Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA took Hollywood
Wednesday, 19 June 2024 20:10

Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA took Hollywood

Published in Films

Brett Gregory, UK Desk for Arts Express on WBAI-FM Radio (New York) interviews Dr. Matthew Alford, Lecturer in Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath (UK)

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. The French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, outlines for us how our values, desires, attitudes and tastes are shaped by wider capitalist-consumer society and culture on a daily basis. He calls this network of influence the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ and it includes the ‘soft power’ of, for instance, the media, education, religion and the family.

In turn, Althusser also identifies how this societal framework of influence is enforced by the ‘Repressive State Apparatus’. That is to say, the ‘hard power’ of, for example, the military, the police, the judiciary and the prison system.

On this evening's show we're going to be discussing a 2022 independent documentary called ‘Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and the CIA took Hollywood’, an incendiary exposé which reveals how Althusser’s ideas have been combined to produce propagandist entertainment products like Paramount Pictures ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, Amazon Prime's ‘Jack Ryan’ series and Activision's ‘Call of Duty’. But first let's listen to the trailer.

MA: Hi, Brett, my name is Matt Alford. I teach at the University of Bath in the UK and I specialise in the politicisation of media, especially film, and particularly as it relates to British and American foreign policies.

BG: Nice one, Matt. So please tell us, as ordinary citizens and consumers, what are we up against?

Department of Defense Seal

MA: The United States Department of Defense has got a budget of $800 billion. It's an obscene amount of money to waste and, you know, there have been all these stories for decades about, you know, the Pentagon spending $640 on a toilet seat and a $1,000 on nacho cheese warmer and things like that. It's a hugely wasteful organisation. It’s not that it's just wasteful and splurging money around but actually that it really quite actively and desperately needs to spend a lot of money on PR, and that's not just to attract personnel but, I think, that it needs to con the whole world and the American public of course, most importantly, into thinking that the American national security state is a force for global stability and it isn't, it just isn't; it hardly ever is. The United States is very commonly a destabilising force in many conflicts.

BG: And what would motivate a powerful governmental entity like the Department of Defense to carry out such a sustained PR assault on us? Haven't they got actual wars to fight and real spies to catch?

MA: I think this need for PR was perhaps most clear in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the whole National Security State started pouring money into PR because at that point there was even less rationale for these heavily state-subsidised taxpayer systems of domination to exist because there was no enemy. It seems a little bit different now because we're in a multipolar world and have been since 2012, maybe 2017, but in the 1990s there was a real opportunity to have developed and forged peaceful alternatives. I mean, there still is but it was extremely clear at that point and I always think it's such a great tragedy and it's, you know, looking at international relations over the past thirty years has just been like watching a slow motion car crash.

National Security Cinema 2017

BG: And what motivated you personally to pursue this research topic, to co-author your 2017 book ‘National Security Cinema’ with Tom Secker and to co-produce Roger Stahl’s ‘Theaters of War’ documentary?

MA: About twenty years ago I began a lengthy private correspondence with Noam Chomsky, the world's most celebrated anarchist and philosopher, so it was really that experience which drove my research. But that said, there were definitely some politically distinct films around that time, right at the start of my research process.

So, for example, ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ which was set in Bosnia, ‘Munich’ which was about Israel-Palestine and ‘Hotel Rwanda’; and these were all received as moderate, uncontroversial mainstream movies. It was only really when I took a more forensic look at them that I could see that they were actually consistent with much more dubious government policies, and they actually had imperialist ideas quite subtly baked into them.

So, take an example like ‘Three Kings’, this anti-war comedy set in Iraq; it starred Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney, a really good movie. But as good as it was the underlying message of the film was that the United States had been morally inconsistent in the first Gulf War of 1991 and, by implication, this left open the idea that a full-scale American invasion or Allied invasion that advanced all the way to Baghdad would have been better than what they actually did in the real world. And so that meant that when the film's director met George W. Bush in 1999, way before 9/11, and he said to Bush, ‘Look, my film is going to challenge your father's legacy on Iraq’, a young George W. Bush was able to shoot back, ‘Well, I'm going to have to finish the job then aren't I?’

Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl 1935

BG: Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary ‘Triumph of the Will’ is often cited as fetishizing Nazism. Is Hollywood fetishizing US imperialism?

