How Hollywood Undermined Our Troops
by Scott Nehring, first published in the Early September 2011 edition of Movies & Culture Report
The average person living in the United States probably knows a military veteran but has never lived the regimented life of military personnel, never experienced the trials of war. Yet most Americans feel they can accurately describe a soldier’s life.
Average civilians believe they have a basic understanding of the horrors of battle. How could they know what it’s like? Where does that knowledge come from? Our ideas about the military, about military procedures, even about war too often come from our entertainment.
The war-film genre can be traced back to The Battle of Gettysburg (1913) and the highly controversial film Birth of a Nation (1915). Since then hundreds of movies have been produced covering most of the wars fought by our military.
As with all film genres, war movies have lasting influence on public opinion. World War II and Vietnam have been the primary subjects of most war films; the Korean conflict and WWI remain relatively ignored.
Any wonder the general public has greater knowledge of and interest in WWII and Vietnam than in other conflicts?
Viewers who never experience combat learn about war from what’s seen on screen—a constricted pathway of insight into the protections we are provided from enemies, foreign and domestic. This narrow view explains why film’s depictions of war have interested intelligence agencies since WWI.
Beginning in the 1930s, governments overtly and covertly produced documentaries intended to influence both servicemen and civilians. Wartime propaganda continued, unabated. Throughout WWII, the Roosevelt administration engaged Hollywood writers, producers, animators, and directors to create works intended to direct popular sentiments toward a government-approved opinion of our enemies and the need for collective, civilian sacrifice. This government-Hollywood relationship is seen in Frank Capra’s Why We Fight films and in Looney Tunes cartoon shorts still seen today.
In the 1940s, stars like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda actually joined military ranks to fight the Axis powers. Famous actors who served include Ted Knight (decorated for bravery five times), Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy (To Hell and Back, 1955), Kirk Douglas, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Rock Hudson, Charles Bronson, and Werner Klemperer, everyone’s favorite Nazi, Hogan’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink (1965-71). These actors returned to America to star in films such as The Glory Brigade (1953), Target Zero (1955), and In Harm’s Way (1965).
Then American culture changed in the 1960s and so did the relationship between the military and Hollywood. By the Vietnam era, productions which supported the military, not to mention actors who joined the service, were miniscule in comparison [Anzio (1968), Battle of Britain (1969)]. Productions from the ’60s and ’70s focused, not on the dangers in South Vietnamese jungles but on the burgeoning anti-war culture in the U. S. [Greetings (1968), M*A*S*H (1970), FTA Tour (1975)].
Vietnam veterans returned home to a populace critical of their sacrifice and soon realized they’d been marginalized by an entertainment industry which avoided depiction of returning soldiers onscreen but, instead, choose to question the role of the military in general [Catch-22 (1970), Johnny Got His Gun (1971)]. Film portrayals of Vietnam veterans never celebrated their bravery, honor, or sacrifice.
The late 1970s and ’80s witnessed Hollywood’s concerted effort to cast the Vietnam veteran as a devastated psycho overcome by addictions and violence. The crazed-Vietnam-vet motif was used in Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Birdy (1984), The Park is Mine (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Born on the 4th of July (1989). The films Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Casualties of War (1989) focused directly on the conflict and portrayed American soldiers as prone to drug use, suicide, and irrational violence towards civilians and each other. Add the Rambo (1982-88) and Missing in Action (1984-85) series—where service men actually apologized for what we did overseas—and the image of the irrational, suicidal Vietnam veteran was firmly fixed in the imagination of popular culture.
The combative relationship between filmmakers and the military has continued and is replaying itself today. Operation Iraqi Freedom began March 20, 2003. The United States, Great Britain, and their allies invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein from power with only 21 days of major combat operations—an amazing feat. The build-up to the invasion of Iraq, however, witnessed strong opposition across world media, opposition which sprouted a cottage industry of anti-war documentaries [Marooned in Iraq (2002), Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War (2003)].
Understand that a documentary filmmaker, even if well-intentioned, is subjective in his approach to his chosen topic and its presentation to his audience, even when he claims impartiality. The documentarian specifically chooses which footage to use, which angles to present, and what conclusions are made. The documentary may impress the viewer as honest—a “document” of the subject—but when the focus is foreign policy and war, the documentary moves beyond a casual investigation and becomes a tool to influence elections, policy, and the emotions of a populace. These productions are fully able to undermine our military in the field.
Through the early years of the Iraq War, numerous documentaries were produced with the sole purpose of influencing popular opinion against the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, itself. At first, anti-war documentaries appeared on Danish television with little play outside that country’s borders [I rævens hule – Saddams Irak (2002), Tilbage til Bagdad (2003), and Hjælp krigens ofre (2003)]. By 2003, American and British filmmakers actively pushed an anti-Iraq War message, questioning the case for war. Preventive Warriors (2004), Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), Rush to War (2004), Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America (2004), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) popped up in theaters and on DVD across the country—just in time for the Presidential election of 2004.
