Peter Mantello

  • 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.

    • POLS3512 Critical Review Blog
      Ellen Wengert: s42665379

      ‘Theatres of War’ is a micro-documentary created by Professor Peter Mantello, published on TheVisionMachine along with a short textual synopsis of the video. The spotlight looks at the recent convergence of Hollywood movie-making techniques and military training, wherein props, pyrotechnics, special-effects makeup, and Middle Eastern actors are used to prepare soldiers for the battlefield. Mantello says that this utilisation of Hollywood processes in military training ‘collapses the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and actual war’. Strategic Operations, a company based in San Diego, offers what it calls ‘hyper-realistic training’ for soldiers.

      The video opens with the company’s Executive Vice President, Kit Lavell, saying ‘we believe that we’re saving lives by taking the movie-making techniques and making all live military training extremely realistic – we call it “hyper-realistic”’. This assertion is immediately followed by a short clip of a car bomb exploding and then – what appears to be – some intense battlefield footage. In only a few seconds of the ensuing video, there is a tank, machine guns, wounded soldiers and civilians (some of which are missing limbs), with background sounds of sirens, etc. The footage is incredibly convincing.

      These violent clips are juxtaposed throughout the micro-documentary with quiet, calm – almost mundane – interview excerpts. As well as Kit Lavell, Mantello talks to Brayden Hawk, Strategic Operations’ Battlefield FX Manager, Stephanie Morford, Special Effects Make-up Artist, and Donavan Wistos, Director of Prop Fabrication. Stephanie Morford in particular talks quite casually and matter-of-factly about how easily her department is able to ‘burn’ the hands, feet and even full bodies of their prosthetic babies. This stark contrast really stood out to me and did give me the impression that the video was constructed in such a way to emphasize the inherent disparity between Hollywood movie-making techniques and real life warfare.

      Mantello’s micro-documentary does not make a clear argument as such; I think its objective was more to present information and bring this topic to the forefront of contemporary debate in an interesting and engaging way. In this sense, ‘Theatres of War’ was absolutely successful, however I am interested in knowing exactly what Mantello thinks about the issue and whether or not he believes the blurring of the line between ‘the imaginary world of conflict and actual war’ is on the whole a positive or a negative thing. The subjects interviewed within the video make several claims about the application of movie-making techniques to military training; namely that it saves (American) lives through preparing soldiers for war by providing them with as realistic a training environment as possible, both in terms of practice and strategy, and also culturally.

      The use of ‘amputee actors’ and other medical special effects techniques would be very useful within a training context; other video game style simulation training methods could not come even close to capturing the severity of battlefield wounds. And as an objective of Strategic Operations’ hyper-realist training, cultural assimilation does seem useful. Donavan Wistos makes an interesting point about many U.S. soldiers having never been to more than the one local church, let alone more than one city or country. The focus on cultural sensitivity – for example through rehearsing the ‘changeover’ process within the fictitious village, with paid actors playing local leaders and stakeholders – is a notable advantage of this hyper-realist mode of training.

      While I can recognise the validity of these arguments, I personally think it is quite concerning that the line between make-believe war movies and real combat is being blurred in such a way. A growing body of academic research has examined the emergence of what is called the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (MIME-net) or complex. The term is used to describe the reciprocal relationship between film producers and video game developers, and the defence force – wherein the military helps Hollywood to create accurate, convincing narratives, and Hollywood in exchange maintains the defence force’s public image and helps recruit new soldiers. Mantello’s spotlight on hyper-realist military training fits snugly within the MIME-net, because it deals with the intersection between movies and set production, and preparation for real war. A lot of literature and discussion about the complex focuses on Hollywood’s role as a recruitment tool, with less attention paid to military training. If movies and other forms of entertainment media are being used to maintain the defence force’s positive public image, and recruit soldiers as well as then train them, then MIME-net is clearly progressing, or rather the complex between the military, industry, media, and entertainment is deepening.

      Kit Donavan says that with the accuracy of the ‘sights, the sounds, the smells’ of Strategic Operations’ training environments, the soldiers no longer ‘game’ the training and instead become fully immersed in it. So on the one hand, it could be argued that this type of training at least takes warfare seriously and does its best to present an accurate portrayal of the confronting, bloody and violent realities of conflict, and in a more significant way than video game style simulation training does, for example. The hyper-realist heuristic, at least, does not trivialise real warfare as much as certain other elements of the MIME-net do, for example video games that blatantly and wholly turn war into a game. The very notion of Hollywood – which is absolutely synonymous with fiction – having anything to do with hyper-realism, however, is in itself quite odd. A soldier surely wouldn’t be encouraged to watch a war movie in order to learn about ‘real’ war, and so to have soldiers prepare for combat in what is essentially a movie set makes it difficult to accept that the participants really do become so immersed as to no longer believe they are in training.

