How the '80s programmed us for war

Reagan's "morning in America" created "Red Dawn," and a Pentagon-fueled pop culture that trained the masses

Published March 15, 2011 5:27PM (EDT)

Flanking Uncle Sam: Charlie Sheen in "Red Dawn," left, and Tom Cruise in "Top Gun"
Flanking Uncle Sam: Charlie Sheen in "Red Dawn," left, and Tom Cruise in "Top Gun"

Let's be completely clear: I did not consciously know I was a devout militarist in 1988 at the young, impressionable age of 12. When I ordered my G.I. Joe Snowcat tank to indiscriminately fire one of its six missiles at the Cobra soldiers who so often held my LEGO city hostage, I didn't think that if this were real, it would probably leave a smoldering pile of blood and limbs and innocent victims. All I thought was: Awesome!

When I rented Hollywood's first PG-13 rated production, 1984's "Red Dawn," and I saw the teen heartthrobs protect America by racking up execution after execution, I didn't know the movie would also become the Guinness world-record holder for violent acts depicted per minute in a film. All I did was cheer.

And when I played "Contra" on my Nintendo NES, I wasn't questioning the premise of a game named after violent terrorist death squads in Nicaragua that were being funded by the Reagan administration's illegal CIA cash transfers from Iran. I was just punching in up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A, then happily mowing down anything and everything that moved.

"Propaganda is most effective when it is least noticeable," writes public relations expert Nancy Snow. "In an open society, such as the United States, the hidden and integrated nature of the propaganda best convinces people they are not being manipulated."

Exactly, and neither I nor my parents were supposed to think much about what the 1980s were teaching me and every other kid in our basements-turned-bunkers. But for a generation that grew up on "Reading Rainbow," "Memory," and Speak and Spell's "E.T." Fantasy Module (geranium has only one r!), games and entertainment were teaching tools, and the militarization of childhood that started in the 1980s made the little green men, cap guns, and Boy Scout retreats of old-time Americana look positively pacifist. With the Pentagon shaping movie screenplays, investing in video games, cooperating with toy marketers, and eventually working with baseball-card companies to publish Desert Storm trading cards, 1985's classic sci-fi novel "Ender's Game" seemed more prophecy than fantasy.

Reaganism abetted this dawn of the "the military-entertainment complex," as Wired magazine called it. The administration's hawkishess provided the political rationale for parental complicity, and the White House's deregulatory agenda helped television become the most influential -- and most invasive -- marketer of kids products, more and more of which were violent and military-themed.

Now, the investment is paying off, just in time for the current era's obsession with permanent war. Today's soldiers, for example, frequently reference their childhood devotion to G.I. Joe cartoons and action figures of the 1980s when explaining their decision to enlist. (An October 2008 article in The Believer found that "a national newspaper search for G.I. Joe references turned up 35 obituaries for soldiers killed in Iraq since the war began, in 2003. In each article, family members reminisced how the men had loved to play with the toy soldiers.") Similarly, during the Iraq invasion military brass named the search for Saddam Hussein "Operation Red Dawn" because officers said the John Milius film "was a patriotic, pro-American movie [that] all of us in the military have seen."

Considering this, do you truly think it was mere coincidence that George W. Bush's aides exquisitely re-created the final aircraft-carrier scene from "Top Gun" to commemorate their boss's declaration of Iraq victory? Or that Bush's "bring it on" taunt had nothing to do with an attempt to access fond memories of Milius one-liners from the 1980s? And can you really argue that it's just happenstance that the Pentagon today airs recruitment ads in movie theaters, ads that portray soldiers as bulletproof "RoboCops" and war as the bloodless arcade game from "The Last Starfighter"?

White House strategists and Pentagon propagandists use information and imagery as strategic weapons, and they are well aware that the most valuable of those weapons is cheery childhood nostalgia. They also know that in a country where almost half the population was born after 1979, some of the most compelling of those youthful memories come from the schlock that was originally stockpiled in the 1980s basement.

