The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was America’s longest war. In this episode we take an overview of the war in Afghanistan and how it was pre-empted, excused, codified and – in moments – criticised by Hollywood. We examine how the prevailing Hollywood narratives matched up neatly with the shifting priorities and strategies of the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA, and how those three horsemen of the Afghan apocalypse influenced major movie and TV depictions of the war.
On June 17th 2007, in the Patika Province, a highly secretive US Special Forces unit called Task Force 373 set out to assassinate Abu Laith al-Libi, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War turned senior military commander of the Al Qaeda movement in Afghanistan. Task Force 373 were a death squad, sent after so-called ‘high value targets’ in the name of turning the tide of NATO’s struggle against the Afghan insurgency.
According to the Afghan War Logs published by Wikileaks, during the June 17th operation they fired off five HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket system) rockets at a small village where al-Libi was supposedly hiding. No one had fired on them, making this an entirely unprovoked attack. As they approached the wreckage and began sifting through the rubble, they identified the bodies of six adult men, who were written off as Taliban fighters. The special operators also found and recorded the bodies of seven children, killed after one of the HIMARS rockets hit the small school where they were studying. Al-Libi was nowhere to be found.
A couple of months earlier, the first Iron Man film spent several weeks shooting at Edwards Air Force Base, with the assistance of the US Air Force and the Department of Defense.
Upon its release the following spring, Iron Man would become the first Hollywood blockbuster to deal with the US-led NATO war in Afghanistan, and the ongoing occupation of the country. During one action-packed sequence, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man launches an attack on a small Afghan village using high-tech rockets not unlike the HIMARS used by Task Force 373, in order to bring to justice an insurgent leader. In a grotesque inversion of reality, Iron Man succeeds in this mission without killing any civilians, and actually rescues the villagers from the terrorist cadre that is occupying their homes.
The sharp contrast between the image of the then-ongoing war in Afghanistan presented in Iron Man and the grim realities revealed by the Afghan War Logs exemplify how sanitised, and hence misleading, the big screen version of the war has been. This is especially so when government agencies intimately involved in that war, most prominently the Pentagon and CIA, have supported these productions. Consistently, Afghans are shown as backwards, violent and fundamentally untrustworthy, and their suffering is either minimised or excused as necessary to bring them into civilisation and protect our own national security. Over the last five decades, the entertainment industry has propagated an evolving imagery of Afghans and Afghanistan that has helped incite and maintain the US-led war, shifting public perceptions in keeping with the policy objectives of several administrations.
Reel Bad Arabs: The Cinematic Prelude to the War on Terror
Hollywood’s targeting of Middle Eastern and South Asian peoples and nations did not begin in the post-9/11 period, and is far from limited to just Afghans and Afghanistan. As Jack Shaheen’s research into television depictions of Arabs and other peoples from the region found, “producers were projecting Arabs as billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers” for decades before the attacks in September 2001. When Shaheen expanded this analysis to encompass some 1,100 movie depictions, in his seminal book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, he found that, “All 1,100 movies clearly demonstrate that Arab stereotypes were contaminating minds long before 9/11.”
The cinema of the Soviet-Afghan War is a prominent example, because every entry in this sub-genre of war films was supported by a government that was involved in that war, whether Western – Britain, the United States and Israel – or Eastern, Russia, the Soviet Union or China. These films came in two batches: the first as the war came to a close in the late 1980s, encompassing The Living Daylights (1987), Rambo III and The Beast of War (both 1988) and Afghan Breakdown (1990).
A second batch came in the mid 2000s, as it became clear that the then-current NATO war in Afghanistan was beginning to resemble the Soviets’ military misadventure in the country, encompassing The 9th Company (2005), Charlie Wilson’s War and The Kite Runner (both 2007).
The predominant image of Afghans and Afghanistan that emerges from watching these films collectively is that the country is a primitive society and its people are bearded fanatics who are only good for killing Russians. Naturally, in the films supported by the Soviet and Russian militaries – Afghan Breakdown and The 9th Company – this depiction is somewhat modified, but the general imagery and tone is much the same as in those supported by Western governments. Hordes of crazed brown people scream and charge and fight, and do little else.
