Militarizing the Homeland with G.I. Joe

Dahr JamailNews Analysis
By Dahr Jamail and Jason Coppola,
t r u t h o u t
| Perspective

“My very first recruiting officer was G.I. Joe,” says Iraq war veteran Michael Prysner, an Iraq war veteran who was an aerial intelligence specialist in the US Army Reserve.

Award-winning journalist and Associate Editor of the Nation Institute’s Nick Turse writes in his book “The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives“: “As a product of the 1980s G.I. Joe generation, I can attest to the seductive power of those three inch action figures in selling the military to young boys.”

In an interview with Truthout, Turse observed, “Only later would I learn just how enmeshed G.I. Joe’s manufacturer, Hasbro, was with the military. One instance of this close association came to me in 2003 when the Department of Defense shared the specifications for their Future Force Warriorconcept with the toy company, even before awarding the contract to General Dynamics. More important to the military these days are its ties to video game manufacturers. The latter turn tax-payer-funded combat simulators into first-person shooters that, in effect, pre-train youngsters in small-unit military tactics and irregular warfare.”

Turse also talks of the Microsoft Xbox game “Close Combat: First to Fight,” which was originally a training tool developed for the US Marine Corps by civilian contractor Destineer Studios. His book reveals that the game “was created under the direction of more than 40 active-duty Marines, fresh from the frontlines of combat in the Middle East [who] worked side-by-side with the development team to put the exact tactics they used in combat into “First Fight.”

“… The game is typical of a recently emerging trend that has melded the video game industry (and entertainment industries more broadly) with the US military in a set of symbiotic relationships that literally immerse civilian gamers in a virtual world of war while training soldiers using the hottest gaming technology available. It’s the creation of a digital cradle-to-grave concept in which games created by or for the military are used as recruiting tools and also, as it were, to pre-train youngsters. Then, when they are old enough to enlist, these kids find themselves using video game-like controllers to pilot real military vehicles and are taught tactics and are trained in strategy using specially designed video games and commercially available, off-the-shelf games that have been drafted into service by the military. That civilian-created, military-aided training tool was then recycled into a civilian first-person shooter, rated ‘T’ for “teen,” with a marine on the game’s packaging and a blurb that exclaims, “Based on a training tool developed for the United States Marines.”

“First to Fight” is but one of many video games that the US military has availed itself of on an extensive scale to indoctrinate, desensitize, dehumanize and ultimately recruit young people into the vocation of legitimized violence in the name of heroism and patriotism.

When veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan gathered at a Winter Soldier event to share their stories and experiences in the occupations with the media, Kristopher Goldsmith, who has served in Iraq, spoke to Truthout about what influenced him as a youngster to want to join the military in order to kill people.

“It might sound crazy to anyone who is not a veteran, but video games and movies, especially recent ones, make death and dismemberment seem like ordinary things. You are desensitized to them. While growing up I used to think people at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) were crazy, trying to censor violence and stuff like that… I was like ‘Oh, well violence is real life,’ but there’s a huge difference between witnessing first-hand any sort of violence and sitting in a movie theater watching someone faking a death. Reality and pretending are two way different things. It’s disturbing. You can ask any combat veteran, things like video games and cartoons like ‘G.I. Joe,’ dressing in camouflage and running around in the woods, even being in the Boy Scouts definitely makes children idolize soldiers … and not idolize them for standing up for their country but just for wearing the uniform and being a tough guy. It’s a sign of masculinity that a lot of young boys and young men want to achieve, and they do it through the wrong way.”

Goldsmith joined the military at 18, right after high school, wanting to go to the front lines because, “I was still under the influence of the media and its Terrorism paranoia, and seriously believed that somewhere in the deserts of Iraq were thousands of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction).”

Goldsmith and Prysner are not alone in having responded favorably to the powerful combined influence of the entertainment industry and corporate media. There are innumerable others who have been lured into joining the military for the promise of violence that it offers.

The process of brainwashing and desensitization by the military begins affecting children in the US from a very early age. It is not insignificant that little boys wear camouflage and run around playing with toy guns whenever they get an opportunity.

Goldsmith also attributes his inclination towards violence to the Boy Scouts. A story in The New York Times describes the new Explorers program, a coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America as “training thousands of young people in skills used to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence – an intense ratcheting up of one of the group’s longtime missions to prepare youths for more traditional jobs as police officers and firefighters.”

Cathy Noriega, a 16-year-old girl in the program, was attracted by the compressed-air guns the students use while training. “I like shooting them. I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.”

Officials involved in the program publicly claim, “This is about being a true-blooded American guy and girl.”

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Another irresistible agent that the US military has deployed in its recruitment and support drive is films. Turse elaborates the point, “In addition to toys and video games, the military has also strengthened its ties to Hollywood in recent years. Turning back to G.I. Joe, we can see this with the new movie: ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.’ My understanding is that when the war in Iraq was going especially poorly, and to make the movie more palatable for the global marketplace, the fighting force in the movie was supposed to be an international special ops team based in Europe. A negative response from American fans, and undoubtedly the desire to use DoD (Department of Defense) assets – like vehicles and bases – caused the studio to alter the script, apply for support and get a Department of Defense adviser on the film. As result ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’ joins a host of recent summer blockbusters, like both of the ‘Transformers’ movies and ‘Iron Man,’ for example, in selling the US military to America’s kids.”

