The philosophy of Carl Schmitt asserts that for a state to be identifiable and legitimate it has to employ an enemy image – the perception of a threat from the Other. In this episode we explore whether this philosophy has been adopted by the Pentagon as part of their operations in the entertainment industry. I conclude that there is a major exception – namely China – who the Pentagon do not want to be part of the enemy image portrayed by Hollywood, and speculate as to the reasons why this is.
The Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood is, according to their own directives, mostly about recruitment and ensuring that movie depictions of the US military are accurate. Sounds fair enough, right? After all, they’re a big government agency, they would naturally want to make sure they were being portrayed in a realistic way so people don’t get the wrong idea, right? They need to recruit people and propagandising them through entertainment is much better than just conscripting them, right?
Maybe not. Because the Pentagon is also involved in political censorship and rewriting scripts – characters, stories, scenes, dialogue. They are able to do this because they have something that film-makers want but cannot get elsewhere, in terms of locations, vehicles, equipment and – perhaps most importantly – expertise. Indeed, the DOD’s directives say that they are not allowed to offer services that are offered by private businesses.
While there must be some overlap, this presumably implies that a former Marine or Navy SEAL can only provide limited advice to film-makers, compared to the DOD. And to some extent this must be true – someone who left the Marines in the 1990s or 2000s to set up their own entertainment consultancy will not be as up to date as someone still inside the Pentagon. The same applies to the CIA, FBI, DHS and so on. Whether this matters enormously when it comes to directing a group of guys dressed as soldiers to take cover behind some vehicles so they can shoot at Godzilla – it probably doesn’t. But when it comes to political concerns, such as who is portrayed as the enemy, it certainly does matter.
I bring this up because despite numbering over 3000 pages the documents we got from the DOD do not include many references to script changes that were pushed by the DOD in exchange for their co-operation. However, the handful of references that there are do tell us something about the politics of the Pentagon. So, before we get directly into those:
What is the ‘enemy image’?
What is the ‘face of the enemy?’ Most obviously it is whoever is portrayed as the enemy, in this case the dramatic antagonists in Hollywood cinema. We have the protagonists, who we the audience are supposed to be in favour of, we want the hero to succeed, and the antagonists who we are supposed to be anti and against, we want them to fail.
But I’m also talking about the concept elucidated by the German philosopher (and member of the Nazi party) Carl Schmitt. In The Concept of the Political he explained that a state’s sovereignty and autonomy derives from the distinction between friends and enemies. Friends are part of the state, citizens of the society. Enemies are everything else, at least potentially. Enemies are the Other, the thing that is in some way different. So this is an existential definition – we define ourselves by that we are not. Schmitt is not saying that this is the only way we define ourselves or the only way a state defines its autonomy, but for him it was the most fundamental way.
Perhaps a more simpler formulation is the barbarians at the gates. In order to have an identifiable state – identifiable both from within, to its own citizens, and from without to any potential bandits or even people who might join the state – you have to have barbarians at the gates. You need some perception of the Other being a dangerous thing which the state protects us from, i.e. all politics is a politics of fear and security. Now, to have barbarians at the gates you need gates, that is to say you need some kind of demarcation as to where the state ends. City walls. National boundaries. A point at which the beyond is the territory of the Other and not of the state in question.
But do you need barbarians? Schmitt’s idea was that as long as the perceived differences were strong enough to potentially demand violent responses then it did not matter what the differences were. As long as people perceive that there are barbarians out there and thus that the gates are necessary that is enough for the state to maintain its identity and thus its autonomy. And much as I think Schmitt was a Nazi prick who helped inspire the Neo-Cons, he’s probably right. The only thing the state truly needs in order to exist is a widely perceived enemy image, but it does need that. You might consider that horribly pessimistic and in some ways it is – Schmitt was someone who believed conflict was an inevitable result of existence, fundamentally that might makes right. And there again, I can’t say I disagree with him, much as I want the world to be otherwise the reality is that violence is the final arbiter.
So you can see, in terms of the legitimacy of the American state, the United States of America and especially it’s largest and most well-funded arm the Pentagon, people’s perceptions of the dangers of the world are critical. Would we tolerate the existence of the Pentagon if we didn’t perceive the world to be a dangerous place full of threats and other frightening things? Probably not. Would we perceive the world that way if it were not for media coverage including entertainment such as movies? Probably not.
Above and beyond the serious questions of propaganda such as the rewriting of history and the defining and redefining of what is normal and what is controversial, we also have the question of the legitimacy of the state itself. The creation of enemy images against which the state appears legitimate is something that Hollywood is better at than any other medium, in my opinion. Far more people derive their worldview from Hollywood films than from news coverage, for example. Not that news coverage is particularly reliable, of course.
