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'Rambo' rides again? Switching roles and purifying souls in Ukraine

Like the third installment of the Stallone series, America is trying to reimagine itself while never acknowledging failures of the past.

Analysis | Europe

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is being invoked not only as a “paradigm shift” on the scale of 9/11, but also as the end of the 9/11 era. As we watch images of Russian tanks rolling down the streets of Ukrainian cities and see the rubble of apartment buildings, theaters, and malls destroyed by Russian missiles, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror and the counterinsurgency campaigns that emerged from it now feel like distant history. 

At the same time, the experiences and memories of America’s post 9/11 wars have emerged as important touchstones in the current conflict. Especially in the minds of the individuals involved in those wars, the 9/11 era and whatever comes after it are inextricably linked. 

In recent weeks, Eliot Cohen has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the public debate about the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For those who may not remember, Cohen co-founded the neoconservative Project for the New American Century in 1997, played a key role in pressing for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the final year of the George W. Bush administration. 

While seeking to avoid a direct conflict with Russia, Cohen has been urging the United States to increase its military, intelligence, and training assistance to the beleaguered Ukrainians. “The United States and its Western partners must help nourish an insurgency that will cause the occupiers to bitterly regret, and then reverse, their attempt to crush Ukrainian independence,” he wrote in The Atlanticon February 22. 

Cohen’s vision of the Ukrainian resistance as an “insurgency” that destroys Russia in a long and grinding counterinsurgency war comes directly from U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing is peppered with “lessons” on America's recent counterinsurgency failures. “As the United States discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how large, technologically advanced, and proficient an army is, motivated insurgents can still inflict casualties in the tens of thousands.”  

Disillusioned by their experiences in these wars, many of the thousands of U.S. veterans who have dropped everything to go to Ukraine and join the fight against Russia see the crisis in Ukraine as a moral reckoning with their past. As one veteran involved in coordinating the volunteer efforts put it, “It’s a conflict that has a clear good and bad side, and maybe that stands apart from other recent conflicts.” 

Counterinsurgency is back, although this time we get to be on the side of the insurgents, and our own counterinsurgency failures of the past become the basis for imagining Russia’s dark future. 

Switching insurgency and counterinsurgency roles with Russia is part of longer American tradition. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, National Security Adviser Zbiginiew Brzezinski penned a memo to President Carter in which he wrote, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”  

This vision became part of a broader popular mythology around the war. It is literally the plot of the movie Rambo 3. Released in 1988, the movie is perhaps best known for being one of the most violent and gruesome in the pantheon of Hollywood war films. But on closer inspection, it is also a very therapeutic movie, healing a national psyche wounded by its role as the perpetrator of a brutal counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. When we first meet John Rambo, he is living out his days in a monastery in Thailand. The reluctant warrior soon learns that his friend, Colonel Sam Trautman, has been captured by the Soviets in Afghanistan and agrees to participate in a secret CIA mission there. 

The film traces Rambo’s transformation from disillusioned veteran of America’s failed counterinsurgency war in Vietnam into inspired superhero ally in the mujahideen insurgency against the Soviets. The role switch from counterinsurgency to insurgency also entails a moral transformation. Rambo, the guilty agent of imperial violence, becomes Rambo the heroic defender of the Afghan people. In one scene, Soviet helicopters loom overhead while Rambo and his mujahideen friends play “sheep ball” on horseback below. Later, bombarded by these helicopters, Rambo finds his way to the Stinger Missile — notably supplied by the Americans — and successfully shoots down his Russian nemesis from the sky. 

Americans are no longer in the helicopters but on the ground with the people on the receiving end of the bombs.  

In a climactic scene toward the end, a bare chested and bleeding Rambo evokes the image of a musclebound Jesus on the cross. He musters all his courage, pushes a lodged arrowhead through his torso, and burns his flesh to cauterize the wound. In true American superhero fashion, Rambo saves Trautman against all odds. The disillusioned Vietnam vet has been reborn as the heroic savior. Without having to martyr himself, Rambo nonetheless redeems America of the sins it committed in Vietnam. 

