Archive For: Military-Entertainment Complex

The Army Experience Center

The Vision Machine is excited to feature a microdocumentary by one of our own curators, Peter Mantello.  You may remember that Peter previously posted a fascinating video on the company, Strategic Operations, which uses Hollywood special effects to train soldiers.  The Army Experience Center is another installation in this series that looks at the military-entertainment complex.  The following is Mantello’s narrative of his eperience of the Army Experience Center and its life cycle.

The Army Experience Center
by Peter Mantello

This micro doc explores the porous boundaries between 21st century military recruitment and first-person shooter game culture. In 2008, the US Army decided to experiment with finding new solutions to old approaches to regenerating its ranks by substituting dreary recruitment offices located in urban ghettos for exciting yet militarized video arcades in popular suburban shopping malls.  The result was known as the Army Experience Center (AEC). Situated in the Franklin Mills mall just outside Philadelphia, the AEC merged the imaginary and actual worlds of military life, tapping into the popularity of first person shooter games and the wonders of smart phone technology.

Free to the public, the AEC offered young adults a chance to immerse themselves in the hi-tech world of 21st century war craft while discovering well-paid, military career possibilities through touch screen technology. Row upon row of computer terminals allowed participants to play an array of first-person shooter videogames (including America’s Army) while two large simulation halls offered volunteers a chance to experience ‘humanitarian’ combat missions by riding Humvee vehicles and Apache helicopters (while of course shooting their way through never ending waves of faceless, brown-skinned adversaries). Moreover, participants could visit the war room of the digital age where distant war is fed to analysts on 50 inch screens through satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, Army recruiters (often fresh from Iraq/Afghanistan) traded in their military fatigues for polo shirts and jeans and casually circulated through the complex, offering advice, answering questions and ultimately assisting the interested in signing up for stint in the real US military. But by 2010, local public opposition to the AEC garnered negative national attention. Angry parents accused the AEC of attempting to seduce their children with overly sanitized impressions of war. The AEC was officially closed in 2012 becoming a small but important footnote in the increasing synergy between the US military and the entertainment industries.


Sony, The Interview and Hollywood Illusions of Creative Expression

The story of Sony and the hackers captured the year-end news cycle for over a month, unveiling a treasure trove of emails exposing stark flashes of the hidden underbelly of Hollywood, an industry normally aswirl in magic dust this time of year. But when the story turned from snarky digs, racism and inequity, to threats of violence against theaters, in the words of the White House press secretary, it became a “national security issue.”

US officials claimed that North Korea, angered by Seth Rogan’s film depicting the assassination of Kim Jung-un, was responsible for the cyber attacks against Sony, and amid threats of theater violence, enthusiasm for the film’s release evaporated as potential costs added up. When Sony announced it would cancel the Christmas Day release of The Interview, President Obama chastised Sony saying the company had “made a mistake,” and an earthquake of righteous indignation shook Hollywood. The NYT (12/19/14) reported that prominent members of the Hollywood community were fuming “about what they saw as failure by Sony to make a stand for artistic freedom.” According to Steve Carell is was “a sad day for creative expression,” and Michael Moore and Judd Apatow accused Sony of “caving to the hackers.” Rob Lowe also announced it was a sign that the terrorists have won. The cancellation brought calls from celebrities, directors, producers, and critics alike to ignore threats to consumer malls where screens predominate, and as David Carr (NYT 12/22/14) put it, “Play the Movie.”

And play it did. The day before Christmas Sony announced the film would be released in independent and art-house theaters, about 300 nationwide. Reported as an epic victory for freedom of expression, an NPR (ATC 12/24/14) interview with Josh Levin, the proprietor of one of the theaters showing the film, summed up the popular national narrative. Levin said, “It isn’t very often, frankly, in this country that such a high profile potential abridgment of people’s free expression is in the zeitgeist [that presents] an opportunity for us to all, as a country and as a people, stand up and say we will not tolerate people being bullied out of free expression.”

