Hollywood war machine
War movies: What are they good for? SN&R’s film critic turns to expert Carl Boggs in search of an answer.
When the dying war hero Tom Hanks told his rescue beneficiary Matt Damon, “Earn this,” at the end of Saving Private Ryan, we all knew what he meant. Why, the infinite military and cultural propagation of the American empire, of course. The manifest destiny of sole-superpower global domination, naturally. So, go ahead, Private Ryan. Earn it.
Dubious, eh? Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, two National University social-sciences professors based, respectively, in Los Angeles and Berkeley, think so—as they explain in their new book, The Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture. Troublingly, Boggs and Pollard note that making war and making movies seem more and more to require the same ingredients and that a century’s worth of militaristic Hollywood spectacles, whether they avow that war is noble or that it’s hell, must have something to do with why it won’t go away. Ultimately, The Hollywood War Machine puts to our pop culture an academic version of the question famously posed by sadistic drill instructor R. Lee Ermey to shattered grunt Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket: “What is your major malfunction, numb-nuts?!”
From his home in L.A., lead author Boggs spoke with SN&R about combat-movie quagmires, why schlock like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor—bogus both historically and photographically—may endure nonetheless and what happens to us when we all stop worrying and learn to love the war movie.
SN&R: What’s the main idea of The Hollywood War Machine?
Carl Boggs: In American society today, we see an increasing process of militarization. It’s in the economy, the political system, the culture, even in education. Obviously, it’s in foreign policy. It’s a very intensely militarized culture, and a part of that is what we call the Hollywood war machine. We believe that film is one of the most powerful manifestations of American popular culture today. It obviously has an impact on popular consciousness and public opinion. We’re concerned with the types of movies that millions of people see and that are shown in mainstream theaters and therefore have a big impact: films like Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor or War of the Worlds or Terminator 3, watched by millions of people, not only in the United States, but around the world.
What do you hope for the book to achieve?
We’re trying to show how entertainment technologies and military technologies have converged in a form that we call “technowar.” And if you look at the reality that we face today, warfare by the United States, the most awesome military power in history, is mostly conducted through technowar. Robotics has become very important. Remote kinds of warfare have become very important. High-tech forms of war have become important. Communications technology, computer technology, space-age technology …
The stuff of movies, traditionally. And now the stuff of reality, which, ironically, makes warfare seem even more abstract.
Exactly. It becomes more abstracted and also more palatable—more acceptable. It depersonalizes it, at least for the perpetrator of that kind of war. The techniques that go into Hollywood filmmaking, that go into video games and into the popular media in general, are the same ones that go into Pentagon strategies for technowar. All of it is converging. If you think about the celebrated “shock and awe” tactics that initiated the recent Iraq war in March 2003, the media just fell in love with this, because it was very telegenic.
And what was the target? The target was a major urban center, namely Baghdad. If you think about it, this is a form of warfare that is designed basically to lead to large numbers of civilian casualties. It’s part of the logic of the tactics. And it was felt that the ends of the war, the goals, would justify those means. And that’s just the kind of thing you see in movies, right? All the movies are filled with it. They don’t even have to be combat movies. They’ll just degenerate in the last 15 or 20 minutes into endless random acts of high-tech violence.
Are there some you’re thinking of in particular?
Well, if you take a look at a combat film like John Woo’s Windtalkers. It’s just nonstop: people getting blown away, bodies flying all over the place. But even in a supposed thriller, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. That’s a thriller, and it degenerates into a combat film, with people just getting shot up all over the place. It’s just one film after the other, whether it’s XXX or The Terminator or whatever.
A movie like Mr. and Mrs. Smith seems sort of surprisingly glib—
Yeah, we write about that. That was a remake of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, which was nothing like that. Hitchcock, when he came to the States, he said, “Americans are a weird bunch.” He says, “They love shoot-’em-ups—because it comes out of the Western, right? And they love to use guns; they’re in love with guns.” If you look at Hitchcock movies, people weren’t getting killed with guns; they’re getting killed with scissors and neckties and so forth. And he thought, “My God, the Americans are really boring, because all they can think about is blowing people away with guns.” That’s still the modality, and it fits in both with the way that Hollywood does movies and with the way the Pentagon is planning and conducting warfare.