Even in the films where a Western hero is shown fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans – Rambo III and The Living Daylights – the Afghans themselves are shown as rudimentary fighters in need of leadership from a noble, sophisticated Westerner. The underlying message – that Afghanistan and the Afghan people need us to drag them out of the mess they’ve made for themselves – is a gross inversion of reality, and serves to substantiate the West’s lengthy interventionism in the country.
Curiously, one Western-supported film stands out as not depicting the Soviet troops as barbarous, soulless invaders and the Afghans as crude fools in need of rescuing. Beast of War, which was aided by the Israeli government in the form of providing two captured Soviet tanks without which the film simply could not have been made, depicts both the Soviet troops and the rural Afghan population sympathetically. In the story, it is the Afghans who rescue a lone, surviving Russian soldier after his troop’s tank is taken out by a mujahideen brigade.
Beyond this sub-genre, throughout the 80s and 90s a string of films centred on Arab and Muslim terrorists as a massive security threat to the United States, many of which were supported by the DOD and/or other Western security agencies. Navy Seals (1990), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996) and Rules of Engagement (2000) all benefited from US military production assistance, often in exchange for extensive script rewrites. In each of these films Islamic terrorists attempt or carry out mass casualty attacks on the United States, and each time military characters (in some cases veterans rather than active duty service members) save the day.
Similarly Iron Eagle (1986) and Iron Eagle II (1988) were both made with the assistance of the Israeli military, and follow the same narrative and thematic pattern. The Siege (1998) was produced with the help of the FBI, with several characters clearly being based on real-life agents from the Bureau’s I-49 squad in New York, which dealt with Al Qaeda. It, too, depicted Muslims as terrorists who are hell-bent on attacking the United States at every opportunity. Even the lesser-known Wrong is Right (1982), which culminates with suitcase nukes being used in an attempted attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, was based on a novel written by a former CIA operations officer, filmed in Israel and had courtesy DOD support. Others including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Patriot Games (1992) and The American President (1995) also contain imagery and dialogue associating Muslims and Arabs with bombing and terroristic violence, though these are not central to the plots. All three had some degree of Pentagon support.
While there are other films such as Back to the Future (1985), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987) and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995) that contain similar memes without being supported by governments, there is a distinct pattern that emerged in the 1980s and expanded in the 1990s: Western security state agencies frequently provided support for productions advancing this narrative and these psychological trigger points. In this period, film depictions of Muslims carrying out terrorist attacks on the West outnumbered actual attacks by an order of magnitude, more often than not with the support of the US and allied governments. The result was a public primed for retaliation as soon as something happened that even quasi-resembled what they had seen on the big screen. Before any investigation into the 9/11 attacks had made meaningful headway, and at a point when even the identities of the hijackers was still a matter of confusion, an apparently retaliatory war in Afghanistan was launched, to rapturous applause from a nation hungry for vengeance, and certain that it had the right culprits.
The Post-9/11 Years: White House Outreach and Iron Man
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and as the drums of war began to beat an Afghan rhythm, White House spin doctor Karl Rove began a series of meetings with Hollywood producers, writers and studio executives that ran for much of the rest of 2001. Rove and the White House’s aim was to enlist Hollywood to deploy their cinematic resources in favour of the war effort. In what appears an attempt to recreate the Office of War Information and other Second World War government-Hollywood schemes, the White House formed an ‘Arts and Entertainment Task Force’. Rove wanted TV and film producers to push certain themes and ideas to help frame public perceptions of the new ‘long war’.
Publicly, they were doing no such thing. Head of the MPAA Jack Valenti took part in many of the Rove-Hollywood meetings and said at a news conference, “There was no mention of content. The White House and its representatives did not say anything about that because they knew that was not the subject that was up for either debate or suggestion. Content was off the table. Directors, writers, producers, studios will determine the kind of pictures they choose to make and the compelling stories they want to tell.” At the same time, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer characterised the meetings in vague, benign terms, iterating that, “The White House will share with the entertainment community the themes that are being communicated here and abroad: tolerance, courage, patriotism.”