And a lot of it plays into the ideological agenda of the Pentagon. "Young men of recruiting age cited movies and television as their primary source of their impressions about the military, so [movies and television] are very important [to the Pentagon]," an army spokeswoman told PBS, citing the Defense Department's extensive surveys of youth attitudes. "It's an opportunity for [kids] to see what the possibilities are and to see what being a soldier would be like."

"Red Dawn" is a classic invasion flick, but with a deliberate twist for recruitment-age teens. It tells the story of youngsters from the fictional town of Calumet, Colorado, who call themselves the Wolverines and who go rogue by mounting a preposterous guerrilla resistance against a massive Soviet assault on the American homeland. To further sex up the adolescent appeal, "Red Dawn" cast '80s teen heartthrobs such as Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell and, yes, Charlie Sheen, in the lead roles.

The film starts out with the bedrock provisos of militarist paranoia, including key pillars of eighties Vietnam-related revision:

-- Anti-gun-control extremism: One of the film's first scenes shows a Soviet thug pulling a gun from an American corpse as the camera pans across a pickup truck bearing an NRA bumper sticker that reads, "They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers." Later, the Soviets are able to hunt down American resisters through the secret master list of gun owners that the U.S. government allegedly keeps (one of the longtime conspiracy theories among gun enthusiasts).

-- Retaliation/revenge on countries that defeat the United States: One of the kids' fathers is shown in a concentration-camp cage, yelling to his son to "Avenge me!" by killing as many enemies as possible. His scream could be the name of every back-to-Vietnam flick from the 1980s.

-- Backstabbing politicians: The film shows Calumet's mayor as a cowardly and conniving Soviet collaborator who does nothing while his constituents are rounded up and murdered. Additionally, the mayor's son (also student body president at Calumet High School) presses the Wolverines to surrender and later betrays them. Taken together, "Red Dawn" argues that politicians are all weak-kneed, corrupt, and traitorous.

-- United States as embattled underdog: In the same way adult politics, media, and entertainment in the eighties tried to recast the U.S. military as a yellow-ribbon-worthy under- dog helping supposed "freedom fighters" in Latin America, rescuing POWs from Vietcong, and liberating Kuwait from the supposed Iraq behemoth, "Red Dawn's" Wolverines are positioned as outgunned insurgents scratching their way to victory against the Russian colossus. "The message of 'Red Dawn,'" its director, Milius, said, "is to liberate the oppressed" -- the "oppressed" somehow being America, the most militarily dominant nation in human history.

Soon after fleeing to the woods for some good old-fashioned Unabomber-like survivalism (including drinking deer blood as a male-bonding exercise), the Wolverines come upon a fallen U.S. pilot who articulates a few more paranoias of eighties militarism:

-- Stealth terrorists are already among us: "The first wave of the (Soviet) attack came in disguise as commercial charter flights," says the pilot in an eerily prescient vision of a 9/11- like onslaught.

-- The need for a militarized southern border: "Infiltrators came up illegal from Mexico, Cubans mostly," he continues.

-- Weak-kneed western allies justify the United States spending more on the military than all other nations combined: When the kids ask if Europe is going to help stop the Soviet invasion, the pilot says that Europe is "sittin' this one out -- all except England, and they won't last very long."

Recall that four years before this film was released, Ronald Reagan had given voice to many of these theories, saying "the Soviets and their friends are advancing" and chastising the Carter administration for "failing to see any threatening pattern." It was propaganda in its most literal form.

In 1997, after reports that "Red Dawn" was one of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's favorite films, MGM/United Artists vice president Peter Bart revealed to Variety that when his company first considered the movie's script, the studio's CEO "declared in no uncertain terms that he wanted to make the ultimate jingoistic movie." The studio subsequently recruited Reagan's recently departed secretary of state, retired general Alexander Haig, to serve on MGM's corporate board, "consult with ['Red Dawn's'] director and inculcate the appropriate ideological tint." Though the screenplay's first draft strived to lament the tragedies of war, Bart recounted how the studio "demanded to know why [it] should try to remake 'Lord of the Flies' when it could instead try for 'Rambo.'"

