Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Pentagon Goes Hollywood

Robert Rath | 7 Feb 2013 16:00
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However, this enmeshment of troops, politics and entertainment media soured last year. The catalyst was the publication of No Easy Day, a memoir by former DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6) operator Matt Bissonnette who participated in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. As the book climbed the bestseller lists, the DoD threatened Bissonnette with lawsuits and criminal charges for not allowing them to review and edit the text before release. But the fallout from No Easy Day wouldn't be contained to Bissonnette alone. Suddenly, the DoD realized that in addition to militarizing the media like they'd intended, they'd also made the military go Hollywood.

In 2009, the Navy partnered with a team of filmmakers to shoot footage of SEAL exercises and edit it into an action movie. The result, Act of Valor, was a feature-length recruitment film starring real SEALs that were ordered to participate as actors. But that, of course, is nothing new. The Navy has been commoditizing the SEALs since the 1990s. They lend SEALs to movie projects, film Discovery Channel documentaries about their training regimen and sign off on their name and insignia being used for games like SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs. Two days after the Bin Laden raid, Disney filed a trademark to use the term "Seal Team 6" in toys, movies, and vidoegames, and only vacated it when the Navy told them to back off (meaning we've lost our chance to see cartoon harbor seals in Kevlar and NVGs). Nobody else in the special forces community receives media exposure like the SEALs do. The Navy took an elite, secretive special operations unit and sent them on a twenty-year publicity shoot. Considering this culture of openness and self-promotion, is it any wonder SEALs are writing books and signing onto games as technical advisors?

The DoD's response was to batten down the hatches. Not content to go after Bissonnette's book, the DoD also descended on the seven active-duty SEAL Team 6 members Bissonnette recruited as technical advisors for Medal of Honor: Warfighter. According to reports from an unnamed military source, the seven SEALs didn't obtain permission to assist Danger Close, and showed the developers items of custom combat equipment unique to SEAL Team 6. All seven had their pay partially forfeited for two months and received a punitive letter of reprimand. While that doesn't sound unduly harsh, understand that the slang term for these letters is "career killer," since it permanently bars promotion. This trouble with the government also, no doubt, served as a distraction to Danger Close at a crucial time in the development cycle. In fact, one must wonder whether the constant controversies in the last year of development interrupted the devs enough to contribute to the game's lack of polish.

In a strange coincidence, the film Zero Dark Thirty, which collaborated with Warfighter on a map pack, got swallowed up in the reevaluation as well. In ZDT's case, the popular controversy is whether the CIA obtained the nom de guerre of Bin Laden's courier via the use of torture as depicted in the film, or whether that was an invention by the filmmakers. Of course, that's not the reason the Senate Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation of the film. Though the Intelligence Committee has said that the film's sequence of events contradicts their recent report on torture - a report which has not yet been made public - the real issue is whether the CIA gave Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal classified information, or may have misled them about the role of torture in the hunt for Bin Laden. Though the prevailing mood in Washington is that torture isn't an effective, or moral, means of extracting information, a pro-torture faction still exists within the CIA. If members of that faction spoke to the filmmakers or disclosed documents in an attempt to push their own agenda and sway public opinion, it has serious implications for future dealings between government organizations and the film industry. Basically, in time we may learn that that Bigelow and Boal aren't pro-torture, but the people feeding them information were. Regardless of the results, the way Zero Dark Thirty's filmmakers have found themselves called up before a Congressional committee will likely create a chilling effect. Hollywood wants tanks, planes and inside information - but what they don't want is to get embroiled in politics.

The controversies of 2012 won't stop the horse-trading between filmmakers and the military, but it may become less pronounced for a time. Hollywood and the Pentagon will always have a special relationship, but it's an ultimately troublesome one that games should learn to avoid. Due to the digital spaces of our medium and the ability to hire technical advisors a la carte outside the military structure, games have a unique ability to produce blockbuster-level battle scenes without having to do so under the red pens of Washington.


Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com (RobWritesPulp.com) or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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