The special discursive status of minority-ethnic soldiers fighting for the United States has received a new focus in the war on Iraq. The U.S. government has shown an increased willingness to grant posthumous citizenship to \"non- citizen\" soldiers killed in U.S. military service (full citizenship not being prerequisite for entering the Armed Forces); the majority of these non-citizens belong to ethnic minorities in the United States. In April 2003, the Senate passed a bill awarding immediate citizenship to non-citizen soldiers killed in combat, and since 2004, a Presidential executive order has also made it easier for families of non-citizens killed in U.S. military service to apply for citizenship. Thus, in the war on Iraq, the ethnic-minority soldier's (dead) body became an official pathway to U.S. citizenship (i.e. \"sanctioned\" U.S. identity). In the light of this current situation, I would like to look back at Hollywood films to consider how they have presented issues of ethnic minorities in the armed forces, and in particular at the depiction of a Mexican-American soldier fighting clandestinely in Nicaragua in Haskell Wexler's Latino (1985). I am interested in tracing how that characterization bears comparison to and differs from the new situation of non-citizen soldiers becoming citizens through dying in Iraq.
As will be argued here, soldier s' relation to the collective is particularly acute where they serve a country in which they belong to minority-ethnic communities and thus face possible marginalization and othering. They have to willingly risk their natural bodies for a national body that might otherwise reject and eject them.
A later scene in Jarhead, when reporters interview the soldiers , shows that being \"green\" implies exhibiting patriotism and, in the case of Hispanic soldiers, also gratitude. Ramón Escobar, from Miami and with a Cuban background, professes that joining the Marines \"was an opportunity for me to defend America, the country which has given freedom to me and my family\"; his Mexican comrade Juan Cortéz from Delano, CA, says he's proud \"to defend my country and to serve my country.\" However, as a film highly critical of the military and contemporary warfare, Jarhead demonstrates that the U.S. Armed Forces are not the great equalizer they pretend to be and that ethnic differences among the marines persist despite the troops' shared experiences and strong sense of bonding.
In Jarhead, as in most other big-budget U.S. war films, the status of ethnic-minority soldiers plays a marginal rather than a major role. Films foregrounding the issue, such as Glory ( 1989 ) and Windtalkers ( 2002 ), are exceptions. The former film presents the U.S. Civil War's first all-black volunteer company (the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment serving under white Colonel Robert G. Shaw). The latter has a plot about Navajo Marines trained to use an unbreakable radio code based on their native language during World War II in the Pacific and their relationships with white comrades who act as their bodyguards. The two films have as a major narrative thread that ethnic-minority soldiers have to fight prejudices as well as the enemy but nevertheless prove their valor and loyalty to the common cause. The scripts have as a theme the need to (re)inscribe the war contributions of ethnic minorities in the nation's historical consciousness, and they indicate that these contributions were shaped, in each instance, by experiences unique to the respective racial group, including that group's specific history of injustice and discrimination. Glory has been acclaimed for its complex portrayal of these issues, while Windtalkers failed , according to most reviewers, because of its reliance on stereotypes. And in spite of their \"race themes,\" both stories still focused on a white central protagonist. As Roger Ebert, reviewing Windtalkers notes,
However, it uses a less sophisticated blend of fiction and the real than in Medium Cool and the documentary-style footage primarily serves the film's political mission, as, for instance, when the opening sequence explains (literally, in voice-over) the background and state of affairs in Nicaragua. But other scenes with the Nicaraguan people have more emotional poignancy. The film's images of raided towns and local violence manage to convey the plight of the civilian population, and the old woman who twice curses the U.S. soldier remains a haunting presence for the audience as well as for the film's protagonist.
