motivated by a burning desire for revenge and a sense of fatalism after finding out about the fate of his family. Jed would perhaps be second in enthusiasm, driven by his position as a leader and de facto father figure to the now-parentless teenagers. Neither character display any patriotic sentiments or appealto high ideals beyond reacting to direct situations throughout the movie.

Red Dawn has a lot to say about war and defense to an American public who has largely become disconnected from the human cost of war. Milius forces us to address our complacency and perhaps arrogance acquired through virtually two centuries of military victories and immunity from the death and destruction that much of the world experienced during the 20th Century. Far from being a jingoistic propaganda piece or a two-hour glorification of war, the film shows the American viewer what war actually looks like through an uncomfortably familiar setting. How anyone can watch the film and get the impression that war is a good thing is beyond me.

I recently had  Red Dawn by Murray N. Rothbard from the 1984 July-August issue of Libertarian Forum pointed out to me where Rothbard came to many of the same conclusions as I did on Red Dawn.  Read the essay and find more from one of the greatest political and economic thinkers of our time at www.Lewrockwell.com