Of course, the military had been working with Hollywood filmmakers since 1927, when it helped produce "Wings," the winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture. Pentagon involvement varied through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, but it always had kids in its sights. In the 1950s, for example, the military worked with "Lassie" on shows that highlighted new military technology and produced "Mouse Reels" for "The Mickey Mouse Club," one of which showed kids touring the first nuclear submarine. As investigative journalist David Robb discovered, a Pentagon memo noted at the time that child-focused media "is an excellent opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to the nuclear Navy."

The 1970s saw far fewer Pentagon-backed war films for a public that was fatigued from Vietnam and its aftermath on the evening news. But according to The Hollywood Reporter, as Reaganite militarism began ascending, the 1980s saw "a steady growth in the demand for access to military facilities and in the number of films, TV shows and home videos made about the military."

For that access, the military began exacting a price. The Pentagon's focus on juveniles created the heavy hand it was beginning to use to shape popular culture in the 1980s. Increasingly, for filmmakers to gain access to even the most basic military scenery, Pentagon gatekeepers began requiring major plot and dialogue changes so as to guarantee that the military was favorably portrayed. In a Variety story from 1994, the Pentagon's official Hollywood liaison, Phil Strub, put it bluntly: "The main criteria we use [for approval] is ... how could the proposed production benefit the military ... could it help in recruiting [and] is it in sync with present policy?"

According to Strub, Pentagon-Hollywood collusion hit "a milestone" with 1986's "Top Gun," a triumphalist teen recruitment ad about the navy's "best of the best," who, of course, never even think to ask the most basic of the basic questions. The movie's glaringly incurious characters and story were no accident. The script was shaped by Pentagon brass in exchange for full access to all sorts of hardware -- the access itself a priceless taxpayer subsidy. According to Maclean's, Paramount Pictures paid just "$1.1 million for the use of warplanes and an aircraft carrier," far less than it would have cost the studio had it been compelled to finance the eye candy itself.

As if that carrot-stick dynamic weren't coercive enough to aspiring filmmakers, the Pentagon in the 1980s expanded the definition of "cooperation" to include collaboration on screenplays as scripts were being initially drafted. "It saves [writers] time from writing stupid stuff," said one official in explaining the new process.

Such a cavalier attitude coupled with the box-office success of the Pentagon-approved "Top Gun" convinced studios in the 1980s that agreeing to military demands and, hence, making ever more militaristic films was a guaranteed formula for success. Consequently, between the release of "Top Gun" and the beginning of the Gulf War, the Pentagon reported that the number of pictures made with its official assistance (and approval) quadrupled, and a large portion of these action-adventure productions (quickly synergized into video games, action figures, etc.) were for teenagers.

The short-term impact of the military-entertainment complex was enlistment surges correlating to specific eighties box-office hits. As just one (albeit huge) example, recruitment spiked 400 percent when "Top Gun" was released, leading the navy to set up recruitment tables at theaters upon realizing the movie's effect. Medium term, of course, is the "Red Dawn" effect. Contemporary missions are named after the film (and various other militarist fantasies from the eighties), tapping into the hardwired psyches of the "Wolverines who have grown up and gone to Iraq," as Milius recently called the eighties generation.

Then there are the standards that were set for the long haul. Today, the Pentagon offers Hollywood just as much enticement for militarism, and just as much punishment against antimilitarism, as ever. On top of the eighties militarism that is now endlessly recycled in the cable rerun-o-sphere, it's a safe bet that whichever Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay blockbuster is being fawned over by teen audiences is at least partially underwritten by the Pentagon, and as a condition of that support, these blockbusters typically agree to deliberately reiterate the morality of the military and war.

By contrast, as the director of "The Hunt for Red October" recounted, this new reality prompted studios in the eighties to start telling screenwriters and directors to "get the cooperation of the [military], or forget about making the picture." What greater control could the Pentagon ever have hoped for?

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

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