Bush's Fantasy Budget and the Military/Entertainment Complex

The entertainment industry: Bush's "Mission Accomplished"Those distressed by the bloated military budget that Bush recently announced should be equally alarmed by corporate media's stake in defense spending, because among other things, it helps shape news, entertainment culture and public attitudes toward war and its weapons. The CBS News report on Bush's budget was typical of the news coverage, describing it as a proposal for "a big increase in military spending, including billions more to fight the war in Iraq, while squeezing the rest of government" -- a euphemism for slashing Medicare and social programs across the board, further impoverishing Americans now sitting on mountains of debt with no medical coverage.

News stories (only now) admit that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan carry huge price tags. When American soldiers are sent to fight wars of occupation it takes expensive persuasion, slick recruitment, increased pay checks, lots of guns, tanks, airplanes, and medical and death benefits, even if most of us never see the military funeral processions and flag-draped coffins. But that is only half the story of military spending, and most in the media will not fill us in on what is wrong with the other half. There is roughly $140 billion in proposed Pentagon funding that is not part of the request for Iraq and Afghanistan. This figure represents an incredible boondoggle in high-tech weaponry and a ballooning Pentagon budget that has doubled since Bush took office.

To its credit the New York Times editorialized cautioned that Congress "will have to pare back the most extravagant elements of this fantasy weapons wish list." But the Times exposes only a wee tentacle of the sprawling military complex, keeping the blame directed toward "those well-connected Washington lobbyists" we all detest, who push Congress into wasteful weapons projects and "costly jobs programs disguised as defense." And jobs are certainly the least of the problems with money for guns.

The wasteful weapons listed are cold-war inspirations like the stealth F-22 originally designed for air-to-air combat against Soviet-style MIG fighters. Tom Cruise battled MIGs in Top Gun and Bush imitated him on board the USS Lincoln during his "Mission Accomplished" production. The military habit is hard to shake, especially for a media culture now fully tied to the high-tech fantasy weapons that the Pentagon loves to dream about. Today the media and the military dream the same dreams.

The Military/Entertainment Complex

Shared technologies, both real and imagined, tie the media industries to the Pentagon in what has become the military/entertainment complex. During the 1990s, the best and the brightest researchers who produce and design new-media platforms joined with engineers from the Department of Defense to trade expertise in pursuit of cutting-edge, computer-based digital technologies. These multipurpose protocols are quite versatile, and are used to create fields of entertainment, news graphics, videogames, and the deadliest weapons of war. The most profitable sector of the entertainment industry -- computer games -- use the same technology essential to advanced weapons systems. Computer games have also become key training and recruiting tools. The characters that inhabit virtual game worlds locked in endless battles between good and evil, double as "warfighters" and kill targets for military training.

Consider the connections articulated by the National Research Council after a conference in Irvine, California, at the height of the military/media technology surge of the 1990s:

Modeling and simulation technology has become increasingly important to both the entertainment industry and the US Department of Defense (DOD). In the entertainment industry, such technology lies at the heart of video games, theme park attractions and entertainment centers, and special effects for film production. For DOD, modeling and simulation technology provides a low-cost means of conducting joint training exercises, evaluating new doctrine and tactics, and studying the effectiveness of new weapons systems. ... These common interests suggest that the entertainment industry and DOD may be able to more efficiently achieve their individual goals by working together to advance the technology base for modeling and simulation.

And work together they have. Their mission: to boldly design the future technologies of fantasy entertainment and war weaponry alike. At Irvine, members from DOD's Defense Modeling and Simulations Office (DMSO), and from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), together with Navy and Air Force representatives, met with industry people from Pixar, Disney, Paramount, and George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. Joining this group were other computer industry executives and academic researchers in computer science, art and design.

Flight Simulation and Video Games

The image generator designed initially for military flight simulation is at the heart of any computer based visual system. Computerized flight simulation modeling was a crucial point in the history of digital interactive electronic gaming. Popular video games are direct descendants of military research and represent the passage of military-driven technological innovations into the heart of entertainment culture. As a graphic style, simulation dominates the visual imaging of war and its weapons, and across the media landscape, from films to the nightly news.

