February 24, 2012

Act of Valor’s Propaganda Warriors

Branded a hulking wooden steroid, the “realist” Hollywood blockbuster to date isn’t necessarily concerned with formal reviews. Real Navy SEALs didn’t sign up to act but eliminate their fictitious targets with technologically-precise choreography. “Navy SEALs are Olympic athletes that kill people for a living,” according to the opening of Tom Clancey’s opens his novelization for “Act of Valor.”

The worst acting of all manifested itself in an AP headline previewed days before Act of Valor’s premiere: “Navy SEALs cringe over media spotlight, but hope movie ‘Act of Valor’ draws new recruits.”

Obviously the most prominent force within America’s elite military units doesn’t limit itself to field operations. Some complaints within the Special Forces community do ring true; officers and staff involved in the film are reportedly “embarrassed by the massive media blitz and public interest, and - most of all - they are tired of getting grief from their special operations colleagues, whose daring exploits haven’t made it into the headlines.” Another segment of critics focuses directly on the unintentional revealing of state secrets, criticizing the Navy for “courting too much media attention.”

Maybe the SEALs “never expected” the movie “to be this big,” thinking “Act of Valor” would “open in a couple of theaters in military towns, then quietly move to cable television.” Yet it’s easy to dismiss the propaganda that Washington didn’t want its propaganda to blow up.

With the recruiting aiming for #1 at the box office, Act of Valor is sure to accomplish its mission by herding a new generation of Americans towards the Special Forces. U.S. officials don’t shy away from the movie’s origins, explaining how a strategic review prompted an increased demand for Navy SEALs. Rear Adm. Denny Moynihan, of the Navy Office of Information in Washington, told The New York Times, “For the Navy and the SEAL community it was, ‘Hey, you need 500 more SEALs’ and that launched a series of initiatives to try to attract more people. This film was one of those initiatives.”

Scott Waugh, one of the film’s co-directors, said he received a “request for proposal” from the Navy in early 2008, asking for “a studio to come in and tell their story in a theatrical narrative. They knew that we would authentically ‘get’ their brand and give it the accuracy that they wanted.” What began as a stylized recruitment video eventually evolved into a full-length film.

William McRaven, the current commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), has also defended the movie from its detractors inside the Pentagon, even revealing that he signed up for special forces after watching John Wayne’s “The Green Berets.” Wayne’s 1968 film was perceived as overt propaganda in favor of unpopular war. McRaven added that Washington’s latest promotion established an 8-man multicultural platoon of white, black and Latino troops.

“It was initially started as a recruiting film so we could help recruit minorities into the teams.”

“Act of Valor” has criss-crossed media - movies and video games - for maximum exposure along the 18-28 male demographic. To those Americans ready to join or sitting on the fence, high-octane action sequences and manly bonds (and Osama bin Laden’s killing) will trump mediocre acting. “Act of Valor’s” timing couldn’t be better either, as the importance of recruitment campaigns has skyrocketed after the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Obama administration now requires more SEALs than the Navy previously envisioned to spearhead a world-wide escalation in Special Forces, estimated at 66,000 and growing (double the number of personnel before 9/11).

McRaven is reportedly pushing for more independence as Special Forces “expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

However “Act of Valor’s” effectiveness is less certain outside of America, and the glamorized portrayal of violence and U.S. military might may create counterpropaganda on an international scale. As The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman recently observed, “The Rambo approach doesn’t always sit well with diplomats” or countries that America is technically at peace with. The same opinion should circulate through anti-American populaces overseas, generating a dangerous trend where U.S. Special Forces increase their popularity at home and unpopularity abroad.

Lieutenant General James Vaught, a former Army Delta Force commander, has voiced separate concerns over Hollywood’s exposure, predicting that “if you keep publishing how you do this, the other guy’s going to be there ready for you.”

“Now, watch it happen. Mark my words – get the hell out of the media.”

Equally important, Americans as a whole have grown increasingly supportive of Special Forces as a blanket response to the military demands of U.S. foreign policy; cheaper, faster counterterrorism (CT) is now placed high above the more costly, complex and time-consuming nature of counterinsurgency (COIN). Problematically, Special Forces cannot advance the overall strategy of COIN merely by avoiding civilian casualties and thus “protecting the population.” Too often Special Forces are perceived as the perfect counterattack to guerrilla warfare, an error pointed out by most U.S. military officials involved in the study of fourth-generation warfare (4GW). Targeted killings only accomplish limited objectives in COIN, which is non-military in nature, and frequent contact with the populace often trumps invisibility.

The outcome of Special Forces missions can also wreck havoc in a local government’s political sphere (Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen); too often host governments are left to struggle with Washington’s political or military blowback. The Obama administration intends to rely on local governments as they boost their own nation-building capacity, except this system is easily corrupted or distracted from its objective.

“Act of Valor” shows the SEALs “moving from place to place—Costa Rica, the high seas, Somalia, Mexico—treating the world as their war zone,” writes Klaidman. That may be the Pentagon’s message to young American males, but it’s unsuitable for the audiences that they plan to clandestinely infiltrate.

1 comment:

  1. Please stop using the term "Special Forces" to describe the full spectrum of what is actually "Special Operations Forces." Special Forces is a distinct unit within U.S. Army Special Operations, and is the element best suited to understanding and navigating the complexities that are faced overseas while supporting U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives.