The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

The Military-Entertainment Complex, US Imperialism and

  • Tanner MirrleesEmail author
Living reference work entry


US empire and war War War propaganda Militarism Ideology of militarism Militainment Military-industrial complex (MIC) Military-industrial-communications complex (MICC) Military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET) Media war Virtuous war Militainment News and war Hollywood and war Sports and war Video games and war Social media and war 


The growth of the USA as an empire has been tied to war, and since World War I, the US military has routinely collaborated with the entertainment industries to shape and influence public opinion about war. The relationship between the US State’s military propaganda agencies, the entertainment industries, media products, and public opinion is of interest to researchers, and the alliance of the military and the entertainment industries is often conceptualized as a “military-entertainment complex” (MEC). This entry focuses on some relevant concepts for studying the MEC (the military-industrial complex, the military-industrial-communications complex, the military-industrial-media-entertainment network, the media war/virtuous war, and interactive militainment), identifies the political and economic institutions that make up the MEC (the Department of Defense’s public affairs office and US media and entertainment corporations), and highlights synergies between the DoD and specific sectors of the entertainment industries that underlie the production of militainment (the DoD-news complex; the DoD-Hollywood complex; the DoD-sports complex; the DoD-digital games complex; and the DoD-social media complex).

Introduction: Militarism and the Military-Entertainment Complex

From 1945 to the present day, the economic, geopolitical, and cultural-ideological expansion of the USA as a unique postcolonial empire has relied upon permanent war (Bacevich 2010, 2013; Dower 2017; Johnson 2004; Turse 2012). Following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 (9/11), the USA launched a Global War on Terror (GWOT). In 2016, the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) operations encompassed 70% of the planet, and its various branches attacked opponents and liquidated threats to US security in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In that same year, US Special Forces deployed to numerous countries for “kill or capture” missions and intelligence gathering and to train allied forces. Recently, the DoD has pivoted to East Asia to try to “contain” China (and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative) and built up its presence in countries bordering Russia. As the DoD globally expanded, so did its budget. In 2018, the DoD’s budget was about $700 billion, while the total combined defense budgets of the globe’s next top four military spenders – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and India – was $343 billion (SIPRI 2018; Stein 2018). In that same year, US defense spending was about 190% of what it was prior to 9/11, and it accounted for approximately 37% of the world’s total. The DoD’s budget for wars are costly to society, but they are a boon to defense corporations such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics, which net billions each year by selling war-servicing weapon commodities to the DoD and US client states. In 2018, the USA was the biggest exporter of arms to the world (Brown 2018). The US empire’s global footprint of nearly 1000 military bases spread across an estimated 80 countries was likewise exceptional. In the global system, the USA is the military superpower and without rival.

Given that the American way of life has long been interwoven with a contentious way of war, the state has gone to great lengths to try to get US and transnational publics to think about and perceive war in a specific way; to persuade and push people to accept its wars as necessary, good, and right; and to influence the subjectivities and hearts and minds of millions. The US State’s wars abroad always rely upon massive war persuasion campaigns at home, and the production and reproduction of the ideology of militarism in the USA is significant. The ideology of militarism represents the American nation as a unity secured by war as opposed to one divided by class inequality, racism and sexism, and frames “the nation’s strength and well-being” to its subjects “in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals” (Bacevich 2010, 2013). Moreover, the ideology of militarism glorifies the state’s use of coercion not diplomacy to achieve American security in a world divided between a righteous American “us” and an evil and threatening “them,” presents the DoD and its violence as the solution to every problem that seems to vex America, and reduces patriotism to support for the troops (Bacevich 2010, 2013; Johnson 2004). The ideology of militarism is produced and reproduced by a number of actors across a variety of sites, but one source of it is a nexus of the military propagandists employed by DoD public affairs agencies and the media producers paid by the entertainment industries.

From World War I forward, US State elites (and to some extent, their allies in the cultural industries) recognized the importance of shaping, influencing, and steering public opinion about war, and for war. The important US social scientist and communications theorist Harold Lasswell explained this elite acknowledgment, in a 1927 publication entitled Propaganda Technique in the World War:

During the war-period, it came to be recognized that the mobilization of men and means was not sufficient; there must be a mobilization of opinion. Power over opinion, as over life and property, passed into official hands. Indeed, there is no question but that government management of opinion is the unescapable corollary of large-scale modern war. The only question is the degree to which the government should try to conduct its propaganda secretly (15).

From the formation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in World War I to the establishment of the Office of War Information in World War II, to the conduct of the United States Information Agency (USIA) and DoD-supported global psychological operations in the Cold War, and to the post-9/11 rise of military-media information operations and cyberwarfare doctrines, the DoD has tried to influence the way the media and entertainment industries and the products they produce and circulate represent the DoD and the wars it fights, so as to influence how the US empire’s wars are perceived by publics in the USA and around the world. Sometimes, these war propaganda campaigns roll out in secret and are only recognized by the public many years after they happen with help from Freedom of Information Act requests. Other times, they are quite belligerent and obvious, but the structural alliance between the DoD and the entertainment industries that support it are ignored or downplayed by the public. In any case, in all war propaganda campaigns, the US State and media-corporate elites routinely work together to intentionally influence the content of entertainment and cultural productions, and many of the products resulting from this alliance support the goal of manufacturing public consent to empire and war as a way of life.

The relationship between the US State’s military propaganda agencies, the media and entertainment industries, media products, and public opinion has long been of interest to researchers, and the structural alliance of the military and the entertainment industries is often conceptualized as a “military-entertainment complex” (MEC) (Alford 2010, 2016; Anderson 2006; Anderson and Mirrlees 2014; Boggs and Pollard 2007; Der Derian 2001; Grondin 2014; Martin and Steuter 2010; Mirrlees 2016; Payne 2016; Alford and Secker 2017; Stahl 2010). In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the MEC rolled out numerous “militainment” products that resulted from a production alliance or partnership between the US military and the US entertainment industries.

This entry focuses on some relevant concepts for studying the MEC, identifies the political and economic institutions that make up the MEC, and highlights synergies between the DoD and specific sectors of the entertainment industries that underlie the production of militainment. The first section reviews some key precursors to and concepts that are useful for studying the MEC: the military-industrial complex (MIC), the military-industrial-communications complex (MICC), the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET), the media war/virtuous war, and interactive militainment. The second section conceptualizes the relationship between the major DoD and corporate actors that constitute the contemporary MEC. The third section explores some specific sectors of the MEC: the DoD-news complex, the DoD-Hollywood complex, the DoD-sports complex, the DoD-digital games complex, and the DoD-social media complex.

Key Concepts for Studying the MEC

In his January 17, 1961, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” US President Dwight Eisenhower used the term “military-industrial complex” (MIC) to flag how US government agencies, the DoD, and the titans of industry interlinked to make and maintain a nation that was permanently readied for war. Eisenhower described the “immense military establishment and a large arms industry” as “new in the American experience” and described the MIC’s “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual” as being “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” Eisenhower argued that the MIC was necessary to combat mounting threats to US security in the Cold War, but he encouraged US politicians and “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to “guard against” the MIC’s “acquisition of unwarranted influence” and to contemplate the dangers its development posed to American “liberties” and “democratic processes.”

Currently, the MIC describes a symbiotic relationship between the DoD (which aims to maintain a technological cutting-edge over rival militaries in an antagonistic global system), profit-seeking defense corporations (which produce and sell weapons technologies as commodities to the DoD), the US politicians (which increase defense expenditure to look patriotic and please their constituents, many who are employed as waged workers by the defense industry), and academics (which depend upon DoD subvention to support their facilities and research projects). Each of these actors has a real material interest in maintaining or increasing public expenditure on defense and, to some extent, on war. In the absence of a lasting enemy threat, Congress would be less inclined to annually allocate billions of dollars to the DoD to secure the nation. Permanent peace would cut into the profit margins of the US defense corporations that produced and sold weapons to the DoD, the civilian firms, and the universities that relied on DoD contracts. Throughout the Cold War, the US empire’s MIC expanded to equip the US State and US corporations with new tools of violence for buttressing their power around the globe, and in the twenty-first century, the MIC continued to grow and deepen the links between militarism and capitalism (Ruttan 2006; Turse 2008).

Throughout the 1970s, the significance of the communications and media industries to the MIC was examined by the US political economy of communications scholar, Herbert I. Schiller (1969, 1973, 1976, 1992, 2000). Schiller agreed with Eisenhower that “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” was essential to the existence of American democracy, but he was skeptical that citizens would be alerted to and be able to become sufficiently knowledgeable about the MIC’s threat to democracy because the communication system that was supposed to keep the public informed about the MIC’s potentially “disastrous rise of misplaced power” was on the DoD’s payroll. Schiller (1992, p. 95) observed how the “same forces that have produced the military-industrial-complex in American society-at-large have accounted for the rise of a powerful sub-sector, but by no means miniature, complex in communications.” Thus, more than 40 years ago, Schiller conceptualized “the important role of communication corporations in the military-industrial complex” (McChesney 2001, p. 48), as well as the rise of a “military-industrial-communications complex” (Mosco 2001, p. 27), or an “institutional edifice of communications, electronics, and/or cultural industries” that link and connect the DoD to media-corporate power (Maxwell 2003, p. 32). Generally, the MICC, the structural alliances between and the DoD and communications and media corporations, and points to a symbiotic integration between the DoD’s war-making exigencies and the media-corporate sector’s profit-maximizing goals. Specifically, the MICC points to the three following sites of DoD-communications-media- convergence.

First, the MICC refers to public-private partnerships between the DoD and communications-media corporations that frequently underwrite and sometimes instigate the research and development (R&D) of new information and communication technologies (ICTs). For example, Schiller (1992, p. 5) described the DoD’s channeling of enormous public funds into the private sector’s R&D of new ICTs that supported the growth of capitalist communications, industries, and innovations such as computer electronics, TV satellites, and the Internet (Schiller 2008). Schiller (1998) observed how “Astronomical sums have been allocated by the Pentagon, from the public’s tax money, to underwrite technological developments” and noted the “fruits of these outlays” have “contributed incalculably to US ascendancy in information technology” and the “underlying infrastructure” of “‘the information age’” (Schiller 1998, p. 20). In the twenty-first century, the Pentagon still supports Silicon Valley. In 2015, the DoD allocated $171 million to a consortium of Silicon Valley high-tech companies (including Apple) to support R&D on wearable technology, as part of its newly launched Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Hub.

Second, the MICC concept draws attention to how the DoD supports the existence and growth of major and minor communications and media corporations by acting as a significant consumer of the commodities they produce and sell. For example, Schiller (1992, p. 95) conceptualized DoD largesse as not only supporting the R&D of the new ICTs by corporations (working on contract to the DoD) but also supporting the consumption of these ICT commodities (via procurement contracts with the DoD). Schiller (1991, p. 106) observed how the DoD was an “enormous guaranteed market” for military-ready goods and services” and how the DoD’s huge “appropriations” and “expenditures” “offer[ed] a large and secure outlet to some of the nation’s most powerful businesses.” Some of the MIC’s war-ready ICT innovations were later spun off into the civilian market as commodities and reconfigured for civilian uses; the “main beneficiaries of the new capabilities in information production, transmission, and dissemination” continued to be “transnational companies, the intelligence, military and policing agencies” (Schiller 1998, p. 62). In the twenty-first century, numerous US communications and media companies – Walt Disney, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon – are recipients of DoD procurement contracts. As one news headline puts it, “Military Contracts are the Destiny of Every Major Technology Company” (Oberhaus 2018). Indeed, private communications and media companies sell the DoD everything from commercialized video production services to radio and TV equipment to telecommunication networks to antennas to processed film to engineering technologies to facial recognition technology to software to iPhones to central processing units to PR services to video games. US companies have accrued millions individually and billions collectively because of the DoD’s choice to procure communications and media goods and services from them.

