“There’s No Such Thing as an Anti-War Film.”

We need to deal with the pervasive military propaganda in our entertainment

Cameron C.
Make it Personal


Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, Columbia Pictures

Growing up I loved war films. Casablanca, The Great Escape and Judgement at Nuremberg are still some of my favorite movies. I can still remember the thrill of watching Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful when they aired on cable.

Even watching anti-war films like Jarhead filled me with an ambiguous patriotic feeling. War was hell — these movies made that clear — but it was portrayed as a necessary evil required to serve our country — whatever that meant.

As a kid, I never questioned that premise and always accepted it as true. I applied these beliefs to every war film I watched. Oliver Stone’s Platoon shows a young man (Charlie Sheen) whose idealism fades when he’s caught in the middle of infighting between two sergeants with conflicting opinions on the local Vietnamese people. Sam Mendes’ Jarhead shows a marine (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggling with his own false expectations of war, his dysfunctional unit, and his inability to maintain composure in the face of uncertainty. Neither paints a pretty picture of war — but somehow these films were just as appealing.

I joined the military because I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. I thought the benefits would be good and the military would be a great career stepping stone. I came from a conservative military family and I felt this weird inner obligation to serve my country. Movies and shows like Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers made me think serving in the military is what it truly means to love my country. Neither of these appear to glorify war; they treat it as a necessary horror Americans tolerate in order to conquer an evil dark side. Without these people, ‘evil’ would win.

How could movies like Full Metal Jacket be so appealing to me despite being anti-war films?

Because they aren’t.

French director and film critic François Truffaut claimed “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” The reasoning is due to these movies’ appealing displays, the thrill of combat and the onscreen camaraderie. Even the war movies with plenty of tragedy and heartbreak still manage to make violence and killing seem cool. And they rarely portray their own country’s military actions in an accurate manner.

My personal experience is not far off from Truffaut’s claim. Though I was never deployed or experienced combat, in the army there was a lot of emphasis and appreciation toward belonging to a brotherhood. There was some sort of innate pride generated from wearing the uniform and being around those wearing the same. I felt a sense of belonging, though I couldn’t describe why. This sense of belonging made me ignore things around me I’d otherwise speak out against.

While I was in the army I heard the word savages a lot. I always thought it was being used interchangeably with terrorists. But slowly over time I started to notice officers and other soldiers using the word as an umbrella term for anybody and everything in the middle east.

They would deny any wrongdoing by the U.S military (partly because criticism while in uniform was forbidden), and claimed all actions were justified regardless of nuance or context. They would deny America’s foreign policy playing a large part in the attacks on 9/11. They would deny 7,500 civilian deaths from American-led airstrikes. I was fed the lie that everyone in the Middle East hates Americans because their cultural differences didn’t like that we were free. I was told our presence over there was to protect freedom, defend democracy and end terrorism. And I’m ashamed to say, I believed it.

I remember how my platoon sat in the classroom listening to a story from one of our drill sergeants about one of his deployments. He told us how in the gunner seat of his humvee he witnessed an “angry looking man” driving really fast directly at him. He told us how he fired a warning shot but the “angry haji didn’t stop.” And when the man got too close, he “painted the backseat red.” He concluded his story by telling us he soon found out the guy’s car had brake failure; he couldn’t stop.

A very ugly silence immediately filled the room, but the next moment he said, “But man, that .50 cal felt great.” This was met with laughter.

A few days later we were back in the classroom where a different drill sergeant complained about the new rules of engagement, and how during his first deployment, “it was on. It was Us vs. Them.” He talked about killing as if it was The Most Dangerous Game. He said they were training us to not ask questions, to “save who needed to be saved, and kill who needed to be killed.” The ambiguity of that statement seemed intentional.

No one ever elaborated on why we were in the Middle East. They never elaborated on whether the Iraq War was a legitimate war. They kept it as vague as possible and said it wasn’t our position to ask questions.

Drill sergeants would talk about how great young recruits fresh out of high school were, because our brains were easily molded to become the best soldier possible and they could change the way we think and act. I would often write home and mention how well I was doing and how great of a soldier I was becoming. After hearing remarks from the mouths of superiors such as “sending the towlies to meet their virgins and Allah,” I found myself looking around at my platoon and noticing all of us silently nodding in approval.