However, a CNN news story let slip the truth – that there were specific messages that the White House wanted Hollywood studios to get across to their audiences, namely, “The antiterrorism campaign is not a war against Islam; There is an opportunity to issue a call to service for Americans; US troops and their families need support; The September 11 attacks were an attack against civilization and require a global response; Children need to be reassured of their safety and security in the wake of the attacks; The antiterrorism campaign is a war against evil.” Having spent much of the previous two decades vilifying Arabs and Muslims and helping build up a reservoir of psychic tension that provoked the vicious, kneejerk Islamophobic reactions to the 9/11 attacks, the US government were now seeking to redirect that energy onto abstract notions of good and evil, and simple-minded ‘support the troops’ emotivity.
Rove’s efforts met with an instantaneous response – writer and producer of The West Wing Aaron Sorkin, who had attended some of the Rove meetings, rushed out a special episode, titled Isaac and Ishmael, that aired in place of the season 3 premiere in the first week of October 2001. Just as US troops were readying for a full-scale assault on Afghanistan, audiences were treated to a moralising lecture disguised as a TV show, which defended the imminent war on the grounds that certain Islamic extremists only allow one chant at football stadiums.
Simultaneously, three CIA-supported TV shows were launched, all of which underscored the White House’s PR efforts and helped re-assert the CIA’s relevance in the new, post-9/11 era. The Agency premiered on September 27th that year, Alias on September 30th while 24 debuted on November 6th 2001. The pilot episode of The Agency was due to premiere at CIA headquarters on September 21st, but the storyline was so on-the-nose that it caused problems. The episode featured a massive Al Qaeda attack on the West, albeit in London rather than New York, and so the Langley screening was cancelled and the pilot was dropped down the running order by several weeks. While the overall tones and story focuses of these three series do vary, the underlying messaging that we face a world full of threats, and so we need the CIA to protect us, is consistent. Given that the CIA were the first agency who went into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 via Operation Jawbreaker, these series helped foreground the Agency on screen just as they were becoming a key player in the real life war.
However, Afghanistan did not feature heavily in entertainment industry output in the early years of the occupation. News media attention was diverted by a never-ending stream of supposedly imminent terror plots, before the case for the war in Iraq came to dominate coverage and commentary. Afghanistan became the forgotten war, and Hollywood largely ignored both the war and the country for several years. It wasn’t until 2007 that the drama Lions for Lambs was released, the first notable American film to deal with the war in Afghanistan. Starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, it revolves around three intertwining stories, including two soldiers who are shot down and killed in Afghanistan due to poorly-conceived tactics from the policy wonks in Washington. Lions for Lambs met with a negative critical response, with one reviewer commenting, “the film feels preachy and falls flat as entertainment” while another labelled it, “a muddled and pompous film about America’s war on terror.”
The movie fared somewhat better with audiences – it received a mediocre 47% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes compared to a miserable 27% from reviewers – and made back over $64 million on a $35 million budget, turning a moderate profit. This suggests that significant segments of the general public had already grown tired of the failing war in Afghanistan, where the mission had rapidly evolved from terrorist-hunting to overthrowing the Taliban to nation-building to counter-insurgency, and were ready for a drama that explored some of this sense of political incompetence, futility and loss. But it seems that critics were not as ready to embrace such a film, having spent so many years saying little to nothing about Afghanistan.
We can contrast the critical response to Lions for Lambs with the response to Iron Man the following year, which told a much more militaristic and pro-war story, and sold the fictions that the war was morally noble, and winnable. It took a blockbusting $585 million and was widely praised by reviewers and audiences. In the film, Tony Stark is a military industrialist who is kidnapped by Afghan militants and forced to make weapons for them. He secretly builds the first version of the Iron Man, a flying, weaponised suit of armour, which he uses to escape. Upon his return to America, he briefly renounces weapons manufacturing, before perfecting his Iron Man weapon and using it to take vengeance against his former captors. Despite the frequent presence of military hardware and the centrality of violence to the unfolding plot, a string of reviewers fell for this conceit. Iron Man was variously described as being a “pacifist statement” and “militantly anti-war profiteer,” with reviewers describing Iron Man as a “pacifist superhero” and as someone who “shuns arms manufacturing … [to] save Mankind.” None of these reviewers noted the large-scale support the DOD and US Air Force provided to Iron Man, nor the potent militaristic undertones throughout the story.