MA: In a hundred years’ time I doubt that cultural historians will be discussing ‘Triumph of the Will’ in the same breath as ‘Transformers 12’. I mean, the Nazis were systematically and deliberately glorifying a particular man, a totalitarian system, so I do think there is a bit of a difference there. To be fair though ‘Top Gun 2’ really does have stronger echoes of genuine fascism, I'd say.

In my country the two most well-known film journalists are Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo. Now they talked about ‘Top Gun 2’ and they loved it and, in fact, they scornfully dismissed any political concerns about it. They said ‘it's a fictional country in a fictional story and it doesn't matter. It's a cartoon, it exists in a cartoony world’ and then they put on these sort of silly voices to mock people like me who read the film politically. I think it's legitimate to enjoy a film on its own merits but I don't think it's good to ignore constantly the systematic application of military PR across thousands of film and TV products and also, I think, particularly in the case of ‘Top Gun 2’, I mean State involvement in that film was so in your face I think that it's kind of weird to ignore or dismiss it.

BG: Surely if the military are at it then so also are, for example, the police. I mean people love their crime dramas.

MA: Absolutely, Brett. Yeah, I completely agree. I think it's reasonable to include the FBI and major police forces like the LAPD and the NYPD in our definition of a security state. If we include the police, the numbers of productions supported by the security state does zip up a little bit and it takes us well past 10,000.

BG: Is it just movies and TV shows? What about video games which are played for hours on end by teenagers in the supposed safety and security of their bedrooms?

MA: Yeah, there are other entertainment products targeted and integrated into the national security state. There is reliable evidence to indicate that the US and UK militaries have supported ‘Doom’, for example. ‘America's Army’ was the most downloaded game for a long time in the early 2000s. ‘Rainbow 6’, ‘Homefront’, ‘Call of Duty’, ‘Medal of Honour’.

There was a game called ‘Mercenaries 2: World in Flames’ which requires the gamer to take part in an invasion of Venezuela because this Hugo Chavez socialist-type leader has used nuclear weapons on the Allies. Now the company that made that had previously developed training aids for the US Army, but claims it didn't cooperate with the Government on that particular product. You know, that kind of idea Venezuela nuking someone – even having nuclear weapons – it's just ridiculous and it's actually a plot device that was used in the Amazon Prime show ‘Jack Ryan’, that hugely popular series - it's insane threat inflation.

BG: But isn't it just entertainment? Aren't we all grown adults free to make up our own minds? Or does history tell us different?

MA: Entertainment can really exert a pivotal impact on society. There's a historian called John H. Franklin and he said that without ‘Birth of a Nation’ from 1915 – the explicitly racist movie – he said that without that film the Ku Klux Klan would not have been reborn. If we talk about the US military in particular, I'd say that if these systems weren't in place, I'd say that within a few years I think the US would probably lose all legitimacy and wouldn't be able to use its force overseas. Which is not far off really what happened for a few years in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War.

BG: Surely the US is not the only guilty nation? Surely the UK, for instance, also has its fat fingers stuck in such political pies?

MA: Well, I have looked at other national cinematic systems a little bit and in the UK the Ministry of Defence we now know has worked on hundreds of entertainment productions including films like ‘King’s Men’, ‘KickAss’, various James Bond movies and we are examining the British case now systematically, which is being led by a PhD researcher. What I'd say though is that while it is obviously a good idea to pick apart and generally oppose all propaganda, by any measure – and that's military size, film industry size, foreign policy ambitions, global cultural influence – the United States just dwarfs everybody.

BG: So how can concerned citizens and their families actually watch your documentary ‘Theaters of War’?

MA: Well, contact me on Facebook or on YouTube. I'm on Dr Matt Alford ‘War, Laughs and Lies’. That's if you've got any problems trying to acquire the film, and if you're a student you should be able to find it for free through your library on the system called Kanopy.

BG: Great stuff, Matt. Powerful subject matter. Let's hope people will now think twice about what they pay to entertain themselves.

MA: Thanks very much, Brett. Great talking to you.

BG: This has been the UK desk for Arts Express with Dr. Matthew Alford from the University of Bath, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

The media and Gaza: 'A textbook case of genocide'
Wednesday, 19 June 2024 20:10

The media and Gaza: 'A textbook case of genocide'

An authentic democracy cannot be psychopathic because most people are not psychopaths.

Most people would not vote to kill, wound and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians for power, profit or territorial gain. Most people do not accept the great lie of ‘pragmatism’: that ‘the anarchical society’ of international relations mandates psychopathic violence: If ‘we’ don’t behave as psychopaths, somebody else will.

