A 2016 study found that 20 US veterans kill themselves every day. Department of Defence (DOD )statistics show that the suicide rate among veterans is around twice the rate in the non-military population. An analysis in 2017 said that a suicide attempt in a military unit makes other attempts more likely, and that 20% of all the suicides in the US are by military veterans.
These brutal statistics testify to the futility of our post-9/11 wars, as well as the horrors inflicted on those employed to fight these wars on the ground.
What has never previously been reported is the extent to which the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison offices manipulate and censor films, TV shows and documentaries to try to downplay or erase the widespread problem of military PTSD and suicide.
Among the stories we discovered while writing our book National Security Cinema is that there was a raging argument on the set of Iron Man between writer/director Jon Favreau and DOD Hollywood liaison Phil Strub. Strub refused to let Favreau include a line where a military character says that he knows people who would ‘kill themselves for the opportunities he has’. Though the line was changed, this scene did not appear in the finished film.
Using documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, along with files from a newly-opened archive in Georgetown, I investigated the Pentagon’s approach to projects that feature or reference military PTSD and suicide. I found that the DOD has repeatedly censored and refused to support films, TV shows and documentaries that feature military suicide, and tends to only support those projects that make it look like the DOD is solving the problem.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1957 Warner Bros. approached the Pentagon to request support for their film Sayonara, about two Air Force pilots stationed in Kobe who fall in love with Japanese women. They face opposition and racist hostility from within the military establishment, who begin ordering all enlisted men who are married to Japanese women home to America, without their brides. Eventually, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons in an Oscar-winning role) and Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) commit double suicide rather than face separation.
The politically controversial nature of the script did cause some concern, with the DOD’s Hollywood database recording how the Air Force was: ‘initially reluctant to provide assistance because of inter-racial dating and suicide of one of its enlisted men.’ However, they ‘ultimately provided planes and equipment’ to help make the film.
Given that the military’s policy at the time forbade fraternising with occupied people as well as inter-racial marriage, the film was not deemed inaccurate and so support was granted. It probably helped that James Michener, the writer of the novel on which the film was based, was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and a WW2 Navy veteran.
The Outsider (1961)
Ira Hayes was one of the six Marines pictured in the famous photo Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima near the end of WW2. He was the only Native American among the six, and played himself in the 1949 movie Sands of Iwo Jima, but he was never comfortable with his fame and the attention it brought. In the years following the war he descended into alcoholism and depression, and in January 1955 he died of alcohol poisoning and exposure to cold, after collapsing outside following a heavy drinking session.
While not a suicide, there is little doubt that Hayes’ death was partly a consequence of his experiences during the war. He once told a reporter:
I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.
His death was widely reported and some pointed the finger at the Marine Corps for failing to help Hayes with his mental health and alcohol problems. This story was portrayed in The Outsider, where Hayes was played by Tony Curtis, with the Pentagon’s database commenting that the film: ‘showed how the Marines, the military and the government used Hayes to raise bonds for war effort but did not help him when he became alcoholic.’
The document goes on to note how the decorated Marine Corps Lt Gen Victor Krulak ‘believes the Marines were guilty of his death because of this [failure to help Hayes].’
Despite this the Marine Corps granted full cooperation to The Outsider, allowing them to film at a recruit depot in San Diego and at Camp Pendleton. However, in exchange the ‘filmmakers toned down death of Hayes’, diminishing the emotional impact of the story on the audience. This was an early warning sign of a shift in policy within the Pentagon’s film office, which would come to fruition in the following decades.
Coming Home (1978)
The Vietnam War drama Coming Home also sought DOD production assistance but unlike The Outsider and Sayonara it did not qualify for support. This may be because military suicides spiked during and after the Vietnam War, leading to a change in thinking in the Pentagon’s film office. A 1987 study by the CDC found that in the five years following discharge there were 1.7 suicides among Vietnam veterans for every suicide in the non-veteran population. The trend continues — a 2012 article reported how ‘suicide rates among Vietnam veterans are the highest of any particular group’.
Coming Home tells the story of Sally — Jane Fonda — whose husband is fighting in Vietnam. In his absence she falls in love with a severely wounded Vietnam veteran, Luke — played by a young Jon Voight. Another wounded veteran, Billy — John Carradine — is traumatised by his experiences in the war and kills himself by injecting air into his veins. The Pentagon’s database includes an entry on Coming Home recording how it was denied assistance because the script:
Contained reference to Leathernecks in Vietnam cutting ears off dead Vietcong, portraying an officer suffering a breakdown from his war experiences and committing suicide, and a paralysed Vietnam vet attacking the Marines.
