Phil Strub has died, and since I’ve somehow found myself breaking this story I thought I’d let you know how that came about and reflect on the life and work of one of the most powerful military propagandists of all time.
A few days ago I was contacted by Phil’s brother, Terence, offering the news of his passing after a period of illness. Terence was looking for someone to do a positive obituary, and evidently because this site ranks so highly on search engines for the term ‘Phil Strub’, he emailed me. He offered up the info that Strub has been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, next to his father (a military doctor) and mother.
A short while later, Terry emailed to ask that I praise Phil Strub’s accomplishments, and not make any ‘negative accusations’. I mulled this over, and offered him a feature interview wherein he could say what he wanted to say about his brother, and I would publish it without editorialising or injecting my own opinions. He did not respond.
Meanwhile, the DOD Public Affairs spods would not confirm Phil’s passing, saying he ‘is a private citizen’ and they have ‘no current information’ on him (the use of ‘is’ suggests they are either lying or don’t actually know), and they did not respond to my query about his burial at Arlington.
All of which is entirely reflective of Phil’s life, as someone who often denied realities and tried to put a positive spin on the truly horrible. That the brother of one of the world’s senior propagandists (at least until his retirement a few years ago) would try to get me, of all people, to write a glowing tribute to Strub is one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in the over 10 years I’ve been running this site.
That the DOD are either bullshitting or clueless comes as far less of a surprise.
The Many Lies of Phil Strub
Among the realities denied by Strub are an email to Matt Alford wherein he denied that the DOD supported the 1990s James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, even though they are credited on the film. Years after this email, I got hold of the DOD Production Assistance Agreement for the film, proving the untruth of Phil’s claim.
Then there’s the database he put together with the help of Larry Suid, which comments on the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:
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.
In reality, 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.
So naturally, it had to be cut from the script.
Or we could talk about Fields of Fire – a screenplay adapted from his own novel by a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War who went on to become Secretary of the Navy, James Webb. While the novel was on the Marine Corps’ recommended reading list and the Corps themselves were happy to support the movie, Strub said no, and the movie was never made.
Having read the rejected script I can say it’s a masterpiece, combining the ass-in-the-grass run-through-the-jungle story of Platoon with the comedic institutional dysfunction of Full Metal Jacket with a supernatural element I’ve never seen in a Vietnam War movie. While it does portray drugs, executing civilians, burning down their homes and other dark, troubling moments this is all based in reality, the reality both of Webb’s experiences and the experiences of those he fought alongside.
Similarly, we could look at Lone Survivor, wherein Strub and his cohorts butchered real events for PR purposes, with one email saying:
While maximizing historical authenticity is our mandate, we share responsibility for the reputations of the four SEALS and to their families’ memories of them.
This meant changing the fast rope scene (where the rope gets stuck and has to be cut loose, then thrown under a bush, only to be found by local Afghans drawn to the area by the helicopter noise). This became a textbook fast rope infiltration, removing the impression that the four SEALs’ presence was known to the locals almost as soon as they landed.
This also meant changing the goatherder scene, where the four SEALs debate whether to commit a war crime by killing civilians and then covering it up. In the new version there is no mention of war crimes or ranting about potential exposure by the liberal media, but a brief discussion about maybe killing the goatherders before the CO takes charge, says ‘this is not a vote’ and elects to free the civilians and make a move to higher ground to try to re-establish comms. Shortly afterwards, the four SEALs are ambushed, and three of them are killed, implying that they should have just killed three innocent people to protect themselves. As one ELO report put it:
Audiences going to see the film will voluntarily sit through a two-hour infomercial about the participation of Army Special Forces in one of our many joint missions.
A ‘two hour infomercial’ is a very different prospect from ‘maximising historical authenticity’.
Blood On His Hands?
The common objection to demonising Phil Strub and others like him is that they ‘only’ help to make movies. But those movies depict wars, and systematically and sometimes surgically remove the cruel realities of those wars in favour of spit and polish monuments to events that either never happened, or certainly did not happen that way.
