The Other War on Christmas: Tracking Santa in the Sky and Ghosts on the Subway

Standing at the checkout counter as the clerk rings up the ingredients for a holiday pie, my eyes wonder to the video screen where Santa and his reindeer fly high above a digital earth blanketed in snow. But wait, are those fighter jets on each side of Old Saint Nick? Distracted by paying for the groceries, it seems at first that Santa is really a terrorist in disguise violating North American airspace. But no, it’s really Santa, a digital one anyway, and apparently he needs protection on his midnight run.  So NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has called in an escort for “Big Red One”.

Living in America, ringing in the holidays with the military has become somewhat of a Christmas tradition. The Christmas bombing of Cambodia forged an early association in my young mind. And I remember well the 1989 Invasion of Panama, the one they called Operation Just Cause. While some of us were wrapping Christmas presents in the early hours of Dec. 20, 1989, Micah Ian Wright (2003, 16-17) was in a cold sweat belching “paniky stomach acid” waiting to jump out of a C-130 cargo plane flying 300 miles per hour 500 feet from the ground. But that was nothing compared to the trauma he felt two days later in the ruins of the fire that burned Chorrillo to the ground, the shantytown that was home to 20,000 poor Panamanians (2006, 148). The mass graves still keep the secrets of the true loss of innocence from the bombs that rained down that Christmas.

While Wright was “in country” getting PTSD, the ad-saturated media selling Christmas cologne and electric shavers was also helping us feel good about the invasion, psychologically identifying with the administration of George H. W. Bush and the military. As Judy Woodruff bragged on PBS (12/21/89), “Not only have we done away with the [Panamanian Army], we’ve done away with the police force.”

A year later the specter of war again hung over the season of good will. In August 1990 troops deployed along the border in Kuwait, and the waiting game for the invasion of Iraq began. The First Persian Gulf War started after we rang in the New Year, on January 17, 1991 when Operation Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm and was cause for more media celebration. TV described the incessant bombing of densely populated Baghdad as a marvel of “rolling thunder,” “staggering,” and “fantastic” (CBS 1/17/91). Everyone agreed that the visuals were riveting, the weapons smart and the assaults picture perfect.

As the bombing continued, animation was used on every network. Infrared video footage from cameras mounted on the nose of bombers looked just like the animation. Views from cockpits showed direct hits fired on imaginary targets. The merger of digital computer-based weapons with visual components turned war into a game. Few reports from the Nintendo War spoiled the fun by showing the estimated 100,000 civilian casualties in Iraq.

The game of war now penetrates American media culture. We seem locked in its deadly embrace, a sensation I feel in one of America’s busiest public spaces. This Christmas, every time I transfer from the NYC Shuttle onto the 1 train headed for Lincoln Center, I am immersed in the scary cyber-world of skulls and elite forces with rifles drawn. The staggering wall-sized ads for Call of Duty: Ghosts, seek to get the video game in every child’s Christmas stockings. Media still sell cologne and electric shavers, but they make much more on this profitable confluence of war and culture. Children eagerly anticipating the latest edition of the popular franchises of war-themed games probably don’t know they are being actively recruited to carry guns in real wars.

After the popularity of the Nintendo War, the military jumped into virtual war worlds in earnest. As a 1997 National Research Council reports, they partnered with commercial researchers to create thrilling cyber-worlds for recruitment and training. America’s Army, released on a different holiday in 2002 – July 4 – was a direct response to falling recruitment goals in 1999.

America’s Army was also the precursor to media representations that would take war into new frontiers of entertainment after 9/11.  As the Hollywood establishment partnered with the Pentagon to promote the war on terror and with the second invasion of Iraq, war narratives and visual rhetorics achieved full-blown militainment status.

Making war fun, thrilling and desirable for potential recruits is essential for a volunteer army in an age of an ever-expanding military. Across the armed services, the goal of embedding war deep within media geography has resulted in an audio-visual milieu immersed in themes of weapons and glory. The feature film Act of Valor, staring nine active duty Navy Seals, was originally a recruiting advertisement developed into a feature film. So many blockbuster movies like Iron Man and Transformers now depend on the largesse of the Armed Forces for personnel, locations and firepower that many uncritically promote military belligerencies as the cultural norm. Even the iconic action hero Superman’s latest iteration Man of Steel, features a 1.5 trillion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a jet that has never actually taken flight because of technical errors.

The economic burden of the world’s largest war machine is rarely mentioned in this militarized culture. Media have forgotten what Eisenhower realized about the trade-offs between guns and butter. “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

As one writer notes this holiday season, we live in an age of crushing economic anxiety. The domestic economy is incapable of job creation, and the military is offered to children as an employment option. Recruitment starts ever younger. The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood called out NORAD’s tracking of Big Red One as “reprehensible” recruitment, noting that “it’s a backdoor way of marketing to kids when they are not supposed to be recruiting until they are much older.” With NORAD’s Santa tracking, the usual militarized fantasies and politics of fear are brought into children’s Christmas fantasies.

The Boston Globe took the editorial position that Big Red One was nothing but fun. “Some critics have protested that the Pentagon is militarizing Christmas, but they’re likely overthinking an initiative that’s meant to be all in fun.” These wise mediators of cultural interpretation did acknowledge that Santa, up against advanced weaponry in North American airspace, could be a “little disorienting.” They followed with a joke that made light of civilian causalities from drones and fighter jets. They worried that Comet and Cupid might be “injured by a wayward drone, or that Frosty the Snowman might melt from the heat of a fighter engine.” The loss of empathy is the psycho-cultural blowback from pairing fun with weapons designed to kill.

Danger fantasies of Santa being shot down over North American airspace, and a South American Federation able to nuke the US from orbit, displace the real dangers posed to American safety and well-being. The civilian economy reels under the force and power of military spending. Media make no connections to trillion dollar weapons systems never deployed and Congressional refusal to extend unemployment benefits to a million people before adjourning for the holiday recess.

I leave the market with what I need for a pumpkin pie, and give a dollar to the Salvation Army recruit, and I am lost in my own fantasy that someday John Lennon’s song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over) will come true.


Additional Works Cited

Wright, Micah Ian, 2003. You Back the Attack, We’ll Bomb Who We Want. (New York: 7 Stories Press)

Andersen, Robin 2006. A Century of Media, A Century of War. (New York: Peter Lang Publications)


About Robin Andersen

Robin Andersen, Ph.D., is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. She is the author of 4 book and dozens of chapters and journal articles, and writes media criticism for a variety of publications. Her book, A Century of Media: A Century of War won the Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award for 2007. Her research examines the media representations of war and peace, including the rhetorical links between information and entertainment depicting war, conflict and humanitarian crisis. She co-edited the 2-volume reference book Battleground: The Media, in 2008. Her other books include Consumer Culture and TV Programming and the edited anthology Critical Studies in Media Commercialism by Oxford University Press. She often serves as a consultant for non-profit groups, and helps develop curriculum in Humanitarian Action covering strategic communication design for humanitarian organizations. She is currently guest editing a special issue of Democratic Communiqué titled, “Media, Technology, and the Culture of Militarism: Watching, Playing and Struggling in the War Society.” Her next book is titled, HBO’s Treme: Evolving Stories of the Storm.

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