Most people don’t believe the world can be divided between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘children of light’ and ‘children of darkness’. You don’t need to be a mystic to know that love, kindness, compassion – ‘light’ – arise naturally in all human beings allowed to live in freedom and peace.

We know from our own experience that we are wonderfully happy when overflowing with love and desperately miserable when overflowing with hate. We know, therefore, that love is suited to human nature and well-being in a way that hatred is certainly not. We know that when hate arises in large numbers of people it is born of suffering, not of some ‘evil’ disposition. We know that the real answer to hate is not violence but justice that alleviates suffering and hate.

Because we are not psychopathic, it is deeply important for us to believe that we are not living in a psychopathic society. When this human need clashes with political reality, examples of cognitive dissonance abound – psychopathic circles have to be squared, 2 + 2 must make 5. This is the task of the propaganda system comprised of the ‘respectable’ political, media and religious institutions of our society.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, supplied a particularly stark example. Welby began by affecting a transcendent spiritual impartiality, as one might expect:

‘I’m not pointing fingers’, he said.

Alas, Welby came back to earth with a bump:

‘I do point fingers at Hamas and say this is terrorism at its most extreme and most evil.’

Okay, but then was he also pointing fingers at the Israeli government raining hellfire on Gaza? Welby fell silent, hesitated:

‘It’s not… You can do the… You can say something which in different circumstances might be useful at a time that just makes everything worse… Let’s not run to judgement and blame straight away.’

The archbishop’s power-friendly ethical dissonance becomes even clearer when we recall that, last December, Welby told the BBC that ‘justice demands that there is defeat’ of ‘an evil invasion’ in Ukraine. It was right, he said, for the West to send billions of dollars of weaponry to support a ‘victim nation’ that is ‘being overrun by aggression’. After all, the international community had a ‘duty of care’ to protect weaker nations.

Welby’s failure to condemn any ‘evil’ committed by Israel came long after it had become clear that Israel had been criminally targeting Gaza’s civilian population with collective punishment cutting off water, food and electricity. And of course, by razing whole apartment blocks, indeed whole residential areas, to the ground.

From satellite imagery, The Economist estimated (30 October) that ‘over a tenth of Gaza’s housing stock has been destroyed, leaving more than 280,000 people without homes to which they can return’. The magazine noted:

‘Even Russia, during its siege of Mariupol in Ukraine between February and May 2022, negotiated humanitarian pauses in which some civilians were permitted to leave. Israel has thus far rejected calls, by the European Union and others, for such pauses.’

More recently, the health ministry of the Palestinian Authority has estimated that more than 50% of Gaza’s housing units have been destroyed, nearly 70% of its population has been displaced, 16 out of 35 hospitals that can take in-patients have stopped functioning, 42 UN Relief Agency buildings have been damaged, along with at least seven churches and 55 mosques. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been more than 100 strikes on health facilities. Since 7 October, more than 200 schools have been damaged in Gaza – around 40% of the total number – about forty of them very seriously, according to UNICEF data.

By any standards, this is an awesome level of destruction. In its first 563 days, Russia’s war on Ukraine killed 9,614 Ukrainian civilians, 554 of them children. In its first 25 days, Israel’s war on Gaza killed 8,796 Palestinian civilians, 3,648 of them children. Since the 7 October attacks by Hamas, at least 1,400 Israelis have been killed, including 1,033 civilians and 31 children.

Gaza - a graveyard for chidren

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres puts the immensity of Israel’s violence in perspective:

‘Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children. Hundreds of girls and boys are reportedly being killed or injured every day. More journalists are reportedly being killed over a four-week period than in any conflict in at least three decades. More United Nations aid workers have been killed than in any comparable period in the history of our organisation.’

On 28 October, Craig Mokhiber, one of the world’s leading international lawyers, director of the UN’s New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, resigned to protest the organisation’s handling of what he called a ‘textbook case of genocide.’ In his resignation letter, Mokhiber wrote:

‘This is a text-book case of genocide. The European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase, toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestinian life in Palestine. What’s more, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, are wholly complicit in the horrific assault. Not only are these governments refusing to meet their treaty obligations “to ensure respect” for the Geneva Conventions, but they are in fact actively arming the assault, providing economic and intelligence support, and giving political and diplomatic cover for Israel’s atrocities.’