When audiences flocked to theaters to watch Rambo 3, the Soviet Union’s counterinsurgency nightmare in Afghanistan had already become reality. The Soviets underestimated the strength of the opposition and overestimated that of the Afghan army to suppress it. The long and protracted war put an economic burden on an already overstretched economy. It also damaged Soviet relations with other nations in the “third world” and undermined efforts at rapprochement with the West. 

Most importantly, it provoked opposition from within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev called it “the bleeding wound” and made ending the war a top priority when he came to power in 1985. The effects of the war played a key role in the breakdown and dissolution of the Soviet system. 

Of course, U.S. support of the Afghan insurgency would come back to haunt it decades later. When the mujahideen heroes of the Reagan years became the bad “insurgents” of the post- 9/11 era, the U.S. switched roles once again and dusted off the old counterinsurgency playbook. 

If a negotiated settlement is not reached soon, the Hollywood version of Russia’s future counterinsurgency nightmare may soon become reality. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a gross miscalculation. He did not anticipate the strength of the Ukrainian resistance or grasp the limits of the Russian military to suppress it. Against all odds, the conflict has reached a stalemate

Although Russia has not been able to topple the Zelensky regime, the proxy war is escalating, with the US and NATO increasing military support to Ukraine, while still avoiding direct war with Russia. If Putin refrains from using nuclear weapons, but refuses to withdraw from Ukraine, Russia may very well be in for a long and protracted counterinsurgency campaign. 

That would be very bad for the Putin regime, demoralizing the Russian military, draining the Russian economy, fueling domestic protest, and deepening the international community’s moral opposition to the occupation. At the same time, Putin’s counterinsurgency nightmare would not necessarily be good for Ukraine or the countries supporting it. Even Cohen admits that fueling a Ukrainian insurgency is a “risky” endeavor that could prolong and escalate the current conflict and perhaps even fuel a future one. It is a calculated risk. There is no way to know for sure what will happen. 

Regardless of what the future holds, there is something deeply disturbing about the American reinvention of itself from “bad” counterinsurgency to “good” friend of insurgency. The role-switching amounts to an act of atonement without a real confession. By projecting its guilty past onto Russia, America is freed of its post 9/11 sins without really having to reckon with them. 

The impunity of America in Iraq has not been lost upon Vladmir Putin. In his desire to restore Russia’s past imperial glory, some have argued that he saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example to emulate. Transgression of sovereignty. The use of shock and awe tactics. Open pursuit of regime change. Blatant lying about the enemy’s chemical weapons. Putin watched as the United States got away with these things in a country halfway across the world and believed that he could do the same in a region with much closer historical and cultural ties to Russia. 

For obvious reasons, Cohen’s projection of America’s past onto Russia’s future doesn’t include these analogies. To mention them in the context of Russia’s current siege of Ukraine is a form of sacrilege in respectable national security circles. Hence, the center-right backlash when the connection is made. It’s a new era. We’re on the “good” side now. But you cynics just can’t get admit it. So you wallow in our “bad” past. 

It’s as though we must be innocent in order for Russia to be guilty. In this zero-sum game, the sins of America’s post 9/11 wars must be expiated in order to hold Russia accountable in the present. But our historical and moral imagination need not be so simple or schematic. While depriving America of its innocence, underscoring the enduring legacy of America’s post 9/11 wars doesn’t make Putin any less responsible for the current invasion. 

Ultimately, Rambo 3is a fantasy of ablution that is always in the process of undoing itself. As we watch Rambo fight alongside the mujahideen, we are constantly reminded of the very thing the fantasy is asking us to forget — the Vietnam War. That is the enduring truth of the film.

Try as they might, neither America nor Russia can fully launder its war crimes through the other. And as we grapple with tough decisions about how best to counter Putin’s aggression, we should be wise enough to remember our own. 

Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III in 1988.(screengrab from trailer/you tube/tri star pictures)
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