While Afghanistan is never named as the location of Tony’s kidnapping, and many of the scenes were actually shot in Lone Pine, California, it is clear that this element of the film is set in the country. This becomes obvious when listening to the unofficial live commentary recorded by Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. at a screening of the film. What is also apparent is how Favreau tried to make the film more of a critique of the ongoing Afghan war, but pushback from the DOD and the suits at Marvel rendered this impossible. For example, in one scene during Tony’s captivity Raza – the head of the insurgent cell – shows off his large collection of modern weaponry. Tony asks where the weapons came from, and Favreau revealed that the original dialogue had Raza saying, “Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush” before another insurgent adds, “They are all gifts,” which Favreau said was a reference to how “weapons have been pouring into this part of the world for decades, under the administrations of both parties.” Favreau explained that these lines were changed in the final cut because they were “very sensitive” and “didn’t sit well in the movie,” presumably because it laid blame for Afghan militancy and terrorism at the foot of the American military-industrial complex at the very time the US was occupying the country.
Likewise, a comparison between a draft script for Iron Man and the finished film shows other marked differences, including the removal of a moment where the Air Force shoot down Iron Man during a mid-air duel. In the scene after Tony’s return from Afghanistan (rescued, naturally, by the US Air Force) where he gives a press conference announcing that Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons business, another key change was made during filming. The script’s press conference scene has Tony expressing doubt not just about his own company’s role in the war in Afghanistan, but the entire mission, saying, “I thought we were doing good here… I can’t say that anymore. The system is broken, there’s no accountability whatsoever.” During on-set improvisation, this line became, “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them.” As a result, this scene, which could have cast doubt on the entire war, became a one-sided reminder of the need to protect Americans and American interests. In fact, the only scene in the entire film which depicts the pain of ordinary Afghan people shows them suffering at the hands of the militant cell that had kidnapped Stark, not at the hands of the US military.
This perhaps explains how we might account for the striking contrast between the responses to Lions for Lambs and Iron Man. Lions for Lambs is more explicitly critical about the war, whereas Iron Man contains “a sprinkle of anti-war and redemption themes” in the midst of a reassuring, tub-thumping hero narrative. Lions for Lambs, and elements of Iron Man that didn’t make it into the final cut, explore the idea that the war in Afghanistan was intrinsically misguided, but Iron Man proffers the subtext that it was still fundamentally a good, clean war, despite some problems that are resolved by the end of the two-hour run. This suggests that movie critics, and some audiences, prefer their cinematic critiques of lengthy, pointless conflicts to have all the most pointed dialogue softballed or mothballed, and be wrapped up with dozens of explosions and a suitable bodycount of brown-skinned supernumeraries.
The 2010s: The DOD Scrambles Scripts to Spin the Surges
As the Obama administration put the Afghan war back on the agenda, and adopted troop surges and expanded drone strikes as their primary means of trying to bring the war to an end, the entertainment industry reacted. Iron Man had broken the silence in a way Lions for Lambs could not, and, along with the 2011 Abottabad raid by Navy SEALs, this led to a new generation of war movies and spy shows depicting the unfolding Afghan war. Many of these – including Homeland (2011-2020), Lone Survivor (2013), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) and 12 Strong (2018), let alone Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – received production assistance from the CIA and/or DOD. In many cases this included rewrites of the scripts to keep them in accordance with official policy positions and these agencies’ perception management objectives. The majority of these productions depicted US forces as being outnumbered and fighting against the odds, inverting the real dynamics and shifting the blame for the protracted and complex nature of the war.
Lone Survivor recounted Operation Red Wings, where a team of four Navy SEALs were dropped into the Pech District tasked with carrying out surveillance on Ahmad Shah, a local Taliban leader, and his men. The four were discovered by a small group of goatherders, who the SEALs then captured. According to the account of Marcus Luttrell, the only surviving SEAL from the operation, the four debated whether to murder the goatherders or let them go, and then took a vote. Luttrell’s version has them explicitly discussing how murdering unarmed civilians is a war crime, the likelihood of being excoriated by the ‘liberal media’ if the truth gets out, and the need for a pact of silence. The US Navy and DOD did not like this version of events, saying in their script notes on this scene, “While maximizing historical authenticity is our mandate, we share responsibility for the reputations of the four SEALS and to their families’ memories of them.” In subsequent discussions over the script the ‘goatherder encounter’ scene was changed so that there is no vote, and the Commanding Officer never suggests killing them and keeping a pact of silence, instead deciding to release the goatherders despite the risk of them informing Shah’s men of the SEALs presence.