The list of Hollywood films that have helped the military garner wide support from the American public for large-scale conflict is long. By glamorizing and sentimentalizing warfare and camouflaging the truth behind unprovoked aggression, these films have served their purpose well. To name a few of these, we have: “Pearl Harbor,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “We Were Soldiers,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Clear and Present Danger,” and a host of others. If one looks at Hollywood’s history of films that glamorize the US military, there are literally hundreds more.

At the time of entering WW I, the US established the Committee of Public Information, to develop guidelines for the media to promote domestic support for the war. In 1941, during WW II, there was a prolific production of war dramas and documentaries to boost the American war effort by Hollywood studios in association with the Pentagon. In 1948, the Pentagon established a special movie liaison office. Producers and directors who are willing to adapt their movies to Pentagon directives are given substantial financial and technical help, besides ready access to important defense locales and resources. Less obliging movie-makers are pointedly denied any assistance by the DoD. The objective is to encourage movies that inspire youth and, therefore, boost recruitment and not let negative portrayals of the army dissuade people from joining.

Turse writes in his book how this is done: “While the US military has long had a relationship with Hollywood, the ad hoc arrangements of old are over. Today, the air force operates, the official Web site of the US Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office. The military has even set up a one-stop shop-on one floor of a Los Angeles office building – where the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Department of Defense itself have film liaison offices. Additionally, the DoD runs an entire ‘entertainment media division’ from the Pentagon.”

As an example, the first “Transformers” film released in July 2007 used a variety of Air Force assets, and for the latest iteration of the film, DreamWorks and Paramount studios partnered with all four US military services to highlight America’s military members and combat power on the big screen.

Special military “advisers” are appointed to ensure the desirable changes are retained by the film makers. The Air Force was so happy to work with Hollywood on the movie “Iron Man,” that it had Capt. Chris Hodge as the DoD’s project officer for the film. He is said to have gloated about the movie, “The Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars.”

According to Turse, “By co-opting the civilian ‘culture of cool’ the military corporate complex is able to create positive associations with the armed forces, immerse the young in an alluring, militarized world of fun, and make interaction with the military sound second nature to today’s Americans. The military is now in the midst of a full-scale occupation of the entertainment industry, conducted with far more skill (and enthusiasm on the part of the occupied) than America’s debacle in Iraq.”

Even members of the US Congress have been captivated by the military’s melding of fiction and reality. On July 27, 2004, the American Forces Press Service reported, in an article titled “Future Warrior Exhibits Super Powers,” “The Army’s future soldier will resemble something out of a science fiction movie, members of Congress witnessed at a demonstration on Capitol Hill July 23.”

The successful integration of “culture of cool” and the culture of military is evident in the language of the veterans when they return home and speak of their actions against the people of Iraq. Expressions straight out of video game vocabularies like “lit you up,” and “smoked ’em” are commonplace in their speech.

In a recent article, that documents Iraq war veterans engaging in violence and crime upon returning home, soldiers have described their experience in Iraq. Veteran Daniel Freeman told a reporter, “Toward the end, we were so mad and tired and frustrated, you came too close, we lit you up. You didn’t stop, we ran your car over with the Bradley.”

His friend Anthony Marquez, of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, added, “With each roadside bombing, soldiers would fire in all directions and just light the whole area up. If anyone was around, that was their fault. We smoked ’em.”

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All available avenues have been explored by the Pentagon in its quest for a wide-based acceptance of its policies. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have also been utilized for the tasks of seeking out young recruits and spreading its message.

That the US military has made blatant use of the Media and the entertainment industry to indoctrinate the young American mind is common knowledge. What has perhaps gone unnoticed is how the military is insidiously infiltrating our social and public lives. Earlier this summer, on Memorial Day weekend in Times Square, New York City, the military showcased weaponry while recruiters posed for pictures and engaged in small talk with women, men, children and families. Women fondled rocket launchers, small children pretended to fire heavy machine guns, young boys posed with assault rifles, and even housewives enjoyed the act of aiming rocket launchers.

The militarization of US culture in the minds of US citizens has grown ubiquitous. Just this month, the sounds of combat choppers, automatic weapons fire, and other battle noises being broadcast nearby a rural neighborhood prompted locals to protest. The sounds were part of a combat training exercises for SWAT team members and Marines. When civilian neighbors complained of the noise, live ammunition being used and smoke machines as being annoying as well as dangerous, the county opted to allow the war games to continue.

Author/journalist Chris Hedges articulated the issue for Truthout, “Well, the myth of war, at its core, is really a very visceral form of self-exaltation. It is about the empowerment of our nation, of our society, and by extension, our own empowerment. In the coverage, for instance, of the invasion of Iraq, this was clearly evident on the cable news channels where the way the war was covered was to bring in retired military to explain the power and precision and might of our own weapons. And I think, very much, one was made to identify with the power of those weapons and the power of the state. So war has a kind of seductive appeal. The entertainment industry makes a lot of money off it. The politicians perpetuate the myth of war, they romanticize war, they use words like glory, honor, courage, manhood, to appeal to desires on the part of large segments of the population who feel relatively powerless and relatively anonymous. And war is a way of elevating them, or at least so they believe, into a kind of nobility that peace time existence doesn’t offer them.”

If the US is to recover any of its waning international reputation and this civilization is to sustain itself, the nation and its citizens will have to invent safer, more human ways of elevating themselves.

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Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan,” (Haymarket Books, 2009) and “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for nine months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last five years.

Jason Coppola is the director and producer of the documentary film “Justify My War,” which explores the rationalization of war in American culture, comparing the siege of Fallujah with the massacre at Wounded Knee. Coppola has worked in Iraq as well as on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Bhaswati Sengupta also contributed to this report.