In an interview with Al Jazeera English, Mokhiber made a further key point:

‘As a human rights lawyer with more than three decades of experience in the field, I know well that the concept of genocide has often been subject to political abuse. But the current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist settler colonial ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs, and coupled with explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military, leaves no room for doubt or debate. In Gaza, civilian homes, schools, churches, mosques, and medical institutions are wantonly attacked as thousands of civilians are massacred. In the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem, homes are seized and reassigned based entirely on race, and violent settler pogroms are accompanied by Israeli military units.

‘Across the land, Apartheid rules.

‘Usually, the most difficult part in proving genocide is intent, because there has to be an intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group. In this case, the intent by Israel’s leaders has been so explicitly stated, and publicly stated, by the prime minister, by the president, by senior cabinet ministers, by military leaders, that that is an easy case to make. It’s on the public record.’

Our ProQuest media database search for ‘Craig Mokhiber’ and ‘Gaza’ delivered four mentions, all in the Guardian. One of these was a smear, another was a single-sentence mention in passing buried in a news piece, a third substantial piece of 667 words, and an additional mention yesterday buried in the penultimate paragraph of an opinion piece. There were no mentions found in any other newspaper and there are none on the BBC website.

On Channel 4 News, Matt Frei asked Welby:

‘What do you say to those demonstrators on the streets of London who are saying this is Israeli genocide against the Palestinians?’

Welby’s sage reply:

‘I say you’ve no understanding of what you’re saying.’

When asked if Israel was acting within international law, Labour’s chivalrous knight, Sir Keir Starmer, said:

‘As to whether each and every act is in accordance with the law, well that will have to be adjudicated in due course. Um, I think it’s unwise for politicians to stand on stages like this, or to sit in television studios, and pronounce day by day which acts may or may not be in accordance with international law.

‘I think it’s not the role of politicians. I don’t think it’s wise to do it. I come with the benefit of a lawyer of having litigated about issues like this in the past. And in my experience, it’d often take weeks or months to assimilate the evidence and to then work out whether there may or may not have been a breach of international law.

‘So, I think the call for politicians to look at half a picture on the screen without the full information and form an instant judgement as to whether it’s this side of the line or the other side of the line is extremely unwise. I’m not going to get involved with that kind of exercise.’

If this sounds like an in-depth, heartfelt response, last year, Starmer was asked:

‘Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?’

Starmer’s reply:


On 8 February, Starmer told the House of Commons:

‘Before I entered this House, I had responsibility for fighting for justice in the Hague for victims of Serbian aggression. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that when the war in Ukraine is over, Putin and all his cronies must stand at the Hague and face justice?’

Again, completely contradicting everything he is now saying, Starmer said on 7 March:

‘Vladimir Putin and his criminal cronies must be held to account for their illegal invasion of Ukraine. The UK government must do all it can to ensure the creation of a special tribunal to investigate the crime of aggression.

‘The Ukrainian people deserve justice as well as our continued military, economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian assistance.’

Notice, Starmer was not calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ or a ceasefire – completely unthinkable in relation to Gaza – he was endorsing continued intervention in the form of massive military support for the Ukrainian war effort.

On 17 March, Starmer said:

‘I welcome the International Criminal Court’s decision to open war crime cases against Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian figures for their barbaric actions in Ukraine.’

There is nothing random, or naïve, about Labour’s hypocrisy and servility to power. Declassified UK reports:

‘Some 13 of the 31 members of Labour’s shadow cabinet have received donations from a prominent pro-Israel lobby group or individual funder, it can be revealed.

‘The list of recipients includes party leader Keir Starmer, his deputy Angela Rayner, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, and even the former vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, Lisa Nandy, who is now shadow international development minister.’

Britain’s veteran warmongers have been queuing up to persuade the public of the rightness of Starmer’s complicity in genocide. Arch-Blairite former Labour MP Peter Mandelson said:

‘As for Keir Starmer, I would just say this – I think what he’s doing is demonstrating to the British people the sort of toughness and mettle that he would display, if he were to become prime minister of this country. He has been very tough, very realistic…’

In a separate interview, as if reading from the same script, former Tory MP and Thatcherite Michael Portillo opined:

‘I’m amongst those who think that Keir Starmer has done exactly the right thing and has shown a great deal of mettle, which I think will be quite widely admired. And that’s important, I think, for a domestic audience that wonders whether he’s up to being prime minister.’

