Video Games and the Militarization of Society

by John Martino (Author)
Monographs X, 191 Pages

Table Of Content


Any book is a collaborative project. It requires hard work and a supportive environment for the work to take shape and in order to produce something meaningful. I could not have completed this project without the inspiration, constructive comments, and belief in me shown by my close friends. I wish to also acknowledge the support of Victoria University for providing me with a sabbatical in 2012 within which much of the thinking that underpins this book was able to occur. It is sad to say that having the time to think, read and write is now a luxury for academics.

I would also like to thank Professor Roger Slee of the Victoria Institute who encouraged me to concentrate on this one endeavor. I wish to also acknowledge the funding made available by the Australian Commonwealth Government through the Collaborative Research Network program (CRN)—it is not possible to do good critical and analytical work without time and, in this case, the CRN provided that for me.

My thanks to colleagues in the College of Education past and present who helped me to develop the idea for this book and to subsequently complete it. The staff at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and in particular Professor Joost Raessens, the chair of Media Theory, who welcomed me on my sabbatical in 2012, and gave me space to work and the opportunity to test out ← ix | x → and amend my early thinking on this topic. It was at Utrecht when I gave a seminar on the theoretical model I was working on that a professor of political science said to me after I had complained to her that many of my colleagues had queried where my “data” was for this book, “Don’t worry about counting or measuring things, just write about the games. That’s your data.”

← x | 1 → · 1 ·


‘And it had to be a child, Ender,’ said Mazer. ‘You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It’s what you were born for.’

Ender’s Game (Card, 2002, pp. 300–301)

This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war.

—William S. Burroughs (1992, p. 95)

Writing is often a political act. In writing a book about new forms of popular media, such as video and computer games, one can choose one of two approaches. The first views video games and other forms of new and popular media as a form of art or a literature—opening up the domain of literary and filmic critique and analysis. The second emphasizes the technical and operational aspects of media such as video games—the focus of this type of study is more often an examination of the structure of video games, their playability, or the utility of a specific form of new media, for example the use and abuse of Twitter or other social media. As I will argue throughout this book, neither of these approaches is particularly useful when artifacts such as video games are used as a form of propaganda or, as I will describe later, as “perceptual ← 1 | 2 → weaponry.” Neither approach is particularly useful when we unpack the underlying political nature of military-themed or -oriented video games. Such as perspective will not be welcomed. The legion of video game fan boys who are unwilling to view their personal acts and interests as open to scrutiny or part of a broader social malaise are vigilant, highly motivated, and armed with the tools of modern propaganda—the web, social media, and the twitter verse. Nevertheless, this book needed to be written. I began thinking about writing this book in the shadows of an event, which, for Western audiences, was shocking both in its level of cruelty and violence. The bombing of Oslo government offices and the subsequent mass murder of 87 young people and adults on the Norwegian island of Utøya, by the right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik, brought home to the people of Norway and, by extension, Western Europe an event that is commonplace elsewhere in the world.

The indiscriminate targeting and killing of civilians by armed men is, in many parts of the world, a normal part of daily living. This has been the case in large parts of the developing world, in the past decade places such as sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan and more recently in Libya and Syria. Not since the period of Palestinian terror attacks of the 1970s and early 1980s has Western Europe experienced such an attack. The attack shook the foundations of the Norwegian state and highlighted the vulnerability of civilian populations in the face of heavily armed and determined terrorists or the mentally disturbed.

So if the killing of civilians by a politically motivated terrorist is not something new in the West, and the killing of civilians in war is also not an aberration, then what was particularly disturbing about Utøya? First, who the victims were, their ages, and the manner in which they were murdered shocked us. Whilst acts of terror were not new, the killing of children in such a violent, cold-blooded way was horrific. Second, the murderer boasted about the role video games played in his preparation for the crime, as he talked about how he “trained” himself using World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for his attack (Pidd, 2012). Third, the killer portrayed himself online and in evidence during his trial as being a soldier, or knight, engaged in an act of war to protect his culture and his people from the Islamization of Europe (Bachmann et al., 2012).