But so many issues cloud the simple media narrative celebrating freedom, creativity, and artistic expression it’s hard to know where to start.

On Christmas day filmmaker Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer 2008) took to Facebook and offered some perspective about bullying filmmakers:

Well, THE INTERVIEW will be screened. Everyone can go back to the routine now. And, here’s the simple truth: Seth Rogen’s “free speech” rights were never at risk. He’s starred in 67 films. His film got made and was bound to be released eventually. But…Women filmmakers (a measly 6% of directors), Latino filmmakers (a minuscule 2% of directors), Black filmmakers (a tiny 6% of directors) actually face real, constant, systemic threats to their ability to speak. Embedded in those numbers are countless filmmakers who don’t get a shot.

The Interview got it’s shot by blowing the head off No.1 US evil enemy Kim Jong Un, but it wasn’t Rogan’s creativity that came up with that plot twist. It came from the CIA. Though the Los Angeles Times reported that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg claimed it was their idea to have Kim Jong Un as the target, an email from Sony’s senior vice president Marisa Liston, published in The Daily Beast indicated that it came from Sony through the intelligence agency. “They mentioned that it was a sony executive that told them to not use a fictitious name, but to go with kim jon-un,” wrote Liston. “They mention that a former cia agent and someone who used to work for Hilary [sic] Clinton looked at the script.” Not content to interact only with the CIA, an email from Sony CEO Michael Lynton reveals that he checked with “someone very senior in State” who confidentially, gave him the go-ahead for the filmic representation of the assassination of a living head of state—the first in U.S. film history.

In addition, Sony had already censored the film by agreeing to alter certain scenes for international distribution, The Daily Beast (12/15/14) quoted emails from Nigel Clark, president of international marketing for Sony Pictures appeasing international distributors. “Have these revisions addressed any concerns you might have had regarding the over-the-top violence in the third act of the film?” Mexico, Sweden, Russia, Belgium, Brazil, and France, preferred the altered, “softer version” with Eric Brune, head of Sony Pictures in France, observing “the violent version is, I think a little bit too much for a comedy.”

Sony drafted a list of detailed talking points for their executives that attempted to hide its continual shaping of the film’s content: “This is a Columbia Pictures release and our parent company has little to no involvement in the creative direction taken.”

But Sony’s reliance on the CIA and the State Department, together with its penchant to alter film content to increase profits is nothing out of the ordinary. Blockbuster films made at major studios are required to pass the censors before they receive military support, which accounts for some of the most profitable films in Hollywood. The Pentagon and every branch of the Armed Services now help major studios shape, alter, influence and censor films for US audiences. Philip Strub is the long-time head of The DOD’s Entertainment Liaison Office, and a powerful player in the movie business. When making war films, blockbusters and superheroes tales, Hollywood needs military hardware to shoot; think jets, tanks, battleships and personnel. They have no hope of getting such government largess unless they first submit their scripts to Strub, who openly admits that, “sometimes they require script changes as a condition of providing support.” War films must depict military life as “realistically” as possible, or they must “inform the public” about U.S. military prowess, or assist in recruitment. Strub also explains the real goals of military/media collaborations, “any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us.” In fact, “The Marine Corps’ film office in Los Angeles contains a floor-to-ceiling shelf of files on films that asked for assistance but were never made, “most too expensive to produce without military assistance.”

In addition to vetting scripts before supplying the hardware, Strub’s office carefully monitors the “creative” process once the film is in production. No on-set deviations from the content stipulations are allowed, a process that circumscribes independent improvisation or creative input that might emerge in the collaborative process that is film production.

With a budget of over four billion dollars, the DOD’s PR apparatus is well funded, highly organized, and extremely influential. The public pays for these productions in many ways, mostly by footing the bill for propaganda. “Strub has been uniformly admired in Hollywood and few pictures have deviated much from the ideological consensus he fostered—patriotism, a virtuous U.S. military, glorification of battlefield exploits and masculine heroism.”