Dissidents are viewed and treated quite differently. Responding to home secretary Suella Braverman’s suggestion on X (formerly Twitter) that, ‘It is entirely unacceptable to desecrate Armistice Day with a hate march through London’, BBC sports commentator Gary Lineker posted:

‘Marching and calling for a ceasefire and peace so that more innocent children don’t get killed is not really the definition of a hate march.’

Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy analyst, former aide to Margaret Thatcher and contributor to the Telegraph, responded:

‘Gary Lineker’s knowledge of foreign and national security policy is practically zero. His vast narcissism and ego as a BBC football pundit is matched only by his sheer ignorance.’

In reality, of course, narcissism would mean Lineker keeping his head down, banking his huge salary, avoiding the inevitable torrent of abuse, and thus keeping his reputation safe and sound, like so many people do.


It is quite astonishing to reflect that, in 2011, NATO deployed 260 aircraft and 21 ships, launching 26,500 sorties destroying ‘over 5,900 military targets including over 400 artillery or rocket launchers and over 600 tanks or armored vehicles’ in response, not to the mass murder of civilians, but to a merely alleged threat of mass murder posed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Not that there had been a call for a humanitarian ‘pause’, or a ceasefire, or the introduction of UN peacekeepers – the widespread demand was for massive military intervention. In reality, the NATO ‘no-fly zone’ that instantly became a bombing campaign obliterating Gaddafi’s army was based on a lie. A 9 September 2016 report into the war from the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons commented:

‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence… Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.’

In February 2011, The Times insisted that ‘there is incontrovertible evidence’ that demonstrators in Benghazi ‘are being blown apart by mortar fire’. Even if accurate, this would have been a pin prick compared to Israeli actions now. This was the response to the Libyan government proposed by The Times:

‘British officials and private citizens must do all they can to cajole, pressure and exhort it out of power.’ (Leading article, ‘In bombing its own civilians, Libya stands exposed as an outlaw regime,’ - The Times, 23 February 2011)

By contrast, on 25 October, The Times praised Starmer’s ‘initially assured response to the outbreak of violence that followed Hamas’s terror attacks on Israel on October 7’, which ‘correctly emphasised his party’s unconditional support for the Jewish state’s right to self-defence’.

This was a reference to Starmer’s appalling declaration that Israel ‘does have that right’ to inflict collective punishment on Palestinian civilians by cutting off water, food and electricity.

On 22 March 2011, with NATO bombing of Libya underway, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland published a piece titled, ‘Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong’. He meant military intervention, of course – war – insisting that ‘in a global, interdependent world we have a “responsibility to protect” each other’. Freedland now warns against such ‘binary thinking’, as he baulks even at the idea of a ceasefire:

‘It seems such a simple, obvious remedy. Until you stop to wonder how exactly, if it is not defeated, Hamas is to be prevented from regrouping and preparing for yet another attack on the teenagers, festivalgoers and kibbutz families of southern Israel.’ 

Freedland’s article was titled: ‘The tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conflict is this: underneath all the horror is a clash of two just causes’. In ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky commented on their analysis of media treatment of victims deemed ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ by the West:

‘While the coverage of the worthy victim was generous with gory details and quoted expressions of outrage and demands for justice, the coverage of the unworthy victims was low-keyed, designed to keep the lid on emotions and evoking regretful and philosophical generalities on the omnipresence of violence and the inherent tragedy of human life.’ - Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Pantheon Books, 1988, p.39

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee also rejected calls for a ceasefire, obfuscating with a tangled web of Welby-style verbiage:

‘That word “ceasefire” has become a symbol and a semantic roadblock, as events rush on and words get left behind. “Ceasefire” has become an ideology rather than a practicality.’

When it comes to Gaza in November 2023, the famous ‘responsibility to protect’ has vanished from thinkable thought. Today, even the responsibility to protest is under legal threat. As for the British government’s response, Peter Oborne describes the shocking truth:

‘Meanwhile, not one government minister, as far as I can see, has condemned the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Gaza, or uttered a word of condemnation of the wave of settler attacks including displacement of Palestinian communities – war crimes – across the West Bank. Nor the genocidal language used by too many Israeli leaders.’

In describing the conflict, the BBC is content to use the pro-Israel propaganda construct ‘Israel-Hamas War’.

Israel’s murderous bombardment of Gaza was described by the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen as Israel ‘still pushing forward’. Bowen noted: ‘Palestinians call this genocide’.

It is not just the Palestinians though, as Bowen well knows.