Killing Osama bin Laden and David Mamet’s Special Ops Drama, ‘The Unit’

‘What did [Nazi hunter] Simon Wiesenthal do when he found these notorious terrorists in all corners of the globe? Gathered evidence, sought extradition, apprehended them and gave them up for trial. As should have happened with Bin Laden — at least if our regard for proper justice is genuine.’

Wallace Chapman, ‘Chomsky on Bin Laden, and extradition (9 May)’.

‘I’m on the American side!’

— Tiffy (Abby Bramwell) in The Unit, Old Home Week, 31 October 2006

Viewing the world through a haze of vaguely remembered TV shows, tough-guy dialogue and TV jingles, the news about Osama bin Laden’s death quickly turned Retro Remote’s thoughts to The Unit (2006-2009), the special-ops action/drama series created, and sometimes written and directed, by once-great writer David Mamet.

Though the news media finds itself targeted from all sides for political bias and misrepresentation, it’s never just the news media that we should be turning our attention to when it comes to how cultural and political values, processes and ideals are represented. The popular ‘entertainment’ media may fall back on its self-created status of real-world irrelevance, but nevertheless spins sense-making narratives out of real-world ideas and attitudes that potentially have a far greater, and generally uncontested, reach than any ‘formal’ engagement with the matters of the world.

In fact, just a day after bin Laden was killed, viewers tuning into the USA Network’s WWE wrestling program RAW, most likely to see a much-hyped appearance by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (in what turned out to be a tedious two hours of birthday pandering to the star), were immediately greeted with a video package celebrating Bin Laden’s death. American flag? Check. Emotive file footage? Check. George W. Bush? Check. President Obama? Um, President Obama? Well, Obama was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Bin Laden’s capture was bookended with footage of George W., and only George W.

Even WWE Superstar John Cena’s speech from an event the previous night was edited to remove all references to the current President.

Some 5.41 million viewers (not including those outside the US) tuned in for that highly political and frantically-revisionist piece of ‘entertainment’: as blunt as any ranting Fox News editorial, and yet potentially far more insidious.

Just as entertainment constructs a narrative, so is a cultural narrative constructed. ‘This is how it all fits together, where all the pieces belong’ is the underlying implication of any narrative structure, and the dull standard tropes of ‘the way things work’ are re-enforced endlessly, and too often unquestioned, whether in flickering NTSC or in shiny 1080p.

Though David Mamet wasn’t thinking about the killing of bin Laden when he created The Unit (well, not this specific killing anyway – as a neo-con, he probably dreams of killing bin Laden all the time), the show nevertheless plays its part in making sure we have a solid pre-determined cultural response to such events. The scenarios repeat, again and again, where ultra-America, ultra-male, ultra-righteous special-ops forces save the Western world, in spite of the combined forces of an endless stream of not only terrorists, but also bureaucrats, foreigners and left-wingers.

Questioning military action or events in the field, The Unit reminds us again and again, is unwelcome and, most likely, unpatriotic. The only correct response to such questioning (and the resolution to the show’s ‘investigation’ episodes) is to accept the answer that you were wrong in asking the question in the first place.

Angry responses to real-word questioning of bin Laden’s killing and its associated legality/morality thrive on such narratives. Questioning the underlying beliefs behind the operation, Noam Chomsky’s thoughts might not make a lot of people happy (and he was questioning the evidence of bin Laden’s actual involvement well before the killing as well) but they do serve as a reminder that the real-world narratives surrounding the killing of bin Laden may have a lot more to do with the imperialist outlook of some action movie than the supposed ‘realities’ of international law and procedural justice.

Responses to such questioning (and usually it is merely questioning) reassert the notion that the battlefield is a realm that is not only beyond public accountability, but even beyond public comprehension. The debate’s been full of lines like, ‘you weren’t there’, ‘what would you have done in that situation?’, ‘have you ever been a soldier?’, ‘he would have done the same to us’, ‘a bullet was what all deserved’, and so on. Similarly, these are conceptualisations that rely on a created and speculative narrative of events, roles and extended meaning rather than direct statements of fact.