This leads to a lengthy battle with mujahideen fighters in which three of the four SEALs, as well as an entire helicopter of US Army special operators sent in to rescue the SEALs, were killed, leaving Luttrell as the lone survivor. The implication is that if only the SEALs had committed the war crime then they all would have made it out alive. While Operation Red Wings took place in 2005, Lone Survivor helped sell the ideas that the US forces were somehow outmatched, necessitating further troop surges, and that murdering Afghan civilians is preferable to putting US troops at risk. The film came out the year after both the Kandahar massacre, where US Army Sgt Robert Bales killed 16 Afghan civilians, and the murders ordered by 1st Lt Clint Lorance a few months later, putting a positive spin on war crimes and excusing the suffering they caused. As one US Army report put it in an entry on Lone Survivor, “Support of entertainment feature films like this reach far greater audiences than any single news media story about the actual events. Audiences going to see the film will voluntarily sit through a two-hour infomercial.”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was based on The Afghan Shuffle, journalist Kim Barker’s memoir about her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much like Lone Survivor, it was supported by the DOD in exchange for key rewrites to the script. In May 2006 a US military truck suffered a brake failure while driving at high speed through Kabul, leading it to plough through an intersection hitting several vehicles, killing multiple people. This triggered riots in which dozens more died, and inflamed hostility towards the US-led occupation.
This incident functions as a perfect metaphor for NATO’s war in Afghanistan, barrelling into the country recklessly and causing unforeseen consequences and a lot of death and injury. As such, it was a problem for the DOD when vetting Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, with an internal database describing how, “The script portrayed a US Army transport brake failure, resulting in it hitting a group of Afghani shoppers in Kabul, killing and injuring them. This was changed to an NGO vehicle.” This change helped generalise the blame for the failure of the war, making it seem like an extremely difficult situation for everyone, rather than one largely created by Western foreign policy.
Meanwhile, a former Marine Corps combat cameraman named Miles Lagoze was putting together a documentary about his experiences while deployed to Afghanistan in 2011-12. Using footage he had shot, along with video recorded by some of his fellow Marines, Lagoze produced Combat Obscura (2018), a montage of vignettes that presents an unvarnished view of the war in Afghanistan during the surges. Marines are shown smoking marijuana, playing football with local kids, being wounded in firefights, killing a shopkeeper in what may have been murder, and trying to prosecute the war in highly confusing circumstances. In a stand-out sequence, one Marine screams at young Afghan men “where’s the fucking Taliban?” before assaulting an innocent donkey, underlining the insanity experienced by troops on the ground, and how this resulted in them inflicting violence on blameless people and creatures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the DOD and Marine Corps had many objections to Combat Obscura. When Lagoze sent them rough cuts of the film, to ensure that nothing in the footage was classified or compromised operational security, they attempted to block its release. Arguing that Lagoze had captured some of the footage while on duty and using Marine Corps equipment, they tried to keep it under wraps, demanding Lagoze not distribute it commercially. Officials branded Lagoze “a self-interested threat to the safety of other Marines,” accusing him of only signing up so he could produce the film and make “a handsome profit.” Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigations were launched into the “suspected general orders violations and potential criminal behavior” depicted, and “to determine the identity and cause of death involving the suspected Afghan civilian fatality captured in the film.” To date, no one has faced charges as a result of these investigations.
Lagoze stood his ground and, with help from the Knight Foundation’s lawyers, released his film without facing legal action from the military. Marine Corps Communications kept a close eye on reviews, media coverage and social media reactions, celebrating the fact that Combat Obscura only attained a minor theatrical release, with one email noting smugly, “Despite Miles Lagoze’s attempt at a wider marketing campaign—distribution is limited thus far to ten (10) cities.” In spite of its limited release, and the Marine Corps’ best efforts, Combat Obscura was praised by critics, maintaining a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes due to its vivid, no holds barred portrait of the situation in Afghanistan.
The 2020s: The Withdrawal, and Rescuing the Afghan War
As the decade wore on, and the Obama administration was replaced by the Trump presidency, the possibility of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan began being considered. Just as Hollywood had primed the American and global public for the immediate post-9/11 world, it did the same for the eventual Afghan withdrawal.
