In what should have been an extraordinary television confession this month, John Bolton, national security adviser in the previous administration of President Donald Trump, admitted to CNN in passing that he had helped to plot the overthrow of foreign governments while in office.
Dismissing the idea that Trump had attempted a coup at the Capitol with the January 6 riots, Bolton told anchor Jake Tapper:
As somebody who has helped plan coups d’etat, not here [in Washington] but, you know, other places, it takes a lot of work.
It was an admission that he and others in the administration had committed the “supreme international crime”, as the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War defined an unprovoked attack on the sovereignty of another nation. But Tapper treated the comment as largely unremarkable.
Washington can do out in the open what is denied to other countries only because of an exceptional assumption that the normal constraints of international law and the rules of war do not apply to the global superpower.
The U.S. is reported to have carried out “regime change” in more than 70 countries since the Second World War. In recent years, it has been involved either directly or indirectly in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine. Bolton himself has boasted of his involvement in efforts through 2019 to oust Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela, trying to install as president Washington’s own preferred candidate, Juan Guaido.
The Pentagon outspends the next nine countries combined and maintains some 800 military bases dotted across the globe. And yet, Congress is poised once again to add tens of billions of dollars to the defence budget.
A new documentary suggests why western publics remain so docile both about the U.S. being in a state of almost permanent war, and about it expending ever-vaster sums on its war machine.
Secret guiding hand
According to Theaters of War, the U.S. Department of Defense does not just subtly influence Hollywood’s depiction of U.S. wars to present them in a more favourable light. The Pentagon actively demands script oversight and dictates storylines. In practice, it has been waging a full-spectrum propaganda war against western audiences to soften them up to support aggressive, global U.S. militarism.
The documentary, based on data uncovered by recent Freedom of Information requests from UK investigative journalist Tom Secker and academic Matthew Alford, reveals the astonishing fact that the Pentagon has been the secret, guiding hand behind thousands of films and TV shows in recent decades.
Many more movies never reach the screen because the Defense Department’s entertainment liaison office refuses to cooperate, believing the wrong messages are being promoted.
Pentagon objections – usually the kiss of death – relate to any suggestion of military incompetence or war crimes, loss of control over nuclear weapons, influence by oil companies, illegal arms sales or drug trafficking, use of chemical or biological weapons, U.S. promotion of coups overseas, or involvement in assassinations or torture. In fact, precisely the things the U.S. military is known to have been doing.
How does the Defense Department exert so much control on film productions? Because expensive blockbusters are far more likely to recoup their budget and turn a profit if they feature the shiniest new weapons. Only the Pentagon can supply aircraft carriers, helicopters, fighter jets, pilots, submarines, armoured personnel carriers, military extras and advisers. But it does so only if it is happy with the dramatic messaging.
As one academic observes in Theaters of War, propaganda works most effectively when it can be passed off as entertainment:
You’re more open to incorporation of those ideas because your defences are down.
How many viewers would take seriously a film if it was preceded by a sponsorship logo from the Defense Department or the CIA? And for that reason, Pentagon contracts usually specify that its role in a film be veiled.
This is why few know that the Defense Department and the CIA have had a controlling hand in such varied projects as Apollo 13, the Jurassic Park and James Bond franchises, the Marvel movies, Godzilla, Transformers, Meet the Parents and I Am Legend. Or how the military regularly gets involved in baking and quiz shows.
The reality, Theaters of War argues, is that many Hollywood movies are little more than advertisements for U.S. war industries.
This summer, Hollywood released the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun, a Tom Cruise movie about ace airforce pilots that came to define back in the 1980s how to sell war and make killing look sexy.
Top Gun’s makers got access to U.S. navy aircraft carriers, a naval airbase and a host of F-14s and other jets. As the Washington Post reported: “It’s unlikely the [original] film could have gotten made without the Pentagon’s considerable support. A single F-14 Tomcat cost about $38 million.” The film’s entire budget was $15m.