What do you think of when you think of the United States Military? Is it uniforms? Tanks? Battleships? Video game design? Hollywood producers? Well, maybe you should, because some of the popular culture we love -and hate- nowadays have their roots in the Department of Defense. For the record, that is the apparatus which helps keep us safe and defends us against threats from abroad, and that is a good thing. However, today we need to examine the military entertainment complex. It is the apparatus that is not so much designed to fight wars as it is to influence how we think and feel about war. After all, games series like Call of Duty, and Battlefield might be fun, but they are also designed to promote certain aspects of the US military and the industry that supports it. It is a tool of propaganda meant to influence our ideas of war, the military, and defense spending.
Marvel at the Bad Ideas
Last year, Northrop Grumman, entered into a promotional deal with Marvel Comics to produce a semi-serious, semi-promotional comic title about the world’s fifth largest defense contractor. It was the type of cheesy promotional tie-in that Marvel has done with all sorts of different companies over the year, with cameos of everyone from Ant-Man to Captain America. The book itself centered around a Northrop Grumman team that helps the Avengers save the world, while also promoting all the great things that Northrop Grumman does. When it was announced there was a pretty big backlash against the idea. After all, it is kind of hard to justify getting in bed with a company that profits off of war, when several of your major characters -especially Tony Stark- would be morally opposed to such a thing.
Marvel did cancel the promotional tie-in, but the incident exposed how defense contractors and the US military view the opportunities of the modern entertainment culture. After all, comics themselves embraced their roles as US military propaganda back in the 1940’s. Captain America essentially started as a way to influence America’s attitude toward going to war in Europe. That famous comic where the star spangled avenger can be seen punching Hitler, appeared nine months before Pearl Harbor. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon even received hate mail because people believed that they were just acting as tools of the government trying to push America into another European War. They weren’t, and once the war started you had everyone from Superman to the Howling Commandos fighting Nazis and Japanese soldiers.
After the war, comics -perhaps because of the perception that they were for kids- fell off of the radar for the military entertainment complex and were left to their own devices. In that time they began talking about the military, defense contractors, and American ideals in more nuanced and morally ambiguous ways. These days, Marvel and DC can be as critical of the US government as they can be supportive, and that is a good thing. It allows for more varied and thoughtful storytelling, rather than just blind patriotic flag-waving. It teaches readers to think critically about what is happening around them and just because something is draped in a flag, doesn’t make it right. Unfortunately, the same could not always be said about certain video games.
Call of Duty: Modern-Fare Ware
During the 1980’s DARPA famously approached video game developers to help them create games that could be used to teach military tactics and be used as a recruiting tool. The US Marines once used a modified version of Doom II to teach their recruits. Games, like 2004’s Full Spectrum Warrior and 2002’s America’s Army, were created in US Army University Affiliated Research Centers for general release to encourage military recruitment. Of course, those games pale in comparison to the popularity of the Call of Duty series and the Battlefield series. These mainstream games are not supported directly by the US military, but the creators do pay fees to weapons’ manufacturers in order to be able to use the likeness of their guns in the game. In that way, they are still paying into the military industrial complex and promoting the use of actual military weapons.
Now we are always the first ones to defend video games, and we don’t want to claim that this is all some sinister or underhanded plot to influence the minds of gamers, but the relationships are complicated. After all, everything from the computer to the Internet had its origins in DoD spending. The relationship between the two is actually a fairly natural extension of what has come before it. This is capitalism, and capitalism is good. Kids want to play war games, and war games help promote the military. In reality, it is no different than product placement by Pepsi or McDonalds, and the military has been doing is since the dawn of cinema. Even if it is not inherently a negative thing, it is still something we scrutinize. Game designers for games like Call of Duty have been called to consult with the Pentagon, and vice versa. It is a two-way street between many large video game companies and the military, and it not something that either of them hides.
What we are talking about here is how video games and the military –more than any other entertainment industry– have an odd symbiotic relationship. These days military recruitment campaigns are designed to look more like video games. There are humvees with .50 caliber machine guns controlled by objects that look a lot like Xbox controllers. There is no reason to re-invent the wheel when most young soldiers already know how to intuitively use game controllers. There is even some criticism of this trend from the military side, as gaming ideas lead more and more to remote control warfare and less of a reliance on human soldiers and intelligence. It is an odd reversal to think that the gaming industry may be ruining the military instead of the other way around. In anything that shows that we are not talking about some overtly sinister and meticulously planned plot to corrupt the minds of today’s youth.
Let’s all GI Joe to the Movies
Does anyone remember Battlehship? If you do, we are very sorry for the trauma you have endured. Whether you realize it or not the US Navy put a lot money and time into that movie. US sailors even served as extras and the US Navy helped produce the movie as a positive tool for recruiting. The Department of Defense had veto power over the script, and this was not a unique situation in Hollywood. Zero Dark Thirty was created with help from the Central Intelligence Agency, and the allowance by the CIA for the filmmakers to have access to some classified information. It also meant that the spy agency had a say in what went into the final script. This has been the case from movies like Top Gun all the way through to almost any Michael Bay film you have seen.
Between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 films received DoD support. On television, more than 1,100 titles received support from the Pentagon, and 900 of those have been since 2005. The CIA has assisted in the creation of more than 60 Hollywood films since 1947. That includes a swath of time in the 1940’s and 1950’s where they essentially influenced producers to keep mention of their very existence out of movies and television. They even had a talking to with Robert Di Niro about his character in the Meet the Parents, and managed to derail a big budget Marlon Brando movie about the Iran Contra debacle through the use of a front company run by Colonel Oliver North. All of this information was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act, but these numbers and level of influence in our entertainment industry is a little scary. After all, movies and television influence how we see the world, and the US military has been influencing them almost from the start.
Just like with comics, this relationship is as old as World War II when everyone from Paramount to Disney was releasing war propaganda movies to help defeat the Nazis. However, unlike comics these relationships are still very much alive today in Hollywood. In fact, it is one of the movie industries biggest open secrets. Sure, there are plenty of movies that are critical of the military, such as Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, but there are just as many that glorify them as well. Movies that the US military are involved with are made to follow strict guidelines, which means that producers need to assure that the military and other DoD assets are shown in a positive light. The biggest is that the army, navy, air force is always seen as the good guys and always in the right.
The problem with that, as Marvel has figured out, is that the military and the defense contractors are not perfect. We love our boys and girls in uniform, but our defense apparatus is not infallible. The military entertainment complex is designed to boost the positives, downplay the negatives, and to tilt public perception. Now sometimes the attempts are as clumsy as awful movies about board games or bad comic books about Northrop Grumman. It can also be as slick and enticing as the next Call of Duty. The relationship between Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and others is symbiotic. It benefits all sides, and we very much enjoy the occasional war game -especially Battlefield. We are not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy these movies or video games any less. However, we cannot escape the fact that this is one of the largest, most expensive, and longest running government-funded information campaigns being aimed at the American people, and that is worth at least some scrutiny.