John Whitehead's Commentary
Mass Shootings: The Military-Entertainment Complex’s Culture of Violence Turns Deadly
“Mass shootings have become routine in the United States and speak to a society that relies on violence to feed the coffers of the merchants of death. Given the profits made by arms manufacturers, the defense industry, gun dealers and the lobbyists who represent them in Congress, it comes as no surprise that the culture of violence cannot be abstracted from either the culture of business or the corruption of politics. Violence runs through US society like an electric current offering instant pleasure from all cultural sources, whether it be the nightly news or a television series that glorifies serial killers.”—Professor Henry A. Giroux
This latest mass shooting in Las Vegas that left more than 50 people dead and more than 500 injured is as obscure as they come: a 64-year-old retiree with no apparent criminal history, no military training, and no obvious axe to grind opens fire on a country music concert crowd from a hotel room 32 floors up using a semi-automatic gun that may have been rigged to fire up to 700 rounds a minute, then kills himself.
We’re left with more questions than answers, none of them a flattering reflection of the nation’s values, political priorities, or the manner in which the military-industrial complex continues to dominate, dictate and shape almost every aspect of our lives.
For starters, why do these mass shootings keep happening? Mass shootings have taken place at churches, in nightclubs, on college campuses, on military bases, in elementary schools, in government offices, and at concerts. This shooting is the deadliest to date.
What is it about America that makes violence our nation’s calling card?
Is it because America is a gun culture (what professor Henry Giroux describes as “a culture soaked in blood – a culture that threatens everyone and extends from accidental deaths, suicides and domestic violence to mass shootings“)?
Is it because guns are so readily available? After all, the U.S. is home to more firearms than adults. As The Atlantic reports, gun fetishism has become mainstream in recent decades due in large part to “gun porn in music, movies, and TV, [and] the combination of weapons marketing and violent videogames.” (Curiously enough, the majority of gun-related deaths in the U.S. are suicides, not homicides.)
Is it because entertainment violence is the hottest selling ticket at the box office? As Giroux points out, “Popular culture not only trades in violence as entertainment, but also it delivers violence to a society addicted to a pleasure principle steeped in graphic and extreme images of human suffering, mayhem and torture.”
Is it because the government continues to whet the nation’s appetite for violence and war through paid propaganda programs (seeded throughout sports entertainment, Hollywood blockbusters and video games)—what professor Roger Stahl refers to as “militainment“—that glorify the military and serve as recruiting tools for America’s expanding military empire?
Is it because Americans from a very young age are being groomed to enlist as foot soldiers—even virtual ones—in America’s Army (coincidentally, that’s also the name of a first person shooter video game produced by the military)? Explorer scouts are one of the most popular recruiting tools for the military and its civilian counterparts (law enforcement, Border Patrol, and the FBI).
Writing for The Atlantic, a former Explorer scout described the highlight of the program: monthly weekend maneuvers with the National Guard where scouts “got to fire live rounds from M16s, M60 machine guns, and M203 grenade launchers… we would have urban firefights (shooting blanks, of course) in Combat Town, a warren of concrete buildings designed for just that purpose. The exercise always devolved into a free-for-all, with all of us weekend warriors emptying clip after clip of blanks until we couldn’t see past the end of our rifles for all the smoke in the air.”
Is it because the United States is the number one consumer, exporter and perpetrator of violence and violent weapons in the world? Seriously, America spends more money on war than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil. America polices the globe, with 800 military bases and troops stationed in 160 countries. Moreover, the war hawks have turned the American homeland into a quasi-battlefield with military gear, weapons and tactics. In turn, domestic police forces have become roving extensions of the military—a standing army.
Or is the Second Amendment to blame, as many continue to suggest? Would there be fewer mass shootings if tighter gun control laws were enacted? Or would the violence simply take a different form: homemade bombs, cars driven into crowds, and knives (remember the knife assailant in Japan who stabbed 19 people to death at a care home for the disabled)?
Then again, could it be, as some have speculated, that these shootings are all part of an elaborate plan to incite fear and chaos, heighten national tensions and shift us that much closer to a complete lockdown? After all, the military and our militarized police forces have been predicting and preparing for exactly this kind of scenario for years now.