OK, some of what you’re saying might be kinda hard for some people to swallow—or admit. Part of what you’re saying is that America is culturally addicted to war?
Yes. Absolutely. But it’s more complex than a lot of people think. It gets channeled through different venues and outlets. You can talk about gangs. You can talk about militias. You can talk about the media that’s saturated with violence. Michael Moore did the Bowling for Columbine documentary, which made that statement—it connected civic violence with the fact that we have a military-industrial complex. A lot of people’s livelihood depends on the military. A lot of our identities depend on it. When you have a country that has military forces scattered all over the world, in 130 different countries, and has a presence in every ocean in the world, has a presence in outer space—by the way in contravention of a 1967 treaty against the militarization of outer space—the idea of the militarized popular culture is functional. You can see it when you do public surveys and research on popular opinions. There’s frightening things. Not long ago, people were asked something to the effect of whether they’d support a nuclear strike against Iraq, and about 46 percent said yes. This is pretty frightening stuff. But it’s because the attitudes have been softened. The beliefs, the attitudes, the values, the myths, they’ve been softened by years and years of this kind of filmmaking, this kind of popular culture.
Yet, now is also the time in which Michael Moore makes a movie about Columbine or 9/11 and gets a huge audience. Doesn’t that say something about the capacity for critical thinking or at least a strong reaction against what you’re talking about?
Absolutely, and I think that’s a very important development. Michael Moore has really set in motion a whole revolution in documentary filmmaking. And it’s not just Moore, but we have the Media Education Foundation, based in Amherst, Mass., which has produced dozens of really interesting documentaries. Robert Greenwald has done some very important stuff. Errol Morris did The Fog of War and a couple of other documentaries. And Weapons of Mass Deception has just come out. Because I teach courses which use this material, I’m very much in touch with the fact that, yes, there’s a whole cycle of these documentaries which are very, very critical of the military-industrial complex. Why We Fight is scathingly critical of the military-industrial complex. Now, it’s a subordinate tendency, not a dominant tendency. We have to put it in perspective. The dominant tendency is still Hollywood.
And it’s interesting because most people think that Hollywood has this big progressive and liberal reputation. They do have tendencies in that direction. But when it comes to foreign and military policy, when it comes to global issues, when it comes to patriotic issues, not so. Liberalism tends to end at the water’s edge, as they say. I think that’s very much the case in Hollywood, with some exceptions. There was a day when Oliver Stone made cutting-edge critical films like Salvador, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, but now he’s making World Trade Center, which is a paean to patriotism and family values and so forth, so he’s sort of come full circle.
All right, so why is that? What accounts for Stone now making a restrained movie like World Trade Center?
Well, I think that he received so much criticism—some justified and some not—over films like JFK and Natural Born Killers, and to a lesser extent maybe for his Vietnam trilogy, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth, which were anti-war films, mostly. He received a lot of criticism for those films. So, I think he was trying to show that he can be a good, solid mainstream filmmaker, and he’s not a wacko, as a lot of people thought. I think he didn’t want to continue to be labeled as a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think a lot of those criticisms were valid, but I’m sure he was stung by them.
In the book you point out that many combat films—from Rambo to Rules of Engagement—are actually pretty fiercely critical of the American government, but usually just on the grounds that it gets in the military’s way. What’s the cultural legacy of this line of thinking?
We still have some of these ideas around today. People can be critical of the war in Iraq, for example, and then they’ll turn around and say, “Well, we need more forces” or “They’re not doing enough to help the forces.” Basically, instead of concluding that we ought to get out, the conclusion is that we need to enhance the level of warfare and probably to use more menacing weapons. So, I think the Rambo legacy is “We get to win this time.” It’s fuelled by that sensibility: “We got sold out by the political leaders. We got sold out by the liberals, the bureaucracy, the flawed military leaders—and this time we can do it right.” Of course, in the case of Rambo, that’s an interesting set of narratives because Rambo takes on everything by himself. He’s the ultimate war hero in that sense because he’s not dialing 911. He’s not using the welfare state. He’s not using allies. It’s unilateralism, right?
Another problem you address is the movies’ distortion of history.
