The U.S. Military in Science Fiction

W.J. Astore

Two weeks ago, I did an interview with TheoFantastique on the military in science fiction. I’d like to thank John Morehead, the site’s creator, for inviting me to answer a few questions on a subject near and dear to my heart.

TheoFantastique: Bill, thanks for making a little time to respond to a few questions related to the subject matter of your article. What are some general observations you have made about the shift in science fiction film depictions of the American military from the post-World War II period to the present?

3175_8dayearth_lgBill Astore: Thanks for inviting me, John. I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Films of that era were generally critical of the establishment, including sci-fi films. I fondly recall Planet of the Apes with its anti-nuclear message. Also Soylent Green with its warning about over-population, but even more dire was the way in which the authorities hid from the people the true nature of their new food source. Think also of Capricorn One, hardly a great film, but one which exposed a government conspiracy at the heart of the first manned mission to Mars. And Silent Running with Bruce Dern. The basic message was how humans were destroying planet earth, often due to nuclear war or environmental destruction, or both. Finally, Logan’s Run was a favorite of mine, but again the message was how the government of that world hid from the people the true nature of life outside of the bubble.

I remember seeing Alien in the theater and being blown away by the alien “birth” scene. But again the theme of that film was you can’t trust the authorities, who wanted the “alien” at any cost, i.e. the crew was expendable. Think of Outland as well with Sean Connery: yet more corruption among the establishment, this time involving drugs and production quotas in space mining. Here the workers were expendable.

I know I’m digressing from your question, but my general point is this: Sci-Fi films (and stories) are generally questioning (or questing, perhaps). They are usually not pro-military or pro-authority. Put differently, for every Starship Troopers there’s a Bill the Galactic Hero as a counterweight.

Think of one of my all-time favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The military is completely ineffectual in that film. Worse: the military contributes to the problem. Similarly, in the 1950s lots of films were made about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation. The military usually didn’t emerge in a favorable light in those films, if I recall correctly.

I think this began to change with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars could be read as apolitical (“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”), even if that wasn’t George Lucas’s intent. In Close Encounters, a terrific film that I saw in the theater, the authorities actually know what they’re doing. They greet the alien mothership peacefully, and communicate with music and light instead of guns and nukes. Again, I don’t think Spielberg was making a pro-authority or pro-military film, but I believe he didn’t want to make a political film, a film like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7ef4082d1After these two films, Hollywood embraced space operas and feel-good movies. There were exceptions, of course. One of my favorite movies is Starman with Jeff Bridges. Again, the authorities only want the alien for the powers he brings with him. Think too of The Man Who Fell to Earth and the way in which his life is corrupted by human excess. Doesn’t he get addicted to television?

The movie that really changed it all was Independence Day, a perfect film in the aftermath of Desert Storm (the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait). Here, of course, the militaries of various countries come together to defeat the aliens, led by an American president who climbs into the cockpit to lead the charge himself. This proved so popular that it’s no surprise George W. Bush tried to replicate the scene in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (his infamous landing on an aircraft carrier, followed by his “Mission Accomplished” victory speech).

TheoFantastique: What represents much of the portrayal of the U.S. and its military, and what does this say back to us by way of reflection on American militarism around the world?

Bill Astore: I think many, if not most, Americans now want to see the U.S. military portrayed in a positive light in films. Since the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, Americans have been told to “support our troops.” After 9/11, ordinary Americans were taught and told we live in a dangerous world filled with “alien” terrorists, and that we had to submit to authority to combat and defeat those “aliens.”

area51-independence-day-attackSome recent sci-fi films, I believe, have come to celebrate the military, its weaponry, and its can-do spirit of “warriors.” They’ve played it safe, in other words. In some cases, film makers may have curried favor with the Pentagon as a way of securing military cooperation in filming. For example, to secure access to bases, to advanced technologies such as the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, and so on. It makes their films “sexier” to have such access.

