The Magazine

How to Woo a Warrior

The National Guard, now showing at the multiplex.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By JUSTIN SHUBOW
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Now airing in theaters before the coming attractions, "American Warrior" is a stunningly unorthodox commercial for the U.S. National Guard. Directed by Academy Award-winner James Mangold, the two-minute-and-35-second music video combines a kick-ass song by Kid Rock with visuals that cut between the rock star in concert, Dale Earnhardt Jr. braving danger in a stock-car race, and guardsmen deployed at home and abroad. The ad, which is running on 27,000 screens through October, serves as a model example of how to advertise the military during a controversial war.

Right from the get-go, the ad shows zero tolerance for naysayers. The muscular opening lyric alludes to and brushes aside any doubts about the war in Iraq: So don't tell me who's wrong and right / when liberty starts slippin' away / And if you ain't gonna fight / get out of the way.

Even more boldly, the video does not shrink from the fact that a guardsman might be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan; it shows soldiers in what is clearly a Middle Eastern country. This is a marked improvement over "Citizen/Soldier," a cinematic National Guard ad from 2007 that portrayed combat soldiers primarily in the Revolutionary War and World War II. "American Warrior" perhaps takes its forthrightness to an extreme when Kid Rock solemnly sings, "I'm giving all myself," which could easily refer to sacrificing one's life.

But the ad's most astonishing moment occurs when an American Humvee accidentally nearly kills a young Muslim boy who has run into the street. Could this be the first military recruiting effort to admit the potential for unintended civilian casualties? The surprising realism is enhanced by a reference to the military's newfound attention to cultural sensitivity. Not only does a soldier kick a soccer ball to the frightened boy, but the American takes off his sunglasses before doing so. This follows the military's current guidelines, which recommend that when dealing with civilians, soldiers remove their dark eyewear so as to appear less threatening.

Despite these touches, the ad is anything but a "We Are the World" paean to peacekeepers. Its footage includes locust-like helicopters swarming in from above, heavily armed vehicles barreling through a village, and even a battlefield explosion. Still fiercer are the vocals, with Kid Rock repeatedly screaming the word "warrior." And the second verse boasts of being "ready to deploy, engage, and destroy," the syllables of which are syncopated for maximum force.

Thanks to such assaultive sounds and imagery, the video almost seems more fitting for the Marines than the National Guard, whose ads have traditionally played up the softer side of the service, such as helping one's neighbors and building character. A typical 2007 National Guard TV commercial, for instance, emphasized "country, community, family" and prominently featured women guardsmen. The "American Warrior" ad, by contrast, is aimed solely at young men, the sort who might be open to the idea that war is the proving ground for manliness. Indeed, only one woman soldier appears in the video-and she is barely recognizable as female.

By contrast, a recent "Army Strong" commercial actually shows a female soldier being pulled over an obstacle wall by other soldiers-a depiction of the very feminization of the military bemoaned by Stephanie Gutmann's The Kinder, Gentler Military, which reported that, after too many women failed to climb the obstacle wall unassisted, the Army eliminated that training requirement.

As for aiding in retention and morale, the lyrical and musical -ferocity of "American Warrior," together with its emphasis on loyalty (soldiers are shown rescuing their buddy, whom they would "never leave .  .  . behind"), ought to shore up the self-image of troops currently serving in the combat arena. Psychological studies from World War II onward have shown that soldiers fight less for a cause than for their brothers in arms. And, needless to say, guardsmen on patrol in Falluja do not picture themselves primarily as irenic do-gooders; unlike guardsmen who merely provide aid during natural disasters at home, they are definitely warfighters first. Also, given that U.S. soldiers routinely fire themselves up before dangerous missions by listening to aggressive music, it is almost a sure thing that "American Warrior" will be used for this very purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan. If comments on blog posts are a good indication, troops are overwhelmingly gung-ho about the song.

Another noteworthy feature of "American Warrior" is the way it savvily targets red staters. Earnhardt is a hero to NASCAR fans, while Kid Rock, who hails from small-town Michigan, is famous for his impudent white-trash persona. The song itself was created by adding all new lyrics to the grinding southern riffs of Kid Rock's "Jackson, Mississippi," the opening line of which is sung in country-style harmony. That the ad is oriented toward the heartland reflects the fact that the military has for quite some time been disproportionately southern in its makeup-a phenomenon that can be attributed in large part to the longstanding importance of honor in the region, a value that blue staters often fail to comprehend.

By offering red-blooded males a blunt message of certitude with attitude, one that combines idealism with realism, the video's creators have produced a spot that shines by comparison with the Army's numerous marketing missteps-from the self-help "Be All That You Can Be" to the hyper-individualistic "Army of One" to the caveman-like solecism "Army Strong." Unlike all of these, "American Warrior" hits its marks with the precision and power of a laser-guided bomb.

Justin Shubow is assistant editor at Commentary.