The declaration by Breivik in court that video games contributed to his preparation for the crime piqued my interest as it did for many others. It led me to write a short piece for an academic blog called “The Conversation” (Martino, 2012). It was a short and apparently provocative piece in which I stated:

← 2 | 3 → Games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are now so immersive, so accurate (with the right add-ons) that they’re more like training tools than simple games. Breivik has stated that he used a “holographic” gun sight to practice targeting while training with Call of Duty. The sophistication of these games is the product of the close relationship between game designers and the military. The designers of military shooters often work with former (or current) military personnel to ensure the gameplay (including the look, feel and effect of in-game guns) is as realistic as possible—as was the case with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

The reaction to the piece was varied and at times near hysterical. It is pointless mulling over the online outrage and “trolling” my writing engendered. What I would like to focus on is the striking similarity between the Utøya massacre and another horrific event: the 2008 Mumbai killings. Both had similar gamelike characteristics—by this I mean that the perpetrators conducted themselves in a manner that anyone with even a passing acquaintance with First Person Shooter games—especially the military variant—would find familiar. In First Person Shooters the protagonist is almost always heavily armed, alone, and intent on creating the greatest level of mayhem and carnage possible. The games are constructed in a way in which the rewards for killing—and killing in specific ways, such as head shots or with a knife—are significant and help promote progress within the game and public prestige.

Aims of This Book

This book critically examines the part that video games play in the lives of young people and the impact these games have had on the evolution of youth culture and the broader society. It focuses on the how military video games such as Call of Duty aid in the process of the militarization of society and, as a consequence, how they assist in the establishment of new forms of culture and an emergent political form. In the book the creation of what is described as “ludic military habitus” will be analyzed and critiqued. The manner in which the habits and social interactions of young people, particularly boys and young men, have been reconfigured through a form of pedagogy embedded within military-themed or -oriented video games will be examined.

It would not be overstating the matter to assert that video games—and, in particular, military-themed games—play a significant part in the lives of young people. Games in general have evolved to the point where their popularity and influence now rivals that of Hollywood, both in terms of economic ← 3 | 4 → and cultural impact. The influence these games have had on the evolution of youth culture over a decade or more has been the focus of attention from political leaders, medical and legal specialists, and the mass media. Much of the discussion of these games has focused on the issues of violence as depicted in the games and the perceived psychological and social costs for individuals and society of this form of media.

What is not widely canvassed in the public debate generated by violent video games is the role that military-themed games play in the wider process of militarization. “Militarization” refers to a more complex and subtle phenomenon than the social and political form of militarism that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and does not require formal control or dominance by the military. The significance of this genre of gaming for the creation of a militarized variant of youth culture warrants closer interrogation.

Military-themed gaming genres range from First Person Shooters (FPS), such as the science fiction–based Halo series, to Real Time Strategy (RTS) games, such as Command & Conquer or Starcraft. For the purpose of this paper I will examine the role played by FPS games in the militarization of society.

Before I continue I would like to mark out the terrain within which I have engaged in this work. I view the issues canvassed in this book from the perspective of an Australian academic who has observed the impact of technology on young people and the broader society. Though I am writing about America, American institutions, and a genre that originates in the United States, it is my view that these matters are not solely the preserve of American scholars. Australia, as does Europe, form constituent elements in what Hardt and Negri (2001, 2006, 2012) have described as an “Empire.” From this perspective it is open for citizens of the Empire to critique its practices.

Conceptual Approach

The conceptual approach taken in this book to the study of new forms of media such as computer and video or console games sits somewhere between the classical divisions in the debate within game studies. There exists in the study of video and computer games a binary set of positions. On the one hand, we have the position of European game scholars, such as Aarseth (1997, 2001), who propose that games studies adopt a top-down approach, one that privileges definitional argument. In contrast, the American approach centers ← 4 | 5 → on a bottom-up dialogue with gamers, designers, the game industry, and its fans (Aarseth, 2001; Jenkins, 2002; Raessens, 2006).