That same day I was halfway through writing a letter before I stopped and reread what I was writing. I wrote that I couldn’t wait to protect my country from savage terrorists. I threw the letter away.

Many years later I was at an NHL game and the arena had a small ceremony for active duty military members due to retire. The place was roaring with cheers and applause but I stood still with my arms at my sides. How could I know these military members weren’t the types to call everyone in the Middle East savages? How could I know they weren’t the type who denied or tried to justify the lies about WMDs, the CIA’s use of torture, or the U.S’s many coups for personal gain throughout the world? How could I know if they were a good person?

Military propaganda isn’t exclusive to film — it’s bled into multiple forms of entertainment

The NHL isn’t the worst offender — that accolade belongs to the NFL. Between 2012 and 2015 the NFL was paid $53 million dollars of taxpayer money to advertise the military for recruitment. This is known as paid patriotism. During the Star-Spangled Banner players were required to line up and face the flag with their hand over their hearts. David Meggyesy disobeyed this order, which resulted in his benching at the end of the 1968 season, and after the 1969 season he was out of the league despite playing at an all-pro level.

The NFL made Arizona Cardinal’s safety Pat Tillman the poster boy for recruitment after he left his NFL career to join the Army in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. While deployed in Iraq, Tillman became very vocal about his disdain for the Bush Administration and claimed what the United States was doing was “fucking illegal.” After Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the United States Army covered it up because they couldn’t let their poster boy for recruitment become the new face of anti-war advocacy.

The military has even started attempting to recruit people off Twitch.tv, a streaming platform mostly used by young people. A report in The Nation detailed the attempts, which included giveaways of computer hardware and asking people as young as twelve to sign recruitment forms. One political activist was banned from the official U.S Army Esports channel for asking what the streamer’s favorite U.S “w4r cr1me” was, then proceeding to link to a Wikipedia list of U.S war crimes. (The words ‘war crime’ were prohibited by the channel’s moderation settings and the channel has since been taken down after criticisms of censorship and first amendment violations.)

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced an amendment to vote to prohibit the military from recruiting off the platform, but the amendment was rejected. Rep. Peter Visclosky didn’t vote in favor, claiming because of the low qualification percentage of young Americans, “We ought to cast a very broad net to encourage young Americans to serve in their country.”

This isn’t the military’s first attempt at trying to hide or shift blame for war crimes. Sledgehammer Games collaborated with the Pentagon for their recently released game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019). The game has a mission in the fictionalized Middle Eastern country of Urkistan. During the mission the player is told there is only one road if there’s an attempt to escape to the mountains — Tariq Almawt, or ‘The Highway of Death’ . The game tells us that the Russians bombed it during the invasion.

The Highway of Death actually happened — except it was bombed by the United States, not the Russians. This six-lane highway — officially known as Highway 80 — was subject to bombings that caused hundreds of deaths to fleeing Iraqi forces, civilian refugees and Kuwaiti hostages that were complying with the UN Resolution 660.

Despite knowing all these war crimes, attempted cover-ups and shifting of blame, I felt guilty — guilty that I was failing my country, my family and my friends — values that were given to me from a young age without elaboration that I just blindly contributed to military service. I felt stupid because I let movies, television and entertainment shape my expectations of what the military would be like.

You’ll find that most movies portray the U.S military in a positive light

Likely because pentagon liaison officers oversee many scripts asking for use of military equipment.

This very thing happened in Top Gun. During its theatrical run, the U.S Navy set up recruitment tables outside theaters. Overall confidence in the military increased and the Navy saw an uptick in military enlistments.

Russell Coons, director of the Navy Office of Information West, claimed his office turns down ninety-five percent of scripts that come in. Coons claimed, “because in most cases it doesn’t represent our core values …, we’re not going to support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way.”

While movies do have artistic freedom, which allows certain movies to exist without blatantly glorifying the military, Hollywood has been a propaganda arm for the film industry for some time and it can shape how audiences perceive such topics. It certainly shaped mine.

This is most noticeable in movies like John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Wayne wrote president Lyndon B. Johnson, asking for use of props and on site filming locations under the condition that the Pentagon got final say of what they could portray. The film also attributed war atrocities such as rapings and kidnappings to the Vietnamese, even though those specific atrocities were committed by U.S troops.