Homeland had got the ball rolling before Trump even took office. The fourth season (2014) is set in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and features the CIA taking on Haissam Haqqani, a thinly-fictionalised version of Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan insurgent commander who made his name during the Soviet-Afghan War before turning against the West. The series explores the relationship between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the various guerilla and militant gangs across the region, including the Haqqani network.
This culminates in Haqqani’s gang attacking the US embassy in Islamabad, leading the US to shut down the embassy and withdraw all CIA and diplomatic staff. Homeland received full CIA cooperation, with star Claire Danes and other cast members and producers making visits to the Agency’s Langley headquarters.
The main series consultant, John MacGaffin, was a 30-year CIA veteran and a key player in the CIA’s support to the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war. As MacGaffin and another CIA veteran Chuck Cogan observed in an op-ed, “the Season 4 finale of Homeland ironically coincides with the United States draw-down of combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the month.” With MacGaffin’s help, season four laid the groundwork for a US withdrawal from the region, and helped blame the whole mess on the Pakistani government’s cosy relationship with local Islamic militants.
The eighth and final season of Homeland (2020) revisited the topic of Afghanistan, this time with DOD support. As Pentagon documents from early 2019 record, “Army Entertainment office is currently in talks with the producers of “Homeland,” who have asked for moderate Army support. Initial request was declined due to a storyline that was not an accurate portrayal of soldiers. Showrunner responded with some significant edits to the problematic areas.” Broadcast in the spring of 2020, the series depicts the US government attempting a peace negotiation with the Taliban, a chaotic war with casualties on all sides, and the continued descent of American-Pakistani relations.
It introduced a new scapegoat for the Afghan situation – Russia, who are shown to be working with the Taliban to destabilise the country and attack American troops. As such, the series prefigured not only the US withdrawal and surrendering of the country to Taliban control in the summer of 2021, but also a major story that came out a few months after the eighth season had broadcast.
In June 2020, anonymous US intelligence officials briefed journalists that “a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there.” This story was widely reported, leading to a majority of Americans believing it and wanting sanctions against Russia in response, according a Reuters/Ipsos poll. However, it turned out to be based on unreliable information, and several months later “the Biden administration announced that U.S. intelligence only had “low to moderate” confidence in the story after all.”
Not long after this walkback of the Russia story, US forces suddenly and rapidly withdrew from Afghanistan, and the provisional government fell immediately in the face of the Taliban. Since then, Hollywood has begun rebranding the horrific failure of the war in Afghanistan via rescue stories, literally trying to rescue history. The first of these occurred within weeks of the withdrawal, when the second season of the sitcom United States of Al began. The show’s premise is that an interpreter from Afghanistan is rescued and relocates to Columbus, Ohio where he moves in with the family of Riley, a Marine Corps veteran he worked with in Afghanistan.
Producers of the series consulted with the Marine Corps’ entertainment liaison office, with summary reports recording how they visited the office in June 2020 during pre-production. United States of Al has been accused of being racist military propaganda, leading executive producer Mahyad Tousi to tweet out a response denying this, and saying it is “mined from deep research and interviews with dozens of folks who have walked in these shoes.” The second season began in early October 2021 with a special focusing on efforts by Al’s relatives to flee the country.
Set over several days in August, it includes several panicked phone calls between Al and his family in Afghanistan. As the Taliban’s takeover accelerates across the country, his relatives become ever more desperate to escape. Much of the dialogue plays on the audience’s heartstrings, with one relative exclaiming, “We were making progress here, now it’s all disappearing.” The implication that US forces shouldn’t have left Afghanistan, rather than should never have been there in the first place, rings loud. Eventually, Al’s family make it out alive, emphasising the new framing of the war – that the important thing now is to get as many Afghans out of Afghanistan as possible, rather than question how their situation became untenable.
The second season of United States of Al had begun filming in August, but the opening episode was hastily re-written to address the Kabul airport chaos, and the situation in Afghanistan. Military veteran turned Hollywood consultant Chase Millsap, who worked on the show, wrote an op-ed explaining, “Narratives have power. They help define who we are as a nation. Being a military consultant and writer on United States of Al hasn’t been just about showing an actor how to wear a uniform or hold a weapon. It’s reminding our writers that our characters represent real people, real stories and the real consequences of war.”
