Who Will Survive in America? Military Horror, Millennials and Contemporary Moral Panics

Curator's Note

A number of recent films, such as the Purge franchise, The Guest, Green Room, and Don’t Breathe are all examples of a re-emerging and revitalized military horror subgenre, and they are particularly interesting to me in their representations of what I have discussed in previous work as discourses of “productive trauma.” In these films, military personnel and spaces are typically presented as monstrous and haunted by traumatic violence and PTSD. However, these traumas are simultaneously presented as giving military personnel extraordinary (sometimes superhuman) powers and abilities, and as sites of potential transformation and growth for the younger, millennial protagonists of the film who are forced to encounter and overcome them.

Contemporary narratives of military nostalgia and “real men” which are counterpoised to panics about millennial entitlement and ‘softness’ are literally embodied in these films, as millennials learn ‘grit,’ resilience, self-confidence, and self-reliance through their traumatic encounters with older, white military men in settings that are constructed by and saturated with military violence, technologies, and memories—or they die trying, which is often read as confirming their more general failings. Horrific encounters with military trauma are presented as enabling them to process their own feelings of grief and loss, to experience individual growth, to deal with everyday problems (as in the violent retribution visited upon the homophobic bullies in the clip from The Guest connected to this post), and to gain the skills and resources necessary to move on from their own precarious situations (the unhappy, ‘stuck’ milieus of exurbs and dead-end jobs in The Guest and dystopian Detroit in Don’t Breathe) into more fulfilling and independent lives.

These narratives and their structuring fantasies of transformation through trauma and military culture must be put into conversation with broader discourses of grit, resilience, and post-traumatic growth both within and beyond the military in the current U.S. context. These discourses are often mobilized to justify violence and suffering—particularly against women, people of color, LGBTQI communities, immigrants, and the poor--by implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) critiquing subjects who are unable to effectively convert their traumas into a properly productive and transformative experience of individual growth. In a current conjuncture in which everyday life is increasingly experienced and described as traumatic, and where crisis is increasingly ordinary instead of a radical disruption of the everyday, the politics of these discourses of productive trauma that can only be met with individual resilience deserves careful attention and critique.

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