Updated: Jul 4
In all the bloated corpus of American videography there is no clip more hilarious, more obscene, or more endlessly fascinating than John Cena announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden at WWE Extreme Rules 2011. Rewatching it for the nth time before I began this polemic I was struck by the mise-en-scène: there Cena stood, glistening with the sweat of a gruelling, twenty-minute bout of illusory combat. His legs bestride the announcing table; his reared arm clenches the microphone. He laboriously tolls out the syllables like a prophecy of doom: ‘Osama… Bin… Laaaden’.
[Cheering from the chorus; cries of “USA!”]
I’m being facetious here, but it really is difficult to capture the sublimity and absurdity of this irreplaceable moment. It is such a uniquely American production: fake wrestling, fake muscles, fake voice, real death, real joy. What sticks with me the most, though, is the curious construction he uses in place of ‘has been killed’. ‘Compromised to a permanent end’ is Cena’s coinage, perhaps designed to slightly smooth the connotations of ‘assassinated’ or some other term, but despite its strangeness the phrase oozes with militaristic precision. It sounds like SEAL team jargon: ‘the target has been compromised’, or something like that, would not be out of place in Call of Duty or on the battlefields of Afghanistan. It is a neologism, but it is not unfriendly to the American ear: one knows exactly what he means by ‘a permanent end’. Military euphemism is common parlance in America. ‘casualty’ means dead or paraplegic, ‘operation’ means war, ‘weapon system’ means gun, ‘effective’ means lethal, and so on. One of the many cultural outcomes of America’s campaigns in the Noughties was the weakening of the rhetorical, and indeed psychological, barrier between civilian and soldier; between war and peace.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.’
Paul Bremer, United States Administrator in Iraq, after the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
This barrier has always been weak in America, or at least weaker than in England, because of a) the necessary intermingling of civilian and military life in a nation with first a militia and then a volunteer army, and b) her history of near-constant warfare. This dissemination of military culture and military values amongst the population in part accounts for the enormous state expenditure on military equipment, unconscionable in a less war-like society, and also the general pageantry and respect in which soldiers and the army are held. This attitude is entirely alien to the English mind. The brilliant George Orwell wrote that the goose-step was not used in England because ‘the people in the street would laugh’. If a Martian were to arrive in Birmingham tomorrow with no knowledge of our country or its people he would learn everything he needed to know about them from this one observation.
If that same Martian read what I have written here and stopped at my previous sentence, he might be forgiven in believing that the USA was a kind of Kaiserreich of the New World: all spiked helmets and bristling bayonets. This is not the case. American militarism exists in a mysterious middle ground between English bashfulness and Prussian hysteria. No one laughed when the muscle-bound, jort-bedecked Cena saluted like a marine. The atmosphere was one of triumphant rejoicing in the thrill of total victory, yet also tinged with a kind of innocence: like a father’s joy when his son scores the winning homerun for a little league baseball game. Cena still used his “wrestler’s voice”, announcing the death of the hated enemy as he would announce his next contender for World Champion. The chants of ‘USA!’ may seem distasteful to a non-American, but there isn’t the same sense of malice or hateful superiority as existed in Rome or the Kaiser’s Germany. It is a deeply unselfconscious but impotent militarism: no President or administration could ever rise to power through promises of battlefield glory, yet Bush managed to turn his otherwise unremarkable presidency into a seminal two-term ‘Bushism’ through the revanchist wars in Mesopotamia and Afghanistan. Similarly, all the military adventures in modern American history have been propagandized as somehow defensive or in the interest of ‘containment’. The more imperialist and aggressive the action the more the propagandists labour to present it as reluctant and necessary. This kind of rearguard, preventative action is more palatable to the American mind than an explicitly offensive one. Rather, the action can be as offensive as Vietnam or Iraq, yet as long as her people believe it to be necessary America’s latent militaristic tendencies can be keyed up to the right pitch. The war must, therefore, be short and relatively bloodless, which Vietnam and Iraq decidedly weren’t. There is something fascinating and thought-provoking in the fact that America’s enormous military was forged in the crucible of two world wars that it did not wish to fight. Woodrow Wilson viewed the Great War as a priceless opportunity to expand America’s influence as an arbiter, not a combatant. To him, the future glory of his nation was as impartial godfather of the world, not its undisputed policeman. History took a different turn.
In England Cena’s speech would have been met by at least a few sniggers in the crowd, the cries a little less heartfelt, someone somewhere deeply embarrassed by the whole affair. Yet it does not seem so strange to see military pageant and celebrity sports so intimately married in one American video. Such scenes are almost common on our televisions: a flock of fighter jets screaming through the clouds over a NASCAR rally, or a black B2 Spirit floating like a ghost of vengeance above the Superbowl. These little interpolations of military might are part of the fabric of American life, much like how a laurel-wreathed triumph through the forum was part of Rome’s fabric. There is, or was, effectively an entire genre of Hollywood devoted to near-pornographic displays of American weapons and warships: the seminal film is 1986’s Top Gun, but the trope persisted through the Nineties and Noughties until its inevitable collision with self-consciousness around 2010 (eerily coincidental with Bin Laden’s summary execution). I remember being seized with a strange mixture of déjà vu and melancholy during last year’s Top Gun: Maverick. Somewhere amidst all the awe and the cringe I kept thinking ‘Damn… they really don’t make films like this anymore’. To Bismarck, or Bonaparte, or any other demi-god of ancient Europe and her wars, such a vision of brash, unalloyed martial glory might be comprehensible. Yet to the modern European sensibility they only signal everything that died in the mud and wire of 1914. Perhaps the American cultural consciousness is beginning to approach this point, which it bizarrely failed to fully reach even after the hell of Vietnam.
Some of my earliest memories as a schoolboy were the Remembrance Day services at St. Simon Zelotes on Milner Street: the solemn procession with my peers down the aisle, stupefied without knowledge as all children are by the sombreness of a church. We were dimly aware of some great cataclysm in our past, filled with exotic words like “Somme” and “Ypres” and “Passchendaele”. There was the usual recital of poems and paeans to the glorious dead. So many dead, and so distant, that death itself becomes merely an image to be gawked and frowned at. It is difficult to apply a collective psychology to a whole nation, and I have fallen prey to generalisation already, yet it does not seem absurd to suppose that all England is traumatised by war. The slightest reminder sets us to balling, and if we did not laugh we would weep tears enough to fill up an ocean. If jets at the Superbowl are part of America’s texture, then the Last Post and the poppies are part of ours: as English as rain. So, no Top Gun for us. And after Afghanistan, maybe no more Top Gun ever.