The 2012 recruitment film Act of Valor represents a significant leap in the militarization of Hollywood. Originally an ad funded by the DOD, it was the first feature film to star active duty Navy SEALs. The film’s themes give new life to military PR dreams of heroism, evil enemies, and terrorists who torture American agents in a plot so implausible it should be a spoof. But the film’s aestheticization of war that celebrates Special Forces and the transformation of U.S. foreign policy is no laughing matter. As Jeremy Schill documents in Dirty Wars (2013), Special Forces terrorize civilians with night raids and clandestine killings. Act of Valor sanitizes those policies and is a filmic denial of the human, moral and political costs that glorify US endless wars.

In addition to reinforcing American war policies worldwide, many blockbusters are advertisements for high-tech weapons. With spectacular comic book and science fiction films, fantasy works as promotion. The DOD’s and Marvel Studios created Iron Man (2008), with sequences filmed at Edwards Air Force base, where director Jon Favreau had access to “the great C17s and the Raptors and all the stuff.” The result is a “blue-skies ballet” between Iron Man and the F22A Raptors, which combine forces to kill a group of Afghan terrorists modeled on Al-Qaeda. Air Force officials gloated that they came off looking like rock stars. And in Michael Bay’s blockbuster Transformers, (2007) every branch of the DOD teams up with American teenagers and some good alien robots (Autobots) to do battle with bad ones (Decepticons) and save the world. The film was shot White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico. Army liaison, Lt. Col. Gregory Bishop, boasted: “As far as I know, this is the biggest joint military operation movie ever made. Even Superman now shills for the Pentagon’s militainment factory. Man of Steel (2013) doubles as a fantastical advertisement for the F-35 jet, which flies its first and only mission over Smallville, Superman’s hometown. In reality, the DOD’s R&D on this jet is a farcical boondoggle; it was grounded due to technical difficulties, costing taxpayers $400 billion, and is projected to reach $1.5 trillion before it is done.

Don’t forget that is was Sony that also brought us Zero Dark Thirty, a film collaboration with the CIA. The torture report shared the news cycle with the Sony hacking story, and it should come as no surprise that CIA Director John Brennan, gave the same specious defense for torture woven into the plot of ZD30; that torture led to information “useful” to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

The coverage of the cyber attacks against Sony should have prompted an examination of Hollywood’s collaboration with the national security state. Instead, a celebration of freedom of expression denied that the real story of censorship in Hollywood comes from the US Armed Forces.


Military Videogames – It is All a Matter of Perspective!

The recent release of Grand Theft Auto 5 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 has brought questions of perspective into sharp focus. What, in short, are the consequences of the move to play first person? Here I offer some thoughts on the question of violence and what the moves in GTA may mean for future depictions of war within military shooters.

Central to the reaction to GTA5, is the question of whether or not the move to a first-person perspective has a greater effect on the player in terms of how they respond to the in-game violence which they can perform? A column in Forbes entitled, ‘First Person Mode Makes ‘GTA 5’ More Horrible Than Ever’ is fairly typical of this media debate, suggesting that the move to first person does indeed make such violence more visceral and by implication has greater impacts for players (

Here I don’t wish to engage in the debates centred on the media effects of violence (see Robinson, 2012 for my take on the politics of this (, instead I want to reflect on how GTA5 may act as a precursor to more ‘realistic’ violence in future military shooters. GTA5 offers depictions of a ‘real city’, with urban citizenry walking around in their day to day lives, and the game offers the player the opportunity to attack them as they are texting, walking and chatting etc. In doing this, GTA5 exposes how sanitised (relatively at least) videogame depictions of war actually are.

Most players of war games will be familiar and highly experienced at playing first person – most military combat games such as the Battlefield, Call of Duty and now cancelled Medal of Honor series are framed from a first person perspective with the player occupying the boots of a soldier and engaged in killing waves of enemies with machine guns, hand grenades, remote guided weaponry and mechanised equipment. Yet what is striking is that most of these encounters are handled in a very different way to GTA5. First, civilians are seldom represented in the game, so preventing the possibility of civilian casualties. Second, Spec Ops: The Line aside, when they are represented the norm is for the game to present the player with a ‘fail state’ if they attack/injure civilians. Conflict and violence is only to be used on legitimate targets, namely those military combatants who threaten the player in his/her role as a serving military operative.

