So the boss at work gets excited and calls us all over to a nearby computer to show us a webpage he has just discovered. There, we would be able to stream Hollywood’s latest greatest war movie, Lone Survivor, online, for free. Everyone reacted as if an eighth wonder of the world had been discovered. Personally, I said “Okay” and went on with my business.*
As a former soldier and war resister, I no longer suffer from a military fetish. I’m not interested in war porn, not aroused by excessive on-screen violence. As a veteran, it might surprise you to hear that I am not interested in how Private Ryan was saved, or how the Brothers became a Band in the killing fields of Europe by killing the proverbial ‘bad guy’. I’m more interested in learning what brought these men to the killing fields. The background story, the political dimension; why these old men in Washington sent these young men to slaughter and die, and who profits from the carnage. But these inquiries hardly ever survive the cutting room floor.
Lone Survivor is Hollywood’s new war-film wonder, grossing $38 million at the US box office its first week. If dollars are a measure, that makes it second in popularity only to the perennial Saving Private Ryan, which grossed $73 million its first week. However, unlike Ryan, released in 1998 and memorializing events of World War II some 50-odd years after they have passed, Lone Survivor takes place inside a war which continues today: the war in Afghanistan is nearly the longest-running war in US history, second only to the Wars in the Philippines (1898-1913). And, it is perhaps our most forgotten.
The film dramatizes Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission in eastern Afghanistan which attempted to bring down Ahmad Shah, a local anti-coalition militia commander, which resulted in the deaths of 18 US service-members in action, and many more Afghans. The film’s protagonists are a group of four Navy SEALs who lead the ground mission, with Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell at the center.
Lone Survivor is part of a spate of contemporary Hollywood war renditions of the post-9/11 era wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is remarkable - and new - about these films is that they have been written, produced, focus-grouped, marketed, and released, during the ongoing wars in which they take place. Lone Survivor follows in the footsteps of The Hurt Locker, released in 2008 during the ongoing war in Iraq, still three years before its formal end in 2011; the lesser known Green Zone, with Matt Damon as protagonist, set in wartime Iraq and released while the war was ongoing in 2010; and Zero Dark Thirty, released in 2012, a mere 19 months after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated by Navy SEALs in Pakistan, while the war in Afghanistan continued.
Does Hollywood’s dramatic eventalization (or, the ‘making-of-event’) of these wars distort their ongoing nature, and the possibilities of having an ongoing relationship to them, for the US public?
Cinematic dramatization memorializes events, which is important to the process of collective memory-making and our sense of history. Yet, when applied to ongoing events, this dramatization can present a false closure, relegating them to the realm of memory, to be reflected upon as-if they have passed. As if we can know what the ending of a mission in 2005 ‘means’ and feel a certain way about it when the movie ends, while the war it is part of continues. As if the ripple effects of Operation Red Wings may not still be affecting who lives and who dies amongst Pashtun villagers and US service-members today.
Does contouring a false ‘end’ to events thus foreclose possibilities for our relationships to the lives so deeply affected by the ongoing events that these false ‘ends’ render hidden? As a civilian public with very little public speech devoted to the War in Afghanistan, at what cost do we continue to support the telling of these events as if they are over?
Far lesser known than the story of Red Wings or what happens in a ‘hurt locker’ is the story of Hollywood’s intimate relationship with the Pentagon. They go way back. The Pentagon has had offices in Hollywood since 1942. Its Motion Picture Liaison Office in California, reports to the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs: Special Assistant for Entertainment Media in Washington. It’s a win-win situation. For the military, Hollywood’s war movies are an efficient and popular recruiting tool--youth audiences are a primary target. (As an impressionable youngster, I just knew I wanted to be a Navy pilot after watching Top Gun!)
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Hollywood consistently shows the U.S. military in a positive, usually glorified light, and because American movies have a global reach, they are a great public relations tool. President Obama too acknowledges this fact, stating in November 2013 that, “Believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy”, while visiting Dream Works Headquarters in California.
For Hollywood, it means access to the latest military hardware for the production of its movies, easing their budget, as well as access to military subject matter experts. Both can make the difference between a blockbuster and a bust.
In exchange, the Pentagon gets access to the script of the film being produced. If the Pentagon favors the script, the producers continue to enjoy military assistance. If the Pentagon disapproves of how the military is being portrayed in the film, or if the narrative deviates too far from its desires, they suggest changes or retire the personnel and equipment from participation in production. An example of the latter was Oliver Stone’s Platoon, in which the American G.I. is depicted going insane during the Vietnam War, committing all sorts of atrocities.
The height of this relationship was reached during the Second World War, where the movie industries mobilized to promote patriotism and sway the public into supporting the war effort. After the debacle in Vietnam, the movie industry toned down its production of war movies. Those that were made were often critical of the war. However, since the 1980's, Hollywood and the military have amped up once more, with movies ranging from Rambo, Commando, and Missing in Action, to Saving Jessica Lynch, Seal Team Six and the Hurt Locker--all promoting the idea of the invincibility of the brave American fighting men killing the proverbial ‘bad guy’ without any political context whatsoever. The proverbial ‘bad guy’ these days likewise perpetuates racist, xenophobic, and anti-Islamic sentiment in a general public which is getting to know the bad guys’ cultures solely through portrayals of their fictionalized crimes and jihads.
The influence that the film industry has on people is expansive, and mesmerizing. Many Americans get their knowledge of history from films. The success of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation didn't go unnoticed in Washington for its power to motivate and militarily prepare the public for the Great War to come, as well as for its success in driving up recruitment for the nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan movement. The 1927 Academy Award winning film Wings then glorified the Great War, while ignoring its aftermath, and helped prepare the American public for the Second World War.
Our current ‘War on Terror,’ a war declared against a military tactic (‘terrorism’) and a tactical-political effect (‘terror’), is inspiring an entertainment industry of its own. It is not only Hollywood movies, but also military reality shows such as Battleground Afghanistan and Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan; television dramas like Army Wives, which objectifies women connected to the service; video games like Call of Duty; and series that normalize the clandestine, dirty, and legally dubious conduct of U.S. agents in this so-called war, such as 24 and Homeland. These have a profound effect on the public psyche in sustaining patriotic fervor and military enthusiasm, while simultaneously removing them from the political context driving current wars and U.S. militarism writ large.
As Congress lifts the ban on the use of deliberate government propaganda on Americans with the passing of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (now codified in the 2014 NDAA), it now makes military Psychological Operations on U.S. citizens fully legal. This ‘soft power’ will most definitely be used to sway the public perception on current wars and wars to come. Currently, the Pentagon spends $4 billion annually on public relations, and $200 million on information operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hollywood’s version of war is usually black and white, apolitical, and sanitized, normalizing war in the collective mind of the American public. This has the effect of conditioning the populace to view war as a fact of life, gaining their support more often than not -or at least their indifference- to current and future wars alike.
*I-statements in the article refer to the first author’s personal experience as a veteran of the U.S. Army.