Now Playing in a Theater Near You: “A World on Fire!” Revisiting the Military-Entertainment Complex

Recovering the reality of the wars inflicted on us means, not least, diving deep into the world of contemporary entertainment, where the staging of a perpetual screen war has become inseparable from the state of actual war zones, as artist, curator, and writer Stefan Tiron argues.


Georges Corson of “Les Seigneurs de la guerre” was my first encounter with futuristic militarism on a completely different temporal and spatial scale, and I do not mean the monumental depiction of the Napoleonic Wars in “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. It was a time opera in which non-stop war without time and against time became the norm.

This wasn’t for sure Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (2020) movie, the first Hollywood ‘tent-pole’ cinematic experience to be screened in theaters during the pandemic – featuring a CIA extraction team at a Kyiv Opera House, reverse running special ops and a villainous former East bloc oligarch with terminal cancer botching up his own attempt to use a “turnstile” (a fictional device to reverse entropy) to reverse-engineer the end of history, or the end of capitalism, or whichever you prefer.

A fore-taste of neoliberal non-linear time

While enjoying the socialist peace behind the Iron Curtain, reading this French translation about distant future war zones left me with a space-time feeling of Zerrissenheit beyond repair, spilling over a discontinuous battlefield stretching from one end of history to the unknown other. What was described was like a non-orientable surface, where no matter where you started, you would end up upside down, like sliding down a Klein bottle.

In that one novel, the army personnel were endlessly deployed against unknown forces because they had secured “The Monster” – a whiny, uncontrollable, pregnant alien creature capable of wreaking space-time havoc and messing up enemy lines, possible outcomes, peace treaties, and the like. Unbeknownst to me, the book was also a reference to anti-colonial struggles and the Algerian War of Independence.

The plot was predictably convoluted, its scope opaque, and its mission creep total. The result was a first teenage taste of neoliberal non-linear total mobilization gone awry, a perpetuation of the future Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where conflicts seem to drag on indefinitely. Sadly, this turned out to be a very realistic time warp, even if it didn’t include sky-high defense budgets and recruiting at the click of a mouse. Corson, the main character in a French science fiction novel published by Gérard Klein in 1970 and translated into Romanian five years later by Vladimir Colin (one of the masters of Eastern European science fiction prose, who died in 1991), sounds almost banal today.

I read it breathlessly during a summer vacation in the countryside in the late 1980s. Though the countryside seemed deceptively idyllic, it was a time of Chernobyl rains over the Carpathians, of iodine pill requests at neighborhood clinics and schools, and of fears of nuclear winter from an unstoppable arms race and a strike-first U.S. policy. Nevertheless, necessary steps were taken to ensure disarmament and stop MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Loving the bomb

Some of you may remember when the U.S. Army upgraded the Pershing 1a in Germany in 1983 with the Pershing II weapon system. Pershing II was a scary, cool-sounding name heard all over the radio and during the few hours of national television news in Ceausescu’s Romania. By the end of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty on June 1, 1991, a total of 2,692 of these weapons had been destroyed, 846 by the United States and 1,846 by the Soviet Union. The two hostile parties and their respective pacts – the United States/NATO and the Soviet Union/Warsaw – decided among themselves that one could no longer live and survive with unconventional weapons to tell the story of unconventional wars.

A lot has happened since then, and what I am interested in here is a mainly revisionist cold take on militaristic science fiction or speculative military fiction that takes a closer look at our current moment of rearmament. This might also help us rediscover what this resurgent entertainment-military-industrial complex, or rather vortex, seems to be selling at the moment. Background checks are needed, and “The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood and America Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” by Greg Mitchell provides the details of how Hollywood entered the nuclear age, coached by the Pentagon. We learn how at Paramount, novelist Ayn Rand was asked to write a screenplay about the Manhattan Project while basing a character in her Atlas Shrugged on nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In a chapter of their post-9/11 analysis of militarism as a mass culture of the 21st century (“Entsichert: Krieg als Massenkultur im 21. Jahrhundert”), Tom Hollert and Mark Terkessidis memorably described how director Francis Ford Coppola used army helicopter battalions borrowed from Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr. (father of incumbent Bongbong Marcos) as film props. Marcos apparently loved to play the Viet Cong, and his borrowed helicopters were used to film war scenes from “Apocalypse Now” (1979) while en route to their final mission: a punitive expedition against Islamist separatists.

Military Keynesianism or mercenary neoliberalism?

Today, one can believe the doubts expressed by the well-known critic of techno-solutionism, Evgeny Morozov, in Le Monde diplomatique May 2023 German edition, that instead of a return to “military Keynesianism,” we might get a full-blown “military neoliberalism.” In Cold War 2.0, we are bombarded with examples from a growing military-industrial-entertainment menu. The AI hype and the promise of AI supremacy, achievable or not, is already instrumental in securing capital for Big Tech investments and strategic funds. Even as we empathize with the thousands of Hollywood strikers who are protesting against a future controlled by proprietary AI and suffocating inequality in the midst of a terrible heat wave, let’s not empathize with an industry built on cultural imperialism and military-industrial-entertainment deals. Let’s take this opportunity to decouple the dream industry from the commercial and strategic interests it serves on the home front and beyond.