Neither position fits comfortably with a politically informed analysis or critique of games. Games and other forms of media are powerful ideological tools that function in an educative role within contemporary society. They do not simply exist to amuse and have embedded within them a set of distinct values, positions, and externalities that cannot be simply brushed aside in the debate about the “procedural nature” or “literary” merits of video games.

In this book, video games, specifically the First Person Shooter genre, are approached as ideological products of a particular form of capitalism. New media such as video games are mechanisms, which are used to promote the extension and reach of Empire. This new political form is undergirded by the application of advanced forms of information processing and dissemination. I will refer to this as constituting the “Information Empire,” a structure that exists to extend the reach of the neoliberal political form. In later chapters I will illustrate how neoliberalism has become embedded in American culture to the extent that it has evolved into what I will describe as the “American” political form.

Video games and their use and impact are serious matters, and they warrant serious examination. Hence this book will emphasize the political and sociological implications of these cultural artifacts. Games do not now, nor have they ever, existed in a vacuum. Their genesis has its origins in the spinoffs and capacity made possible through the military-scientific alignment that has been in place since the Manhattan Project and through the cold war (Barnes, 2006, 2008). A number of authors have referred to this alignment as having helped shape today’s “Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Complex” (Der Derian, 2009; Lenoir, 2000; Stahl, 2009).

Gaming, and in particular military gaming, has its origins in the development of computer-generated, military-themed simulations in the 1960s such as Spacewar, an early proof-of-concept piece of software that was developed at MIT and ran on an oscilloscope (Bogost, 2009). This early experiment opened up the potential for emerging technologies to be harnessed for more than data collection, analysis, and display. Since its inception, computer gaming has had a special appeal for the military who have been active in applying gaming technology to training, recruiting, and political ideological purposes (Allen, 2011; Bogost et al., 2009; Nieborg, 2004).

It would be wrong to view games and the digital culture that they have helped create as simply the most recent manifestation of existing ← 5 | 6 → Hollywood-style entertainment (Boggs & Pollard, 2006, 2007; Gates, 2005; Tasker, 2012). Writing at the dawn of the modern games era, Espen Aarseth, the founder of the games studies discipline, argued that:

computer games are… a phenomenon of greater cultural importance than, say movies, or perhaps even sports. Seen from 2001, the potential cultural role(s) of computer games in the future is practically unfathomable. It seems clear that these games, especially multi-player games, combine the aesthetic and the social in a way the old mass media, such as theatre, movies, TV shows and novels never could. The old mass media created mass audiences, who shared values and sustained markets, but the mass media communities remained imagined (in Benedict Anderson’s sense), with little or no direct communication between participants. Clearly, multi-player games are not like that. In games like MUD1, Ultima online, or Quake Arena, the aesthetic and the social are integrated parts, and this could be regarded as the greatest innovation in audience structure since the invention of the choir, thousands of years ago. To see computer games as merely the newest self-reinvention of Hollywood, as some do, is to disregard those socio-aesthetic aspects and also to force outdated paradigms onto a new cultural object. (Aarseth, 2001)

There has been much water under the bridge since Aarseth opened up the field of game studies and helped build the argument for the serious academic study of games and gaming. This “new cultural object” has in the decade since the field was opened up for study all but eclipsed Hollywood as an economic and cultural force. What Aarseth didn’t really count on was the way in which liberal-capitalism in the form of “Hollywoodization” would fully embrace games and seek to monetize every aspect of the rich amateur culture of gaming that has existed since the 1960s. Aarseth saw the potential in an existing “worldwide, non-commercial, collective games movement that has a better infrastructure than any amateur movement before it” (2001, pp. 1–2) to, in a sense, oppose the hegemonic aspects of traditional forms of centralized media flows embodied in Hollywood.

Instead of the oppositional community of creative types that Aarseth envisioned who are able to create and distribute new cultural artifacts—“games” through an amateur movement—we have witnessed gaming become an industry and an economic powerhouse. In turn, over the past decade the games industry has been all but consumed by the larger Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Complex (Der Derian, 2009; Turse, 2008).

