Trigger warning: Discussion of war crimes and some disturbing images ahead…
One of the better later season Simpsons jokes comes in an episode called “New Boys on the Blecch” in season 12.
Bart’s shenanigans have caught the eye of an entertainment producer looking to create a Springfield boy band. He forms a group with Bart along with Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph called The Party Posse and quickly rise to superstardom after giving them a heaping helping of “studio magic” (i.e.: autotune).
Midway through the episode, the group releases a new music video called “Drop da Bomb” featuring the boys in camo gear flying jet planes punctuated by this chorus line sung by the scantily clad dancers: “Yvan eht nioj.”
Lisa notices something weird and suspicious about it and sets out to investigate and she soon discovers it’s an insidious subliminal message meant to drive recruitment to the Navy!
It’s a funny bit that plays out greatly for the remainder of the episode as the producer reveals himself to be a psycho lieutenant navy vet with PTSD from fighting hippies back in the 60s/70s. The joke is funny because it’s so overt and obvious and shameless in its execution and made funnier at the end when NSYNC does their own military recruitment pitch by the credits. It’s meant to be tongue in cheek as we laugh at the military’s expense for trying something so insidious.
But the Pentagon’s relationship with the entertainment industry is a very real thing and it’s not always as obvious and overt as spelling “Join the Navy” backward. The US has been hard at work using the film industry to drive recruitment and brand awareness of the military as far back as World War I and Hollywood has been more than willing to turn the other way while they do it.
Most people are probably already familiar with old vintage Hollywood American war-branding. The classic 1930s radio voice narrating over visuals of men in trenches and “little Timmy” helping “the war effort” by recycling cans or something. This started with President Woodrow Wilson at the start of WWI. Up until 1917, the US had a strict policy of neutrality when it came to international politics, but many politicians were itching to get involved in the European conflict overseas because of the economic opportunities that lay within it. After war was declared following the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (the CPI) to help solidify public support for the war. They did this in a number of ways including creating posters, telegraphs, radio announcements and silent films all to generate public approval for the war to assure Americans that the fight was just. This included making exaggerated distortions about their enemies, as the US dehumanized the Germans largely during this process (note: they were not Nazis at this time).
The committee didn’t last long, dissolving not long after the war ended but an important lesson was learned by the US government during this period; that media was a powerful tool to manipulate public opinion. They found their ultimate tool for this in film with the release of “Wings,” a movie about Air Force pilots in WWI which was directly funded and aided by the Pentagon in its production. The film helped drive Air Force recruitment and solidified movies as a place the military could promote themselves in.
At the start of WWII, President Roosevelt continued this practice forming the Office of War Information, following much of the same steps the CPI did to run propaganda for the war effort. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you that the Nazis and Imperial Japan were bad and needed to be stopped but propaganda is propaganda and much of the same manipulation, including the dehumanization of America’s enemies (which included extremely racist caricatures of the Japanese) were a part of this campaign and had widespread ramifications for people back home.
Like the CPI, the OWI dissolved following the war, but one major change occurred which was sending a “entertainment liaison” to Hollywood via the Pentagon. From here Hollywood’s, let’s say, friends with benefits relationship with the Department of Defense truly began to blossom and many movies and TV shows since have heavily used military assets in their production.
But what is that relationship exactly? After all, isn’t Hollywood “woke” and “liberal?”
The main reason Hollywood works with the military comes down to simple economics, as cynical as it sounds. While a director could have an animation team digitally create a fighter jet through thousands of man-hours or buy one for roughly 30 million dollars, the military will actually just give them one for “free” more or less assuming the script meets their standards. Hollywood will also borrow real cadets as extras because it saves them money on hiring SAG union-based actors who would need to be paid residuals if they were put in the background instead. Why hire and pay a bunch of actors to play soldiers when you can simply get the real thing for free basically? (Source)
That’s just capitalism, baby!
But the Pentagon doesn’t just give their stuff away without some conditions set first. Directors and writers have to hand over their scripts before that transaction is made and if they don’t meet certain criteria they are rejected. What are those criteria exactly? If you go to the actual Pentagon website on this topic they’ll tell you it’s about portraying the military “accurately” but do even the tiniest of research into this and you’ll find that the Pentagon’s supposed commitment to “accuracy” is lacking when it paints them in an unfavorable light.
Films such as “Wind Talkers,” a WWII movie about the real native American veterans who spoke in their native language as code for the allies in the Pacific had to cut scenes from their script that were deemed detrimental to the military’s image even though they were things that actually happened. This included American soldiers making trophies of Japanese teeth following battles and the murdering of the same soldiers following willful surrender.
A dumb comedy like “Meet The Parents” couldn’t even get CIA approval until they edited out mention of Robert DeNiro’s character’s past involving torture, which we all know is a very real thing that happens under their watch.
When Ang Lee made the much-maligned “Hulk” in 2002 the DoD got him to change the operation name to stop Bruce Banner from “Ranch Hand” to “Angry Man” because the former references a very real war crime involving chemical weapons in Vietnam.
Speaking of Vietnam, while the US is keen on painting this event as a tragedy in popular media (something that is generally agreed upon everywhere), who it’s a tragedy for is where the propaganda begins in movies that take place there. While 58,000 plus US troops died in Vietnam some millions of Vietnamese were exterminated in the same time period. The US conducted horrific bombing campaigns that killed indiscriminately across north and south Vietnam, which more than the pressure from the public back home, eventually led to the defeat of the US. The Vietnamese were rightfully angry and led to the eventual fall of the South Vietnamese government by its own citizens. But look across Vietnam war movies and you’re not likely to find a Vietnamese character with a prominent speaking role. The US is always front and center and the tragedy of the conflict becomes not about the untold amount of death dealt out during this period but of the Americans who lost to the “evil forces” of communism. Films like “Rambo” for instance, while certainly sympathetic to the PTSD of its soldiers also states that veterans are also sad about “not winning.” The message in these films becomes more about sympathy for the GIs and their plight and pain, rather than the pain they dealt on the Vietnamese and its one that resonates with both conservatives and liberals in this country.