To reaffirm his support for the killing of bin Laden, former Australian opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull constructed an entirely incompatible narrative fantasy of British soldiers gunning down Adolf Hitler in 1943 rather than bringing him to face the world in a trial. When his own narrative failed, he fell back on the usual lines, criticising the ‘arm chair generalship’ questioning of his own ‘arm chair generalship’: ‘Oh, honestly, Tony. Look this is arm chair general-ship of the utmost degree. I mean how many special operations have you been on? Really! I mean I haven’t been on any. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it’.

The underlying core of these approaches is clear: the ‘real stuff’ on the field transcends the merely perfunctory process of legal and ethical process. If you weren’t holding the gun, then you have no right to question. There’s a bigger picture, the approach insists. But who decides when that ‘bigger picture’ is invoked, exactly?

Re-enforcing this ‘don’t ask, don’t ask‘ understanding of the way military justice operates is the core of Mamet’s The Unit. The missions that dominate the lives of the soldiers are secret not only to their wives and families, but also from any real kind of outside accountability. In the first episode, the wife of a new arrival to the cosy military street is repeatedly informed (as the viewer is similarly indoctrinated) that ‘the Unit’, their secrecy and their cohesiveness, takes precedence over everything. Thinking locally, this is basic security; extended globally, politically and ethically, the concept is much more problematic. Or, at least, it should be.

Such simplistic attitudes towards accountability are standard narrative devices for Mamet, allowing little things like regulatory oversight to be the ‘problem’ that propels the drama. Season two episode ‘Johnny B. Good’ (6 February 2007) opens this way; higher-ups are not only told to stay out of investigating details of a secret mission that seemingly went awry on Iranian soil, but also reminded that, by keeping it in-house, they won’t be able to testify to anything they don’t ‘know’. Sorting things out in-house always means that the characters emerge unscathed and worthy of greater trust than before; they may have broken some rules, but they did what was right, man. Meanwhile, blocking all outside attempts at examination is presented as entirely laudable. After all, the soldiers are never wrong, and their accusers are incapable of understanding what they experience.

When the broader effects of their operations are questioned in the field, the response is, as it always is, ‘that ain’t out call’. And yet, that ‘call’ of taking a larger world-view beyond their immediate orders is made whenever it’s deemed necessary by the men on the field; if the ‘call’ doesn’t suit them, they’re happy to make their own choices and keep the discussion in-house. Under orders to rescue a former-dictator caught in a North Carolina hurricane at the expense of other lives in ‘Force Majeure’ (17 October 2006), there’s no doubt that they’re going to find a way around completing their mandated mission, even as they reassert their own powerlessness and lack of authority to do so.

Such ethical conflicts would be the stuff of high drama if Mamet wasn’t dealing from such a stacked deck. The dictator in ‘Force Majeure’ is such a jerk that we’re just waiting for them to kick him down a flight of stairs, no matter what those damn pencil-pushers back in Washington think. The decisions that go against procedure are always so weighted in the soldiers’ favour, and the outsiders’ demands so blind to reality, that we can’t ever wish to see the soldiers punished; even the mere suggestion of investigation seems to be an insult to their inner righteousness. And, no matter how stupid or contrived the initiatives are, the important thing is that things turn out right in the end.

In ‘The Broom Cupboard’ (16 January 2007) the men ‘kidnap’ a senator they’re supposed to be protecting to keep her out of trouble in order to fulfil personal secret orders from the President (played by William H. Macy), somehow also preventing local security from torturing the innocent civilians accused of the crime. Meanwhile, team leader Jonas (ever-righteous Dennis Haysbert) meets a rebel leader to decide all on his lonesome whether or not the US should support his planned coup. Who cares that it’s ridiculous, dangerous, unethical, and conveniently brushes over any problematic results while keeping general society in the dark about major international relations; what matters is that the President know that you done good, son, and shares a top-secret congratulatory drink with you in his secret White House bar.