Third, the MICC represents an intertwining of the DoD and communications-media corporations in the co-production of military and war promoting media and entertainment products. For example, Schiller (1991) noted how the DoD operated its own public relations apparatus and used it “to ‘inform’ and ‘persuade’ an American public unaware of the character and origin of the messages that are made available to it” (121). He scrutinized DoD efforts to manage the news media’s agenda and framing of war (and public opinion of war) by sourcing news journalists with propaganda briefings at press conferences, organizing spectacular media events, and dispatching spin doctors to the news media for interviews (Schiller 1973). Schiller also noted how the DoD, in addition to running its own PR apparatus, outsourced the labor of creating militaristic propaganda to advertising and marketing corporations, whose waged workers helped the DoD “bestow legitimacy and respectability to the entire military program” (Schiller 1992, pp. 121–122). Schiller highlighted how news media corporations participated in the DoD’s 1990 Gulf War propaganda campaign, rolling out militaristic media products whose frame of reference was derived from two official sources: the Pentagon and the White House (Schiller 1992, p. 1). Moreover, with DoD assistance, media corporations created militaristic popular culture that “paraded before” global viewers an “army of invaders and secret operatives who perform, in full special effects regalia, dramas that numb the intellect and channel the passions” (Schiller 2000, p. 45). In the twenty-first century, the DoD-popular cultural combines continue to cajole: the US Army alone has appeared in reality TV shows (American Idol), on daytime talk shows (The Oprah Winfrey Show), in Hollywood blockbusters (Iron Man and Man of Steel), in popular music videos (Joseph Washington’s “We Thank You”), and in video games (EA’s Medal of Honor) (Mirrlees 2016).

Overall, Schiller’s political economy of the MICC continues to be analytically valuable, as it identifies how the DoD supports US communications corporations by contracting the R&D of new ICTs, procuring finished ICT commodities from these corporations, and directly and indirectly collaborating with and sometimes even paying communications and media entertainment corporations to act with or alongside its PR apparatus as surrogate war propagandists. As the MICC grew, political economy of communication research on its structural dimensions was supplemented by new theorizations of how the form and content of its commercial output were transforming the citizen’s visual, aesthetic, and cultural experience of war. A few key scholarly concepts that extend Schiller’s work on the MICC by exploring and elaborating upon how the MICC’s media output is bringing about changes to the civic experience of war are discussed below.

At the turn of the millennium, James Der Derian (2001) contributed to study of the MICC by conceptualizing the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network” (MIME-NET) – a network of US military agencies, the defense industry, news media, and entertainment corporations. Der Derian (2001) described a US-based yet globalizing MIME-NET (xxxii) as leading a “virtual revolution in military and diplomatic affairs” (xiv). According to Der Derian, US warfare is increasingly accompanied by and “based on technological and representational forms of discipline, deterrence, and compulsion” (xv), and US wars are increasingly being “fought in the same matter as they are represented, by military simulations and public dissimulations” (xviii). The MIME-NET “seamlessly merge[s] the production, representation, and execution of war” (xxxvi) with satellite imagery, computer animations, and real-time broadcasting, and the result is a virtuous war that provides the military personnel controlling computerized weapon systems and the civilian viewers consuming the destruction caused by those weapons with “a vision of bloodless, humanitarian, hygienic wars” (xxxi). These virtuous wars aim “create a fidelity between the representation and reality of war,” but they ultimately fail to do so, as they displace and stand in for the real harm that war inflicts on human bodies and minds. “When compared to the real trauma of war” says Der Derian (2001), “the pseudo-trauma of simulation pales.” In effect, MIME-NET’s virtuous wars legitimize military violence while deceiving citizens about its consequences.