Given the over three million dead in Vietnam, well over a million in Iraq, and likely another million or more in Afghanistan, Kuwait/Iraq the first time round, Bosnia, Serbia, Libya, Syria and all the other countries to suffer at the hands of the US military, I firmly believe that Uncle Phil has blood on his hands. He helped make dozens of films that shaped public perceptions of these wars, helping to prolong them, helping to pile up the bodycount.
As data scientist Stephen Follows found in his analysis of the most prolific people in Hollywood, Strub is the most-thanked person in the industry from 1997 to 2016. That’s more than Michael Bloomberg or Hans Zimmer, and of course Follows’ analysis is based mostly on IMDB data, which doesn’t list many of Strub’s credits.
Contrary to perceptions that the movie business is full of lefty pinko peaceniks, the man most intimately involved in promoting war and the culture of death for nearly 30 years received the most gratitude. Indeed, when Strub’s job was on the line around the turn of the century it was MPAA president Jack Valenti (a probable CIA asset, and long time colleague of Strub and his predecessor Don Baruch) who successfully lobbied to keep the entertainment liaison offices alive.
Thus, it certainly isn’t only Strub who has blood on his hands, but many major figures in the entertainment industry. However, few were around as long as Phil, few had the sort of influence that comes with being the gatekeeper to the world’s most expensive military hardware, and few worked on literally hundreds of movies and TV shows, including the majority of the top 20 highest-grossing franchises ever.
There, Terence, is that enough praise for his accomplishments?
Phil Strub: Merchant of Death Culture
In all seriousness, Strub was a merchant of death culture, selling even the deaths of the DOD’s own troops as vital for all that is good and American in the world. Take, for example, one of his notes on Man of Steel, in the sequence where the US Air Force are fighting Zod’s forces and trying to get some kind of magic wormhole machine close enough to the big ship to… ah fuck it, the story doesn’t matter. The point is the script note and the resulting scene:
Pg 106, Sc 202 and elsewhere — DOWNTOWN METROPOLIS: We assume that the point of this and Sc 235 on Pg 118 is to portray (via CGI) the heroic sacrifices of fighter pilots to divert the Kryptonians from the C-17, because the destructive capability of the Kryptonians has already amply been demonstrated. If so, these must all be Air Force fighter aircraft, F-35 or otherwise.
The finished scene sees not only the military product placement of the F-35, but injects a line of dialogue whereby a pilot says ‘a good death is its own reward’ before smashing, 9/11 kamikaze-style, into the giant alien craft.
In Strub’s cinematic universe suicide crashes are heroic, but only if they’re done by the US military. However, suicide in general is not heroic, as we saw in Iron Man where Strub got into a heated argument with director Jon Favreau over a line where a military officer tells another that ‘guys would kill themselves for the opportunities you have’. And in A Few Good Men, where Strub tried to rewrite Markinson’s suicide note to give a more ‘positive message’.
I want some of what he was smoking.
Or when they rejected Home of the Brave – ultimately quite a pro-American movie that is sympathetic towards combat veterans – because ‘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 .’ The scene where Samuel L Jackson drinks and paces in his office, gun in hand, contemplating suicide, was particularly problematic for Strub and the DOD.
A Good Death? Or the Death of Great Films?
Unlike so many, Philip Meredith Strub did not die in battle, going out in a blaze of glory. Instead, he enjoyed a brief retirement before shuttling off to that big drive-in theater in the sky. His legacy is a far more violent Hollywood than the one he encountered upon taking the DOD job in the late 80s, a far more militaristic Hollywood, one wherein audiences are so starved of life-affirming content that the most popular films almost invariably involve large numbers of people or creatures being killed.
His legacy is also the degradation of cinema, and of several beloved franchises. Terminator, Jurassic Park and Godzilla have all gone the way of the Pentagon, resulting in them becoming hollow shells of their former selves, but hey look – the Navy and the Marine Corps rescuing people from dinosaurs, giant radioative lizards and helping bring about a post-nuclear apocalypse in which our only future is fighting, rather than one we make for ourselves.
Farewell Phil. I never knew you, but I feel like I did.