Talking About War: American Mass Media and Christian Theology

This project centers on mass media portrayals of military and warfare in the United States and seeks to reflect upon them through the application of practical theology.  Elements of the Christian theological tradition will serve the current project as a norming influence[1] and ground subsequent proposed responses to the proliferation of speech, warfare depiction, and entertainment that spur militarism.  This project does not intend to determine whether or not war is ever justified; it focuses on the depiction of and speech about warfare in the American media.

Mass Media Portrayals of Warfare

I have compiled the following series of videos, images, and messages produced by the entertainment industry, United States government, and various news outlets.  Examination of these case studies will reveal thematic language, tropes, and characteristics of warfare depiction.

Government Depictions

Presidential Address.

Arguably the most influential depiction of military action in American society comes from the President; beside representing the country to the rest of the world, the commander-in-chief is saddled with wartime powers and authorized uses of force in foreign theaters.  A long history of presidential addresses both leading up to military action and during wartime has set an expectation that the Whitehouse communicate to the American people its case for entry into war.

Norman Solomon has identified certain language parallels between the various presidents since the Vietnam War in his documentary War Made Easy.  Each president has stressed both his reluctance to enter into conflict and his love for peace, even while ordering massive military action, as well as setting the needs for democratic freedom alongside a host of American virtues including sacrifice, hard work, and a willingness to help.  The net effect of the presidential address justifies military action and presents ultimately devastating measures, such as bombing, “as an act of kindness and altruism.”[2]

The language of good vs. evil often frames these addresses, with the U.S. standing perennially on the side of good.  In the self-titled War on Terror, George Bush stated, “My administration has a job to do and we’re going to do it.  We will rid the world of evil-doers.”[3]  He joined an established, presidential tradition of presenting warfare as the necessary and just solution for protecting vulnerable people and correcting an array of injustices across the globe.

Military Media.

Although the presidency is a powerful shaper of public opinion, branches of the military themselves have developed publicity structures, advertising campaigns, and recruitment tools.  In an effort to reach a specific demographic of Americans, for example, the U.S. Army produced T.V. spots, P.C. games, comic books, and a reality-television show (as of June 2013). [4]

In the following advertisement, Symbol of Strength – More than a Uniform, enlisting in the Army is equated with a host of civilian achievements. The uniform is compared to a key (presumably to a car or house), college acceptance letter, passport, magnet, breakthrough, diploma, secret handshake, and the jersey “of the greatest team on earth.”  It promises to make you stronger, wiser, more substantial, more respected, and take you places you’ve never imagined, all while carrying the moniker “legendary.”

Instead of fading out completely, the phrase “acceptance letter” disappears amidst high-fives and a group huddle, leaving only the word “acceptance” when one soldier pulls another up onto a rock.[5]  The depiction of warfare in this advertisement is similar to many others that the army has developed; it emphasizes tight shots of contented faces and beautiful scenery while leaving out harsher realities.  The only active engagement shown in this advertisement takes place when soldiers are either entering or exiting battle (i.e. helicopters landing and taking off). The conflation of positive depiction and the conspicuous absence of human loss (on either side) sends the message that military involvement makes us better individuals and builds community, because we belong to something bigger, and better, than our non-military selves.

In 2002, the U.S. Army released America’s Army, a free online video game intended as a novel recruiting tool, [6] which eventually garnered a reputation as one of the biggest virtual war games of all time, even spawning a series of comic books.

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The message of the Army’s television, P.C. game, and comic book advertisement campaign is clear:  warfare is not only the cauldron in which regular people become better versions of themselves, it’s also entertaining.

News Media Depictions

Major news outlets in the United States are in the business of covering the various wars that the U.S. orchestrates.  Solomon (War Made Easy) uses the Iraq War coverage as a helpful case study for examining the generally supportive role that the press played both leading up to the war and throughout its first years.[7]

Dependent Journalism.