The unfortunate yet inevitable gap between the media representation of war and that reality it belies was conceptualized in the late 1990s by the British historian of propaganda Philip Taylor (1997, p. 119), who coined the term “media war” (which is rhetorically and analytically similar to Der Derian’s notion of “virtuous war”). Taylor (1997, p. 119) argued that when militaries prepare for war and wage it, two kinds of war seem to occur: a “real war” and a “media war.” Although the former war requires the latter, they are not identical, as these wars happen in different places, are experienced differently by those partaking in them, and have incommensurable consequences. The real war takes place upon the geographies where the fighting, killing, and dying occur (the territorial battlefield); the media war is what civilians see and hear at a safe distance from embodied risk, threat, and harm (a de-territorialized media battle-space). The “real war is about the sound, sight, smell, touch and taste of the nasty brutish business of people killing people” at the point of the war’s execution, while the “media war is literally a mediated event which draws on that reality” at the point of media consumption (Taylor 1997, p. 119). Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, successive developments in communication technologies and media forms shrunk the space between real war and media war rapidly and with greater efficiency, brought distant wars closer to home, and made what’s happening “over there” on deadly battlefields seem audiovisually closer to “here,” in safe-mediated battle spaces. In effect, the media war audiovisually represents real wars happening in a different time and place, but it does so in a way that displaces and stands in for the actuality of the real war.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Stahl (2010) made a major contribution to the study of militainment products that constitute the media war. Stahl (2010) notes that “entertainment has been part and parcel of military propaganda from the invention of mass media forward,” and so in the most literal sense, “militainment” is nothing new”(10). Nonetheless, Stahl conceptualizes militainment as “state violence translated into an object of pleasurable consumption” (6) and argues that it has effected a significant transformation in the civic experience of war, a shift in the audiovisual relationship between war and the citizen. The US empire’s early twentieth-century war propaganda aimed to engineer public consent to war by making a rational case for why the US fights and who it must fight (e.g., the persuasive appeal to the nation made by Frank Capra’s World War II Why We Fight series). The mid-to-late twentieth century’s TV war propaganda aimed to distract viewers from the real embodied horrors of war, so as to sanitize war and make death invisible (e.g., the spectacular coverage of the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War by major TV networks). Stahl contends that since the late 1990s, a new form of interactive militainment has emerged. Instead of trying to persuade rational citizens about the righteousness of war or inviting media consumers to passively lean back and watch a war unfold on a TV screen with pizza and beer, interactive militainment is more akin to a first-person shooter video game because it audiovisually addresses citizens as first-person participants in the media war and lets them experience war from the point of view of the soldier, the barrel of a gun, or the camera of a predator drone’s Hellfire missile. Interactive militainment does not try to justify or conceal war’s carnage and death (Stahl 2010, p. 43) but invites citizens to take a “sadistic posture” and derive guilt-free pleasure from virtually killing or witnessing the killing of the other; it does not simply glorify the DoD’s arsenal but enables citizens to virtually play with new weapons technology. Moreover, by giving citizen’s night vision goggle eye’s view, a tank gunner’s sight view, and a drone pilot’s eye view, it transforms the public eye into an extension of the military machine and “weaponizes the civic gaze” (Stahl 2010, p. 44). Beyond telling citizens to “support the troops,” interactive militainment invites citizens to virtually become, enlist as, and deploy and fight alongside the troops. It pulls citizens, audiovisually at least, into the military’s apparatus and war’s violent execution, all the while pushing citizens away from the point of public deliberation about state violence (Stahl 2010, p. 64).

Having reviewed some important precursors to and concepts that are useful for studying the MEC and its media output, the following section identifies the real state and corporate institutions that constitute the MEC and conceptualizes the relationship between these different but often entangled actors.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Entertainment Industries

The DoD is a US Federal Government agency headquartered at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and it is headed by a Secretary of Defense, who is a key national security policy advisor to the US President. The DoD controls the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, and Department of the Air Force. It also runs the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and R&D agencies that often partner with corporations and universities such as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The DoD also operates services schools including the National Defense University (NDU) and the National War College (NWC). The DoD employs approximately 1.3 million active duty personnel and 742,000 civilian personnel. The DoD’s mission “is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country” (“About the Department of Defense”). The DoD spans the planet, waging war to secure land, air, sea, and space against threats to America and buttressing strategic (and sometimes liberal democratic) interests.

The entertainment industries refer to the privately owned corporations that while mostly headquartered around Los Angeles, California, and New York City, New York, are transnational in their operations. Entertainment corporations are run by chief executive officers (CEOs), who, in conjunction with the presidents of different subsidiary units, exercise decision-making powers over the financing, production, distribution, and exhibition of entertainment products such as TV shows, films, and video games. The mission of an entertainment corporation is generally to produce entertainment commodities for sale in audiovisual markets that provide viewers with some kind of affective or emotionally satisfying experience, all the while turning a profit. Garnering budgets in the hundreds of millions and allocating immense sums of money to the manufacture of globally popular entertainment products, US-based entertainment and media corporations travel the globe, producing, distributing, and exhibiting entertainments and offloading them in numerous commodity forms that intersect with and embed images and stories in and across markets and cultures.

The DoD and entertainment corporations are clearly different types of organizations with different structures and goals. The DoD is part of the political sphere (the US State) and the entertainment industries, the economic one (capitalism). They DoD makes war in world affairs; entertainment companies make experiential commodities for world markets. The DoD serves US national security goals, as authorized by the president and congress; entertainment corporations pursue profit, as expected by financiers and shareholders. Despite these differences, there are many instances and moments, past and present, when these organizations converge and collaborate. The US empire’s military-entertainment complex, then, can be defined as a nexus of the border-crossing DoD (seeking to win wars while winning hearts and minds to the wars it wages in many countries) and globalizing US entertainment corporations (seeking to make money by making and selling entertainment commodities in many markets). This critical concept captures this symbiosis of war making and entertainment making by pointing to the real structural alliances, production partnerships, and mutually beneficial relationships between the DoD and entertainment corporations, two organizations not commonly associated with one another and whose connections are not always apparent. The MEC concept is analytically useful because it encourages studies of how the military and entertainment companies intentionally and routinely work together to make commercial militainments that put the DoD at war in a positive light. This concept also invites researchers to consider how entertainment products ostensibly made just for markets are also made to make the DoD look great in world politics. Furthermore, the concept sheds light on the symbiotic relationships between the DoD and entertainment companies that encourage the production of commodities that affirm the DoD and discourage the making of works that criticize it.

To embed itself in the entertainment industries, the DoD operates a massive Public Affairs Office (PAO) whose mandate is to coordinate “public information, internal information, community relations, information training, and audiovisual matters” for the DoD and produce and provide “defense department information to the public, the Congress and the media.” The PAO controls media and cultural production units such as the News and News Photos; the Defense Media Activity; the American Forces Radio and Television Service broadcasters; the American Forces Press Service; the DoD News Channel; the Stars and Stripes news service; and many DoD websites. These units produce and circulate content about the DoD at war across media platforms; source news firms with this prepackaged content in hopes that they will pass it on unfiltered to their readers, viewers, and listeners; and outsource content-generation jobs to media firms with no apparent connections to them, camouflaging their influence. The PAO also runs the DoD’s Special Assistant for Entertainment Media (DODSAEM) to support the production of entertainment commodities, such as war-themed news items, TV shows, films, and digital games.

Now that the major political and economic institutions of the MEC have been identified, the next section will examine how the DoD concretely links with specific sectors of the entertainment industries to produce commercial militainment that contributes to the militarization of US society and may maintain public consent to permanent war.

