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Roll Credits: Directed by your Friendly Neighborhood Pentagon

By Rithwik Narendra

The American military has a problem. Actually, three. Pentagon top brass has been sounding the alarm on what appears to be another recruitment projection miss for 2022. Then there’s public opinion, with trust in the military at its lowest point. Oh, there’s also the fact that the Democratic Party’s official 2020 platform calls for cutting the Pentagon’s budget. Talk about a storm brewing on all fronts.

Luckily for the Pentagon, they have an arsenal of strategies they can and have employed to simultaneously increase recruitment and approval, the latter of which should push elected officials away from decreasing military funding. Some of these strategies, such as Fleet Week or Blue Angels Air Shows, are entirely harmless performances by officers displaying military equipment. Others are problematic. Perhaps one of the most problematic of those strategies is hijacking movie scripts.

Want some examples? Top Gun. Yes, one and two. Don’t forget about most Marvel movies, either.

Movies that depict the American military use actual equipment in fast-paced scenes. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) just doesn’t cut it for these films, even though military equipment isn’t readily available. Luckily for movie directors, the friendly neighborhood Department of Defense (DOD) is happy to help. The DOD provides equipment, personnel, and training—for mainstream media. But it comes at a cost. 

The DOD takes a cut out of all revenue, and rightfully so. After all, they provide valuable insight and necessary equipment. But money isn’t the only thing that the Pentagon asks for. They also want to see the script. And vet it. And control it. 

Released in 1986, Top Gun was the answer to the recruitment and public opinion problems the military faced as the United States dealt with the aftermath of the unpopular Vietnam War. The DOD significantly influenced its plot and even changed a main character’s cause of death from a fighter jet crash to an ejection malfunction. After its release, public opinion and recruitment hit an all-time high, no doubt buoyed by the heroic actions displayed in the film and the absence of violence. Since Top Gun, the DOD has “collaborated” with a slew of other popular movies and franchises, including X-Men and Wonder Woman. After the more recent Top Gun: Maverick and Captain Marvel, recruitment went through the roof (Weaver). The military’s strategies are working. But they are inherently problematic.

According to filmmaker Roger Stahl, “the Pentagon and [CIA] have exercised direct editorial control over more than 2,500 films and television shows” (Stahl). The DOD frequently edits scripts to make the events that transpire seem more exciting and “cool.” In addition to adding scenes that paint service positively, the DOD removes scenes with references to torture, death, and PTSD. The bottom line? Scripts must be approved by the Pentagon, which forces writers to meet their criteria—a “realistic” depiction of the military—for approval. What counts as “realistic”? Well, according to a 2001 statement by Phil Strub, a former Pentagon movie liaison officer, “any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us.” (Haynes). 

Forcing scripts to portray the military positively amounts to lying by omission. Young adults and impressionable teenagers, who come to the cinema for entertainment, leave with a positive view of the military implanted into their subconscious. The propaganda predisposes its consumers to enlist, or at the very least, influences them to consider it, when they see more explicit outreach efforts, such as recruitment booths at high schools. In fact, the enlistment boost after Top Gun was primarily driven by the presence of recruitment booths outside theaters. But these teens acted, for the most part, on half of the information. They only saw the rosy picture the DOD painted for them, the same thing that movie-goers see today. Yes, the audience knows these movies are fiction, but that shouldn’t give the Pentagon a free pass. Like it or not, movies we watch aren’t “just movies.” The emotions we feel and scenes we see stick with us, even after leaving the theater or turning off Netflix, and can have long-lasting impacts on our decisions. Individuals interested in the military should be aware of all the short or long-term dangers of enlistment. Instead, they are misled at a malleable point in their lives. 

College is a crossroads—important decisions are made. From deciding on a career path, to looking for an internship, or even choosing our college courses, each choice is influenced by various factors. Perhaps the most dangerous factor is one that, unbeknownst to us, impacts our decisions. We’ve been consuming this media from a young age, and going to college in Los Angeles, the world’s entertainment capital, means that we are especially exposed to these movies. Talk about being in the crosshairs (no pun intended) for our entire lives. Choosing to serve no doubt comes with benefits, but with the potential downsides, it shouldn’t be an easy decision. By ingraining this image of heroism and thrilling danger into our subconscious, the DOD is trying to make it a simple choice. Forming a well-rounded worldview requires us to be critical of the institutions around us, but if we aren’t careful, these extremely patriotic movies can cloud our rational thinking. As we make consequential decisions, we must be fully aware of what’s driving them. It’s crucial now, more than ever, that we eliminate the predispositions the Pentagon has given us. 

A prerequisite for a robust marketplace of ideas is the absence of censorship, but as long as the DOD is involved, freedom of speech, and with it, any scope for criticality, will be limited. Preferential treatment of specific points of view disrupts the marketplace of ideas, mainly because the individuals consuming these ideas are unaware of the Pentagon’s meddling hand. If the DOD and the movie industry were to part ways altogether, directors would be unrestricted in their creative expression, and our subconscious would be free from the patriotic seeds the DOD plants. The ideal solution would be a complete divorce, but I’m not that naive. 

A more realistic solution could be to increase transparency. Perhaps if people knew where the equipment was coming from and the extent to which the military played a role in the movies they loved, they would be less likely to be swayed. However, the American public has shown time and again that when they consume media, what they see takes the first precedence in their minds, and who’s behind it comes a distant second. Transparency may help, but I wouldn’t count on it. 

The onus is on the DOD to write more representative storylines. The military is an important institution, and there are many positives that come with service, but there are negatives as well. The DOD should work with movie studios to ensure that both the pros and cons are realistically depicted. 

As long as there is demand for the action and superhero genre, the DOD will be involved. And that’s ok! What’s not ok is a one-sided propagandistic story targeting millions of unsuspecting teens. The DOD claims to protect our freedoms, but conveniently undermines our freedom to enjoy entertainment and consume media free from the taint of ulterior motives. Our Department of Defense can, and should, do better.


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