Following the election, The Blood of My Brother (2005), Iraq in Fragments (2006), Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006), and No End in Sight (2007) continued the onslaught against a war they pictured as fueled by corporate greed and an out-of-control military which slaughtered innocents.
These documentaries, while numerous, had limited audience and scope of influence, but they still laid important groundwork for a narrative which may ultimately, historically, define the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who fought them. These works of propaganda were released as opposition to the Bush Administration and became a cause célèbre for the celebrity class.
A-list actors such as Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Woody Harrelson, and Susan Sarandon strongly, publicly condemned the action against Iraq and condemned the soldiers in the field. Woody Harrelson exclaimed to the foreign press that the U. S. military “dropping cluster bombs from 30,000 feet on a city is a cowardly act.”1 Performers’ beliefs represented Hollywood’s larger anti-war sentiment which still permeates today’s entertainment and media industries, a fact proven by those industries’ excessive endorsement of Michael Moore’s factually troubled Fahrenheit 9/11.
But anti-war sentiments were not left to documentarians. Fictional accounts of Iraq and Afghanistan, indeed the War on Terror in general, poured into theaters. Jarhead (2005), though set during Desert Storm, depicted American marines as disenchanted and deeply troubled. American Soldiers (2005) had our men defy orders over the treatment of other soldiers. Throughout 2006 and ’07 productions solidified the image of the out-of-control American military man rampaging through Iraq. The Situation (2006), Battle for Haditha (2007), Rendition (2007), and Redacted (2007) all show our servicemen murdering civilians with impunity. Combined with mainstream media’s obsession over abuses in Abu Gharib and debates over “enhanced interrogations” and brewing sectarian violence, these films shaped the mold for how media outlets around the world presented our men and women who served the cause of freedom.
In 2007, the troop surge insured progress in Iraq and evaporated predictions of both a violent civil war and the collapse of the Middle East—another amazing feat by our American military and their allies. But where was Hollywood’s depiction of the heroic efforts of our servicemen and women? Film producers, no longer able to beat the narrative drums proclaiming an out-of-control war, now changed focus to those veterans returning home.
Hollywood unveiled their familiar, crazed-Vietnam-vet motif, updated for a new generation of heroes. Harsh Times (2005), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), The Lucky Ones (2008), The Messenger (2009), and Red White & Blue (2010) depicted soldiers as bitter, violent, often psychotic. These films starred actors who openly, vocally opposed both the war and the men and women who fought. Our marines, soldiers, seamen, and airmen not only heard these performers insult them from the world’s media stage but saw themselves portrayed on screen by actors hostile to them and their mission.
Like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket in the ’80s, films praised by critics as fair depictions of our warriors continued to portray our military as nutcases.
The Hurt Locker, Best Picture in 2010, centered on Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) and his EOD team. James is depicted as an adrenaline junkie unable to cope with the real world who sets himself on a self-destructive course and continues to endanger himself and his men with his wildly dangerous behavior. While The Hurt Locker contained brilliant film moments and was top-class filmmaking, it propelled forward the narrative that the American solider is mentally disturbed and dangerous.
The continual flow of anti-military, anti-soldier films through the last decade is a serious cause for concern. Americans agree that freedom of speech is a national treasure; artists’ liberty to speak is critical for the existence of our republic. But we must also consider the impact the artist has on those he speaks about.
We, as a civilized culture, must realize that on-screen portrayals of our marines, seamen, airmen, and soldiers have a profound influence upon all who view them.
At what point does an artist’s freedom of speech move into the realm of aiding and abetting our enemy?
At what point do the discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious issues faced by our returning military personnel become an attempt to malign and further damage these heroes and their cause?
Censorship of expression is a serious action and cannot even be hinted at lightly; but since the invasion of Iraq I have experienced, as a professional film reviewer, an onslaught of movies about our military and continual effort to derail the war and to cast those who serve in the worst possible light.
I do not believe these detractors should be silenced,
but they must not be allowed to speak
without the presence of a viable, potent response.
Military personnel must understand they have another war to fight: the battle for hearts and minds at home and around the world. How will history retell this era? What will be available to future generations to explain that “conquer we must when our cause it is just.” 2
The previous decade has force-fed the American population a continual diet of negative propaganda about the war and about you. You and your family must set the record straight. The rest of us need you to respond to those vicious, negative portrayals with the truth only you can share.
Wars are won by learning the lessons of previous conflicts. As a film critic and grateful American, I urge you to learn the lesson of the Vietnam veteran. Tell your stories. Let your family, friends, neighbors, and community know about your experiences. Correct untruthful portrayals you see in the media.
Also consider countering the flood of films and documentaries with your own works depicting your own experiences. Use skills and resources available to you to shoulder cameras and begin to tell the real story of this war. Through networks and distribution on the internet, you can accurately paint your own portrait instead of allowing Hollywood to get away with painting their skewed picture. You can change how the United States and the world remember you.