The MEC’s Sectors: News, Film, Sports, Video Games, and Social Media

The DoD-News Complex

The US Empire’s wars are fought by across distant lands, but these wars are represented to publics by news media products. As an industry, the news is structurally organized to make money for its owners and shareholders by selling subscriptions to readers and viewers and selling audience attention and data to advertisers. But in a democratic society, the news should inform and educate the public about substantive debates surrounding war policy and give expression to the range of clashing positions regarding war. Also, in a democratic society, the news ought to be “watchdog” of the most powerful war decision-making organizations – the state agencies and corporate lobbies that steer the empire’s war policy and so often lead the nation into perilous and regrettable wars. The news media should expose war spin, hold the state’s decision-makers to account, and support the broadest dialogue about and widest range of dissenting opinions about war in the society. Unfortunately, the DoD’s push to manage public opinion about war often combines with the industry’s business model to threaten the news media’s democracy-nourishing and civically useful role. The DoD attempts to get the public to think about war in a way that aligns with its war policy through the news industry, and news corporations have generally supported the DoD’s wartime propaganda. Due to a synergistic relationship between the DoD and the news industry, the news about the US Empire at war often mirrors the US State’s official war policy.

From World War I to the present day, the US military has combined persuasion with censorship to try to manage the private news media’s coverage of the wars it fights (Andersen 2006; Brewer 2011; Creel 1920; Carruthers 2011; Dimaggio 2009; Fulbright 1970; Hallin 1989, 1997; Herman and Chomsky 1988; Jeffords and Rabinovitz 1994; Knightley 1975, 2003; Mirrlees 2016; Rutherford 2004; Sweeney 2006; Taylor 1997). The lead up to and execution of the US 2003 preemptive invasion and occupation of Iraq was the most recent example of the DoD-news complex’s management of public opinion (Dimaggio 2009; Rutherford 2004). The US State’s “public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that” (Krugman 2015). To lead the American public into war, it manufactured a pretext of lies that framed the framed Saddam Hussein as in cahoots with al-Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attacks, claimed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them against the US and its allies, and depicted Iraqis as wanting Americans to liberate them. The TV news media parroted the state’s pretext of lies, telling people what to think about this war and how to think about, legitimizing as opposed to challenging the official story. The lead up to and execution of the “Shock & Awe” campaign were made-for-TV global militainment events, spectacles of mass deception and distraction.

Take the following symbolic manipulations. Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld appeared on TV news networks citing Judith Miller’s New York Times trumped up story about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. In the time and space not privileged for ads for soft drinks, automobiles, and other commodities, Fox News Channel’s pundits beat the military’s war drum against Saddam Hussein and presented support for war as patriotic, increasing ratings and ad revenue. The DoD dispatched retired US military generals and lobbyists for munitions corporations to TV news networks to fatten the case for preemptive war in the guise of neutral “analysts” and “experts.” When the bombing of Iraq began, TV gave spectators a “clean war” of bombs falling and exploding on Baghdad with no trace of civilian terror, injury, and death (Stahl 2010, p. 25), invited them to relish in “techno-fetishism” by glorifying the power and efficacy of the DoD’s weaponry (Stahl 2010, p. 28), and as usual, rallied them to “support the troops” by “equating support for official policy with support for the soldiers” (Stahl 2010, p. 29). When the siege of Baghdad began, hundreds of journalists (carefully vetted according to pro-military political correctness criteria by the Rendon Group, a PR firm) were “embedded” with the troops, living and working with them and covering the war from their point of view. More DoD-serving analysts appeared on TV news networks, talking up the good of the war, the weapons, and the troops and downplaying the war’s human consequences. The DoD hired Hollywood to create a soundstage from which military public affairs officers drip fed briefings and videos to reporters. It also censored images taken of dead US soldiers and corpses of Iraqi civilians to prevent them from flowing back to the USA while flacking and sometimes attacking nonaligned media firms like Al-Jazeera. The “Shock & Awe” media spectacle climaxed when a US soldier wrapped the face of a Saddam Hussein statue in the American flag as a few Iraqis gathered in Firdos Square, and attacked and pulled down the statue, with help from US psychological operations personnel. The grand finale? On May 1, 2003, US president George W. Bush, flying in a Lockheed S-3 Viking aircraft with a fighter pilot, landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Surrounded by hundreds of sailors, standing and grinning under a star-spangled banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Bush declared: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” Hubris followed applause. More hoopla. That was the end of “Shock & Awe,” but US forces are still in Iraq.

The DoD-Hollywood Complex

Each year, millions of people all around the world flock to cinemas to take in the spectacles of Hollywood blockbuster films. Hollywood has long been an industry designed to make its owners money by producing and selling films that entertain viewers, and Hollywood is preeminent around the world today. In 2018, Hollywood was behind all but 1 of the 20 highest worldwide grossing films, that being, China’s Operation Red Sea. While Hollywood’s global presence is widely recognized, perhaps less obvious to its consumers is the confluence of Hollywood’s profit-making and the DoD’s self-promotion, a long-standing merger of cinematic entertainment with military image-making. Year after year, Hollywood studios produce numerous commercial films that represent the DoD’s branches encompassing the globe, warring against and obliterating threats to American security. Many of these are shaped by the DoD, which collaborates with Hollywood to make movies that aim to sell in world markets and support the military’s self-image (Alford 2010, 2016; Andersen 2006; Boggs and Pollard 2007; Martin and Steuter 2010; Mirrlees 2013, 2016, 2017a, b; Robb 2004; Alford and Secker 2017; Suid 2002; Valantin 2005).

