In a breathless story somehow presented as a groundbreaking revelation, The New York Times recently reported that the Pentagon is — shocker! — using all sorts of media channels to market itself to the nation's children. Though the Times presents this as a brand-new development, it is nothing of the sort. The armed forces have spent the last three decades carefully constructing a child-focused Military-Entertainment Complex, which has long had the Pentagon subsidizing everything from video games to movies — most of which glorify militarism to kids.
That said, the Times piece did include one important (if buried) piece of genuine news. It concerns a subtle-yet-insidious shift in martial propaganda — one that opens the military up to charges of rank hypocrisy.
You may recall that in recent years, the Military-Entertainment Complex has been selling kids on the idea that military service is a gloriously fun adventure. In one famous ad, the Marines pretended that being a soldier is the equivalent of being a “Lord of the Rings” hero who slays fiery monsters. In another series of ads aired as previews in movie theaters, the Air Force portrayed dangerous front-line missions as exciting video games, telling kids: “It's not science fiction — it's what we do every day.”
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Deceptive as these spots were, they at least held out the (unstated) possibility that military service can be dangerous, and that joining the Army doesn't give an enlistee death-defying superpowers. The same, though, cannot be said for the new ad campaign covered by the Times — a campaign that both visually and literally suggests that joining the military gives one superpowers.
Yes, playing off the blockbuster new movie “X-Men: First Class,” the Army's new ad juxtaposes images of the fictional mutant superheroes with images of real U.S. soldiers and then tells viewers to “try it on” — as if wearing the uniform will give “ordinary people” the ability to single-handedly fight off Magneto.
Obviously, the ads seek to conceal the simple truth that being a soldier is very dangerous — a truth underscored by the tens of thousands of American troops killed or wounded in our state of permanent war (or “persistent conflict,” in the Pentagon's new parlance). And while the Pentagon cannot be expected to proactively advertise the hazards of military service, the new commercials are particularly deceptive coming from a military establishment that proactively hides those hazards from public view.
Remember, it was only two years ago that Defense Secretary Robert Gates took extraordinary measures to try to prevent news organizations from publishing a journalist's single photograph showing the battlefield death of an American soldier in Afghanistan. Likewise, the Bush administration banned journalists from photographing flag-draped coffins coming back from Iraq — even though the coffins were unmarked, thus protecting the identity of the dead soldiers.
And, as the British Broadcasting Corporation showed, the entire process of “embedded reporting” through which the Pentagon steers war journalism has resulted in overly sanitized coverage that obscures battlefield violence and bloodshed.
Taken together, we can see the obvious contradiction. One part of the Pentagon is employing every media instrument available — Twitter, Facebook, TV commercials, movies, etc. — to tell America that becoming a soldier gets enlistees immortal superpowers that will keep them safe in combat. Meanwhile, the same Pentagon is trying to prevent the media from documenting the blood-soaked realities of war.
That may help the Pentagon boost its short-term recruitment numbers, but it deceives enlistees who are promised one experience and given another.