Such conflict is also invariably at distance – the player is actively discouraged from close up or hand to hand combat. Whilst military shooters frequently give the player the capacity to melee (and this is usually highly effective in that it neutralises the enemy in a single strike) it is normally only used as a last resort. Thus, reflecting back on the majority of war games having played GTA 5 reinforces the clinical, surgical and precise nature of war as depicted in military videogames. In fact, if videogame depictions of war were more like the brutal depictions in GTA5 then this would make such depictions arguably more ‘authentic’ and ‘realistic’. Yet the controversy over the game Six Days in Fallujah which Konami decided to withdraw from publishing in 2009 suggests that the industry (and perhaps even the players) are not ready for such depictions – may GTA5 (for good or ill) prove to be a first step in this direction?  (For more on Six Days in Fallujah:


Consuming War: Peter Mantello at TEDx

In his TEDx talk ‘Media, Consumerism and Connectivity in the Age of Terror’, Professor Peter Mantello (co-curator of TheVisionMachine) discusses how after 9/11, political and commercial forces have come together in order to reshape our notions of freedom, liberty and security. In his presentation, Peter discusses how our everyday media behavior and habits are being not simply scrutinized but also weaponized against an invisible and perhaps mythical enemy, aka a world where the lines between policemen and marketers are now blurring together to fuel a growing political economy of fear.

Peter Mantello is Professor at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, College of Asia Pacific Studies, Media and Arts.  After completing his degree in Media Arts and Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, he has been working as a Contract Filmmaker at National Film board of Canada. After that, he was Lecturer at the Department of Cinema at Concordia University and also teaching at Media Communications Department at Webster University, Bangkok. Professor Mantello has been awarded with a number of Faculty and Research Grants and Projects.


Calling Chuck Norris

Or, “’Life doesn’t have to suck’: On Psy-Ops in Africa and How America Has Learned Abuse Is BAD.” Thomas R. Lansner’s take on a profile of America’s top “terrorist fighter” in Africa offers clear lessons on counterinsurgency, but inspires doubts that Chuck Norris is the best man for the job.


Joseph Kony is as elusive as he is murderous. He and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) followers have wreaked havoc across a vast swath of bush and forest covering the remotest corners of four African countries since launching a “holy war” in Uganda a quarter century ago. The Uganda Army’s endless pursuit, even with American special forces advisors over the past five years, seems… well… endless.

The Uganda field commander in these cross-border operations, Colonel Michael Kabango, complains that the hard men America has sent to help, are in fact, not so. Weanies, really, who require resupply of water every four days. “[T]hey actually slow us down,” he says. Their bush camp in southeastern Central African Republic—as we learn from the New York Times Magazine’s recent adoring profile of the boss of U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa, Brigadier General James B. Linder—has “an air-conditioned mess tent stocked with Red Bull, energy bars and a flat-screen TV tuned to CNN International.”

This raises the pressing question of who would ever haul an old fat-ass tube TV to the African bush, and whether the American special forces “operators” ever watch Al-Jazeera—but that we leave aside for now. Lessons [re]learned in insurgencies must be addressed.

With the campaign to kill or capture Kony yet to be rewarded with its trophy, his pursuers are ramping up psychological warfare against the remaining LRA fighters. One effort Colonel Kabango (interviewed outside the air con mess tent, where “tiger-striped butterflies darted through air filled with the scent of wild cucumber”…lovely!) appreciated was “fastening loudspeakers to airplanes and flying them over the jungle playing messages telling the guys to come home. Recently, six men defected after one such outing.”