The final script was somewhat tempered, and the document comments: ‘In fact, if script shot has been submitted, Marines might have assisted.’
The database also records how the DOD film office file on Coming Home is in an archive at Georgetown library. This archive was recently opened to the public, so academic Matt Alford visited the library to examine the files and make copies of relevant documents.
However, unlike the folders on other products, the file for Coming Home only includes a copy of the draft script submitted to the DOD for review, and no internal memos or correspondence with the film-makers. The details in the Pentagon’s database must have come from documents in that file, so it appears some of the material was removed from the archive before it was made available to the public. If so, it would not be the first time that government records had mysteriously disappeared from that library.
A Few Good Men (1992)
In more recent times the Pentagon’s policy against military suicide being portrayed in entertainment appears to have solidified. The producers for the courtroom drama A Few Good Men — where two Marines face a court martial for accidentally killing one of their colleagues after being ordered to give him a ‘code red’— asked the Pentagon for support. They wanted to film at the Washington Navy Yard and in Guantanamo Bay; access to the Marine Corps Band and use of the Silent Drill Team; vehicles to dress the set in Southern California which would double for Guantanamo Bay; and enlisted men as background extras.
The file on A Few Good Men in the Georgetown archive includes a memo from Pentagon Public Affairs official Dan Kalinger to their Hollywood liaison Phil Strub, commenting on an early draft of the screenplay. It says:
‘I would not be inclined to support this without major, major revisions.’
Later memos outline the DOD’s specific objections: they perceived most of the Marines in the film as negative portraits; they objected to Navy characters saying ‘hours’ when referring to times (e.g. ‘ten hundred hours’) as ‘this is an Army way of telling time, and most onerous’; they disagreed with Tom Cruise’s character complaining about having to wear Navy whites; and they couldn’t see who were the ‘Few Good Men’ in the film. The Pentagon also weren’t fans of Demi Moore who, one memo notes, ‘recently gained notoriety when she was shown nude on a magazine cover while very pregnant.’
The producers enlisted John Horton, a long-time fixer in Hollywood who spent decades helping film-makers get approval for support from the government. The writers Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner changed Tom Cruise’s character (the hero of the story) from a Navy lawyer to a Marine and made the judge a Marine, along with making other changes to try to placate the Pentagon.
It didn’t work. As one DOD memo states after a meeting with Horton to negotiate on script changes:
‘He is looking at changes in degree; I believe we need changes in nature in order to support this endeavor.’
One major sticking point was the character of Lt Col Markinson — the officer immediately below Col Jessep, who ordered the ‘code red’. Markinson disappears in the middle of the investigation, only to resurface and blow the whistle on what happened. However, he then refuses to testify and ends up committing suicide after writing a letter to the victim’s parents apologising for his failure to prevent their son’s death. The Pentagon tried to get the producers to rewrite this letter to have a ‘strong and positive’ message, apparently overlooking the fact that it was a suicide note, which are rarely (if ever) positive.
They also sought to rewrite the character’s story altogether, eliminating the suicide from the script. Another DOD memo records how:
‘On our part, we suggested revising and expanding the role of Col Jessep’s XO, who goes UA and ultimately commits suicide in the current script draft. Reiner balked, saying that the suicide is a critical dramatic turning point in the film.’
Ultimately, they could not come to an agreement and aside from some brief filming at military locations for establishing shots, A Few Good Men was made without Pentagon support.
Home of the Brave (2006)
Another film that suffered at the hands of the Pentagon was Home of the Brave, which tells the story of a group of Army Reserve soldiers — including Jessica Biel, Samuel L Jackson and 50 Cent — serving in and returning home from Iraq. Each of them faces physical, financial or emotional struggles as they adjust back to civilian life.
Reports from the Army’s entertainment liaison office show that they had numerous meetings and negotiations with the producers, and the script was re-written multiple times to try to meet the military’s demands. One entry comments:
[Home of the Brave is] about a disparate group of Army Reserve Soldiers returning from Iraq, all of whom are deeply scarred — either emotionally and/or physically — and their miserable time readjusting to life. While there is a vein of suicide, attempted suicide, domestic violence, chemical and alcohol abuse, and depression — as well as a healthy dose of political commentary by characters who are not Soldiers — running throughout the script, the writer and producer think this is a good movie for the Army.
