One issue that comes up repeatedly in the script changes enforced by the Pentagon is war crimes, and other violations of the Geneva Conventions. As is so often the case I’m left thinking ‘if only the DOD applied the same rules to real-life wars as they do to the depiction of wars in Hollywood movies’.
Many military veterans will tell you that combat is a chaotic, incredibly unpredictable experience and the notion of having strict rules when there are bombs and bullets flying around is absurd. Nonetheless, many respect the principles of not killing civilians, of prisoners of war being accorded their legal rights, and that torture is simply wrong.
A problem that comes up in multiple scripts is that killing a wounded or incapacitated enemy fighter is murder. In 1990’s Navy SEALs one of the problems the DOD had with the script was that during the initial raid on the terrorist gang’s hangout:
Pg 11. The SEALs would not fire ‘make-sure’ rounds into each of the bodies… that is murder. They would not kill or hurt anyone unless deadly force were authorized.
This bit of action was removed from the script, and during the raid the SEALs do shoot and kill most of the terrorists, but they do not fire into the bodies of wounded men.
A similar problem cropped up when the DOD reviewed the rough cut of 1987’s Heartbreak Ridge – a film that had gained full military support. The rough cut contained several scenes and bits of dialogue that the DOD found objectionable, so the Pentagon were not credited at the end of the movie. A file from the Don Baruch archive includes a letter to the film’s producer Fritz Manes, which highlights one particularly problematic bit of action:
Additionally, the film inlcudes a scene in which Gunnery Sergeant Highway shoots an enemy soldier twice in the back — after the enemy has been wounded and effectively incapacitated as an aggressor. Highway would be subject to court martial for such an act based on the provisions of the Geneva Convention.
Likewise the file contains Public Affairs Guidance and responses to questions they anticipated the news media asking about why they’d withdrawn from the production:
Q-3: What does the Marine Corps find objectionable about this movie?
A-3: Although “Heartbreak Ridge” is generally a patriotic depiction of the American military, there are scenes that may, if taken literally, convey a false impression of actual historic events. For example, the film gives the overall impression that the Marine Corps was the only service participating in the ground action in Grenada, overlooking the role of the U.S. Army in the rescue of American students from the island. Additionally, many of the characters depicted are stereotypes that do not represent the typical Marines of today. We especially object to a scene in which Eastwood’s character shoots a wounded Cuban soldier in the back. In reality, a member of the armed forces would be subject to trial by court martial, based on the provisions of the Geneva Convention (see attached Art. 12, Geneva Convention. 1949).
Curiously, as time has gone on it appears these rules have been relaxed, as the DOD posed no objections to the massacre of entire crowd in Rules of Engagement – a crowd that included both armed and unarmed civilians. While the protagonist (played by Samuel L Jackson) is court martialled for ordering the massacre, he is not convicted of murder. Likewise, in most modern DOD-supported movies the authorisation for the use of deadly force is never made clear prior the troops shooting or bombing all hell out of the target.
Rather worryingly, this suggests that if anything the DOD have become less concerned about violating the Geneva Conventions over time – as demonstrated by the torture program, drone strikes and full-scale wars that have killed millions of people, predominantly civilians. So my question is this: have the entertainment liaison offices become less concerned about the laws of war so that state-sponsored cinema can help normalise the consistent war crimes committed by the world’s most powerful military?