“Quite simply, it’s marketing,” General Linder told the NYT. “You’re essentially teaching psy-ops marketing. The message is: ‘You don’t have to be L.R.A. War is over. Life doesn’t have to suck.’” Indeed! And how to make life not suck? We’ll return soon to what I will dub “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”… hard earned, no doubt, as Linder “has appeared on every significant battleground of the last 30 years,” the Times tells us, “Central and South America, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Africa.” Every significant battleground? Ahhh… all of America’s significant—and far-flung—battlegrounds, that is….

Enter Chuck Norris

There have been a few near misses in the hunt for Joseph Kony and the decimated but still deadly remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army [please see “Messianic Foes” here]. “In more than one raided camp,” US Kony hunt commander in Uganda Colonel Kevin Leahy told NYT reporter Eliza Griswold, “there were DVDs of Chuck Norris films.” Griswold apparently did not ask if there were flat screen TVs or movie nights at the abandoned camps, but intelligence on Kony’s movements is sketchy at best, anyway. Col. Leahy explains he has “reached out to Chuck Norris to create a ‘come home’ message” that could be broadcast to LRA fighters … or perhaps made into DVDs and dropped into the bush? It seems still in the concept stage, although the colonel sounded optimistic: “We’ve gotten some feedback from his agent.”

So, could “soft power” trump the guns, and America’s global pop culture dominance yield real-world gains? Surely a fine notion. And culture as transformative propaganda is not a new idea. Stalin regarded books as “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda,” The Atlantic recently reported, and the CIA seemed to agree; it smuggled millions of books into the Soviet Union, including works by Orwell and Pasternak’s banned Dr Zhivago.

This was in TV’s early days, long before DVDs or Internet, but at first blush Chuck Norris seems as appropriate to the action-loving LRA as Pasternak was to literature-hungry Russians. Yet, are we sure? Is there some chance that the massive and casual carnage that carries the 80s action movies the LRA favors was actually instructive? Cultural transference can be dangerously viral; only celluloid victims never feel real pain. Not that General Linder seems too interested in the finer details of ethnicity and local mores. “It’s not an anthropologist telling me about tribes and nomadic patterns,” he airily told the Times, “I’ve got Wikipedia for that. What I need is the operator.”

And a question for Colonel Leahy, before he troubles Chuck too much more. Think: the Chuck Norris DVDs were left behind! Not to make fun of Chuck, but maybe they were chucked intentionally. Is there compelling HUMINT [“human intelligence” to those unversed in what must be the basis of all good psy-ops] that Chuck is favored above Sylvester Stallone? Over Jet Li? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Jean-Claude Van Damme? Or even Dolph Lundgren?? Maybe the LRA guerrillas, with recently-watered US commandos hot at their heels, risked all to save those action stars’ DVDs, discarding Chuck’s in the dust and detritus. This raises a point surely troubling to some that American soft power—“weapons of mass distraction”, as writer Matthew Fraser describes—may not be all so ubiquitous after all… for another discussion.

Perhaps some of the recent “defectors” (for gawdssake, let’s name them more psy-war sensitively as “returnees”!) could tell us. My utterly unsolicited suggestion is to show recent LRA returnees the 2012 film The Expendables 2 (although this—no joke here—leaves aside concerns that watching an action movie could inflame PTSD LRA returnees might be suffering.) They would pick from among the stellar cast of international action stars which should best be asked to make a “come home” appeal. Arnie, Chuck, Dolph, Jean-Claude, Li, Sly…? Most of the global action hero gang’s all there. Yes, this would exclude Mickey Rourke, who shined in the original The Expendables and was unjustly cut from the sequel… but this we could do safely, I think, leaving out also Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, who finally appeared with the resurgent Rourke only in The Expendables 3. The debate is joined. Comments are always welcome.

Lansner’s Linder Lessons

Now, last and very serious notes on the promised “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”—and how America has apparently discovered that abuse and economic injustice are BAD—as extrapolated from three quotes in the NYT article:

Quote 1: “One primary lesson learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, [General Linder] notes, is that if security forces abuse the local population, they alienate their best source of intelligence.” Too true. Think Abu Ghraib! Or the history of warfare.

So, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 1: An abused and disenfranchised population resents its oppressors, and lends support to a “legitimized resistance”… be it the LRA in its very early days, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Iraq today… or the “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army.

Quote 2: “The tactics of special warfare can look quite a lot like those used by the Peace Corps, which arrived in Niger in 1962 and left in 2011 because of security concerns.” This is a way far stretch, so I will offer it as:

Lansner’s Linder Lesson 2: More equitable development can undermine extremism. Or even more pithily, as General Linder himself declared, “Life doesn’t have to suck,” … a quote that should be in Wikipedia.

To restate plainly: Respecting basic rights and providing a modicum of social and economic justice is a path to peace. Learning can be priceless, no?

Well, no; let’s name the price of America’s recent wars: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed; 7,000+ dead American soldiers; trillions of dollars flushed in a cesspit of hubris, dismissing history and painfully “re-learning” simple and self-evident lessons.

We do hope that Chuck or one of his action-hero brethren can soon help convince the LRA to come home. Or that Boko Haram can be persuaded by some similar ploy [Nollywood, anyone?] to #BringBackOurGirls. Action-hero brethren?  Yes. Angelina, even as Lara Croft or Evelyn Salt, won’t do, especially after her recent real-life hero turn in #timetoact.

But I’ll still wager my pension that applying Lansner’s Linder Lessons 1 and 2—not abusing, and working to see that life does not suck—is the best long-term strategy to ending, or even better, pre-empting, insurgencies—fundamentalist, millennialist, or otherwise. Popular movements are far more often sparked and sustained by desperate resistance than lofty ideals.

And finally, Quote 3: “One of the first lessons that Special Operations teaches in Africa and other places,” says General Linder, “is that a good soldier serves the population, not the leader.“[emphasis added]

So, to close, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 3, this one verbatim: “A good soldier serves the people, not the leader.” A revolutionary idea, indeed. This does not suggest mutiny, even retrospectively, against a genuinely democratically elected leader. But that America’s good soldiers—or at least the good ex-General Powell—had heeded this advice in 2003, much of Linder’s work in Africa today would be moot. ###

Chuck Norris and Marshall Teague with U.S. Marines at Camp Al Taqaddam, Iraq, during a USO tour in 2006. USO Photo.

Chuck Norris graffiti dated 2009, in Osijek, Croatia: “Don’t Worry… I’m Coming To Rescue This City… Chuck”  photo by Objavljeno, 2013.


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)


The Flyover

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, many of us sought solace in everyday events. I remember going to a UCLA football game in search of some sense of stability. Before the opening kickoff, as they always do, spectators stood for the National Anthem. As a lone trumpet solemnly sounded in the far corner of the stadium, a palpable feeling of unity and patriotism filled the Rose Bowl. The crowd of 95,000 spectators, normally bifurcated by college allegiance, was made one in song.  Near the end, a deafening roar erupted in the form of four F-A18 Hornets flying overhead. In an instant, a collective public in the process of mourning, fellowship, and healing exploded into an orgy of jingoism and weapon worship.

As a sports fan and former U.S. Air Force Serviceman, I had formerly viewed fly-overs as benign expressions of patriotism.  However, that UCLA game in a newly post 9/11 world yielded an awakening in me. It was an awakening to the power of military spectacle and direct proof of how exploitation of mob mentality can instantly mobilize a wounded people.   We have become inured by the constant encroachment of the martial upon the social body.

My piece, “God Bless Deterritorialized America,” is a translation of that moment at UCLA when I broke of the military-industrial psychological conditioning that involuntarily shackles American society.  The video examines the link between sport and the military in contemporary America.  The deterritorialization of the American landscape refers to the colonization of public spaces (in this instance sports arenas) by the U.S. military, which brandishes its weapons and thus reinforces the state of emergency. In this state of deterritorialization, the border between the civilian and the martial is intentionally obscured. As a result the battlefield has been symbolically extended into our everyday experiences and public spaces.  The video was constructed from found footage as a meditation on this condition.