Who do the Pentagon Want Us to See as the Enemy?
This is an easy question to answer – pretty much anyone and anything. Over the last century the Pentagon has been involved in around 350 major motion pictures featuring almost every enemy imaginable. Almost every different kind of disaster movie that you could think of – earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, tornados, climate change, plagues or just urban crises like in Towering Inferno. Virtually every kind you could think of has somewhere along the line been helped by the DOD.
However, this is a relatively modern phenomenon beginning in the 1970s, so the 1950s disaster movies – which I love, my favourite is probably Crack in the World – they are all absent from the DOD lists and reports. Why? If they’re so in favour of this worldview where at any moment anything from a virus through to the entire north hemisphere freezing in two days could strike without warning, why did they not get involved with these earlier films? After all a dangerous world requires a strong, well equipped response. You can see why the Pentagon would be into disaster movies.
I think the reason why they weren’t involved in the 50s movies is because they were almost all nuclear scare stories. Images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so striking that cinema had to exploit people’s quite justified fears about nuclear weapons. Even just knowing it had happened, without having seen it, was enough for a lot of people to be both terrified and fascinated. The ideal combination, from a cinematic point of view. So nuclear weapons feature in a lot of these films, sometimes quite randomly but sometimes as a core part of the plot. I think at that time it was just too hot a subject and the Cold War was a little too hot for the Pentagon to get involved.
For example, with Independence Day – a disaster movie of the Third Kind – the Pentagon had no problem with Bill Pullman nuking those extraterrestrial bastards. Their problem was with the hero being a drunk former air force pilot who uses his plane kamikaze style and 9/11-ed those extraterrestrial bastards. They didn’t think it reflected well on the Air Force. So their reason for not being involved in that mid-1990s movie was nothing to do with nukes, as far as we know. Similarly, they were heavily involved in Godzilla where they had more screen time than the monster did. It is quite explicit in that film that the nuclear tests were used to try to kill Godzilla back in the 1950s when we were blowing up all those supposedly uninhabited Pacific islands. This, in classic disaster movie style, inadvertently brings about the other monsters who cause all the mayhem.
So these days even nukes are on the table as an enemy image, whereas at one time they must have very much been off the table. But what else? The Russians, obviously. Hackers, terrorists, particularly Arab terrorists, and failing that just Arabs with guns where possible. Rogue nations, sometimes North Korea, sometimes a rogue agent or officer within our own midst working on behalf of a foreign power. All of these turn up repeatedly in films sponsored by the Pentagon, and so we have to assume they have no objections to any of these enemy images.
However, they do sometimes resort to nationalism where they try to make anyone but America look bad. They can live with insider threats and internal traitors but if they can pin the failure on someone else, they probably will. When the Bond franchise was relaunched with Goldeneye in the mid 1990s there is a sequence in Monte Carlo where a Canadian Navy admiral is having an affair with Xenia Onatopp, the femme fatale of the story. Onatopp kills the admiral and her accomplices steal his identity, enabling them to steal an experimental helicopter that is resistant to EMP weapons.
In the original script the character was an American Navy Admiral but this was changed to a Canadian at the request of Phil Strub, the DOD’s chief entertainment liaison. So the enemy image here – of a man who is older and thus sexually vulnerable to the real enemy – was modified in accordance with basic nationalistic ideas and where possible to avoid making anyone at the Pentagon look bad, even if it is just one individual. However, they did nothing about the line from M played by Judi Dench, ‘Unlike the American government we’d prefer not to get our bad news from CNN’.
Who do the Pentagon Not Want Us to See as the Enemy?
Obviously, given the huge range of things that the Pentagon want us to see as enemy images, the general impression they’re trying to give us is one of a dangerous world where the Pentagon is necessary, even desirable. This is, broadly, the Neo-Conservative position which isn’t especially concerned with specific ideologies or particular countries, but of a broader sense of conflict being inevitable and of domestic social cohesion being dependent on the perception of an outside threat.
However, the Pentagon are a bit more realistic than the Neo-Cons. Not much more realistic, but a bit. There are some things they aren’t willing to help Hollywood portray as part of the big dangerous world out there. There are some enemy images the DOD does not condone. The most obvious one is China, who turn up repeatedly in the documents we obtained. The best two examples:
1) As I have mentioned before in previous episodes of this show and in articles on this site, the remake of Red Dawn originally had China invading the United States. The Marine Corps were approached by the producers, and they sent it up the chain of command to Phil Strub. Strub said no to co-operating ‘unless production is willing to change the opposing forces in the script’. Even when this was changed in post-production, the Pentagon said no to helping in any promotional efforts for the movie.