Several conversations and meetings later, another entry says:
Spoke at length with the associate producer about our concerns that the script provides no balance in its portrayal of how service in Iraq affects four Army reserve component Soldiers. Said we respected the filmmakers desire to portray PTSD but that we found the film, especially the ending to portray the Soldier experience very negatively.
Despite this they eventually produced a script that was acceptable to the Army. After it was approved, the writers added a scene back in, presumably in the hope that the military’s Hollywood office wouldn’t notice.
Unfortunately, the Army did notice and one of the later entries sternly observes:
After we had communicated to the production company that the Army would recommend support approval, the company sent a revised script that contained an objectionable scene that had not been present in the script that we approved. It was a scene that we had earlier said was unacceptable. Told the producer that we could not support the project and found it disquieting that they had changed the script.
The scene in question is likely the one where Samuel L Jackson’s character stands in his office, loaded gun in his hand, obviously contemplating suicide. As a result of the shenanigans with the script, the relationship between the filmmakers and the Army soured and the military refused to support Home of the Brave.
This didn’t stop the producers approaching the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and asking them directly for permission to film there, though this quickly got back to the entertainment liaison office.
They even snuck someone into the Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos on a Soldier Appreciation Day to hand out flyers, inviting people to a private screening of the film so the company could gauge the military’s reaction.
While the Army liaison office wasn’t happy with this behaviour and provided no promotional support to the movie, they did manage to dilute a script that in its earlier incarnations was more critical of the Iraq War than the finished film.
Military PTSD and suicide documentaries (2010s)
More recent reports from the military liaison offices in Los Angeles record several instances of documentaries being edited or censored if they didn’t treat the related topics of the futility of war, PTSD and suicide in the ‘appropriate’ manner. The DOD supported the 2012 PBS documentary Afghanistan: The Surge but when the Marine Corps viewed the rough cut they felt that:
Overall intent behind the movie seemed to be a condemnation of policy and of the USMC’s mission in Afghanistan. The overall tone was failure and hopelessness despite the efforts of the Marines and Navy corpsmen. LA PA is re-engaging Production Company to discuss rough cut corrections.
The documentary was re-edited before being shown.
The following year the National Geographic documentary series Hispanic Veterans of War suffered a similar fate. It qualified for Navy assistance but the rough cut displeased the entertainment liaison officers. Their report comments:
Show implies that those who join the military and go to Iraq or Afghanistan come back either physically or mentally broken. Notified the producer that the DOD was disappointed with the final product. We will send a letter instructing the production company to exclude any DOD involvement.
It appears that as a result of this the documentary series was never broadcast.
Other documentaries faced no such problems, because they took a different approach to the subject. The 2011 film Halfway Home was described in Army liaison office reports as follows:
This documentary tells the stories of several warriors who have suffered from, or are suffering from, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). It is the filmmakers intention to inform the audience about these unseen and misunderstood wounds of war, and to highlight programs, new and old, that assist warriors in their efforts to get “all the way home”.
The producers wanted to interview Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton about her Real Warriors campaign, a ‘peer support system’ designed to reduce suicides in current and former military personnel. The angle taken by the film saw their requests approved, and there were no problems with the rough cut.
Similarly the 2014 documentary Mind Zone: Therapists Behind the Front Lines also qualified for support because it aimed to, ‘tell the story of mental health and soldiering from the perspectives of caregivers’ which in the Army’s view ‘Supports Building Resiliency’.
Likewise a student documentary by an Army veteran was supported because:
Participation in this project demonstrates the commitment our leadership has made to eliminate suicide within our ranks. By helping the filmmaker we are showing how people are our Army.
The policy of trying to push all discussion of military PTSD and suicide away from war as a cause, and towards military support programs and prevention schemes, was explicitly stated in response to a request to assist with a documentary by One Mind for Research. Army documents say:
We should approach this documentary as an opportunity to steer the discussion away from merely recounting the tragic deaths of our soldiers and toward the efforts the Army is making to prevent suicide in our ranks.