There’s a reason “Apocalypse Now” didn’t get DoD approval and it’s because it paints a completely unflattering and frankly the most honest portrayal of the US military in Vietnam ever to hit the big screen. The Pentagon doesn’t like looking like the bad guys even when it’s quite clear they were…
The Pentagon has consulted or helped produce 800 feature films from 1911-2017. 1100 on TV in that same timespan and the CIA has worked on 60 themselves (source). That’s a lot of military men and equipment to lend out on their dime (ie: our tax dollars) so what is the main benefit?
If nothing else, it’s about recruitment and PR.
“Top Gun” was a movie that came out during a period where the military was trying to regain its public approval post-Vietnam. A movie that followed traditional romantic plot structures of the 40s set to high octane Navy flyovers was more than good enough to get the DoD involved and the Air Force (ironically not a part of the movie) saw a HUGE increase in recruitment following the film’s run.
“Air Force One,” a movie where the president hilariously stops an entire plane full of Soviet terrorists worked so directly with the DoD that they actually set up recruitment tents inside and outside movie theaters during its run.
In both cases, those films were little more than expensive ads for the military depicting them as nearly flawless protectors of the American way while ensuring that the audience knew exactly who the enemy was. It’s funny that we make fun of other countries for the way we believe they use propaganda to control their people but then we have scenes like this that we watch completely uncritically.
The Pentagon will say they reject more scripts than they accept, according to their website, which may be true, but it’s meant to push a false sense of fairness in this relationship to the public. Take just a minute to see what the most prominent, most popular, and most expensive movies of just the last decade are and you’ll see the DoD’s hands all over them.
If the movie has a lot of money behind it you can almost bet the house the Pentagon is involved in some way.
Famously, 2012’s “The Avengers” was rejected by the DoD because they felt the heroes operating out of a transnational organization (SHIELD) that doesn’t answer to anyone would be too weird and off-putting to have the military involved in plot-wise. But they came back however for “Winter Soldier” and why is that? “Winter Soldier” is one of Marvel’s most critical of the American surveillance machine so why would the Pentagon support a film that on paper at least points the finger directly at them? Because the enemy is that same transnational organization infiltrated by foreign adversaries for good ol’ Captain America to punch and beat into submission. Maaaaybe the Russo Brothers really were trying to make a point about America with this movie but the Pentagon was ok with it because one can reasonably still feel patriotic watching it.
The DoD has been a huge part of the MCU ever since, even working on “woke” films such as “Black Panther.” As I’ve laid out in a couple of recent blog entries, propaganda is not JUST simply saying “America good” and “foreign adversary bad,” it’s a lot more nuanced and nefarious than that. It’s about getting people to think a certain way about geopolitical issues and America’s place in all of it. If a film like “Winter Soldier” might be saying the US is spying on us it still makes a hero out of the US anyway as who else stops them but a man literally calling himself “Captain America.” If Black Panther is about the results of centuries of racism on African Americans it still makes a point of killing the black militant and painting his actions and his desire for revenge as wrong.
“America sucks but we’re better than *insert foreign adversary*” has the exact same outcome of public support that “God Bless America! America is the best! Fuck *foreign adversary*” does. If propaganda can still get two sides to agree on America’s place in the world in its relationship to an “enemy” then the Pentagon has done its job.
Now, no one is saying you can’t enjoy movies anymore. Hell, I’m not even saying you can’t enjoy propaganda either. Plenty of these films have other things to say besides “Yvan eht nioj,” and one can absolutely parse nuance from that as they watch. Propaganda can be very entertaining, even tell a great story, but it’s still propaganda.
A common refrain I hear from friends and other moviegoers is often “leave your brain at the door” and with a lot of the mindless action films that these military-based productions reside in that may seem like the right call but it’s time to stop doing that. Besides the fact that “turning off your brain” is an ineffective deflection to a film’s weaker points, it’s also just frankly important to have a critical mind when digesting these mega productions instead of not at all. These blockbuster movies have A LOT of forces at play within them, from mega-corporate sponsors that put literal ads within the movie, to the Pentagon shoving American exceptionalism down your throat.
Just because something touts a status quo viewpoint on the world doesn’t mean it’s not “political.” The idea that anything expressed in media or popular media can or should be “apolitical” to begin with is completely false and frankly, the DoD is counting on you to pretend it can be. They want you to see movies about preemptive and total warfare strikes against a foreign…errr I mean “alien” enemy as just a fact of life. They want you to see America as ultimately the beacon of free speech and goodwill to the rest of the world and at worst flawed as a completely normal viewpoint. They want you to believe that only our enemies feed their people propaganda and lies.
Hollywood’s Military-Industrial Complex is a very real thing that uncritically feeds us American exceptionalism in a multitude of ways beyond simply just saying “we’re the good guys.” Again, no one is saying you can’t watch those movies anymore but perhaps it’s time to think more critically of them instead of not all because the forces that run this country absolutely want you to turn off your critical thinking caps when watching them.
If none of this convinces you of the nefariousness of the DoD then maybe this quote from Elmer Davis, one of the directors at the aforementioned OWI, will change your mind…
“The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”
Sleep on that, America.