Michael Bay’s film Pearl Harbor, which was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produced films like Top Gun, is one of the best examples. It’s a complete distortion of history. This film tried to turn the U.S. military defeat at Pearl Harbor into a victory, into a triumph. So, about a third of the film is about the Doolittle Raid, which the Japanese jokingly referred to as the do-nothing raid, as it was a failure. And then so much of the film revolves around this love triangle. It’s a distortion, to take your attention away from what was really going on. And that’s very typical of films made about war, about combat: They tend to distort.
But come on. How many people really took Pearl Harbor seriously? Isn’t it really not worth worrying about because it suffers so much from its own failures?
I think I slightly disagree with your point because, first of all, the movie was a blockbuster. It had Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, along with Alec Baldwin and a few others. It was a blockbuster and was seen by tens of millions of people. For these people, especially the younger generation—and I’ve talked to people about this—first of all, they tend to like the movie because of the way the love triangle was set up. Second, these people of this particular generation, that’s what they know about Pearl Harbor. That’s the history of it, a made-up tale about these two flyboys. It’s not about the Navy. It’s not about the battleships—it’s not about that saga, which would indeed be interesting, but to dwell on that would be to dwell on defeat and lack of preparation and humiliation. I do think that it is taken seriously, and I think this is another representation of the good-war motif. I do think it’s had a big impact. The older generation may know a little bit more about Pearl Harbor or may be a little bit jaundiced about some aspects of Hollywood filmmaking. You’re probably right there.
I say that because I can really picture myself as a 13-year-old boy seeing that movie and responding to it the way you’re describing. I know that I responded that way to other movies like that—Top Gun is a good example—but now I’m an adult, and of course I look at those movies differently. You see enough of the more skeptical, anti-war films, and you immediately become skeptical of all the stuff you grew up on.
I think that would certainly be true of somebody who brought to the cinema a critical perspective. But that goes back to your experiences, your values, your politics. The average teenager is not bringing that kind of critical perspective to the cinema.
You don’t think they can grow into it?
They may, or they may not, but those images of Pearl Harbor will be lasting. And the action, when they do focus on the actual bombardment, it has a video-game quality. It’s very unreal. It’s almost remote. It’s detached.
Well, I must have seen The Terminator a dozen times when I was younger. But I didn’t grow up to join a militia or even to vote for Arnold.
It’s like anything else: You’re exposed to something, and there are other mediations. People say, “Well, what happens if you see pornography? Are you going to go out and rape somebody?” There are many mediations that we have: the family that you come out of or the views that you already had. That would filter and mediate those kinds of experiences. Obviously, not everybody who sees a gung-ho combat movie that glorifies violence and male heroism is going to go out and emulate that. That’s common sense. It’s also common sense that we have a culture that’s dominated by certain images and narratives and codes, and those are going to have an impact. How much? Can’t always say. But we have a society now that is permeated with violent images of warfare. We also have the largest military-industrial complex in the world. The fact that the two things exist together isn’t simply accidental.
It’s not in any way constructive or cathartic for us to see these fantasies played out on the big screen?
I would be very skeptical of that. What’s the overall legacy? What’s the overall message? People say, “Well, it’s just entertainment.” Nothing is just entertainment. It is fused with value and content. Even if it doesn’t have it, it has it by omission. Every frame in a movie has content. So, there’s nothing that’s just entertainment.
It’s much worse: You call the Hollywood war machine “a crucial instrument” for the legitimization of empire.
In the ’90s in particular, you start seeing all these movies about terrorism, just one after the other. Films that seem to legitimate U.S. interventions in different countries. Even though those interventions may be represented as flawed or difficult, the point is that they can be legitimated. Whether it’s Rules of Engagement or Black Hawk Down or Three Kings. Or even The Peacemaker or True Lies, the theme is hunting down Arab terrorists. You’ve got a film like The Siege, which is basically a prelude to 9/11, with New York under siege by Arab terrorists. All these films are about U.S. forces fighting global enemies bent on our destruction.
And even the more critical films haven’t helped, have they? Apocalypse Now is by all accounts an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, and the implication is that there’s a lesson to be learned from Conrad, but apparently we haven’t learned it, and so here we go again.