So who’s to blame for the violence?
This time, in Las Vegas, it was a seemingly nondescript American citizen pulling the trigger.
At other times, it’s organized crime syndicates or petty criminals or so-called terrorists/extremists.
Still other times, it’s the police with their shoot first, ask questions later mindset (more than 900,000 law enforcement officers are armed).
In certain parts of the Middle East, it’s the U.S. government and the military carrying out drone strikes and bombing campaigns that leave innocent civilians dead and their communities torn apart.
Are you starting to get the picture yet?
We’re caught in a vicious cycle with no end in sight.
Perhaps there’s no single one factor to blame for this gun violence. However, there is a common denominator, and that is a war-drenched, violence-imbued, profit-driven military industrial complex that has invaded almost every aspect of our lives.
Ask yourself: Who are these shooters modelling themselves after? Where are they finding the inspiration for their weaponry and tactics? Whose stance and techniques are they mirroring?
In almost every instance, you can connect the dots back to the military.
We are a military culture.
We have been a nation at war for most of our existence.
We are a nation that makes a living from killing through defense contracts, weapons manufacturing and endless wars.
In order to sustain the nation’s appetite for war over the long haul in spite of the costs of war in lives lost and dollars spent—and little else to show for it—the military has had to work overtime to churn out pro-war, pro-military propaganda. It’s exactly what President Eisenhower warned against (“the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”) in his 1961 farewell address.
We didn’t listen then and we’re still not listening now.
All the while, the government’s war propaganda machine has grown more sophisticated and entrenched in American culture.
Back when I was a boy growing up in the 1950s, almost every classic sci fi movie ended with the heroic American military saving the day, whether it was battle tanks in Invaders from Mars (1953) or military roadblocks in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). What I didn’t know then as a schoolboy was the extent to which the Pentagon was paying to be cast as America’s savior.
By the time my own kids were growing up, it was Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbuster film Top Gun—created with Pentagon assistance and equipment—that boosted civic pride in the military.
Now it’s my grandkids’ turn to be awed and overwhelmed by child-focused military propaganda in the X-Men movies. Same goes for The Avengers and Superman and the Transformers. (Don’t even get me started on the war propaganda churned out by the toymakers.)
All of the military equipment featured in blockbuster movies is provided—at taxpayer expense—in exchange for carefully placed promotional spots aimed at indoctrinating the American populace into believing that patriotism means throwing their support behind the military wholeheartedly and unquestioningly.
Even reality TV shows have gotten in on the gig, with the Pentagon’s entertainment office influencing “American Idol,” “The X-Factor,” “Masterchef,” “Cupcake Wars,” numerous Oprah Winfrey shows, “Ice Road Truckers,” “Battlefield Priests,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Hawaii Five-O,” lots of BBC, History Channel and National Geographic documentaries, “War Dogs,” and “Big Kitchens.” And that’s just a sampling.
And then there are the growing number of video games, a number of which are engineered by or created for the military, which have accustomed players to interactive war play through military simulations and first-person shooter scenarios.
This is how you acclimate a population to war.
This is how you cultivate loyalty to a war machine.
This is how, to borrow from the subtitle to the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, you teach a nation to “stop worrying and love the bomb.”
As journalist David Sirota writes for Salon, “[C]ollusion between the military and Hollywood - including allowing Pentagon officials to line edit scripts - is once again on the rise, with new television programs and movies slated to celebrate the Navy SEALs….major Hollywood directors remain more than happy to ideologically slant their films in precisely the pro-war, pro-militarist direction that the Pentagon demands in exchange for taxpayer-subsidized access to military hardware.”
Why is the Pentagon (and the CIA and the government at large) so focused on using Hollywood as a propaganda machine?
To those who profit from war, it is—as Sirota recognizes—”a ‘product’ to be sold via pop culture products that sanitize war and, in the process, boost recruitment numbers….At a time when more and more Americans are questioning the fundamental tenets of militarism (i.e., budget-busting defense expenditures, never-ending wars/occupations, etc.), military officials are desperate to turn the public opinion tide back in a pro-militarist direction — and they know pop culture is the most effective tool to achieve that goal.”