The formation of the DoD-Hollywood complex stretches back to the early twentieth century. In in the lead up to World War I, David Wark Griffith, a friend of President Woodrow Wilson, started working on the The Birth of a Nation (1915) with assistance from the Army’s West Point engineers. During World War I, the Committee on Public Information’s (CPI) Division of Films worked with Hollywood to make films that supported US war aims as well as American liberal capitalism and carried these works “to every community in the United States and to every corner of the world” (Creel 1920). During World War II, the Office of War Information’s (OWI) Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) networked with Hollywood, which it regarded as an “Essential War Industry” (Short 1985). “The motion picture,” said OWI head Elmer Davis, is “the most powerful instrument of propaganda in the world, whether it tries to be or not” (cited in Koppes and Black 1977, p. 88). Davis continued, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized” (Koppes and Black 1977, p. 88). During World War II, Hollywood made approximately 500 of these pictures, including Blondie for Victory and Frank Capra’s Why We Fight.

During the Cold War, the hitherto exceptional war time cooperative arrangement between the DoD and Hollywood was routinized. In 1948, the DoD’s public affairs branch opened the Motion Picture Production Office (MPPO) and hired Donald Baruch, who worked as the DoD’s liaison to Hollywood for the next 40 years, reading, vetting, and co-producing war scripts with Hollywood studios. The MPPO set up film review offices and granted Hollywood filmmakers assistance – access to hardware like tanks, ships or planes, troops, bases, and technical knowledge – so long as they agreed to make films that represented the DoD in a positive way (Suid 2002). Until the mid-1960s, all the major war films produced by Hollywood received technical assistance from the MPPO (Suid 2002, p. xii). The MPPO denied assistance to critically acclaimed Vietnam War films such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Deer Hunter (1978), but after brief falling out in the 1970s, the DoD and Hollywood reunited in the 1980s, making films like Top Gun (1986). In 1989, Phil Strub replaced Baruch, and throughout the 1990s, Strub helped Hollywood roll out films like Armageddon (1998), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and The Siege (1998) (Robb 2004).

Since 9/11, Strub’s DoD Special Assistant for Entertainment Media (DODSAEM) has administered a Hollywood liaison office out of every one of the DoD’s branches. DODSAEM oversees the Office of Army Chief of Public Affairs, the Navy Office of Information West, the Air Force’s Office of Public Affairs-Entertainment Liaison Office, the Marines’ Public Affairs Motion Picture and Television Liaison, and the Coast Guard’s Motion Picture and TV Office. Located in Los Angeles, these offices are the go-to place for Hollywood producers looking to get the DoD to assist their war films (Robb 2004). Some of the outcomes include Pearl Harbor (2001), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), and Windtalkers (2002). The DoD also assisted Marvel comic book films such as Iron Man (2008) (Mirrlees 2013), DC superhero flicks such as Man of Steel (2013), and science fiction films such as Transformers (Mirrlees 2017b). All in all, between 1911 and 2007, the DoD-Hollywood complex shaped 814 war films, and many of these works of “national security cinema” promoted “violent, self-regarding, American-centric solutions to international problems based on twisted readings of history” (Alford and Secker 2017, p. 2).

The DoD-Sports Complex

Sports is a significant form of popular entertainment that millions of people participate in and consume around the world. Sporting events support social bonding, rituals of communal identity formation, escapism from the burdens of waged work, and aspirational identifications with celebrity athletes. Sports is also big business, and in 2018, the US sports industry generated over $70 billion in revenue. The biggest players in this industry are the National Football League (NFL), the Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). With its popular resonance and vast audience reach, professional sports have long been a significant venue for and vehicle of military propaganda. The DoD and the sports industry have worked together for decades. The DoD’s publicity exigencies and the sports industry’s bottom line converge in a DoD-sports complex, and the links between war and sport are numerous.

Over the past decade, the DoD has paid athletes, teams, and entire leagues to promote itself to the public. Between 2012 and 2015, the DoD spent over $10.4 million on advertising contracts with US sports corporations. From 2011 to 2014, the DoD paid out nearly $5.4 million to 14 NFL teams in exchange for the opportunity to publicize athletes saluting the military, “military flyovers, flag unfurlings, emotional color guard ceremonies, enlistment campaigns, and – interestingly enough – national anthem performances”. The DoD’s “paid patriotism” is a boon to the sports business, which also sells DoD-league and DoD-team branded hats and jerseys to fans. The DoD’s militarization of sports aims to maintain public support for the wars it fights and the budgets it increases, and most importantly, attempts to increase the number of recruits to its ranks. Since 2008, the DoD has recruited soldiers at Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) events. Some MMA fighters (and their fans) move from Octagon to the Pentagon; others shift from the battlefields of Iraq to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). “The UFC provides a great venue to get the Army name into the minds of millions of young Americans” said Major Kelly Crigger (cited in Brick 2008).

The DoD-sports complex also links with the military-industrial complex. Bell Helicopter, a US defense corporation that produces and sells helicopters, regularly sponsored the Armed Forces Bowl (AFB) (Butterworth and Moskal 2009). By doing so, Bell Helicopter built up its brand as a patriotic corporation and reminded the DoD procurement officers that its helicopters are on the DoD’s team. The DoD’s wielding of such commercialized weapons of mass destruction in wars against foreign peoples is often scheduled alongside major global sporting events. The USA started bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan just a half hour before the quarterbacks for the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals began launching “long bombs” in the stadium. The start of the Global War on Terror was blurred into the televised spectacle of football. As an American man watching this big post-9/11 game at a bar commented: “[The Taliban] wanted to play the game, and now the score is tied. It’s good. We should [hit them] again” (cited in Stossel 2001).

Chomsky (2002) argues that professional sports teach spectators national chauvinism, irrational competition, and loyalty to power while distracting and steering them away from matters of importance, such as war. Yet, the DoD-sports complex fuses the DoD’s war-promotion exigencies with the business logics of the sports industry. This resulting collusion links the field of sports, the players, and the fans to the battlefield of war and the ethos of soldiering. It extols a jingoistic form of militarized patriotism, conceals the human lives destroyed by war, and, as indicated by the State and industry backlash against Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” suppresses dissent (Astore 2018).