Yeah, it’s a slow learning process. A no-learning process is probably a better way to put it. Certainly, political and military decision makers in this country have pretty much failed to learn from the past. I think we can say that. Iraq is really, in many respects, a recycling of the Vietnam experience.
As Anthony Swofford pointed out in his memoir, Jarhead, which became a war movie last year, even an anti-war movie reads differently when you show it to a group of Marines.
That’s right. We have a whole section on the Vietnam War films, where we argue that a lot of the supposedly anti-war films are really films which focus on distinctively American experiences and interests. The focus is not on what happened to the poor Vietnamese. The focus is on what war had done to Americans. Casualties of War or The Deer Hunter and to some extent Apocalypse Now. The focus is all on the impact on Americans. What does that say? It’s not exactly an anti-war film from the viewpoint of saying, “Look, this war was immoral, and it was illegal. It should never have been waged, and look at the destruction it brought to a poor Third World country.” It never said that. It said, “Wow, Americans went to the war theater, and they came back broken. They came back dispirited. They came back looking like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or those maimed souls in The Deer Hunter, or they came back like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, crippled and incapable of living a normal life.” That was pretty much the theme of all the anti-war films done about the Vietnam era. There were very few exceptions to that. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is only just a partial exception, and even that focuses on the American experience.
So, is an effective anti-war movie even possible now?
You’d have to contextualize it. You can’t just do a “war is hell” type of thing, because that doesn’t tell you much, or a film which focuses on specifically American experiences. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is a very good film, and people say, “Well, isn’t it anti-war?” Not necessarily. It says war is hell. Malick is really articulating more of a pacifist outlook there. But if you have an imperial military that is intervening around the world and producing the kind of casualties that ours is, you’d need a deeper critique. You need a critique that is informed by some understanding of universal morality, and most films that are made in Hollywood don’t tend to have it. That’s why these newer documentaries can more easily lay things out.
Meanwhile, it is kind of hard to believe that The Delta Force and Iron Eagle and American Ninja 4 actually have any lasting influence on American culture. But it’s not hard to believe that some foreign films do—say Renoir’s Grand Illusion, to take a classic example, or Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, to take a more recent one. How do foreign films fit into the scheme?
It is different. There’s a difference in the sensibility in European filmmakers. We would have to explain that in terms of the differences in political culture. You look at a film like Das Boot, which made the Nazi submariners sympathetic. That was a very balanced, sympathetic view. There was no demonizing. There was no good fighting evil; these were just people, military people forced into a situation many of them didn’t want. Many of these Germans didn’t even support Hitler, but they were there, caught in this human drama, this
tragedy. This is warfare; it doesn’t matter what side you’re on.
Petersen is an interesting example, because he made Das Boot, and later he made Air Force One and Troy.
Petersen has evolved, shall we say. He’s come from Germany to the States. He’s based in Hollywood now, just another Hollywood filmmaker, so he’s evolved.
How would you characterize his evolution? Would you say he’s been unfortunately Hollywoodized?
Yes. You can see he’s picked up on the familiar Hollywood discourses. But his earlier filmmaking was quite different.
So, is there hope for repelling—or, for lack of a better term, combating—the trends your book describes?
One of the difficulties—and this isn’t our original idea—is that when you make a war movie, especially a high-tech spectacle, even if it’s anti-war, it still comes across in a sense as kind of glorifying the episodes, the weaponry, the technology. Spielberg said it. Oliver Stone said it. Terrence Malick said it: If you’re going to do a film that has anything to do with warfare, you’re going to bring in high technology. You’re going to bring in technowar. That’s part of the terrain. So, one option is this new cycle of political documentaries that we discussed. That’s a very powerful trend at work. Another possibility is to do what Kubrick did in Dr. Strangelove and what Bertolt Brecht told us would be the purpose of art and theater, which is to do satire, something that would mock. You don’t really see a lot of violence in Dr. Strangelove. It’s not a war movie in that way. It’s a mockery. To some extent that would be true of a film like WarGames, or maybe The Great Santini, films which really aren’t combat movies.
I thought David Russell’s Three Kings came pretty close to that.
Yeah, it had elements of that, but there were other things going on in that movie. So, there are options available for filmmakers. I think there are wonderful options for satire.
And it can work? Does satire register?
Well, it has to be done right. There is room for another Dr. Strangelove.