      While the Strategic Operations employees interviewed claim that participating soldiers become completely immersed in the simulation, I think it would actually be very difficult for them not to ‘game’ the training. There may be some instances in which soldiers believe that an accidental discharge in training has caused real damage – such is the visual persuasion of the pretend environment they are in – but for most soldiers most of the time, I believe it would be quite clear they were in the midst of a fabricated battlefield. I’ve no doubt the soldiers experience a huge adrenalin rush from the training and get quite caught up in it, but they are surely aware most of the time that the injuries sustained by the actors around them – no matter how realistic looking – are not real. Obviously these training exercises are not conducted for fun, or as entertainment. In other words, one does not casually partake in training with Strategic Operations to be entertained, as they would go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon to see the latest war movie. But despite this significant distinction, the former ‘collapses the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and actual war’ – as Mantello puts it – in much the same way that the latter does. Overall I think that Mantello’s spotlight, while absolutely fascinating, would have benefited from a clearer central argument and from further exploration of hyper-realist training’s place within the broader context of military, industry, media, and entertainment. It’s such a striking disparity – ‘stop off in Hollywood’ on the way to war, as the textual synopsis says, to prepare oneself for ‘reality’ – that I think Mantello could have really drilled down further into this fascinating topic.

    • POLS3512 Written Critical Blog Review
      Millie Gluis 43561450

      Professor Peter Mantello argues that before soldiers are deployed, ‘they must first stop off in Hollywood’ (Mantello, 2013). With the wave of military-inspired reality television shows and movies currently saturating entertainment platforms, Mantello’s assertion seems obvious. Depictions of war in television, movies and even games have led to public perceptions of life in conflict and allowed for media organisations and politicians to shape their perceptions as they wish. However, Mantello takes a different approach to the mediatisation of war in this blog entry.

      Mantello’s short video Theatres of War, which was created for academic website TheVisionMachine, documents the work of Strategic Operations. Strategic Operations creates live military training, simulating the conditions and traumas US soldiers will be exposed to upon deployment in the Middle East. Along with distressing experiences such as car bombs and injured soldiers, the soldiers are also taught how to navigate civilian life, engaging with local officials and speaking through translators. Employing hyper-realistic locations, sets, props and actors the company ensure they are duplicating the realities which await soldiers as closely as possible. This film documents the work of Strategic Operations by using short interviews with various employees, intersected with dramatic scenes of explosions, civilian crowds and decapitated soldiers.

      Theatres of War has no overt argument it attempts to make. Mantello never physically inserts himself into the video; we are never exposed to his perspectives. Without critically engaging with the video it would be justifiable to assume that Mantello is simply documenting the work of Strategic Operations without his own agenda. However just because Mantello never states his opinion does not mean he is without one. Fulfilling his role as (citizen) journalist, Mantello is not simply opening a ‘window to the world’ with this video, but choosing what to show through that window. I argue that Mantello’s piece is following in the current media trend of separating the soldier from the war; demonstrating conflict and the experiences of soldiers without engaging with the wider political or circumstantial information.

      Scholars and politicians alike have widely engaged with the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. This refers to the PR failure of the United States during the Vietnam War; many argue that the poor mediatisation of the war was responsible for the US’ loss (Stahl, 2009: 21). As such, media creators have attempted to separate the soldier from the war, by providing a discourse of anti-war yet pro-soldier (Stahl, 2009: 80). In doing so, individual’s civic responsibility they felt towards conflict and soldiers has been replaced with personal sympathy for soldiers (Stahl, 2009: 43).

      This new discourse has opened a realm of films and reality television shows which centre around the realities and experiences of soldiers in conflict. Just like video games within the same field, these forms of entertainment attempt to provide no insight into the true lives of soldiers. Instead, they seek to create personal connections with sympathy, as well as excitement and adrenalin, to entice viewers to continue watching.

      Theatres of War is separated from most media portrayals of conflict by avoiding to show a ‘clean war’. ‘Clean War’ is the media choice not to show death or injury, thus alienating the viewer from the real-life consequences of war (Stahl, 2009: 25). The audience is therefore inclined to watch further inclining the viewer (Stahl, 2009: 25). Mantello’s video disregards this trade tool, attempting to show as much death, injury and destruction as is necessary. It should be noted that this video is not intended for wide public consumption. If it were, the video may have been made ‘cleaner’. However, because Mantello is creating content for TheVisionMachine he is aware of the platform’s audience. By showing the traumatic stress the soldiers must undergo, and the unsavoury conditions they must experience, Montello is connecting his audience with the plight of soldiers in a slightly different way. Rather than demonstrate war as entertainment, and somehow exciting, Montello takes a serious approach. He still employs the sympathy of the audience, doing so by providing such uncensored images.