2) Two different computer games – Operation Flashpoint 2 and an untitled first person shooter were rejected by different branches of the Pentagon for their depiction of China. With Operation Flashpoint 2 the Marine Corps provided some initial assistance in the form of access to military vehicles so the producers could record sound effects. However, when the producers ‘requested to use Marine Corps trademarked items for the video game’ this was denied and the reports record that ‘No formal support is being offered to Operation Flashpoint 2 due to anti-China sentiment.’
With the other untitled project the Army had one meeting with the game’s developers where they were initially enthusiastic. The first entry says, ‘Have scheduled an introductory meeting this week to discuss. While their interests will require an outside paid consultant, our interest is to correctly establish and frame the Army brand within the game while still in development.’ So while the Army recognised that the game would require an ex-military consultant they were still keen to get their brand into it somehow. However, the update reports how ‘*** and *** met with company president and game developers. Expressed concern that scenario being considered involves future war with China. Game developers looking at other possible conflicts to design the game around, however, developers are seeking a military power with substantial capabilities.’ After this initial meeting there was no follow up and it seems any assistance in the development of the game stopped because of this storyline.
Why Not China?
Why is the US military not keen on entertainment that depicts conflict with China or in other ways depicts China as the enemy image? I can see two main reasons for this. (1) In an all out war between NATO and China, I am not sure who would win. The Chinese have greater numbers, arguably have greater social cohesion and willingness to sacrifice individually for the sake of the state, the system. It is possible that the superior military might of the West would not triumph. (2) The Chinese are essentially paying for the Western military might, with their willingness to buy government debt, especially US government debt. In any such war that economic situation would of course be very different but even in peacetime the US and NATO more generally needs China to keep funding it.
As effective as China might be as an enemy image (they are ‘Communist’, Asian, militarily powerful and therefore scary) real-world politics and especially economics mean that the Pentagon cannot endorse them as an enemy image. This is why we see the resistance, and even the demands on entertainment producers to change storylines where China plays a major antagonistic role.
So, contrary to Carl Schmitt’s assertion that almost anything can be considered an enemy for the purposes of identifying and legitimising a state, the Pentagon seems to believe otherwise. They believe that reality sometimes take precedence, that even in constructing fantastical propaganda you still have to yield to reality. Sometimes.
What about the Aliens?
There is of course the alien question. The last decade has seen a huge rebirth in not just space movies like Apollo 18, Interstellar, Gravity and so on, mostly assisted by NASA, but also alien invasion films. Like the German invasion stories in Britain around the time of both world wars, or the Japanese invasion paranoia in the US during the second world war, in the absence of Russia or China invading, aliens seemed to have filled the gap.
Aliens are the perfect representation of the Other – something we haven’t even met yet, which could be hostile, probably looks very different to us and onto whom we can project any number of fantasies. They are the perfect enemy image, and in the CGI era they can be re-imagined in infinite ways. Sadly they’re usually giant robots or something that looks like the thing from Alien, but the potential is there.
The most prominent among these such as Transformers and Battleship, are ludicrously unrealistic. The Pentagon doesn’t want movies depicting China as the bad guy, but a bunch of giant extraterrestrial robots with artificial intelligence is absolutely fine. Ditto an asteroid that is so big that only Ben Affleck and an Aerosmith song will be enough to stop it. So, reality and realism is not a primary concern here, the issue of China does seem to be an exception in that respect as well as in others.
Thus, the question of how the Pentagon’s Entertainment Liaison Offices deploy enemy images through Hollywood is somewhat more complicated than I think a lot of analysts would have you believe. The idea that they will always paint the Pentagon positively is an exaggeration, Schmitt’s philosophy that anything can serve as a viable enemy image is not being adhered to, especially with regard to China.
Ultimately though I think it is important to emphasise that enemy images, the face of the villain, is often more important than the face of the hero. The hero can sometimes be quite generic and predictable, even boring. But more effort seems to go into crafting good villains, they are often played by better actors than the heroes and have more provocative back stories. You never forget a good villain, as Alan Rickman’s entire career showed, but the same cannot necessarily be said for heroes.
That is to say, I think our relationship with villains, with the face of the enemy, is better explored in culture not as a consequence of state involvement in entertainment, but because of what Scmitt wrote. Defining the villains is more critical to the authority and identity of a state than defining what the state itself actually believes in and represents. As Alfred Adler said, it is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.