Theatres of War

In the past, representations of war were a useful tool in shaping social, cultural or political ideology. Today, they serve as a powerful heuristic in preparing soldiers for the ‘realities’ of modern warfare. In other words, before soldiers go to war, they must first stop off in Hollywood. The company, Strategic Operations, is both the presage of modern day simulation as well as a formative middle ground for understanding and preparing for the complexities of asymmetrical war. Merging the movie making techniques of Hollywood with battlefield training, this unique company immerses soldiers in what they call ‘hyperrealism’. By combining immigrant Middle Eastern role players with battlefield pyrotechnics and special-effects make-up, Strategic Operations collapses the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and actual war.

This spotlight was shot, produced, and edited by Professor Peter Mantello.


Returning Fire

War-themed video games that restage the multiple conflicts of the War on Terror have posted record-breaking sales. In real dollars, the November 8, 2011 appearance of Modern Warfare 3, which recapitulates the drama of fighting a global terror network, was the largest entertainment release of any kind to date. The phenomenon is even more notable considering that US wars have fallen off nearly every other screen. With the brief exception of Libya in 2011, the now myriad US interventions and occupations around the planet have achieved a remarkable invisibility on the news and in Hollywood, where the war film has been declared “a toxic genre.” This has by default left the video game as the signature medium for the public understanding of war. Of course, many have argued that the consumption of the video game war poses problems for civic deliberation on these important matters. One might go so far as to say that the war-as-game mode may represent a new mode of social control: a grid of emerging practices and narratives that discipline the citizen and divert critical questions. War game culture has its own set of paradoxes and contradictions, however. While the name of the game is fidelity to ongoing conflicts and the faithful reproduction of weapons, there is a noted absence of the ugliness of conflict – the shattered families, starvation, and overflowing hospitals. There is the sense of alienation in ruthlessly separating the “conflict zone” from the “comfort zone.” At the heart of the war game is the experience of driving an avatar through the paradoxical thrills of “safe danger,” an analogue to the post-industrial West’s uneasy relationship with long-distance drone warfare. And while war games generally align themselves to a nationalistic narrative, there is little reference to the larger policy choices that precipitated the conflict, leaving the player in the curious position of fighting for “freedom” while adhering to the totalitarian and unquestionable dictates of the state. Returning Fire: Interventions in War Game Culture is an attempt to understand these internal contradictions. The film itself does not present a critique, but rather surveys the ways that artists and activists have engaged the politics of the war-themed game. The film follows Iraqi expatriate Wafaa Bilal and his project, Domestic Tension, which invited visitors to his website to shoot him, via mouse click, with an actual paintball gun in actual physical space – a recapitulation of the logics of seduction and long-distance weaponry that animate the experience of contemporary warfare. Anne-Marie Schleiner’s project, Velvet Strike, is a study in how political space, physical space, and virtual space mesh in war games and how the virtual street corner should be reconsidered as a valid space for activism.  The clip included here features the story of Joseph Delappe, who created a media stir by going into the official Army recruiting game, America’s Army, and listing the US war dead in a painstaking virtual memorial.  These three vignettes provide glimpses into the instabilities of war game culture and offer strategies for opening the narrative to more critical questions.


The Military-Industrial- Media-Entertainment Network

Technology in the service of virtue has given rise to a global form of virtual violence: Virtuous War. In the 21st century, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network (aka The MIME-NET) has become the ‘fifth-dimension’ of U.S. hegemony. Fought in the same manner they are represented through real-time global surveillance, media dissimulation, and network-centric warfare, virtuous war deters, disciplines and destroys the “enemy” at a distance. An all-too-real matrix, MIME-NET, seamlessly merges the production, representation, and execution of war. We learn how to kill but not take responsibility for it; we encounter ‘death’ but not its tragic consequences; we now face not just the confusion but the pixelation of war and game on the same screen.

Professor James Der Derian, of the University of Sydney, takes the viewer on a journey through deserts real and virtual to find the ghosts in the 21st century war-machine.