The media, eager to score higher ratings, has been equally complicit in making (real) war more palatable to the public by packaging it as TV friendly.
This is what Dr. Stahl refers to as the representation of a “clean war“: a war “without victims, without bodies, and without suffering”:
‘Dehumanize destruction’ by extracting all human imagery from target areas … The language used to describe the clean war is as antiseptic as the pictures. Bombings are ‘air strikes.’ A future bombsite is a ‘target of opportunity.’ Unarmed areas are ‘soft targets.’ Civilians are ‘collateral damage.’ Destruction is always ‘surgical.’ By and large, the clean war wiped the humanity of civilians from the screen … Create conditions by which war appears short, abstract, sanitized and even aesthetically beautiful. Minimize any sense of death: of soldiers or civilians.”
This is how you sell war to a populace that may have grown weary of endless wars: sanitize the war coverage of anything graphic or discomfiting (present a clean war), gloss over the actual numbers of soldiers and civilians killed (human cost), cast the business of killing humans in a more abstract, palatable fashion (such as a hunt), demonize one’s opponents, and make the weapons of war a source of wonder and delight.
“This obsession with weapons of war has a name: technofetishism,” explains Stahl. “Weapons appear to take on a magical aura. They become centerpieces in a cult of worship.”
“Apart from gazing at the majesty of these bombs, we were also invited to step inside these high-tech machines and take them for a spin,” said Stahl. “Or if we have the means, we can purchase one of the military vehicles on the consumer market. Not only are we invited to fantasize about being in the driver’s seat, we are routinely invited to peer through the crosshairs too. These repeated modes of imaging war cultivate new modes of perception, new relationships to the tools of state violence. In other words, we become accustomed to ‘seeing’ through the machines of war.”
In order to sell war, you have to feed the public’s appetite for entertainment.
Not satisfied with peddling its war propaganda through Hollywood, reality TV shows and embedded journalists whose reports came across as glorified promotional ads for the military, the Pentagon turned to sports to further advance its agenda, “tying the symbols of sports with the symbols of war.”
The military has been firmly entrenched in the nation’s sports spectacles ever since, having co-opted football, basketball, even NASCAR.
Remember, just before this Vegas shooting gave the media, the politicians and the easily distracted public something new to obsess over, the headlines were dominated by President Trump’s feud with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem.
That, too, was yet another example of how much the military entertainment complex—which paid $53 million of taxpayer money between 2012 and 2015 to pro sports teams for military tributes (on-field events recognizing military service members, including ceremonial first pitches, honor guards and Jumbotron tributes)—has infiltrated American culture.
This Trump-NFL feud is also a classic example of how to squash dissent—whether it’s dissent over police brutality or America’s killing fields abroad. As Stahl explains, “Supporting the troops is made synonymous with supporting the war. Those who disagree with the decision to send soldiers to war are thus identified with the enemy. This is done through a variety of associations… Dissent becomes synonymous with criminal activity.”
When you talk about the Las Vegas mass shooting, you’re not dealing with a single shooter scenario. Rather, you’re dealing with a sophisticated, far-reaching war machine that has woven itself into the very fabric of this nation.
As Stahl concludes, “War has come to look very much like a video game. As viewers of the TV war, we are treated to endless flyovers. We are immersed in a general spirit of play. We are shown countless computer animations that contribute a sense of virtuality. We play alongside news anchors who watch on their monitors. We sit in front of the crosshairs directing missiles with a sense of interactivity. The destruction, if shown at all, seems unreal, distant. These repeated images foster habitual fantasies of crossing over.”
You want to stop the gun violence?
Stop the worship of violence that permeates our culture.
Stop glorifying the military industrial complex with flyovers and salutes during sports spectacles.
Stop acting as if there is anything patriotic about military exercises and occupations that bomb hospitals and schools.
Stop treating guns and war as entertainment fodder in movies, music, video games, toys, amusement parks, reality TV and more.
Stop distribution weapons of war to the local police and turning them into extensions of the military—weapons that have no business being anywhere but on a battlefield.
Most of all, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, stop falling for the military industrial complex’s psychological war games.