The DoD-Digital Games Complex

Video games are a lot of fun to play, and in the USA, more than half of the population plays video games. Video games are produced by a massive globe-spanning interactive entertainment industry of developers and publishers for a market that in 2018 was worth well over $115 billion. When trying to deflect public criticisms of the real wars they have embroiled the nation in, US presidents sometimes frame war video games as crass and simple simulations as compared to the real thing. In response to questions about the US State’s contentious bombing campaign in Iran, Obama chimed: “These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.” Undoubtedly, real war is not exactly like a war video game, yet, the links between the US DoD’s real wars and commercial war game simulations are palatable, thanks in part to the growth of a DoD-digital-games complex.

The DoD-digital games complex refers to the structural alliances and symbiotic relationships between the DoD and US-based digital game firms that produce military shooter games which blur and blend the DoD’s war machine with commercial game machines and the labor pains of fighting real wars with the paid for consumer pleasures released when playing interactive simulations of them. A real institutional convergence of the DoD’s institutions, policies, and personnel and digital capitalism’s developers, publishers, and players, this complex shapes the design, production, promotion, and stories of some commercially available war games (Andersen and Kurti 2011; Halter 2006; Huntemann and Payne 2010; Dyer-Witherford and De Peuter 2009; Lenoir 2000, 2003; Leonard 2004; Mirrlees 2009, 2014; Payne 2016; Stahl 2006, 2010).

The DoD underwrites the R&D of many war simulation games through the Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office (M&S CO). The M&S CO contracts digital game firms to make war simulation games and “procures” the finished war commodities sold by them. Beneath the M&S CO are DoD agencies, each immersed in the business of war simulation R&D. These include the US Army’s Project Executive Office Simulation; Training and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI); the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT); the US Army Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM); and the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute (MOVES). Also, located at the University of Southern California (USC), the ICT (established in 1999) receives DoD funding and liaisons with the interactive entertainment industry. Founded by the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California, in 2000, MOVES bring together US military personnel, digital game firms, and academics. These linkages between the DoD and digital game industry annually channel millions of public dollars into digital war game R&D.

From allocating public dollars to R&D on simulation technologies for war purposes to consuming war-ready software and hardware from private firms to cultivating consumer demand for and cross-promoting war games by waging wars, the DoD is a boon to the digital games industry. In fact, the market power of the US digital war games industry has long been assisted by DoD subvention. In fact, the DoD supported crucial innovations in the history of digital games: the first video game (SpaceWar!); the first head-mounted virtual reality display system, the first first-person shooter video game (Maze Wars); the first tank simulator arcade game (Panzer PLATO to Atari’s Battlezone); the first prototype of an online multiplayer game (Empire for the PLATO computer network) and then, SIMnet, or “simulation network”; and the first full-fledged Army recruitment game (America’s Army, which is freely available to play online).

Digital war games are at the forefront of a hugely popular and profitable interactive militainment industry, and these games immerse civilians into first- and third-person battle spaces and virtual theaters of war-fighting. The DoD sees in its military shooters a number of benefits. Permanent war requires an unending recruitment campaign, and starting in 2002, the DoD has used its own online game, America’s Army, to attract millions of youthful gamers to real careers in the real Army. To reduce overhead costs and mitigate the risk of soldiers dying while training for battle with live ammunition, the DoD uses war games to teach new and existing personnel how to fight. Shortly after 9/11, the Army fashioned Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear into a means of training soldiers how to fight terrorists in urban warfare settings and also oversaw the ICT and Pandemic Studios’ development of Full Spectrum Warrior to prepare the troops for battles in Baghdad. Seated in front of a computer screen, hands on controller, eyes on a mediatized battlefield, drone operators wage wars increasingly modeled on game play too. Many troops return home from real wars suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): to prevent them from killing themselves, the DoD provisions virtual therapy to them in form of games like Virtual Iraq.

Furthermore, the DoD leans on war video games to elicit consent to or maintain public morale for real wars. In the years following 9/11, Fugitive Hunger: War on Terror and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell immersed players in the Global War on Terrorism. Conflict Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad was launched in the same year as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq began, and this game enlisted players in a virtual war to invade Iraq and topple Saddam’s Ba’thist regime. Normalizing the US State’s past decade of non-congressionally approved violence, and glorifying the DoD’s reliance on privatized mercenaries to wage dirty wars, the Call of Duty: Black Ops franchise is one of the most popular around the world. 2018’s best-selling video game was Call of Duty Black Ops 4, the latest addition to a franchise that took over $1 billion in sales in 1 month and put millions of players in the virtual boots of black ops soldiers to fight opponents and zombies too.

War incentivizes the making of war games, yet, not all military shooters are spun out of the DoD-digital games complex. Most often, “game studios hire subject matter experts to advise them on proper tactics, protocols, and battlefield behaviors with the aim of engendering ‘authentic’ military experiences without having to submit their design choices to the scrutiny of the government’s exacting review process” (Payne 2015, p. 6). Nonetheless, whether made by or in partnership with the DoD, all commercial digital war games risk desensitizing players to war’s embodied horrors and deterring serious public deliberation about war. Digital war games encourage a militarized view of reality, and they prepare players, ideologically and practically, for the US empire’s current and speculative wars. Indeed, in Battlefield 4 (2003), the US goes to war against China; Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011) simulates World War III between the USA and Russia; Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013) pits a declining US Empire against a coalition of Latin American states.