I’m sure some would say, So what? What’s wrong with a summer blockbuster that portrays military action in a favorable light? To that I’d say: reel war is nothing like real war. The best science fiction films — or the memorable ones — inspire us to dream of bettering ourselves as individuals and as a species. And I think the best films still seek to challenge us to be more noble, more benevolent, more compassionate.

TheoFantastique:
How do you feel as a retired Air Force officer about current science fiction’s perspective on the U.S. military?

Bill Astore:
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad that films are not universally anti-military. On the other hand, I’m upset that many films tend to glorify battle and war. War often looks very sexy and exciting in today’s crop of sci-fi action flicks. We need to remember that war is bloody awful, and that lasers and light sabers would not make it any less awful.

Check out TheoFantastisque, a meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture.

The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions

Independence_day_movieposter

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I focus on the “alien” nature of U.S. military interventions.  Here are some excerpts from my article:

The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn’t changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens’ shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while — you won’t be surprised to know — thoroughly thrashing said aliens.

Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle — with Will Smith’s cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman’s kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet’s “sole superpower.” Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own “mission accomplished” moment?

In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, the never-ending destructiveness of the wars that followed, coupled with the U.S. government’s deployment of deadly robotic drones and special ops units across the globe, alien invasion movies aren’t — at least for me — the campy fun they once were, and not just because the latest of them is louder, dumber, and more cliché-ridden than ever. I suspect that there’s something else at work as well, something that’s barely risen to consciousness here: in these years, we’ve morphed into the planet’s invading aliens.

Think about it. Over the last half-century, whenever and wherever the U.S. military “deploys,” often to underdeveloped towns and villages in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it arrives very much in the spirit of those sci-fi aliens. After all, it brings with it dazzlingly destructive futuristic weaponry and high-tech gadgetry of all sorts (known in the military as “force-multipliers”). It then proceeds to build mothership-style bases that are often like American small towns plopped down in a new environment. Nowadays in such lands, American drones patrol the skies (think: the Terminator films), blast walls accented with razor wire and klieg lights provide “force protection” on the ground, and the usual attack helicopters, combat jets, and gunships hover overhead like so many alien craft. To designate targets to wipe out, U.S. forces even use lasers!

In the field, American military officers emerge from high-tech vehicles to bark out commands in a harsh “alien” tongue. (You know: English.) Even as American leaders offer reassuring words to the natives (and to the public in “the homeland”) about the U.S. military being a force for human liberation, the message couldn’t be more unmistakable if you happen to be living in such countries: the “aliens” are here, and they’re planning to take control, weapons loaded and ready to fire.

Other U.S. military officers have noticed this dynamic. In 2004, near Samarra in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, for instance, then-Major Guy Parmeter recalled asking a farmer if he’d “seen any foreign fighters” about. The farmer’s reply was as simple as it was telling: “Yes, you.” Parmeter noted, “You have a bunch of epiphanies over the course of your experience here [in Iraq], and it made me think: How are we perceived, who are we to them?”

Americans may see themselves as liberators, but to the Iraqis and so many other peoples Washington has targeted with its drones, jets, and high-tech weaponry, we are the invaders.

Do you recall what the aliens were after in the first Independence Day movie? Resources. In that film, they were compared to locusts, traveling from planet to planet, stripping them of their valuables while killing their inhabitants. These days, that narrative should sound a lot less alien to us. After all, would Washington have committed itself quite so fully to the Greater Middle East if it hadn’t possessed all that oil so vital to our consumption-driven way of life? That’s what the Carter Doctrine of 1980 was about: it defined the Persian Gulf as a U.S. “vital interest” precisely because, to quote former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt description of Iraq, it “floats on a sea of oil.”

Consider it an irony of alien disaster movies that they manage to critique U.S. military ambitions vis-à-vis the “primitive” natives of far-off lands (even if none of us and few of the filmmakers know it). Like it or not, as the world’s sole superpower, dependent on advanced technology to implement its global ambitions, the U.S. provides a remarkably good model for the imperial and imperious aliens of our screen life.

Read more at TomDispatch.com.