Although the press corps has prided itself on the tenets of independent journalism, the word on war from most major contemporary news outlets comes from the hands of official government sources and Pentagon releases.  Instead of questioning the official information concerning the invasion of Iraq, stations struck an accepting and supportive stance that created what Solomon calls “a drumbeat media echo effect.”[8] For an example of this, one only needs to observe reactions to Colin Powell’s pre-war United Nation address:

Colin Powell was outstanding today… I mean, it was lockstep – it was so compelling,  I don’t see how anybody, at this point, cannot support this effort (Fox News’ Sean Hannity).[9]

While the press in the United States unanimously praised Powell’s speech, foreign news outlets raised immediate questions about its accuracy.[10]

It is relatively difficult to find any major American news coverage that questioned the lead-up to the United States’ invasion.  The one real exception to this rule, MSNBC’s highest-rated Phil Donahue, was terminated by the station precisely because he bucked the news media trend.  A leaked internal memo cited the reason for his termination; Donahue might make a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”[11]      The silencing of dissenting voices, embedding of journalists, government collusion, official sources, and the supportive default coverage coalesced into the “echo effect” that presented war with Iraq as both inevitable and morally acceptable – conspicuously absent of investigative critique.

Relaying Shock and Awe.

Examining the coverage of “Operation Freedom” yields a few commonalities.  Once the initial “Shock and Awe” campaign started, images of explosions flooded American broadcasts.  The typical depiction did not focus on pilots dropping the bombs or the ships launching the cruise missiles, but observed the destruction from afar.  After the initial strikes, American camera teams did not seek out personal stories on the ground in the aftermath or work to portray the human cost of the invasion with the same amount of intention as their foreign counterparts.

Fixation upon machinery coincided with this relatively disembodied reporting, with prime-time explorations of American military technology beginning even before the war.[12]  In the following example, a news anchor introduces one such special; “Often on this broadcast we examine the weapons the U.S. could bring to bear in any war in Iraq. Earlier this week we showed you what the B-1 bomber can bring to the fight.”[13]

Adjectives such as “beautiful,” “stunning,” “smart,” and “impressive,” have been used by anchors to describe the various weapons in the American cache, while the opposition’s weaponry was regarded as “dirty,” even though the U.S. dropped bombs loaded with depleted uranium during the war.[14]  The celebration of American weaponry sophistication lent the country’s warfare a greater air of morality.

Newspeak about the war included a breadth of metaphors, but the comparison between war and sports was specifically ubiquitous.  For instance, one broadcaster said that General Franks “called an audible at the line of scrimmage” when he decided to switch from the blunt force of “shock and awe” to a more surgical removal of Saddam.[15]  Employing metaphors of this caliber rendered the events more accessible, building upon parallels between contact sports, like football, and military action.

Entertainment Industry Depictions

The U.S. Army has tapped into the entertainment industry with video games, movies, and television shows, as previously discussed, but it is by no means the only producer of military-themed entertainment.  Stories of heroism, sacrifice, and overcoming evil accompany depictions of warfare in everything from the Military Channel to children’s cartoons.

This G.I Joe opening[16] showcases a few genre motifs that are worth highlighting.  Notice that the enemy is portrayed categorically different from the G.I.s; the enemies’ faces are covered and their skin is a shade of gray. They even operate under a serpentine moniker -COBRA.

This stylistic device occurs across the entertainment landscape:

It’s a dichotomist way of viewing the world… children are encouraged to separate and be alienated from this Other and in fact encouraged to hate the Other through a series of messages that polarize the world into good and bad and in order to solve your problems with the enemies you have to fight with them.[17]

Gaming.

War-specific games are among the most popular today.  Although some construct highly fantastical wars, several of the biggest franchises specifically focus on recreating past and present wars in realistic fashion. One of these franchises, Battlefield, released the newest game in its series October, 2013:

In this case, warfare provides the platform for displays of power, skill, and dominance.  The narrator in the Anthem trailer sums up the whole experience as the “glorious, mind-blowing freedom of all-out war.”[18]  This message coheres to the ones found in the U.S. Army advertisements; military action is the key to bettering ourselves, earning respect, and expressing our power.  The ending aircraft carrier sequence speaks to the community-building aspect of military gaming, echoing the message that the military community itself seeks to send.

Game developers sell copies based upon how far they push the line between entertainment and reality, so the incentive to depict realistic warfare is high.  The connection between real life war and gaming is no more apparent than when weapons manufacturers began sending consultants to various game developers to ensure that their weapons looked, sounded, and felt proportionate to reality[19] and games came to include detailed specification lists for each of their in-game weapons.  Depicting warfare as a form of entertainment is a massively lucrative business.

Hearts, Minds, and Money

Interpretation of these case studies requires a look at possible reasons for speaking about war in these ways.  The search for profits undoubtedly leads the entertainment industry’s impulse to portray war; since warfare sells, they sell warfare. Government and press portrayals of warfare, on the other hand, can be construed as a two-pronged approach to drum up popular support.  Especially since the Vietnam Era, public opinion on the home front has been looked upon as a battle to be won; influencing the country’s mood and perception were admittedly key components in Bush’s Iraqi campaign.

Both the government and press speak of war as benevolence and emphasize its inevitability, but they usually tell only a portion of the tale.  For instance, presidents speak of dictators as mad dogs needing to be put down when, in fact, the U.S. government installed and funded them in the first place.[20]  On the domestic side of things, it is interesting that the U.S. Army advertisements depict the military making men and women “stronger, wiser, etc.”, which might be true for some, but the Army fails to report the fact that deployment has a relationship to depression and mental illness (more soldiers died from suicide than in Afghanistan during the first half of 2012).[21]  Both government and news media depiction amounts to a “very effective form of propaganda”[22] when leaving out information and telling a selective rendition of history. Thus they represent warfare in a series of half-truths as a means of accomplishing the administration’s military objectives.

Christian Theological Tradition

Practical theological method brings observation and interpretation into conversation with a norming source, Christian theology, in order to elicit prescriptive responses.  Three theological concepts (divine image, fall, and enemy-love) will frame our conclusions; space does not permit a survey of many nuanced opinions concerning these theological tenets, but the Christian traditional as a whole has historically incorporated them as essential.

Theology of the “Other”

Imago Dei and the Fall.

Basic anthropological questions lie at the heart of perceptions about war.  That which people believe about themselves and other humans directly influences social and international action – and Christian theology has much to say about human beings.

Arguably the most important, influential, and debated idea in theology is that humans are created in God’s image, or imago Dei.   The most dominant interpretation of the divine image in Christian history articulates an image consisting of certain capabilities and characteristics (i.e. reason). Other interpreters, beginning with the reformers, believe that the image is primarily relational (and created whole in original righteousness).[23]  In either interpretation, the image is not considered to be wholly lost after the Fall.  The imago Dei points to the fact that humans are considered valuable objects of both God’s love (Matt. 6:26) and God’s commands, are created in relationship with the triune God, and each holds the potential of participation in the final restoration of all things, as humans are made into the image of Christ, the fullest expression of God.[24]

Garden of Eden depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Garden of Eden depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Although they continue to bear the image, humans are depicted throughout the Bible as fallen from a state of grace into a state of brokenness and sin; every human is created in the image of God, but everyone falls short (Rom 3:23).  According to Christian theology, there exists simultaneously within every person worth, potential for good, and the potential for evil.

Regarding the Enemy.

BlochSermonOnTheMountSpecifically Christian teaching about relating to enemies began with the sayings of Jesus.  Whereas elements of the Jewish religious tradition elevated the lex talionis (reciprocal violence) and hatred for enemies, Jesus taught his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).  He gave these commands in the context of humankind’s relationship to God; if humans are “children of [their] Father,” then they should act like God;  God makes the sun rise on both good and evil people, therefore humans should love both the good and the evil (Matt 5:45).  Theologians have often disagreed as to what precisely constitutes “loving” enemies, but love for God’s humans is the direction of the Christian ethical response.

Bringing Theology to Bear Upon War Portrayal

There are several themes in the media’s depiction of warfare that intersect with Christian virtues; publicly honoring soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice their lives, for example, is something akin to considering others more important than the self (Phil 2:3) and war-as-metanarrative provides a unifying and community-building function.  Theological reflection, however, insists on portraying war in different ways, because the grave human cost of war requires grave language and honest representation.

A Different Entertainment.

It would be remiss to conclude that all first-person shooters and every movie that portrays the military are morally unacceptable; as many gamers have attested, killing pixels is not the same as killing people.  When entertainment production pushes the line between reality and fiction, however, this argument begins to erode.  Presenting the practice of war, past wars, or current wars as entertainment shapes our thinking about war in real-life, because its very intention is to intersect our reality at many levels.  Is such a pursuit healthy for our society’s thinking about war?  Is it necessary for entertainers to push this level of immersion, or do other venues exist by which developers can give their clients feelings of empowerment, skill, and “mind blowing freedom?” Practical Christian response includes the critical consumption of entertainment, as opposed to passive reception, and perhaps investment in alternatives to the war-realism genre.

A Sober Press.

