With the reality of entrenched opposition in Iraq resulting in increasing U.S. fatalities there, the opposition at home to the occupation is hardening by the day. The military appears to have come up with a solution: Change reality.
In what has been described as a "Pentagon infomercial," the Defense Department has hired a former producer of the TV show "Cops" to film postwar Iraq from its perspective. Though producer Bertram van Munster has denied that he is shooting a propaganda piece, it is clear that the Pentagon is gearing up to frame its own account — and history — of the Iraq war.
The Pentagon has a long history of propaganda efforts. Indeed, the Pentagon is hard at work participating in a number of movies that will deliver its message on the legitimacy of the war and its own conduct in Iraq.
Some of these efforts are already the subject of controversy. For example, military and intelligence sources framed an account of Pfc. Jessica Lynch that was almost entirely manufactured for public appeal.
With a headline proclaiming that Lynch was "fighting to the death," the Washington Post cited military sources to give a breathless account of how the supply clerk fought Rambo-style in close combat until she was wounded and captured. The tale of her rescue was equally breathless and equally false — based on an edited Pentagon video showing Special Forces giving the appearance they were under fire as they whisked away the heroine.
It now appears that Lynch may not have engaged the enemy at all; she was not shot and stabbed; and there was no hostile fire (or any hostile forces) at the hospital. Even so, a "Saving Private Lynch" TV movie project is slated, with the account supported by the Pentagon. Other projects are also in the works.
Most Americans are unaware that the U.S. military routinely reviews scripts that might require Defense Department cooperation and that the Pentagon compels changes for television and movies to convey the government's message.
Although rarely publicly acknowledged, major films have been rewritten to remove negative but historically accurate facts to present a more positive military image. This work is done by a team of military reviewers "embedded" in Hollywood. Most recently, the military quietly worked on a script for the television program "JAG" to present its controversial military tribunals as something of an ACLU lawyer's dream.
This work thrives in the shadow of the 1st Amendment. Though the Constitution generally bars the government from preventing or punishing free speech, it is less clear about the degree to which the government may assist speech that it favors. To that end, the military uses access to military units, bases and even stock military footage and open areas such as the Presidio to force prepublication review and script changes. This access is vital for many films on military subjects, so producers yield to the demands.
Phil Strub, the head of the Pentagon's liaison office, recently revealed this criterion for getting approval for a film as "accurate": "Any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us."
"Apocalypse Now" was viewed as "not realistic" because of negative scenes about Vietnam (and its makers were denied any assistance or access), while the producers of the recent film "Windtalkers" yielded to Pentagon demands for script changes. For example, the original script featured a Marine called "the Dentist" who methodically removed the gold in the mouths of dead Japanese — a practice known to have occurred during World War II. The military objected and the scene was eventually removed, as was a scene of a Marine killing a surrendering Japanese soldier.
Viewers, of course, are never informed that the movies were subject to military revision or censor. This is essential in the propaganda business. The degree to which a message is absorbed by a viewer depends in large part on his or her initial resistance or skepticism. By ensuring the propaganda value of films that are ostensibly the work of independent producers, the role of military censors is hidden from the viewer. Congress should act to prohibit the Pentagon from editing scripts and punishing producers who do not yield to their changes.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with either truth or the integrity of our soldiers. As coverage of the Iraq war attests, they need no help with their image. Every picture of GIs risking their lives to save wounded civilians or enemy soldiers speaks volumes about their character. It is powerful because it is true, it is unrehearsed and it is no one's message but their own.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of law at George Washington University.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times