By David Sirota
San Francisco Chronicle, 8/21/11
Since the taxpayer-supported “Wings” won the first Academy Award in 1927, the U.S. government has worked closely with Hollywood to promote, glorify and celebrate the armed forces. In the 1980s, this partnership became a highly political Military-Entertainment Complex, which today grants and denies filmmakers access to military hardware on the basis of filmmakers’ ideology and message.
The result is that many pro-war films are supported by huge public subsidies that underwrite studios’ use of military planes, boats and hardware – as long as those studios promise to produce a film that Pentagon spinmeisters approve of. Antimilitarist filmmakers, by contrast, are often barred by the government from even photographing the same hardware.
This subsidy is incredibly lucrative – so lucrative, in fact, that studios have told filmmakers that without Pentagon approval, their movies probably will never get made. Hence, for every vaguely antiwar film that makes it to the theater, we see dozens of blockbusters that glorify war.
Scandalous as it is to leverage public property to simultaneously promote militarism and suppress war criticism, this behavior from the Military-Entertainment Complex has received scant attention from the media and even less scrutiny from lawmakers. But that might finally start changing thanks to a serendipitous alignment of partisan interests.
A column this month by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times fleetingly mentions that the White House is working closely with Hollywood directors Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on an election-year movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Dowd reports that the Pentagon is providing special “top-level access to the most classified mission in history.”
As with most projects that involve the Military-Entertainment Complex, access to public property – in this case, documents and information about the bin Laden mission – may have been granted to the filmmakers in tacit exchange for ideological loyalty to the Pentagon’s desired message. Such access is almost certainly not being granted to other filmmakers and journalists interested in making films that might challenge the Pentagon’s official line.
Until now, congressional Republicans (much like Democrats) haven’t had anything to say about this kind of sordid collusion and quid pro quo. That’s because the government-Hollywood alliance has served to stealthily amplify standard Republican hawkishness via the seemingly apolitical conduits of popular culture (Think: “Top Gun”). But now that the Military-Entertainment Complex is serving the GOP’s partisan opponent, Barack Obama, the Republican Party is up in arms.
Specifically, Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, responded to the news of the bin Laden movie by sending a letter to the CIA’s inspector general demanding an immediate investigation into possible collusion. King indicted the practice of government officials granting hand-picked filmmakers exclusive access to military assets. He argued that the “alleged collaboration belies a desire of transparency in favor of a cinematographic view of history.”
King, mind you, is not coming at the situation from a position of principle. For the New York Republican, this is about trying to prevent a particular piece of propaganda from aiding his partisan opponent (it’s safe to say that if President George W. Bush’s administration had helped get a GOP-glorifying Sept. 11 movie made in advance of the 2004 election, King would have fully applauded the “cinematographic view of history”).
However, regardless of King’s opportunistic motives, his move finally creates the possibility for a more comprehensive look at how our government as a whole – whether under Democratic or Republican administrations – now systemically uses taxpayer resources to suffuse our popular culture with “cinematographic” militarist ideology and uses those same taxpayer resources to try to prevent antimilitarist messages from being aired.
This Military-Entertainment complex, of course, reaches beyond Tinseltown and into many other parts of the entertainment world. For example, video games find their technological roots in work originally done by defense contractors and defense-focused government science agencies. That critical support indirectly led to products like Atari’s Battlezone and Missile Command, and ultimately, the Pentagon-financed first-person shooter game, America’s Army. Likewise, the armed forces recently produced a spate of teen-focused recruitment ads making war look like a cartoon fantasy. “This isn’t science fiction,” the voiceover tells kids, “This is life in the U.S. Navy.”
How the government finances these products, and what influence they have on our culture are huge questions. Finally asking them would expose one of the most powerful and least examined instruments of propaganda in our society – propaganda that has played a pivotal role in structurally reorienting our society around war.
With martial conflicts raging around the globe and a military budget bankrupting our society, King’s move could inadvertently uncover some of the huge but unseen factors that keep us committed to a destructive militarist theology.