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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Hollywood’s “militainment” problem

The military’s involvement in crafting positive films about war suggests state-run art

Our military has a PR problem. In an era of open connection, their oft-touted image as a noble force combatting powerful, faceless monsters has experienced a truthful inversion.

For decades, Army recruiting relied on the idea of expansive global evils, referred to in concept but never in name or actuality. But mass media is driving this tactic to near obsolescence. Videos of Yemeni children blasted to shreds by the booming footsteps of drones elicit horror and cries for justice. Nameless masses, upon arriving at our borders, become families holding each other tightly beneath a tear gas fog.

The military entered the modern era ill-prepared for the ramifications of this expansion of integrity. But in a stroke of Goebbelsian ingenuity, it has engineered a solution decades in the making: cinematic branding, more colloquially referred to as “militainment.” The mission? To make wars great again.

This trend’s prominence is more evident now as a result of greater opportunities for the military to engage with visual mediums, but its history extends back to the early days of cinema.

According to Todd Breasseale, an Army recruitment officer who was interviewed by Al Jazeera, “The Army’s been there since Hollywood was first built from the Los Angeles canyon and desert.” These initial efforts centered around more direct forms of civilian engagement: films previewing air shows, clips from World War 1 and so forth. In the midst of the mass media revolution, the Army released the film “Wings” in 1927, which was, in essence, a Top Gun prototype. It won Best Picture.

But as the cinema market became saturated with high-budget action movies, the military retreated from their more direct position at the forefront of film-making. Instead, they moved toward, and now primarily engage in, a form of symbiotic exploitation.

These dealings involve a film studio contacting the Army and requesting the use of military equipment for scenes in their production. In return, the Army requests final script revision to ensure that their portrayal in the film will be up to the American standard.

This process is currently headed by Phil Strub, who serves as the Pentagon’s liaison to Hollywood. According to Al Jazeera, his name has appeared in the “producers wish to thank” section of the credits for over 50 films, including Iron Man, Man of Steel, the Transformers franchise and Godzilla.

The more problematic issue is the mutual advertising utilized by film studios and the military. These sorts of branding deals are quite common: Coca Cola and Ready Player One, Lexus and Black Panther and so on. Persuading a consumer to drink a can of soda, however, doesn’t carry quite the same moral gravity as an implicit attempt to meld X-Men and infantry in the minds of viewers.

Renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky often invokes the modern inversion of the base economic principle that “informed consumers make rational choices.” He describes the advertising industry as having the opposite effect: creating “uninformed consumers making irrational choices.”

As these consumers, we’ve come to accept the reality of corporate and cinematic symbiosis. The mutual benefit present for each party may not be conducive to a truly democratic economy. It certainly isn’t conducive to art. Regardless, the worst possible consequence is that we buy things that we perhaps did not need or want.

But when the military engages in this practice, this attempt to sell caricatures of reality on the back of an industry that brings in millions of viewers each year, we find ourselves staring into the inklings of state-run art. No longer are we being asked to hand over our wallets, but our health, our families, our lives — things our military has deemed worthy sacrifices for triumph over a nameless power.

Our newfound expanse of information grants us previously unknown freedoms. But it also creates the necessity of precaution. We have to be prepared to ask ourselves whether our information, our art, has the integrity as free press that we have assumed it to possess. Next time our glorious troops wade ashore onto the silver screen, glowing rifles in hand, poised to strike at the hearts of evil incarnate, we should question whether the alien enemies they battle are monsters born of hatred, or children born of napalm.

Written by: Eli Elster — eselster@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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