Popular TV shows (2010s)
Three highly popular recent television shows have also been affected by this policy. In 2011, Fox TV had a good relationship with the Army’s entertainment liaison office, resulting in an episode of the forensic anthropology drama Bones that was followed by a Public Service Announcement (PSA) on suicide. As Army reports show:
Their office called us looking for help developing a military suicide awareness PSA to run immediately after the 12 Nov. episode of Bones. This episode will have a veteran theme in honor of Veterans Day and they wanted to make sure they were steering viewers to the right place.
The episode centres around the decade-old remains of a veteran who had fought in Operation Desert Storm and, by bizarre coincidence, was protesting outside the Pentagon on 9/11. He was injured in the plane crash but heroically rescued three people trapped in the rubble, before succumbing to his injuries several days later. The Bones team figure this out through the course of the episode and then the veteran is given a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Army initially saw this episode and the PSA that followed as a great opportunity for them, saying:
‘Our suicide prevention messages will receive millions of viewers and similar paid advertising cost for that PSA at that time slot would have cost the Army thousands of dollars.’
The studio wanted to make the PSA Army only, but the liaison office ‘encouraged them reach the broadest audience of service members in trouble by working with the VA. Though we essentially gave away an Army opportunity, we believe the risk of having a member from another service not call for help on an Army hotline outweighed the branding opportunity for our service.’
The rebooted Hawaii Five-0 had military support from a very early stage. The 7th episode — titled Ho’apono — features a military veteran with PTSD who is wrongly accused of his wife’s murder. After being pursued by the authorities he takes a bunch of tourists hostage aboard the USS Missouri, which is anchored in Pearl Harbor. McGarrett — himself a former Navy SEAL — goes in to try to talk him down while his team investigate what really happened to his wife.
Army emails and script notes for this episode show that they requested ‘big changes’ to the outline, including making the veteran with PTSD ‘more sympathetic’ and improving the relationship between him and McGarrett. They also changed the vehicles that pursue the veteran at the start of the episode from military to civilian law enforcement.
It emerges that the veteran’s wife was killed by her dastardly Russian ex-husband and at the end of the episode the veteran gets the medical health assistance he needs. Just as with the documentaries, the policy appears to be that the military will only support products involving PTSD/suicide if they are shown to be doing the right thing and supporting their current and former troops.
Similarly to Hawaii Five-0, the long-running series NCIS has an ongoing relationship with the Navy where the liaison office reviews every script, even on episodes where there is no military support. One episode featured a storyline where an active duty Chief commits suicide after he loses his lottery windfall and his wife discovers he is having an affair.
Even though the character kills himself for reasons having nothing to do with his military experience, the Navy saw fit to change this element of the script. Documents report:
‘Character who commits suicide changed from active duty Chief to civilian working at a low level job on the Navy base after NAVINFO West/OSD discussion with show runner/writers.’
While the episode was eventually rewritten to make the lottery-winning philanderer the victim of a murder, this shows the extent to which the Pentagon will seek to censor any storyline featuring military suicide.
The Impact of this Censorship
Obviously, suicide is a tragic and depressing topic. This is why many people don’t want to talk about it, which in turn is why so many people who are prone to suicide (for whatever reasons) are sidelined and ignored. This is a wider problem affecting most societies but one thing that many societies share is a common pop culture, driven by Hollywood films and American TV.
It would be natural, given the sheer number of military veterans and current personnel who suffer from mental illness and suicidal thoughts, if our pop culture reflected this. Instead, there are remarkably few films and TV shows that incorporate this topic, and most of them are war stories that seek Pentagon support to augment their production values. This places this handful of products within the Pentagon’s matrix of censorship, resulting in a whitewash of the themes of the futility of war, the mental illness that results from war, and military suicide.
If the DOD were motivated to get to the bottom of why so many who serve in the armed forces end up killing themselves then they would welcome documentaries, films and TV shows that explore those reasons. Instead, they censor or refuse to assist productions that deviate from the line that the Pentagon cares for and supports its troops.
In hiding their shame the DOD reveals their lack of empathy, even for those who fight and die for them. As a consequence, those who already feel isolated and abandoned cannot find sympathy or emotional support even in mass entertainment. Thus, the Pentagon’s policy of censoring military suicide from film and TV increases the likelihood of military suicide.
If you are a current or former member of the military who is struggling with your mental health then the following organisations offer help, support and advice:
US — Military/Veterans Crisis Line 1–800–273–8255
UK — Combat Stress 0800 138 1619