The themes explored in this episode of United States of Al are echoing across what the US Air Force call “the global entertainment environment.” At the time of writing, multiple films are in development or production that focus on rescue narratives set in Afghanistan, helping reframe emotional reactions to a deteriorating situation on the ground. One announced project will star Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum and “will take recently reported true stories based around the Afghanistan tragedy and focus on three former special forces team members who bravely risk their own lives to head back into the mounting madness alongside their Afghan counterparts on a mission to rescue multiple families and allies left behind amid the confusion and panic during the swift fall of Afghanistan.”
Similarly, The Interpreter, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is “about a US soldier who returns to Afghanistan after his tour of duty to rescue the Afghan interpreter who had saved his own life previously.” Meanwhile, India is also getting in on the act with Garud – named after the commando unit of the Indian Air Force – which is described as, “a fictionalized depiction of the rescue mission in Afghanistan, based on the story of a police officer and his team of special forces.” The near-identical psychological shape of these films betrays a careful reframing of the war in Afghanistan. Instead of being the invader and occupier, the US military is being recast as the heroic rescuers of desperate Afghans, while avoiding the question of why their situation has become so desperate.
Conclusion: Did Hollywood Help Prolong the War in Afghanistan?
The evolution in the entertainment industry’s depictions of Afghans, Afghanistan, the war in the country and associated people, places and policies have had a distinct propaganda effect. By adapting to the changing geopolitical circumstances before, during and since the war these productions have helped establish emotional trigger points, shape reactions to events, and propagate perception management objectives of several US administrations.
In the beginning these films and TV shows – often with Western government support – presented audiences with bigoted cartoons containing an army of dark-skinned, violent maniacs and depicting their homes as failed states, crushed by the Soviet empire. This evolved into fairytales about fanatical terrorists who emerge out of nowhere to strike at the heart of civilisation. Following the 9/11 attacks the predominant narrative shifted once more to one of an existential threat that must be met with extreme prejudice, a true battle between good and evil. As the situation in Afghanistan ground to a bloody halt, Hollywood looked the other way until it could find suitable heroes to come to our aid, in the form of Iron Man, and then Navy SEALs and other small bands of military forces. As withdrawal became an option, Hollywood helped sew the seeds and skew perceptions of responsibility.
The emerging trend, now the land war has ended (though the air war continues) is to deploy rescue narratives to reformat public opinion once more. In the final analysis, the industry offers the audience two options: racist stereotypes, or weaponised sympathy for Afghans being deployed against the Taliban. Afghans are depicted either as backward simpletons or figures of compassion, but only as long as that compassion fits in with US geopolitical priorities.
A consistent trend has been the shifting of blame away from US and other NATO forces and their tactical and political leadership. Pakistani intelligence, NGOs, the Taliban, the Afghan people themselves and eventually even Russian intelligence have been posited as being responsible for why the war and reconstruction failed so dramatically. However, the commercial success of Lions for Lambs, and the praise for the anti-war or sceptical flourishes in Iron Man demonstrate that there has been an audience thirsty for more critical views of the Afghan war. This appears to have faded over time, as the critical and popular response to War Machine (2017), a satire of the US approach to counterinsurgency, was largely negative.
Thus, it appears that the consistent efforts of the DOD and other entertainment liaison offices to dilute and marginalise these perspectives and endlessly remediate the Afghan war have been successful. The final season of Homeland earned an 85% critic score and 88% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 47% reviewer score and an awful 34% audience score for War Machine.
This is largely the same dynamic that played out a century ago, only now we’re using more sophisticated technology. In autumn 1918, silent film star Blanche Sweet was making The Unpardonable Sin, an anti-German propaganda film. In a documentary, she recounted how they “received a letter from Washington” which said “cut down on the German atrocities.” Apparently, the US government were concerned that the exaggerated or entirely fictionalised atrocities by German troops depicted in films like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin and The Heart of Humanity (both 1918) were making “a just peace even harder to achieve.” The government were now asking Hollywood to back-pedal on the very material they’d previously asked them to include as part of the war propaganda effort, and Sweet recalls that when they received the letter, “We knew then that the war was over.”
The implication of this is that – just as in World War One – Hollywood helped prolong the war in Afghanistan, often with the US government’s support. America’s longest war was, in part, provoked, aided, maintained, branded and rebranded by the movie machine.