Recognition of universal brokenness highlights the need for an independent, sober news media.  Since the United States government has considerable power, but is not itself perfect, an independent check upon that power is more than necessary.  This balancing force is never more essential than when the U.S. intends to enter international conflict, but the opposite has been the case historically.  Instead of embedding journalists, promulgating officially tailored stories, and silencing opposing voices, the liberal news media should live up to its name and reclaim investigative journalism in the name of honestly representing state violence.

Practical Christian response to the American news media begins with valuing transparency in the churches.  Before we can require our news anchors to get accustomed to asking hard questions, we must be acclimated to the process of engaging self-reflection.  After this, it behooves each Christian to think through the sources from which they receive information about the world, themselves, and their own government.

Depicting Ourselves and the Other.

When the president speaks in terms of good and evil, an insidious denial of both the imago Dei and the universality of sin are at play.  If the potential for evil lies at the door of every human heart, then a much more humble and realistic depiction of ourselves is in order.  The United States does not always act on altruistic intentions and speaking as if it does only serves to cloud reality.  The reluctance of the president to enter into conflict should not be laid at the cost of going to war alone, but at the likelihood that abuse will accompany any attempt at “liberation.”  Recognizing evil in others requires an admission that evil resides with us as well.

The image of God in humanity is denigrated when speakers employ certain tropes to shape the image of the enemy, or cloud the seriousness of violence with sports metaphor.  In both cartoon and presidential address, dictators and terrorists are presented as one-dimensional objects capable of only evil and putting them down is akin to scoring a goal or winning a game.  Instead of operating on the current models of entertainment and speech which place misleading, categorical differences between the protagonist and the enemy, a certain amount of context is needed to accurately conceptualize the history and personhood of each.  When presentations of the Other are obscured or insidious, they prevent both the process of coming to know and coming to love the people for whom Jesus calls us to intercede.

All of this begins at home, so to speak.  A pragmatic Christian response includes viewing the perceived enemies of Christianity, both foreign and domestic, in the most humanizing of terms and emphasizes the importance of boundary-crossing work.  Only then can the church take its place in America as prophetic witness and join God in shaping the language that wider society has for war.

—–

[1] Richard R. Osmer, Practical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 3.

[2] Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, DVD, prod.Loretta Alper (Northampton: Media Education Foundation, 2007)

[3] Manuel Perez-Rivas, “Bush vows to rid the world of ‘evil-doers’”, CNN, 16 September, 2001. Accessed 6 December, 2013. http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/09/16/gen.bush.terrorism/

[5] “Symbol of Strength – More than a Uniform”, YouTube, Flash Video,http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=zRsxBVMwFoU (accessed December 6, 2013)

[6] Roger Stahl, Militainment, Inc.: Militarism and Pop Culture. DVD. Produced by Roger Stahl. Northampton: Media Education Foundation, 2007)

[7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] Alper.

[13] “MSNBC Countdown to Iraq (Friday Broadcast),” YouTube, Flash Video, Accessed 6 December, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH8PQ4Gxxck

[14] Al-Azzawi, Dr. Souad. “Depleted Uranium Radioactive Contamination in Iraq: An Overview.”Harvard Physics. Accessed 6 December, 2013.http://users.physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/soundscience/Al-Azzawi.pdf

[15] Robert Lipsyte, “Sports metaphors trivialize war,” USA Today, 6 April, 2003, Accessed 6 December, 2013, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2003-04-06-lipsyte_x.htm

[16] “G.I. Joe Opening,” YouTube, Flash Video, Accessed 6 December, 2013,http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bHV0K37B4Tc

[17] Chyng Sun, Beyond Good & Evil: Children, Media & Violent Times, DVD, prod. Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker (Northampton: Media Education Foundation, 2003)

[18] “Only In Battlefield 4: Anthem TV Trailer,” YouTube, Flash Video, Accessed 6 December 2013,http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wAH__zmdkk4

[19] Sami Yenigun, “A Real-World Connection Between Video Games and Guns,” NPR, 29 April, 2013, Accessed 6 December 2013, http://m.npr.org/news/Technology/179853504

[20] Alper.

[21] Burns, Robert. “AP Impact: Suicides are Surging Among US Troops.” 8 June, 2012. Accessed 6 December 2013. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/ap-impact-suicides-are-surging-among-us-troops-0

[22] Alper.

[23] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 169ff.

[24] Grenz, 177ff.

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