During his mission against the Sandinistas, Eddie Guerrero's identity as a U.S. soldier is increasingly undermined. We see his growing doubts about the legitimacy of the operation in which he is engaged and his growing identification with the alleged \"enemy.\" He becomes increasingly aware of his status as an ethnic subaltern within the U.S. military which uses his bilingual fluency and appearance as tools in an imperialist intervention. And above all, he becomes sensitive to his role in an operation directed against other \"Latinos.\" The degree to which Eddie feels alienated from his role as a professional soldier is foregrounded by the film's parallel portrayal of how and why the Nicaraguan people fight. The residents of El Porvenir, a Sandinista cooperative, take up arms for a cause with which they fully identify. They fight an enemy who threatens their lives, the results of their labo r, and their political ideals. And they fight a true people's war that turns men, women, the old, and the young into (temporary) warriors.
Latino negotiates Eddie's experience of conflicting identities with particular emphasis on two important signifiers of a person's identity: the name and the body, both of which the narrative expressly ties together. One of the things that makes the film unique as a war film is how it presents the Mexican-American warrior as defined by different but connected notions of the body: As a soldier, Eddie's body \"belongs\" to the military and, implicitly, to the nation he serves. At the same time, his body bears the marks of his ethnicity and it is also, of course, the site of his very personal needs and desires. Furthermore, Eddie is presented as interacting with various social bodies: the military community ; his family back in City Terrace, East LA ; and the family he would like to form with his new lover, the middle-class Nicaraguan agronomist Marlena (played by Annette Cardona) and her little son.
Eddie first meets Marlena on a U.S.-owned farm in Honduras, where she works as a pest-control specialist. Her husband, a drunkard from whom she is separated, was Honduran, but Marlena is Nicaraguan by birth, and her family still live in Nicaragua. Eddie is increasingly troubled by his mission and shows signs of misgiving as he witnesses how Nicaraguan men are coerced into the Contra militia, Nicaraguan villages are raided, their inhabitants killed and raped, and harvests destroyed. He even fraternizes with the \"enemy\" when he befriends Luis (played by Luis Torrentes), a young and naïve man from El Porvenir, who is kidnapped by the Contras. Luis is tortured for refusing to enter their militia but then gives in and serves under Eddie's personal supervision and protection. This is one of the film's less credible plot moves. While it might seem plausible that Luis feels gratitude towards Eddie and even develops some admiration for him, it is hard to believe that Eddie, an experienced soldier, would fully trust and even give a weapon to a man whom his comrade Ruben has recently helped to torture. Quite obviously, Eddie's older-brother attitude towards the young Nicaraguan is meant to stress how Eddie's identity as a U.S. soldier is beginning to crumble.
While Eddie's involvement with the people he must fight gets more intense, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable within the social body of the army. The script first marks this alienation by showing his strained relationship with his friend Ruben. Personal doubts about his role in the U.S. military also arise when his commanding officer announces that Eddie and Ruben will lead their fighters in an operation against El Porvenir in Contra uniforms and without identity tags. The officer says the reason for their hiding their identity is to keep political liberals in the United States from raising an alarm over evidence of fallen U.S. soldiers should the operation fail.
Fighting with the Contras openly instrumentalizes Eddie's Mexican American ethnicity because this ethnicity allows him to blend into the group and camouflage his citizenship. Eddie is expected to serve the United States \"invisibly,\" by exactly not looking like a soldier who is white or black and thus easily identified as a member of the U.S. military. Paradoxically, his ethnic identity and soldierly discipline are meant to operate for his country, but at the same time his Armed Forces have personally and militarily \"othered\" him. This order is a turning point in the narrative for it contradicts Eddie's understanding of his professional role. He considers honorable service for his country to involve service in that country's name, as a body politic identifiable as the United States, even if he is on a secret operation. As Eddie tells the commanding officer to his face:
Eventually, the fear that his dead body would go unidentified also awakens Eddie's sense of ethnic discrimination. The official honoring of a soldier's death may be a matter of particular sensitivity for ethnic-minority soldiers, especially if they have seen military service as a way of gaining and/or confirming their status within the nation. Here, for example, the action of Latino takes place less than a year after the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in November 1982. Many Hispanic names are inscribed on this monument and their contribution to a U.S. war was a high price for acceptance into U.S. society. As B.V. Olguín puts it: