Winning Hearts and Minds: The Pentagon and Hollywood

The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.

~Goebbels

I know far, far more about US politics and national events than I know of my own country’s due to something called cultural hegemony. Simply put, the power of United States culture and media is far more powerful here than even my local culture. This is deliberately cultivated, and it’s an interesting part of neo-imperialism that I think is worth explaining.

Take the Australian accent. Why’s it so diluted compared to how it was 30 years ago? It’s extremely obvious if you watch old Australian movies that the accent was far more pronounced than it is now. Well, because back then there were laws that Australian television had to have a certain percentage of national shows, and all foreign ads had to be redubbed with Australian voice acting. At some point, some major companies lobbied to make that go away, and now for better or worse our accent has become less distinctive and more ‘Americanized’.

Am I suggesting that Hollywood is part of the American State’s apparatus for global domination? That might sound like a conspiracy theory, but that’s because conspiracies do happen. I suppose the best way I can put it is this: If something works, somebody is paying for it.

And as even TVtropes goes into, someone is paying a lot for it.

The Pentagon and the CIA spend millions on Hollywood every year, and have been involved in thousands of movies and television shows since 1911. Sometimes it’s benign and what you’d expect: They’ll give you a chance to film on an aircraft carrier in exchange for making the Navy look heroic. Other times it’s a bit more sinister, like script rewrites on shows you wouldn’t ever expect to have military bankrolling.

“A similar influence is exerted over military-supported TV, which ranges from Hawaii Five-O to America’s Got Talent, Oprah and Jay Leno to Cupcake Wars, along with numerous documentaries by PBS, the History Channel, and the BBC.”

“When a writer or producer approaches the Pentagon and asks for access to military assets to help make their film, they have to submit their script to the entertainment liaison offices for vetting. Ultimately, the man with the final say is Phil Strub, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) chief Hollywood liaison.”

The book National Security Cinema opens with this sentence:

“The content of film and television is directly, regularly and secretly determined by the US government, led by the CIA and Pentagon.” The Director of the Office of War Information, Elmer Davis, explained in 1942: “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.”

Now, this is interesting for a lot of reasons. What is the military buying your screen for?

There’s a lot of reasons, from recruitment to propaganda to ideology. It’s really interesting to break it down, when you know to look for it.

I’d like to point out an interesting trend I see a lot on NCIS. My mother loves that show, and I usually have my laptop set up in the same room when she watched it for family dinner time. I’ve noticed there are a lot of disgruntled veteran characters who talk openly about the injustice of being sent to war, and how badly their country has treated them when they come home.

I find it interesting because it’s always presented as a character arc. The character has to relearn that the US is fundamentally good, especially its authority structures and law enforcement, and that people need to respect veterans more, and stop questioning the wars they’re sent to fight.

NCIS, Homeland and 24 are three big Department-of-Defense-backed TV shows revealed by Freedom of Information Act requests. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Hell, the Washington Post has an article just titled “NCIS is more than a TV show” which is just a jobs bulletin board for the DoD.

What does it tell me that the Department of Defense signed off on and supported 24? It was done at a time when the CIA’s use of torture was under heavy criticism, and 24 was an important piece of propaganda on showing that torture is implicitly effective, and making you root for it. The effectiveness of this propaganda campaign isn’t under dispute. It was so popular that John McCain was even in it. Hell, John Oliver did a segment on it back in 2015.

A 2005 Gallup poll found that 82% of Americans thought the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding was wrong. But by 2014, a poll conducted by CBS found that 57% “think these tactics provide reliable information that help prevent terrorist attacks at least some of the time.” 49% said using “waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation tactics” to get information from suspected terrorists is sometimes justified.

And the best living sportswriter alive, Jon Bois, on 24 

Yes, I know that video is half an hour long. But it’s basically said everything about 24 better than I possibly could, and it’s Jon Bois. You do yourself a disservice by not watching it before we continue on here.

If you don’t, one thing I’d like to highlight is that Bois counts the amount of middle eastern or middle-eastern-descent people on this show: Of 18 who appear in the series, 17 die, and the 18th is last seen clinging to life in hospital after being beaten to an inch of his life. In Bois’ words; “Black president though, can’t be racist”.

And Homeland…?

The German news organization that broke the Panama Papers, Der Spiegel, said that the show depicts “hysterical CIA agents in a hysterical country,” and demonstrates the “paranoid tactics that delegitimize its democracy” that the United States has applied and exceeded in real life, such as the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone.

If you take NCIS, 24, and Homeland in isolation, or just as entertainment, then these sins might be seen as exaggerated post-9/11 jingoism, as artefacts of their time. But if you think of them as military projects, a battle for hearts and minds, then these facts and insights take on a far more sinister connotation.

While The Entertainment Liaison Offices (ELOs) would cement the newly-formed Pentagon’s place in Hollywood in 1948, the military’s involvement in Hollywood goes back far further. One of the earliest examples of government backing a film is 1915’s “Birth of a Nation”. The Home Guard supplied tanks to a film where the Ku Klux Klan save the day from a slave revolt, in a movie that David Duke would still be using for white nationalism recruiting into the 1970s.

Today its biggest darling is Michael Bay. I know, hold your shock. Where most have to get their script fully approved before getting budgetary sign-offs, Transformers 2 and 3 got fully military backing before the script was even finalised. Reports from both the US Army and Marine corps ELOs show they had joint planning with the producers to discuss the military’s role in the films while the script was being developed. In the end, nearly a billion dollars worth of military support, in personnel and vehicles and locations, went into the first Transformers movie alone, according to its producer Ian Bryce.

Why, though? They definitely doubled down on Transformers 3 after Transformers 2 was the most commercially successful film of 2009. No, what Bay presented them was;

“An opportunity to showcase the bravery and values of our soldiers and the excellent technology of today’s Army to a global audience, in an apolitical blockbuster”. (US Army February 6th, 2010 ELO report)

It’s interesting that they say apolitical though because it has a very firm political statement. While Transformers is largely set in the US, Transformers 2 and 3 are shown to be global threats, with setpieces all over the world. Yet it is the US military that is capable and called in to deal with these threats, and we’re positioned to cheer for the US as the world’s protectors as they back the Autobots, including scenes set in Shanghai. Transformers builds the mythos of America as the world police force that we should be grateful to have.

On the other hand, movies that portrayed accurate, proven scandal — movies like Secretary of the Navy James Webb’s Fields of Fire or Touchstone’s Countermeasures, both in the early 1990s — would be denied all military support. In the case of Countermeasures; “There’s no need for us to denigrate the White House, or remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair.” Meanwhile, Top Gun 2 would be cancelled because the Tailhook scandal (A report conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Inspector General disclosed misogynistic photos including T-shirts worn by officers saying that “WOMEN ARE PROPERTY”) was influenced heavily by the original movie, a movie explicitly made to be Navy recruitment propaganda.

So, not only does the Department of Defense have the ability to breathe life into projects that furthers its agenda, it can snuff it out of anything that frames them in a bad light.

I’d like to consider for a moment Imperial Life in the Emerald City, the best journalistic book I’ve read. It’s cutting, deeply critical of the Bush administration, and impossibly damning of the US occupation in Iraq. It’s full of lighthearted personal anecdotes, deep dives on minutia and hard factual recounts of just how incompetent everyone involved was, with especially cutting dives into the nepotism behind hiring policy.

This is the movie that would get approved for the book.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, the Vietnam movie Green Berets with John Wayne was so heavily influenced by the Pentagon that it was asked to omit any mention of it in the credits. John Wayne wrote back;

We all agree with the DOD suggestion that such a credit could conceivably categorize the picture as a US propaganda film rather than an exciting piece of motion picture entertainment. With that in mind, we will delete the DOD credit.

The movie was started with a letter from John Wayne to President Johnson to ask for his support in making a film to support US efforts in Vietnam. Propaganda by any other name…

These changes can be subtle. In the James Bond movie Goldeneye, an Admiral who messes up is now Canadian instead of American. In Tomorrow Never Dies, the line “It will be war, and maybe this time we’ll win”, in regards to Vietnam, was removed. In a Nicolas Cage movie, Windtalkers, it was enforced that the movie couldn’t explicitly say that the Marines were given orders to kill Navajo if captured, though this was something that occurred in the real events that the movie was based on.

Actually, let’s hold on that a bit longer and focus just on the CIA. The CIA were behind a movie called Zero Dark Thirty, which was very successful as a piece of propaganda. Entry and exit polls of people who watched the movie showed that 30% of people changed their minds to be far more positive of the security state, and none were seen as becoming more cynical of it or having their opinion changed for the worse.

The CIA had a direct influence on the script at its conception, making changes that were ‘to help promote an appropriate portrayal of the Agency and the Bin Laden operation.’ The CIA’s changes included removing a scene where a drunk CIA officer fires an AK-47 into the air on a rooftop in Islamabad, and the use of dogs in the lengthy torture scenes that make up the opening third of the film. They also made the central character Maya less involved in the torture of prisoners, even though her real-life counterpart Alfreda Frances Bikowsky was so involved in the CIA’s program that she has been labelled the ‘Queen of Torture.’

The Agency would distance itself from the movie, saying they did not approve of torture as a method of information gathering. However, at no point of script negotiations did they make any objection to the underlying storyline that torturing ‘terror suspects’ ultimately led them to find Bin Laden.

The CIA likes to maintain a close relationship with Hollywood, and regularly invites talent to its Langley headquarters. The list includes; Robert De Niro; Tom Cruise; Dean Cain; Dan Ackroyd; Will Smith; Piper Perabo; Patrick Stewart, Kevin and Michael Bacon, Claire Danes, Mike Myers, and Bryan Cranston. George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have worked on films with the CIA and are among the small number of Hollywood stars who have joined the Council on Foreign Relations. Writers and producers who have been to CIA headquarters or worked repeatedly with the Agency include: Tony Scott, Philip Noyce, Mace Neufeld, brothers Roger and Robert Towne, JJ Abrams, Craig Piligian, Jay Roach, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon.

These are just the ones I know about. It wasn’t until years into Homeland that we found out about Claire Danes ‘low profile’ visits to Langley, and the CIA often operates without a paper trail and without accountability. The information it provides these people with isn’t low-level either. In 2013, the producer of Pretty Woman, The Revenant and 12 Years a Slave, Arnon Milchan, publicly admitted that he had used his position in Hollywood to steal US nuclear weapons secrets and help Israel build its bomb.

Writers working in Hollywood who were previously agents of the CIA — meaning their scripts have to get approved by default by the CIA for security reasons — include John Strauchs (Sneakers); Henry Crumpton (State of Affairs); Rodney Faraon (Blackhat); Bazzel Baz (The Blacklist); Robert Baer (Red, Rendition, Car Bomb, Syriana, Cult of the Suicide Bomber, Berlin Station); Carol Rollie Flynn and John MacGaffin (Homeland); Tony and Jonna Mendez (Argo, The Agency); Mike Baker (Spooks); Joe Weisberg (The Americans, Falling Skies); Melissa Boyle Mahle (Salt, Hanna); Valerie Plame (Fair Game, Person of Interest); Robert Grenier (Covert Affairs); Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille (The Assets); Michael Wilson (Burn Notice), and Lindsay Moran (Cars 2: The Video Game).

The main writer for the TV series The Agency said that the CIA’s liaison frequently persuaded him to incorporate certain storylines and technologies into the script. Regarding one episode which used biometric scanners in airports, the CIA liaison admitted to that this technology didn’t exist but encouraged it to be included as psychological warfare, since ‘terrorists watch TV’.

The CIA advisors are credited for The Agency episode ‘Peacemakers’, in which the CIA use a drone to kill a rogue Pakistani general who is trying to start a war with India. Only weeks after this episode aired a real Predator drone was used to kill a rogue Pakistani general.

All these shows, these movies, come down to the same fundamental assumption and ideology being pushed: That the US military supremacy, at home and abroad, is benevolent and good. It is a protector who might make mistakes, or have individual bad apples in the barrel, but overall the world police have got your back.

Where this becomes worrying is when it’s used to push wars against the general public’s interests. Consider the Kosovo war. Quoting historian Michael Parentis:

During the Bosnian war in 1993, the Serbs were accused of having an official policy of rape. “Go forth and rape” a Bosnian Serb commander supposedly publicly instructed his troops. The source of that story never could be traced. The commander’s name was never produced. As far as we know, no such utterance was ever made. Even the New York Times belatedly ran a tiny retraction, coyly allowing that “the existence of ‘a systematic rape policy’ by the Serbs remains to be proved.”

He goes on to point out a pattern: Press releases, fed by US State Department and Defense Department sources, selectively show atrocities on one side of a very complicated war that the US needs to get involved in and be heroes for. It would not sit well that the Croats that NATO was supporting were actual factual Nazis.

When it seemed like Clinton wasn’t going to pull the trigger on the Kosovo war, newspaper reports started shifting to show atrocities were being committed on ‘all sides’ again. Then, as NATO started bombing the hell out of Yugoslavia, the reports changed back to emphasize the evil of just one side.

But US propaganda isn’t just for its own citizens. Parentis explains earlier in this piece:

Another goal of U.S. policy has been media monopoly and ideological control. In 1997, in what remained of Serbian Bosnia, the last radio station critical of NATO policy was forcibly shut down by NATO “peacekeepers.” The story in the New York Times took elaborate pains to explain why silencing the only existing dissident Serbian station was necessary for advancing democratic pluralism. The Times used the term “hardline” eleven times to describe Bosnian Serb leaders who opposed the shutdown and who failed to see it as “a step toward bringing about responsible news coverage in Bosnia.”

No, the idea that the US — and the Western powers in general — are justified in their actions must be a global intiative. It must be a global hegemony because the US’s actions are global.

Transformers, which I talked about before, was biggest in China. Its sequels had a lot of pandering to its Chinese audience. Consider how much the US military backed its golden child franchise from conception, and it might seem a strange move. However, I posit that it is an intentional part of the US’s cultural domination of the world that Michael Bay be the military’s ambassador to China.

It’s not just its foreign policy that the US security forces heavily invest in. Consider this.

In 2000, Salon magazine discovered that the White House’s drug war officers had spent over $ 20 million paying the for ‘war on drugs’ plots in prime-time series such as: ER; Beverly Hills 90210; Chicago Hope; The Drew Carey Show; 7th Heaven; The Practice and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

A script for Chicago Hope was produced solely because it had anti-drug themes. In one episode, ravers endured drug-induced death, rape, psychosis, a two-car wreck, and a doctor’s threat to skip life-saving surgery unless the patient agreed to an incriminating urine test.

There’s a whole shortlist I could run through here. Like Black Hawk Down: Based on an event of all-American troops in a country where 90% of aid was getting through and most fighting had stopped, until it was reignited by American occupation with a lot of wholesale civilian slaughter. Black Hawk Down portrays the US Marines as a force that can do no wrong, and make the team multinational, including an Australian, a Scot and an Englishman, to represent it as a show of Western solidarity.

It was an apolitical movie whose premiere was attended by Oliver North, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney.

There’s the requested cut line from Charlie Wilson’s War:

Gust: This is a two-year-old report. It’s from the Red Cross. They were gathering statements from Afghan refugees regarding Soviet atrocities in their village. This woman said the Russian soldiers came in, gathered them in a semi-circle and you know what they did?

Charlie: What.

Gust: The Russians forced them to learn how to read and write

But most of what I want to get to right now is Marvel.

The military had a finger in the Marvel pie as well, contributing heavily to the original Hulk, Iron Man and Iron Man 2 movies, before a big falling out over the Avengers movie. It looks like the original take on Iron Man hit that movie the hardest though.

So much of the original script had been scrapped or vetoed by the DoD that Robert Downey Juniour had to improvise most of his lines. Fortunately he did a fantastic job of it, but still.

Regarding a line in the original script; “There are people who would kill themselves for the position he has

Strub recalled, ‘Now we’re on the flight lines at Edwards Air Force Base (California), and there’s 200 people, and [the director] and I are having an argument about this. He’s getting redder and redder in the face and I’m getting just as annoyed. It was pretty awkward and then he said, angrily, “Well how about they’d walk over hot coals?” I said “fine.” He was so surprised it was that easy.

This anecdote from the ELO shows just how much control the military had over even small minutia. But it wasn’t just the small stuff: The original draft of Iron Man was originally a lot more heavily anti-war.

In the movie we get to see, Tony Star is a renounced weapons manufacturer who… still manufactures weapons, flies to places the US is at war with, and kills generic Muslim terrorists with impunity.

Now, I love these scenes for being the first steps of a genuinely gritty superhero approach to film. It felt real, and grounded in our world, and it was unlike anything I’d seen before. But what was the original script for comparison?

Tony Stark’s father was alive and the head of Stark Industries, working with Justin Hammer. Tony Stark was a pacifist who refused to do weapons contracts for his father, so his ideas were stolen and used for weapons without his permission. Rather than being a reformed weapons manufacturer, Stark was always going to be hard anti-military. The original villain was just going to be the military-industrial complex.

Another big change was War Machine. In the version we see, and Iron Man 2 which the Air Force also assisted with, he’s a representative of the US military and the Pentagon, piloted by an official of the Air Force. He’s a good guy.

But originally War Machine was supposed to be the Big Bad we see in the first movie.

That, I think more than anything else, summarizes the nature of these changes. War Machine went from being a bad guy to a good one, just add one Air Force liaison.

Now, I say “was”. What changed? The first Avengers movie introduction of SHIELD seemed to influence matters a lot. The reason? The Department of Defense couldn’t align themselves with a larger, international organization that wasn’t explicitly American. Apparently the relationship soured significantly at that.

Quoting the DoD’s biggest man in Hollywood, Phil Strub:

‘We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it. To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything. It just got to the point where it didn’t make any sense.’

‘We were really excited about the movie, but the more we tried to reconcile the S.H.I.E.L.D. hierarchy—this all-powerful, international paramilitary organisation who can do anything in any sovereign nation—we couldn’t fit the US military into it. It just wasn’t meshing. So we had to say no.’

The next major Marvel movie the DoD is seriously credited with after that is Captain America 2: Winter Soldier, where it’s revealed SHIELD is compromised by Nazis and has to be destroyed.

This article was only possible because of the book National Security Cinema by Matthew Alford and Tom Secker. I found it an engaging, enjoyable and above all accessible read.

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