Selling the War on TV

Selling the War on TV

Let’s say you have a war to sell. You have the usual public relations tools at your disposal: highly scripted press conferences, stories leaked by White House officials to a compliant press.


Let’s say you have a war to sell. You have the usual public relations tools at your disposal: highly scripted press conferences, stories leaked by White House officials to a compliant press. But what if you don’t really trust the press? More to the point, what if fewer and fewer people (especially young people) are actually watching the news, and are instead gripped by the latest television phenomenon, an oxymoron called “reality TV”? Move over, Australian outback and bachelors in French chateaus. How about a reality TV show set in a war zone?

On February 27, as the soaring trumpets and military tattoo snare drums evoked the soundtracks of The Longest Day or The Dirty Dozen, viewers were introduced to ABC’s Profiles From the Frontline, a six-part series about US Special Forces in Afghanistan. ABC News was let nowhere near this project. Instead, Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie producer whose totally excellent synergy with the Defense Department can be seen in Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor and Top Gun, served as co-producer. The Pentagon provided Bruckheimer’s film crews with transportation, access to aircraft carriers and other military sites, as well as technical advice. As co-producer of the show Bertram van Munster put it, the military was “very enthusiastic about the whole thing. Obviously we’re going to have a pro-military, pro-American stance.” That’s an understatement.

The music alone makes you want to run to the recruitment office. In the opening sequence, as we watch a rapid-fire montage of missiles launching, pilots soaring at a 45-degree angle in the wild blue and helicopters backlit by exploding flames, pounding drums accompany one of those Enya-style arias (kind of like a female muezzin) that have come to signify something on the order of “God Is Here.” The most mundane operations are made weighty by a soundtrack of drums and bassoons, or percussion that simulates a beating heart. When one man calls “the wife” back home, the music shifts to the soulful acoustic guitar all too common on “smooth jazz” stations. Then, so we aren’t choked up for too long, we get out on the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy, where the timpani-driven, violin-rich scoring typical of Star Wars enlivens your pulse and declares how endlessly romantic, exciting and noble war is.

If the music isn’t enough to convince you that war is more fun than a mosh pit, there are the point-of-view shots from the cockpit of fighter planes, point-of-view shots from the hood of a jeep barreling through Taliban country, even point-of-view shots from the undercarriage of a helicopter as it lands. You are there–everywhere, omniscient, safe, in command, like a general, like a god.

Profiles takes everything from the reality TV and MTV playbook to glamorize war. Eyeblink-quick edits, cuts from color footage to freeze-frame black-and-white stills and plenty of handheld work, interspersed with one-on-one interviews with a selected group of men, convey exhilaration while giving viewers folks with whom to identify. The men we meet (there is one woman we hear from fleetingly) are indeed patriotic, gutsy and altruistic, but it is clear they have been carefully vetted for the show. No one is afraid. Everyone is thrilled to be in Afghanistan. (“We’re going out catching bad guys,” notes one soldier. “I’m having a good time doing that.”) No one gets hurt. No one gets sick. Everyone is efficient and extremely careful. Everyone sees violence as a last resort.

The cinéma vérité techniques insist that everything we are seeing is “real.” So it is especially dismaying to hear the discredited assertions that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda are in cahoots parroted without any contradiction. The USS Hue City, a guided-missile cruiser in the North Arabian Sea, stops an Iraqi freighter to see if it’s smuggling oil in violation of UN sanctions. As we see Petty Officer Matthew Klemm searching one Iraqi’s effects, he says, “I don’t feel funny about going through anybody’s personal stuff, ’cause they wiped out how many thousands of people’s personal stuff at the World Trade Center…. If this stops it from happening again, so be it.” He then finds an address book, which he declares could provide contacts with Al Qaeda, and he suggests that the shipping company “is part of a bigger picture.”

To leave viewers with the right levels of testosterone, the first episode ends with the broad-grinned, cocky John “Champ” Killen, maintenance supervisor for the top-gun planes on the Kennedy. “I love what we do. It’s high-paced and action-packed…I loooove it!” he exclaims. He warns that it is “payback” time. “When we say it’s over, that’s when it’s going to be over. Until then, better stay home and run, son. We’re comin’ to get ya…. Getting ready to drop some hot iron, is what we like to say.” He then gives us a big thumbs-up.

Assessing the immediate impact of such propaganda is not easy. After all, Profiles (5.9 million viewers) didn’t stand a chance against Friends (17.5 million). Nonetheless, what should be of utmost concern here is the creep of such meticulously scripted DOD-sponsored cant into prime time. Last spring, the Pentagon vetted a script for JAG that cast military tribunals as cozier than a Matlock courtroom. The deployment of high-end production values by television’s entertainment divisions provides especially effective camouflage for the selling of militarism and empire-building that will result not in broad grins and high-fives but in real-life death and destruction.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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