Entertainment companies excelled at turning the military's computer research into popular entertainment and handsome profits, and video games brought about an "entertainment revolution." The pace of R&D picked up, and a company like Electronic Arts, the maker of one in four videogames, now has twice as many in-house game developers as Disney has animators. The flow of networking and software innovations evened out, and in some cases reversed direction. Important advances made by commercial researchers were then appropriated by the military. Cyberlife Technology's Creatures 2.0 offered the cutting edge of artificial life simulation and helped realize the dream of smart weapons systems such as pilotless fighter aircraft. Another essential technological advance useful to the military, particularly for recruitment and training, is interactive first-person shooter technology developed by id Software in 1994. The U.S. Marine Corps adapted their game Doom 1.9, for tactical combat training exercises.

This trans-sector reciprocity is now a stable, on-going mutually beneficial industrial relationship. Military funding remains essential to entertainment technologies with millions of dollars in grants awarded to academic research facilities such as the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technology, which enlists the resources and talents of theme park innovators and special effects designers among others, to advance the state of military immersive training simulation, and other applications.

Web page banner for the U.S. Department of Defense's "America's Army" video game.Hollywood has now become a full partner in new weapons training and development. At the ICT the management skills of former media executives from NBC, Paramount and Disney can direct designers from Silicon Valley to help adapt the same digital effects used for movies, amusement parks and video games to military platforms. When synthetic characters, becoming known as "synthespians" can act and react in realistic ways to numerous stimuli, they make video games more challenging. In military training, synthespians make better "warfighters." Both benefit from the others expertise. The video game America's Army boasts the most authentic rendering of combat, because real soldiers help create the synthespians.

Orlando, Florida is another site of this trans-industrial formation. The well-known home of Disney's teams of R&D imagineers, the DOD's Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) is also headquartered there. In addition, the University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation and Training, together with other virtual reality designers, create a formidable node of the military entertainment establishment that STRICOM's own website calls "Team Orlando." Another major player in Orlando is the complex across the street from STRICOM that houses the nation's largest military contractor, Lockheed Martin.

Cyborg Soldiers on Virtual Battlefields

The fantasy battlefields of the future are digitalized and "Net-ready" with complex communications systems for all aspects of war. Soldiers participating in futuristic war games are networked with wireless computer helmets that receive signals from the Global Positioning Satellite that maps enemy terrain. Data from numerous sources are integrated into a central command system monitored by computers. Robot scouts send surveillance imagery to commanders instantaneously. The twenty-first century land warriors carry video cameras and computers in their rucksacks, with 1-inch helmet-mounted LED screens. War games combine real-time airborne and satellite surveillance, all connected by radio communication to a battle command vehicle coordinating the attack though a customized Windows program. Using SIPE (Soldier Integrated Protection Ensemble), the physical state of the soldier can be monitored in the same way video games register the breathing and movement of players.

Unfortunately, as an observer of one virtual battlefield discovered, the American side lost to its imaginary enemy.

Bush's war was always a fantasy, enabled by Rumsfeld's dreamy Pentagon, and Gates continues the expensive charade. Visions of virtual war are no doubt in the minds of those who plan and execute combat operations in foreign lands, but just as the TV coverage of war is often entertaining fiction, so too are futuristic battlefields that have little in common with a bloody occupation a foreign country. As one young soldier says in the film Fahrenheit 9/11, it's not like a video game when real people die. Virtual war, training simulations, interactive video and militainment all share the fictional sensibilities of games, not reality. The reality of war remains hidden, especially the deadly consequences of bombs not contained within computer screens and virtual worlds.

The New Militarized Cultural Milieu

It should come as no surprise that the convergence between the media and the military, as both pursue the economies of war, would have alarming consequences. We might ask under this new confabulation, how the media could possibly adopt an independent stance toward an enterprise with which they are so integrally connected. As weapons technology merges with entertainments that thrill gamers, moviegoers and TV audiences alike, militarism becomes the order of the day. The boundaries between war and peace begin to lose distinction in an age when so many resources, technologies, creative talents and cultural practices are enlisted in the celebration of weapons of mass destruction. This new culture of permanent war has entered the home and is held close to a new American hearth, the digital entertainment center where recruitment, training, planning and preparations for war are carried out.

The largest economy the globe has ever known, at the height of its progress, has directed its astonishing advancements toward the creation of the ultimate forces of destruction. America has created a twenty-first century dance of death. That is why we should actively protest Bush's bloated military budget, and demand that media industries divest from weapons technologies at the same time.

Robin Andersen is the Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Fordham University. Material from this essay was drawn from her recent book, A Century of Media, A Century of War.


Thanks for this great post. I know a good post when i see one with working in Digital PR

This is a very good blog. I especially like the bit on flight simulation and video games.

Can't wait for the flight simulation too. There should be some awesome landscape lighting and graphics in it!