      This film and the work of Strategic Operations takes a new perspective on this discourse. The simulations created by the company aren’t being broadcasted for public viewing, unlike other forms of military-based videos, which have been created solely for the purpose of providing entertainment to average citizens. Mantello’s film differentiates this work from war as depicted by reality television, by demonstrating that these are no civilians playing soldier. These are trained militants in a simulator deemed necessary for their job, just like many other professions would use.

      However, by employing this pro-military discourse, Montello’s argument provides a complete disregard of the wider socio-political context. Arguments of US involvement in the Middle East are ignored. In combating the Vietnam Syndrome and attempting to connect viewers with the individual soldier, rather than the wider conflict, questions of involvement are left by the wayside. Stahl accurately argues that the use of this narrative ‘takes war out of the realm of public debate by justifying it with the soldier-in-crisis, whose rescue is not up for debate’ (Stahl, 2009: 80). By embedding the military within entertainment media, the war has become ‘up-close and personal’, with none of the relevant politics or justification (Stahl, 2009: 43). Theatres of War may not be outright propaganda, but its failure to engage with the wider politics of the US military and its Middle Eastern involvement render it another contributor to the mediatisation of war.

      Montello’s work demonstrates the US military are taking steps to improve how they are perceived at home. It reveals that the US army are making an effort to engage with the civilians in the countries they work within; no longer are they just creating ‘trigger-happy’ soldiers, now they are actually requiring communication and sociology skills, and recognising the emotional intelligence necessary to work within these traumatic zones. Yet while showing what soldiers will have to undergo during the deployment, Theatres of War completely disregards the fates endured by civilians in the Middle East under US troops (Carruthers, 2011: 248). Strategic Operation claim to train soldiers to positively and respectfully engage with citizens of these states. However, reports of abuse by US soldiers overseas are hardly uncommon. Civilians lives are held cheap, according to Carruthers, with Islamic women being searched by US men at checkpoints, Middle Eastern individuals being held indefinitely, and mosques and Qur’ans being desecrated (Carruthers, 2011: 248).

      The creation of films such as Theatres of War is aiding in the erasure of the Vietnam Syndrome for US media. Currently, bloggers and other forms of citizen journalists are currently the best PR the US military has, with their ability to come from a level of authenticity and ability to easier connect with everyday citizens (Carruthers, 2011: 245). They demonstrate the good work of the US military, whilst offering an identity to sympathise with soldiers, and simultaneously providing an adrenalin kick (Stahl, 2009: 43). However, by employing this mediatisation of war, Mantello has chosen to omit the politics and justifications from his argument. On the surface, Mantello has created an interesting film which documents the talented work of the employees within Strategic Operations. However, when one critically engages with the piece it can be hard to ignore Mantello’s subliminal argument. By choosing not to engage with the external factors of the US military’s involvement in the Middle East, Theatres of War exists simply as another piece of PR creating an identity with which civilians can identify with, without considering the wider consequences.


      Carruthers, S. (2011). The Media at War. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.209-252.

      Mantello, P. (2013). Theatres of War. [Blog] TheVisionMachine. Available at: [Accessed 12 Oct. 2016].

      Stahl, R. (2009). Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

  • Peter Mantello changed their profile picture 4 years, 9 months ago

  • Peter Mantello posted a new activity comment 4 years, 9 months ago

    Is this what happens when technologies of power are in turn transformed into technologies of self. Government becomes the responsibility of the individual. We don’t need a color coded terror alert to remind us to be on the look out. Vigilance becomes internalized while simultaneously being networked.

  • I am thinking of late about the imaginary lines that Obama draws in the sand regarding Syria and the cost benefit analysis his admin are doing regarding intervention in Syria.
    The 100s of billions of dollars it spends on ‘intelligence’ every year and their proud claims to the veracity of the information that assures us that every weekly drone…[Read more]

  • Peter Mantello posted a new activity comment 4 years, 10 months ago

    Perhaps, that is the problem with American media. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the most WATCHED political event in the US since 9/11. Its only when the War on Terror is brought home that the US public shows interest. Meanwhile as you said, on the other side of the world, innocents are dying everyday (often directly or indirectly from blunders…[Read more]

  • Peter Mantello posted a new activity comment 4 years, 11 months ago

    Roger. What is up?

  • Roger Stahl and Profile picture of Peter MantelloPeter Mantello are now friends 5 years ago

  • Peter Mantello became a registered member 5 years, 8 months ago