It was about 1am in Basra in March 2003, the early days of the Iraq war.
The noise was fury incarnate as the jets flew overhead, but nothing compared with the dull boom of the bombs landing. It was not just the noise of the bombs falling, but the earthshaking thud as they landed. As dawn broke, we journalists ventured out into the streets and saw the destruction first-hand. Buildings had been concertinaed into dust and lives destroyed.
Back then, I was embedded with the British army as it took part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The American contingent all had accents straight out of Hollywood and they reminded me of actors.
One film in particular kept playing over and over in my mind.
Flashback to the year 1987. Top Gun is in UK cinemas and I am obsessed. It is just cool. Everything about it. The high octane jet fuel of the fighter planes is matched only by the high octane soundtrack; and the whoosh of the precision missiles is matched by the rat-a-tat dialogue.
Back then I was 16 and looking for a good guy to believe in. In Maverick, the main lead, I found him. His name summed him up. He was a little unorthodox, but an all-American hero when he needed to be. The United States defended our freedom and they did it in sunglasses.
Top Gun was not my first exposure to American propaganda, but it was my first exposure to the concept of American exceptionalism. The definition has changed over the last 100 years or so as political scientists have debated it, but at its core, it remains the same. The message is essentially that the US is a force for good. In 1987 it was a powerful idea for me. In 2003, and every year since then and a good few before, not so much.
What has changed? Several wars, 24-hour cable news, the internet, and my personal experience with the American war machine.
The American war is made with the coolest toys and the best logos. American war comes with a soundtrack and soundbites, like Maverick’s “I feel the need, the need for speed”.
The American war is inherently cool. Unless you are watching the place where the war lands, instead of where it is launched from.
Then the US is not exceptional. Rather, it is bloody and brutal, and its war machine is as much an arm for business as it is for defence – the military industrial complex, as former US president and army general Dwight Eisenhower put it.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw where the war landed in its ugliest and most brutal forms.
There was no honour in a war in those countries. There was no snappy dialogue, or a happy ending full of redemption, all bathed in the shadow of the US flag. There was only blood, politics and dollars being spent. This is what war means to me. A never-ending hell that only the dead will never see again.
I had not thought about Top Gun for years until I clicked on a link that played the trailer for the sequel. For 2 minutes and 20 seconds, goosebumps appeared and I sat watching it, as enthralled as I was in 1987. But then the 2 minutes and 20 seconds came to an end, and I felt sick.
The film is out in a couple of months and, against a backdrop of coronavirus, wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other conflicts, it just feels cheap.
It is perhaps fitting that its lead actor is a man who seems to be hanging on to the fading glories of his own past and, even more telling, that the female lead from the original film has been replaced with a younger actor. The original female lead told the press she was “too old, too fat” for that scene.
Top Gun was perhaps the greatest recruitment tool for American exceptionalism globally. The sequel feels like it is a desperate plea for relevance in a world tired of crisis. American exceptionalism in 2020 may well be “too old, too fat” for that scene.