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Will the Real Destro Please Stand Up? How Hollywood Helps to Obscure the Ugly Truth about American Militarism

Pentagon’s stamp of approval shapes Hollywood’s depiction of war.

While Hollywood invariably depicts the US and its military as the good guys (or loses access to Pentagon cooperation), the US arms nations with highly questionable commitments to democracy and human rights, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

In American popular culture, the United States government and military are almost always portrayed as agents of good struggling to overcome evil. This is particularly true of Hollywood depictions of US warfare.

Feminist cultural critic Bell hooks argues that films like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Pearl Harbor” “glorify war … make it appear heroic to die alone, away from home,” and ultimately “serve as propaganda, recruiting the hearts and imaginations of boys.”[1]

Perhaps the best indication that such films present the US military in a good light is the fact so many have Pentagon stamps of approval. In his book, “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies,” journalist David L. Robb details the Pentagon’s several-decades-old effort to influence Hollywood films to promote positive public perception and recruitment goals. Drawing on primary source documents, Robb details numerous films that caved to military leaders’ pressure to change or remove thematic elements or scenes featuring unsavory representations of the US military. Robb quotes Maj. David Georgi of the Army as saying, “If they don’t do what I say, I take my toys and go away.” According to Robb, “technical advisors” or what he calls “military minders” are often on the set to ensure filmmakers follow through with agreed-upon guidelines. And films are often required to be prescreened by Pentagon brass for final approval.[2]

As David Sirota points out ,[3] award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s film dealing with the May 1, 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden is a recent example of Hollywood’s collusion with the Pentagon. Bigelow was given access by the CIA to key information surrounding the mission, including an opportunity to meet with a key planner and operator of the SEAL team responsible for killing bin Laden.[4] Many have raised questions about the mission, including whether or not an earnest effort was made to apprehend rather than assassinate bin Laden, why his body was inappropriately disposed of and the moral and legal implications of such a mission.[5] However, Bigelow says that she has no intentions to explore such questions in her film, “Zero Dark Thirty.” In November 2011, she said that the raid “was an American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan, and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.”[6]

But Hollywood films don’t simply glamorize and gloss over US militarism; they immerse us in stories that obscure basic truths, rendering them absurd. Take the example of the 2009 film, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which worked with the Pentagon to film at Fort Irwin National Training Center. The film went on to gross $302 million worldwide and sold nearly 3 million DVDs and Blu-ray discs. As the official synopsis puts it, this filmic update of an all-American toy-brand and TV series portrays “the elite G.I. Joe team” using “the latest in next-generation spy and military equipment to fight the corrupt arms dealer Destro and the growing threat of the mysterious Cobra organization to prevent them from plunging the world into Chaos.” Those who know the G.I. Joe series will remember Destro as the weapons designer for Cobra Commander, the evil villain hell-bent on world domination. In this script, the United States, through the Joes, plays the role of hero determined to stop such murderous thugs from achieving their goal.

Beneath the veil of glamorized American militarism is an ironic if not nefarious reality: The United States continues to be the number one arms dealer in the world. And some of these weapons are being used by oppressive regimes to crack down on pro-democracy activists.

According to the annual study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress, US overseas weapon sales grew to $66.3 billion of the $85.3 billion in global arms sales in 2011.[7] The US’s closest competitor is Russia, which made $4.8 billion in sales in 2011. And US arms sales are way up compared to the $31 billion in overseas sales it made in 2009.

On the heels of such record-breaking profits, in August 2012, the Obama administration joined Russia in undermining a United Nations’ arms treaty aiming to regulate the global arms trade.[8] White House officials cited concerns over the treaty’s potential conflict with the US’s Second Amendment as one cause for concern. According to Democracy Now!:

As the talks collapsed at the United Nations, a top State Department official openly bragged that US government efforts have helped boost foreign military sales to record levels this year. Speaking to a group of military reporters, Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said, quote, “We’ve really upped our game in terms of advocating on behalf of US companies. I’ve got the frequent-flyer miles to prove it.” According to Shapiro, US arms sales have already topped $50 billion in 2012, putting the US on pace to increase its total for the year by 70 percent.[9]

Amnesty International USA criticized the government for abdicating its leadership role in completing what would have been a “historic breakthrough” necessary to curb the killing of some “500,000 civilian lives lost each year in armed conflict.”[10]

The US is itself directly responsible for arming nations with highly questionable commitments to democracy and human rights, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. As the Center for Public Integrity reported in June, Saudi Arabia is on a State Department watch list for human rights violations.[11]