Promotional Image for American Sniper,

In Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, legendary sniper Chris Kyle is portrayed as a good ol’ Christian southern boy who joined the military after 9/11 and saved many American soldiers’ lives due to his precision aim. In Kyle’s book, which the movie is very loosely based on, Kyle claims he found killing fun and referred to Iraqis as ‘savages.’

American Sniper’s biggest sin isn’t it’s willful disregard for accuracy, but rather how it quantifies patriotism. Throughout the film the audience is constantly reminded of the exact number of confirmed kills Kyle has — 160. The film never questions the act of killing, but rather celebrates it. Friends, family and fellow soldiers are constantly applauding Kyle for his confirmed kills against the ‘savages’ and ‘animals’ — as the movie calls the people of Iraq. Kyle is never complimented for being a good soldier or a good person. He’s never complimented on his ability to ‘defend democracy.’ The only thing people in the movie care about is that number — 160. The movie wants us to celebrate Kyle’s proficiency in killing ‘savages’ and ‘animals’ without reason and without reflection of what we have to show for it.

Even when films question the act of killing, soldiers are always painted as the victims. Sure, they’re victims by virtue of being a tiny cog in the military industrial complex machine, but when films reflect and introspect about war it always stops at the individual. Looking at Platoon again, Sheen’s character never reflects broadly. In a scene where he’s told to dig trenches and fill sandbags, he has a monologue claiming “…hell is the impossibility of reason, that’s what this feels like — hell.” He continues on about how much he hates it and how he think he’s made a mistake. He never questions his place in that larger machine — the machine that lied to start a war.

“American foreign policy is horrendous ‘cause not only will America come to your country and kill all your people, but what’s worse I think, is that they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.” — Frankie Boyle

Zero Dark Thirty is the best example of blatant U.S military propaganda being perpetuated by Hollywood. Its script was heavily influenced by input from the CIA. The film shows a detainee that is continuously brutally tortured and it’s this detainee that finally gives up a name — a name that the entire movie hinges on to find information about Osama Bin Laden. In reality, our war crimes of torture didn’t cause useful intelligence to be obtained. The film attempts to justify these war crimes with audio tapes of 9/11 victims crying for help. It takes advantage of the audience’s 9/11 trauma to justify the war crimes its characters are committing.

The Report, meanwhile, is an anomaly among military-related films. It’s one of the rare movies to show the U.S in a negative light. It doesn't hold any punches and accurately represents torture’s ineffectiveness to obtain information. The film is about former senate investigator Daniel Jones of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who conducted the senate’s largest investigation in history and found that the CIA lied about the specific tactics being used, their effectiveness, severity and broke the law several times in an attempted cover-up. The Report even pokes fun at Zero Dark Thirty by having Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) scoff while watching it.

The scariest propaganda is the kind that goes mostly undetected by wide audiences. Plenty of other types of movies can be filled with propaganda. The director of entertainment media at the U.S department of defense worked with Michael Bay on his Transformers franchise. The two mutually agree to show off the military’s latest equipment. Peter Berg’s Battleship is about the U.S Navy dealing with an alien invasion. Producer Sarah Aubrey claimed “we made this movie because we wanted to showcase the modern Navy…” Battleship and the Transformers franchise are CGI heavy blockbusters aimed at kids to advertise toys — toys and something else.

I fell victim to Hollywood’s perpetuation of military propaganda and find a lot of others have as well. It wasn’t solely responsible for my enlistment, but it played a larger role than I’d like to admit. I find myself getting frustrated with many war movies now because I picture someone else falling into the same trap I did. I picture another person silently nodding in agreement to a hate filled speech about the Middle East. I picture another fresh high school graduate being lied to about America’s unlawful and immoral self-serving military actions. There’s someone else out there watching movies portraying the U.S military as the arbiters of freedom, justice and peace when history has shown otherwise. I picture someone else making the same mistake I did.

How do we fix this? Is there even a way to fix this? Do we extend the cultural shift of how we are planning to accurately portray police on screen to how we can portray the U.S military on screen? If so, what does the other side of this look like? Are audiences ready or interested in movies that portray the military as it really is?