The result is a kind of shared secret with the audience: we (the viewer and ‘the Unit’) did what had to be done, and we can’t expect others not involved (menial politicians, the media, the public) to understand.

This kind of us-and-them logic of the show, where the ‘them’ is not only terrorists but also regular democratic society, perhaps reaches its most desperate moment in ‘Old Home Week’ (31 October 2006); written and directed by Mamet himself, it’s a sad sign of just how far he’s fallen as a relevant dramatic voice (whether from the left or the right).

What Is Said and What is Heard

While going about her daily American duties as a military wife one day (here collecting a vintage jeep to be a raffle prize to help honor veterans), Tiffy (Abby Brammwell) stumbles over a shocking occurrence on her quiet military street: a peace rally!

Mamet’s conception of a peace rally seems to be straight out of some low budget ’50s juvenile delinquent movie: a bunch of vague and shabbily-dressed tie-dye vagabonds and beatniks with cut-out peace signs stuck to planks, marching around in an adorably small circle. All that’s missing is a beat up old Scooby-Doo ‘Mystery Mobile’ style van. Oh, wait, there it is. I’m surprised Mamet didn’t have Tiffy alerted earlier by wafts of marijuana smoke and the echo of beat-poetry bongos.

The popular ‘entertainment’ media may fall back on its self-created status of real-world irrelevance, but nevertheless spins sense-making narratives out of real-world ideas and attitudes that potentially have a far greater, and generally uncontested, reach than any ‘formal’ engagement with the matters of the world.

Out of this half-hearted, presumably half-stoned, affair steps Don Draper himself, actor Jon Hamm, vaguely squinting at the real world around him as though barely able to recognise it through his haze of goofballs, wrinkled shirts and commie indoctrination.

“Are you out of your minds, what are you people doing?” he yells at some passing soldiers, like the drunk guy on the street yelling at nobody and everybody, before shaking his head softly: “Poor fools.”

The encounter closes with a close-up of Tiffy’s face, troubled but resolute, knowing she must act as she clutches a peace meeting flyer in her hand and peers at the cluster of ramshackle extras yelling ‘out now!’ at nobody in particular.

Jon Hamm in the ‘Old Home Week’ episode of The Unit

Mamet’s crotchety portrayal of protesters will probably please plenty of The Unit‘s audience, but the show propagandising turns from hilarious to sad when Tiffy finally faces the poor misguided peacenik at his meeting. Pro-military reaffirmation here transitions into a pro-military wet dream, a feeble fantasy of the righteousness of one’s own position and the idiocy of all others: hardly worthy of a dramatist who once fed on the inherent tensions in language and power rather than on simplistic diatribe.

Arriving at the meeting, a woman on a mission, Tiffy takes her seat in the mostly-empty theatre. ‘What about Hitler?’ Tiffy interrupts some random peace chatter, firing the bug guns right away. ‘What about 9/11?’ she continues, dredging up more emotive images in place of actual, you know, argument.

“Who’s side are you on?” Comrade Hamm asks, clearly a little on the slow side.

“I’m on the American side,” says Tiffy, Mamet drawing the dividing line clearly and bluntly.

The liberal room shocked into silence by this Fox News style ‘wisdom’ (aka shouting slogans), Tiffy triumphantly steps to the front of the stage. “Now, I have a few more remarks…”

For a show so stridently pro-military and a creator so (recently) stridently right-wing, this is its moment of moments: a peace rally of ‘brain dead liberals’ (to use Mamet’s term) face-to-face with one good-hearted, all-American military-hero wife.

And when Tiffy takes the floor to deliver the definitive blow to these anti-military louts?

Mamet cuts.

The next thing we see is Hamm’s alternative universe Don Draper skulking out of the theatre, as though his hippy-haze had been suddenly blown away by a drone-bomber of American truth. But mere skulking is not enough for Mamet. “Ma’am, you won,” says Bizarro Draper, firmly announcing his defeat. “I’d say by any objective standards, you won the debate.”

Despite this concession, Tiffy gets right back to her slogans. And now, her enemy is intrigued: ‘go on’, he smiles, following up with an request to hear more of her insights at a later date. Tiffy, her work done now that the protesters have accepting their own irrelevance, merely strides off, righteous and victorious.

What’s particularly upsetting about this scene (especially for a writer so known for his idiosyncratic mastery of language) is not its role as pro-military propaganda (TV is full of propaganda, usually more subtle and insidious than this), but the fact that it evades its own central moment of argument. We hear the slogans on either side, but the moment Tiffy actually starts her address, Mamet immediately turns off the camera. It’s a further coddling of audience expectations: the implication is that Tiffy’s words were a kind of obvious revelation, simultaneously so obvious to us and so shocking to them, so true and so real, that the words could not and need not actually be expressed.

The fact that Tiffy won these beatniks over to our side is far less important than actually having a clear definition of what ‘our side’ actually is. We don’t have to argue: we know.

This odd, gaping abyss in place of rational argument is reminiscent of an intriguing skit that was apparently planned, but never actually done, for an appearance by the great Donald Pleasence on Saturday Night Live. Pleasence was to play a Nazi death camp commander on trial for atrocities. When disgusted inquisitors asked how such actions could be justified, Pleasence would lean in and whisper to them, his words unheard by the audience. The inquisitors would then stop, think for a moment, and then agree that the whispered rationalisation was in fact quite a good reason. That little problem settled, the death camp commander could walk free.

It’s easy to understand why the sketch was never produced for a mainstream audience, but the ‘joke’ here – that the mere words of an unheard whispered rationalisation would completely overturn our understanding of the world and its moral order – is essentially reproduced by Mamet as part of his (presumably) non-comedic dramatic structure. We see the fantasy inversion of principles, but we never witness the core that provoked it. Potentially funny (and upsetting) in the obviousness of its evasiveness in the Donald Pleasence sketch, the same evasion in Mamet’s drama is simply pandering, cowardly and smug.

Hamm’s flimsy protester returns later in the series as a lawyer in a volunteer legal service (Hamm is clearly too good an actor to let get away – he’s the only thing that saves Mad Man‘s least interesting character, Don ‘all things to all men’ Draper, from being a total bore) but it doesn’t take long for Mamet to stack the deck again and for do-gooder neuroses to peek through. “Don’t you have any pride?” Tiffy reprimands him in ‘Bait’ (28 November 2006) as he tries to get a cowardly AWOL soldier off charges. Later, he’s in a gathering that’s fired upon (for no reason other than dramatic convenience – nobody seems too fussed about it) and Mamet undercuts the potentially disruptive tough volunteer lawyer role by having him get all weepy because he’s not all manly like a real-man soldier would be (army-wife Tiffy, naturally, slaps him into shape again).

Through these kinds of narratives, The Unit simultaneously targets two enemies of global security: 1) terrorists who would disrupt the everyday world, 2) the everyday world. Just as in Tiffy’s missing speech in ‘Old Home Week’, military action never needs to be justified in actual, you know, words; we merely need to ‘know’ that it’s right.

Ultimately, the destruction of argument benefits neither side. Blind divisiveness sells well but means little; it fuels the notion that questioning the necessity of a (possible) assassination when capturing bin Laden alive may have been an option represents some kind of sympathy for bin Laden and lack of support for Western institutions. And yet, I doubt you’ll find many people questioning the legality of the process who have sympathy for bin Laden. Most agree that if Bin Laden could not be taken alive, then that’s that.

But if he could have been, but wasn’t, then that’s another story entirely. As international law specialist Benjamin Ferencz, who was a prosecutor during the Nuremburg trials, told the BBC : ‘Killing a captive who poses no immediate threat is a crime under military law as well as all other law’.

Rather, those questioning the military action may have less sympathy for bin Laden than for a judicial system whose influence has been eroded by cultural narratives of a military righteousness that is too important to be shared with the outside world, is hindered by regular democratic processes, and that never needs to justify its actions. At least, not in, you know, words.