In response to Arab-Spring-inspired internal protests by the Shiite minority, Saudi Arabia made it clear, in March 2011, that democratic practices such as peaceful public assembly would not be tolerated. The state’s interior ministry released a statement: “The kingdom’s regulations totally ban all sorts of demonstrations, marches, sit-ins,” and that security forces would be implemented to maintain order.[12] The government, an absolute monarchy, claims that demonstrations violate Islamic law and the kingdom’s traditions. Many of the protesters have demanded the “release of prisoners they say are held without trial.”[13]

Saudi Arabia also assisted in putting down a different Arab-Spring-inspired revolt in Bahrain against another US-backed monarchy, the Khalifa family. The royal family is Sunni and said to discriminate against and marginalize the nation’s Shiite majority.[14] Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which maintains a continual “flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf, and to protect the interests of the United States in a 20-nation area that includes vital waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.”[15] In 2010, the Obama administration nearly quadrupled security assistance to Bahrain, from $5.3 million to $20.8.[16]

The US relationship with Bahrain became complicated in February 2011. Inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahraini pro-democracy forces began rallying on February 14, 2011. Protestors faced a severe response from armored police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and, in some cases, killing protestors. The security equipment sold by the US directly equipped the police and military forces that were involved in such crackdowns.

By February 19 Bahrain imposed martial law and worked to stamp out the pro-democracy movement, arresting protestors and also doctors treating those injured during police incursions on protests.[17] Four months later Amnesty International claimed to have found evidence that not only had “medical workers in Bahrain [been] attacked and prevented from treating injured protestors,” those being detained had “been tortured while they await trial … forced … to stand for long periods, deprived … of sleep, beat … with rubber hoses and wooden boards containing nails, and made …[to] sign papers while blindfolded.” In total, 48 health care workers were put on trial before a closed-door military court.

In response to these events, the Obama administration hosted the kingdom’s crown prince, Salman bin Isa al-Khalifa, on June 7, 2011 and arranged for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the following day.[18] Clinton reaffirmed the US-Bahrain relationship, stating that the administration was “supportive of a national dialogue and the kinds of important work that the Crown Prince has been doing in his nation, and we look forward to it continuing.”[19] The meeting resulted in the Obama administration approving $200 million in military sales to Bahrain.[20]

More than a year later, the US government continues to back Bahrain despite outcries from human rights groups. Since the February 2011 uprisings, Bahraini security forces have killed dozens of demonstrators and imprisoned or intimidated hundreds more. In the lead-up to April 2012 Grand Prix race in Bahrain, an activist named Salah Abbas Habib was killed. Activists claim that his body shows sign of torture, and that the police are responsible for his death. Also in April, Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Suzanne Nossel, decried Bahrain’s continued practice of holding large numbers of people in detention and imposing harsh sentences on people who have not received fair trials. According to Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, in the last year his organization has “documented numerous cases, where people, young people, some of them children, were severely beaten, were badly beaten, threatened with rape, threatened with death, in order to confess to one thing or another, before they were ever taken into a police station.” Stork says that the basis for some activists being imprisoned is their participation in what the authorities describe as “peaceful protest.

Despite a short freeze on arm sales in October 2011, the Obama administration resumed selling Bahrain arms it says are not for crowd-control purposes, in May 2012. The government’s crackdown on protestors has also continued. On June 15, a Bahrain appeals court upheld the convictions of Bahraini medics who treated demonstrators during anti-government protests. In early August, the Bahrain government arrested 40 people involved in a pro-democracy rally after firing tear gas and birdshot to disperse the crowd. Later in the month, the government sentenced the prominent Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to three years in prison for his role in protests against the government. In a statement Rajab said:

We are very upset about [the] United States trying to hide the crimes and trying to hide the violation[s] happening in all the Gulf country [sic]. Because the Gulf country [sic] are a rich region, because it’s a big arm[s] market, because it’s a big oil exporter, we have to suffer for that. We are victims for being a rich region. We are a victim[s] of being a region that have [sic] an interest with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States – and the West, as well … have ignored completely the crime what’s [sic] happening here.

While the State Department has called for the case against Rajab to be dropped, the US has not stopped arms sales or publically addressed the many other activists being arrested, held, prosecuted, [29] and in some cases killed. On August 20, activist witnesses say that the Bahraini police attacked protestors, shooting and then assaulting a 16-year-old demonstrator, Hussam al-Haddad, who died. The police then cracked down on activists during a funeral for al-Haddad, firing tear gas and arresting at least eight people.