Multilayered collage: Fog; the Wagner Rebellion; pixelated military drones; Star Wars captain. Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

As Lockheed Martin advertises on its official website, the world’s largest defense contractor strives for a “partnership beyond movie magic.” Lockheed Martin is not shy about listing its many and successful historical collaborations, such as providing F-35, F-22, F-16, and SR-71 fighter jets to “star alongside superheroes on the big screen” as props for Marvel movies “from Iron Man to The Avengers.” During World War II, this meant Disney artists providing nose art for Lockheed Martin aircraft or, in turn, using major studio labor in Hollywood, including “landscape artists, animators, carpenters, lighting experts, and prop masters to camouflage [manufacturing] facilities” from potential enemies above. The military-industrial-entertainment maelstrom is the antithesis of a secretive enterprise – the more rendered, computer-generated, and visible, the better. The hashtag #TheRealTopGun was used by Lockheed Martin to highlight its proud contribution to “Top Gun: Maverick” (and, by extension, Cold War 2.0) – the top-grossing film of 2022, which earned six Academy Award nominations.

Online military enthusiasts have long pored over tweets from the military contractor. Even for them, it is difficult to discern whether the fictional super-fast Darkstar design in the film, provided by Lockheed, actually reflects “real-world capabilities” – suggesting that this long-rumored Mach 6 hypersonic successor to the Blackbird model is more than Skunk Works concept art. While the entire entertainment industry may be shut down during the actors’ union strikes, there are audiences to be won elsewhere.

According to “Top Gun: Maverick” director Jerry Bruckheimer, Lockheed’s fictional design for the film was so realistic that the U.S. Navy reported that China repositioned a satellite to better catch a preview of the extravagant piece before it hit the screens. Even without such audiences, Hollywood blockbusters (the name is also military slang for bombs that flatten a block of houses) have functioned well as strategic spoiler alerts or military teasers, as propaganda pitches or home-front attention grabbers.

Attention. The air alert is over. May the force be with you.”

Although the DoD (Department of Defense) is sometimes portrayed as the long arm of overseas U.S. intellectual property rights, in the 1980s we have the landmark case of Lucasfilm Ltd. v. High Frontier. Lucasfilms sued the NGO High Frontier, which was hired by the Reagan administration to develop a large space-based anti-ballistic missile program called the Strategic Force Initiative (SDI), for copyright infringement because it used the more popular “Star Wars program” as a nickname in TV commercials without permission.

Apparently it was found not guilty because it did not use the Star Wars phrase in commercial tie-ins. It would be good to keep a close eye on how Cold War 2.0 seems to diverge from its previous iterations, how and when IP ownership is enforced or granted. Audiences have gotten bigger and proxy wars closer, the streaming giants out there have also gotten bigger and more consolidated (Lucasfilms and Marvel are now an outgrowth of Disney).

Meanwhile, Star Wars merchandise signed by actor Mark Hamill (the Jedi Luke Skywalker in the SW franchise) is already raising money for drones to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression. The recognizable and universally loved voice of a movie star Jedi warns users who download the Air Alert app on their iOS, Android and Huawei device of “missile attacks, shelling, street fighting, radiation and chemical threats,” and ends with a Jedi-like blessing of “the Force.”

Centrifugal forces of capitalism

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the cook turned rogue mercenary, describes the situation in the Donbass separatist region during 2014-2022 as basically SNAFU in a recently released and translated video self-interview. Listening to him, you can trace how shock therapy in Russia turned the entire General Staff into hustling military entrepreneurs. This is not Donbass he is talking about, but “Arcadia 234,” the decommissioned military waste disposal planet from the 1998 Soldier movie sequel to “Blade Runner” (1982), which is in danger of being run by the military brass like a defense contractor’s testing ground and target practice.

To date, militarism is not only the biggest polluter on the planet, as an article by Bruce Stanley amply demonstrates, but whenever it decides to redeploy or suspend its strategic military interests by withdrawing, it conveniently paves the way for future gated communities, flat taxes, “burning pits,” and growing inequalities.

If my revisionist reading of military science fiction began with a stranded time-traveling soldier of fortune, I am also privy to historian Quinn Slobodian’s recent “Crack-up Capitalism,” which offers a fresh contemporary look at capitalism’s centrifugal forces. On the new mercenary battlefronts, these forces are sowing a broader Big Tech separatism, punctuated by Googlag archipelagos, private security firms, and micronationalisms. While under sanctions and with the Afghan Central Bank’s foreign assets frozen by the U.S., the recent announcement by the Taliban government to turn some of the former and abandoned military bases into economic zones for business should alert us to the ongoing fractal patterning of war zones.

That’s why it’s good not to get stuck in Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Trooper” mode. Recent feminist SF, such as Kameron Hurley’s “The Light Brigade” (2019), explores the scars of wars in which future troops are corralled and transformed into pure energy to travel to distant interplanetary theaters of war, only to be re-materialized during deployment, with all the trauma that entails. Minds that have suffered such deployments may find any time paradoxes a welcome respite in a world where wars are privatized and corporations accelerate the decomposition and replacement of nation-states.

Also recommended is Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s “This is How You Lose The Time War” (2019) – a losing that allows for a loosening of warring factions trying to outwit, damage, boycott, or thwart expected historical outcomes. A dangerous correspondence that functions as a diplomatic back channel between time-traveling super-agents, making us increasingly entangled and amorally complicit, implicated in their willingness to risk their allegiance and existence.

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