"Our enemy can take any shape... they could be anywhere..."
- dialogue from the forthcoming Transformers movie
Andy at Kino Slang posted some (preemptive) objections to Michael Bay's Transformers based on its complicity with the American military enterprise. While I also find this problematic, my real concerns with the film are the way in which it engages with the paradigm of contemporary warfare.
The film starts out as an allegory for 4th Generation Warfare (4GW), or perhaps even 5GW: enemies are hidden among us, yet to reveal themselves; they pose an existential threat to our society due to their capability to inflict huge damage instantaneously; these enemies emerge from the crowd of our everyday life, and have the ability to then slip back among us unnoticed, tainting all of our everyday routines and interactions with suspicion and fear. The film then renegs on this promised exploration of the enemy in our midst, in favor of a traditional (read: 3GW) military fantasy, where expertise with the tools of war provides hard-fought but ultimately inevitable victory. This military wish-fulfillment fantasy is on par with the power fantasies provided by comic-book superheros. It perpetuates the myth that the US Army can win a conflict -- any conflict -- due to its technological superiority and the grit of the soldier on the ground. The root of this power fantasy is a visible, stable 3GW enemy who need only be outthought and outmaneuvered to be defeated. This is the most ideologically dangerous component of the film: the perpetuation of an outmoded strategy -- and perhaps more importantly, an outmoded myth of warfare. I'm reminded of the experience of English soldiers in World War I (as relayed via Paul Fussell's excellent book The Great War and Modern Memory). Those men went off to war expecting the heroism of The Iliad, carrying with them ideals of personal heroism and sacrifice and expecting to return home "by Christmas." What they found was the mess and slaughter of a pointless and chaotic war, quite the opposite of the notions of heroism they had been fed. Fussell's book is predominantly about the development of a particular strand of literary irony in this generation of writers who experienced life in the trenches firsthand. If Transformers can be taken as representative of our present response to myth-disillusionment as much as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden were of the WWI generation, then the present response is instead one of nostalgia for the definable enemies of past days. It seems that few if any First World War veteran writers returned to the concepts of heroism expressed in Homer or the Romantic lyric. Those British soldiers experienced the disillusioning truth of war, but in 4GW [and 5GW] it is the citizenry who is made victim (with fear a main weapon of war). Thus a nostalgia arises from our desire for a defendable and secure social order, and no engagement with the realities of conflict in the modern age will do. Hollywood's machine pretends to do what no modern military apparatus can -- restore (the facade of) security to our everyday lives.
But, will the inevitable sequel-tease undercut this establishment of imagined safety?
For more on 4GW / 5GW, see:
John Robb at Global Guerrillas
Wikipedia on 4GW
5GW at ComingAnarchy
Truly Formless 5GW at ComingAnarchy
tdaxp on 5GW (in-depth)
Kung Fu Monkey on 4th Generation Media