The first G.I. Joe movie tells us that Destro’s name is derived from the title given to his ancestor, James McCullen. In 1641, McCullen was punished by French authorities for selling weapons to warring factions. As he prepares for his punishment, McCullen defiantly proclaims that “the true McCullen destiny is not simply to supply arms, but to run the wars!” In a separate scene, the contemporary Destro adds that the “world is messy” and needs “unification, leadership. It has to be taken out of chaos by someone with complete control.” Clearly these are loathsome villains whose single-minded goal is control and domination, whatever the cost. And yet, for many people in nations such as Bahrain, the image of America is increasingly one that may well fit disturbingly well with that of villains who quite literally symbolize the opposite of the ideal so many Americans believe their nation stands for. The time may well be now for Americans to contemplate such discomforting parallels.

bell hooks, 2004, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love,” 71.

Jeff Fleischer, 20 Sept 2004, “Operation Hollywood,” Mother Jones
This collusion is documented in Al Jazeera’s documentary, “Hollywood and the War Machine:”
It is also readily admitted by the director of Entertainment Media at the Department of Defense, Philip Strub, who readily says he persuaded makers of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to incorporate the Navy and Marine Corps in the film to allow them to use more military hardware including helicopters, tanks, a submarine, and an aircraft carrier: Jeff Schogol, 27 May 2009, “Transformers Beat G.I. Joe in Battle for DOD Support,” Stars and Stripes. In fact, Strub is credited with special thanks or DoD “liaison” for dozens of films: Including “True Lies” (1994), “Windtalkers” (2002), “Iron Man” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010), three separate “Transformers” movies (2007, 2009, 2011), “Battleship” (2012), and previously mentioned films such as “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “Pearl Harbor” (2001). (See photo of Strub escorting then-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, at the “Iwo Jima” memorial, where Clint Eastwood was directing a scene for the movie “Flags of Our Fathers”).

David Sirota, 29 August 2011. “The Pentagon’s strengthening grip on Hollywood.”

Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Given Secret Access By CIA For bin Laden Film

As Noam Chomsky writes, “official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition – except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, who they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them (according to the White House).”Noam Chomsky, May 2011, “There is Much More to Say” Z net.

New York Daily News. August 06, 2012. “SEE IT: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ trailer sheds light on bin Laden take out.”

New York Times. 26 August 2012. “USArms Sales Make Up Most of Global Market.”

Democracy Now. 2 Aug 2012. “Obama Admin Helps Undermine U.N. Arms Treaty Talks While Touting Record-High Weapons Sales Abroad.”

Democracy Now. 2 Aug 2012. “Obama Admin Helps Undermine U.N. Arms Treaty Talks While Touting Record-High Weapons Sales Abroad.”
Amnesty International. 27 July 2012. “Amnesty International USA Blasts Obama Administration for “Stunning Cowardice” At UN Arms Talks.”

10 Amnesty International. 27 July 2012. “Amnesty International USA Blasts Obama Administration for “Stunning Cowardice” At UN Arms Talks.”

Aaron Mehta. 30 Aug 2012. “USsets record arms sales in 2011.” The State Department lists Saudi Arabia’s human rights problems as: “no right to change the government peacefully; torture and physical abuse; poor prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; denial of fair and public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and severe restrictions on religious freedom; and corruption and lack of government transparency. Violence against women and a lack of equal rights for women, violations of the rights of children, trafficking in persons, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “2010 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia.”

Reuters, 5 March 2011. “Saudi Arabia says won’t tolerate protests.”

Reuters, 5 March 2011. “Saudi Arabia says won’t tolerate protests.”

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is said to hire foreigners to take up law enforcement so as to prevent Shiite citizens from carrying weapons or wearing police uniforms. Despite overwhelming support for a 2001 national charter meant to produce key democratic reform, in 2002 “the king imposed a Constitution by decree that Shiite leaders say has diluted the rights in the charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the Parliament.” New York Times, 17 February 2011, “Bahrain Police Crack Down; Five Dead and Hundreds Hurt,”

New York Times, 17 February 2011, “Bahrain Police Crack Down; Five Dead and Hundreds Hurt.”

New York Times, 19 February 2011, “Protesters Take Bahrain Square as Forces Leave.”

Democracy Now. 9 June 2011. “Obama Hides Meeting with Top Bahraini Leader—And Mutes Criticism of Ongoing Crackdown.”

Democracy Now. 9 June 2011. “Obama Hides Meeting with Top Bahraini Leader—And Mutes Criticism of Ongoing Crackdown.”

Democracy Now. 9 June 2011. “Obama Hides Meeting with Top Bahraini Leader—And Mutes Criticism of Ongoing Crackdown.”

Democracy Now! 13 June 2011. “
Obama Administration Approved $200M in Military Sales to Bahrain in Run-Up to Violent Crackdown.” Morning Star. 12 June 2011. “US approved £125m of arms to Bahrain.”