From patriotism to recruitment: How Hollywood helped the U.S. military sell the War on Terror

As the Twin Towers lay in rubble after Sept. 11, former U.S. president George W. Bush's administration leveraged the influence of Hollywood celebrities to sway the public to rally around the flag.

Audiences often unaware they're watching government propaganda, author Tom Secker says

Actor Nicolas Cage poses in front of an poster for the Hollywood movie World Trade Center in September 2006. The Oliver Stone film tells the story of a group of first responders during the Sept. 11 attacks. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on May 25, 2020. This is the third of a three-part series on IDEAS called Myths on Screen: Hollywood at War.

As the Twin Towers lay in rubble and the embers continued to smoke for over 100 days, a meeting was taking place.

Pentagon officials and a veritable who's who of Hollywood producers, directors and screenwriters met in the wake of the attacks, according to Tanner Mirrlees, an associate professor of communication and digital media studies at Ontario Tech University.

"[They] brought all of these people together to brainstorm about future threats and attack scenarios at this U.S. Army-funded Institute for Creative Technologies," he told IDEAS.   

Attending the meeting were: Steven de Souza of the Die Hard franchise, Joseph Zeito, director of Delta Force One and Missing In Action, and David Fincher who directed Fight Club and Alien 3, said Mirrlees, author of Hearts and Mines: The US Empire's Culture Industry.

Director David Fincher, seen here backstage at the Directors Guild of America Awards in 2009, was one of the attendees at a meeting between Hollywood elite and Pentagon officials, according to Tanner Mirrlees. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

"This was now going to be a global war on terror. We need to bring in big, visionary thinkers to imagine these dystopian future scenarios of war. So science and speculative fiction is increasingly read by military planners, strategists all the time," he said. 

From Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American to the 2018 television series Jack Ryan, popular culture and film have been fuelled by America's national security state for almost a century.

While the U.S. military was far less involved in movies post-Vietnam, its role changed with the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hollywood used to recruit

Mirrlees says former U.S. president George W. Bush's administration had been known to leverage the influence of Hollywood celebrities to sway the public.

A few years before 9/11, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen approached stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Robert DeNiro, Harrison Ford, Sidney Poitier and Will Smith, to go on national TV and radio, as well as online to encourage Americans to join the U.S. army, navy, marines and air force.

Professor Mirrlees says that Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Robert DeNiro were approached by the U.S. department of defense to encourage Americans to join the military. (George De Sota/Vince Bucci/Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

In November 2001, in a subsequent meeting between the White House and Hollywood officials, senior adviser and Republican strategist Karl Rove led a high-powered discussion on how Hollywood could help sell the global war on terror, Mirrlees said.

"The Bush administration wanted to get Hollywood filmmakers to rally around the flag, reminiscent of the early days of World War One and World War Two. A spokesperson for the Bush administration said: 'I have great respect for the industry and its ability to educate at home and abroad.' As if war films are about public education," Mirrlees added.

Rove's instructions included mobilizing Americans around the flag, helping with military recruitment and emphasizing that the global war on terror is not a war against Islam, but terrorism.

This initiative culminated in a short film Operation Enduring Freedom, released in 2002, which tried to answer questions like what the war on terror was and what its goals were. It was shown before feature films in around 4,000 cinemas owned by the Reel Entertainment Group.

Mirrlees says many of those encouraged to join the military by this media campaign were from poorer and minority communities across the United States. 

"Wars tend to be fought by underprivileged people, by working-class people, by people of colour. [These] people are often enlisted to fight these wars because this is an opportunity for social mobility." 

"One wonders if the children of the rich and powerful in the U.S. were compelled, either through a draft or moral compunction, to fight all the wars the U.S. has been in and is currently in, would we see an immediate decline in the number of wars the U.S. is willing to wage?" 

Hidden propaganda

Dan O'Meara, co-author of Movies, Myth and the National Security State, says that despite "9/11 apparently coming like a bolt from the blue," Hollywood movies had been anticipating an attack like it for at least a decade.

"The whole exercise of national security, the people who are charged with running the national security apparatus — be they intelligence agencies, various military services — are essentially engaged in speculation."

"If you prepare for a kind of war and you keep on telling people that this is going to happen and we need to spend $100 billion on weapons systems, just in case, well, you have to orient the public to believe this will happen because if they don't believe it, you're not going to get the money," O'Meara said. 

Actress Jessica Chastain at the premiere of the film Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. Some critics have argued that the film, which is about the manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, serves as pro-torture propaganda. (Dan Steinberg/Invision/Associated Press)

Audiences in authoritarian countries are often aware they're watching government propaganda. However, western audiences generally don't realize when they're watching a modified version of the same phenomenon, says Tom Secker, co-author of National Security Cinema. 

"I don't think a shallow, simplistic parallel can be drawn, but we should be aware of the fact that western audiences often think … it's just a movie, it's escapism so [they] don't have to take these almost subliminal messages very seriously at all," he said. 

The 2014 study Argo and Zero Dark Thirty: Film, Government, and Audiences found about 25 per cent of viewers of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty changed their opinions about the government and its actions after watching one of the movies. 

"That can change an election, a war can happen. That's not just a movie ⁠— that's a piece of propaganda," Secker said. 

Written by Adam Jacobson. IDEAS documentary produced by Mary O'Connell and Greg Kelly.

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