The DoD-Social Media Complex

In the early twenty-first century, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are everywhere and used by billions of people for everything from socializing to self-promotion to entertainment. Social media platforms are interwoven with the everyday lives of billions, and they are also paradigmatic of “platform capitalism” (Srnicek 2017), or, “a new business model, capable of extracting and controlling immense amounts of data” (6) that user activity produces. Indeed, platform corporations provide the “infrastructure to intermediate between different groups” (Srnicek 2017, p. 48), and they collect, analyze, process, commoditize, and sell people’s private data, often to advertisers (Fuchs 2017). In addition to being a tool and a business model, these Internet-based social media platforms have also become a space of war in which the DoD battles its enemies.

The DoD imagines the Internet and World Wide Web as a “battle space” in which many government, corporate, and non-state actors produce and “deliver critical and influential content in order to shape perceptions, influence opinions, and control behavior” (Armistead 2004, p. xvii). The DoD considers the Internet and social media platforms to be a “cyber domain,” and as such, it aspires to command and control it, along with land, sea, air, and space. Rand Waltzman (2015), the former program manager for a $50 million dollar DARPA study of “Social Media in Strategic Communication,” said “the use of social media and the Internet is rapidly becoming a powerful weapon for information warfare and changing the nature of conflict worldwide.” The DoD uses social media platforms to spread information that enhances its image and counters information that puts it in a negative light.

Take the example of the DoD’s foray into YouTube, the world’s largest online video sharing site. YouTube enables a plurality of combatants to upload and share first-hand videos about the wars the USA is in. As Naim (2006) observed, “YouTube includes videos posted by terrorists, human rights groups, and US soldiers,” and some of these “videos reveal truths,” while others “spread disinformation, propaganda, and outright lies.” The development of YouTube, the diffusion of low-cost digital cameras and laptop computers within the US military, the desire of American soldiers to film, share, and make public their personal experience of war to civilians, and the efforts of citizens to peel back the veneer of the media war and get somewhat closer to the real thing all drive the production, circulation, and consumption of YouTube war videos. Some of the earliest videos uploaded to YouTube by US soldiers depicted the US occupation of Iraq at its worst. Soldier-generated videos ranged from disgusting (“Apache Kills in Iraq“ showed a US gunship firing high powered munitions at Iraqis and exploding their bodies) to dehumanizing (“Iraqi Kids Run for Water“ depicted thirsty Iraqi children chasing a US armoured truck full of American soldiers who tease the kids by dangling a bottle of water). These soldier-generated YouTube videos countered the “myths of national glory, macho heroism and clinical warfare manufactured by military and media elites” and “offer[ed] the public uncensored insights into the mundane, violent, and even depraved faces of warfare” (Anden-Papadopoulos 2009, p. 25).

To reign in these unofficial uses of YouTube by US military personnel, and to counter YouTube videos made by the US military’s opponents, the DoD started coordinating YouTube publicity campaigns. Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, for example, explained the importance of YouTube: “we understand that it is a battle space in which we have not been active, and this is a media we can use to get our story told” (cited in Zavis 2007). To push official war stories via YouTube, the DoD uses a combination of censorship and self-promotion. In May 2007, the DoD started blocking its Iraq-stationed soldiers’ access to YouTube and compelling all soldiers to submit their videos to their supervisors for review prior to publishing them on the web. In that same year, the DoD launched its own YouTube channel, Multi-National Force Iraq (MNFIRAQ) (Christensen 2008). Administered by Brent Walker and Erick Barnes (ex-Marines turned military-contracted social media propagandists), MNFIRAQ claimed to “give viewers around the world a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective of Operation Iraqi Freedom from those who are fighting it.” Yet, a study of 29 of this channel’s videos concluded that it represented a sanitized vision of the US occupation of Iraq (Christensen 2008). Many of the videos display gun battles in streets sans death, acts of “surgical warfare” sans terror, and the “good deeds” of US soldiers sans resentment.

The DoD’s partnership with YouTube is but one of many examples of the DoD-social media complex in action. DoD public affairs officers also socially network with users via Facebook pages, manage Twitter accounts, and post photos to Pinterest. By spreading itself across the private social platforms that intersect with the daily lives of billions, the DoD bypasses the gatekeeping powers of the news media and turns the manufacture of consent to war into an interactive DoD-to-public affair.


This chapter highlighted the MEC and the various sub-complexes that produce and circulate militainment in support of war. The DoD’s pursuit of strategic supremacy and the entertainment industries’ pursuit of profit intertwine in significant ways, bringing the business of war and creativity into a strategic alliance. To prepare for, promote, glorify, and sell the wars of the US empire as a way of life to the public, the DoD has weaponized the entertainment industries and a wide range of media products such as news stories, Hollywood films, sporting events, video games, and social media.

That said, the DoD does not own or exert direct control over the entertainment industries; and the many media products that these industries produce and sell do not always already promote and legitimize the DoD at war. Some entertainments may even offer subtle or full-blown criticisms of the DoD. For example, Redacted (2007) and Green Zone (2010) represent the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a crime with terrible human consequences; and, Team America (2004) and Tropic Thunder (2008) parody war as a media spectacle. Digital games like Special Ops: The Line (2012) grapple with war’s many horrors (Payne 2014). Furthermore, the recent transformation of the overall communications and media environment by the Internet, World Wide Web and social media platforms has given rise to a “ubiquitous media war,” a war read about, seen, listened to, watched, played, debated, and interactively “prosumed,” participated in by millions around the world through a range of technological mediums (e.g., TV sets, personal computers, game consoles, smartphones and tablets), and fought, almost anytime, anywhere. In this context, it is doubtful that the DoD possesses the power to command and control the total public opinion of war (Gillan et al. 2008; Mirrlees 2018). Yet, if the MEC and militainment were ineffective, we might see widespread popular cultural opposition to the US Empire and war as way of life. The absence or dearth of this resistance might be explained with regard to the MEC’s continuing power.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Communication and Digital Media StudiesUniversity of Ontario Institute of TechnologyOshawaCanada