This work draws on a range of sources—the analysis of published literature, games, booklets, manuals, web sites, trailers, and other para-textual representations of the First Person Shooter genre of video games. Throughout the ← 6 | 7 → book, reference will be made to a number of video games such as the Call of Duty and America’s Army series as artifacts that demonstrate the relationship between gaming and the process of militarization. Another source of material used in the writing of this book is drawn from official U.S. government agencies and military personnel through public statements, training manuals, promotional material and official web sites, and government publications. Published industry data and statements will also be drawn upon, as will historical documents and media accounts and debates.

Before we begin, a note of caution: this book is theoretical. I make no apologies for this. I am not concerned (although I do make reference to them) with debates over the psychological aspects of gaming. I am not concerned here with the debate about effects. I leave that to others more qualified than I am in these matters. What I am interested in is unpacking where these games sit in the broader pedagogical and sociological process of militarization, which I will argue, is transforming contemporary society into a space where war and the prospect of war has been normalized. ← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 → · 2 ·


(War) gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.

—Chris Hedges (2003, p. 3)

The centrality of war and the willingness to engage in war has become a distinguishing feature of advanced capitalist societies in the twenty-first century. Within the advanced societies of North America, Europe, and Australia, war has become the normal backdrop of everyday life. The act of war, whether it is a low-intensity conflict such as in Afghanistan or the more conventional “shock and awe” of the large-scale invasions we witnessed in Gulf War I and II requires both logistical as well as ideological supports to be effectively prosecuted. The creation of a pro-war cultural milieu has been a hallmark of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. In this chapter I will examine the place of war and warfare within modern society and the relationship between media and entertainment, in the form of video and computer games in the creation of a “war culture” within advanced societies. I will briefly touch on some of the key terms and ideas that will be fully elaborated in subsequent chapters.

According to the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI):

← 9 | 10 → World military expenditure in 2012 is estimated to have been $1756 billion, representing 2.5 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) or $249 for each person in the world. The total is about 0.4 per cent lower in real terms than in 2011, the first fall since 1998. Nonetheless, the total is higher than in any year between the end of World War II and 2010. The distribution of global spending in 2012 shows what may be the beginnings of a shift from the West to other parts of the world, in particular Eastern Europe and the developing world. (2013)

The expenditure documented by the Stockholm group, while growing, has at the same time coincided with a historic decline in inter- or intra-state conflicts and also a concomitant decline in deaths as a consequence of war (Krause, 2009). This might appear counterintuitive as we observe through the media the daily procession of mangled bodies and destroyed cities as a consequence of current hostilities. The evidence presented by SIPRI presents a reality that is in stark contrast to the experience of the twentieth century, a period in history that was marked by extreme levels of violence and two major global conflagrations. Social scientists and historians are unable to agree on an exact or definitive figure for war-related deaths during the last century. The total number of deaths as a consequence of armed conflict since 1945 has been estimated to be in excess of 136 million people (Leitenberg, 2006).

The twenty-first century has thus far failed to continue the pattern of large-scale carnage through inter- or intra-state conflicts that was a central distinguishing feature of political life in the last century. This is not to diminish the horror of Syria and the barbarity of what occurred in Iraq in 2014. According to Krause (2009):

Virtually all analysts agree that recent decades have witnessed the near-total disappearance of major interstate war, as well as a fairly steady decline in the number of violent intra-state conflicts. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) recorded a total of 34 armed conflicts as active in 2007, only 4 of which were classified as ‘wars’ with more than 1000 battle-related deaths in a single year (Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia) and all of which were internal armed conflicts. Only three recent wars—Eritrea-Ethiopia (1998–2000), India-Pakistan (1998–2003) and the United States-Iraq (2003)—can reasonably be classified as interstate, although several more have been ‘internationalized’ in the sense that they involved troops from states that were not primary parties to the conflict (Harbom and Sundberg 2008: 72–86). (p. 185)

Yet despite a decline in actual levels of inter- or intra-state conflicts, military expenditures have not experienced a similar decline. The table below depicts ← 10 | 11 → the scale of global expenditures on arms and armaments. The steady rise in military expenditures is an important scaffold for the growth of militarized culture and the militarization of society. The preparation for war—despite the diminishing likelihood of intra-state conflict—has continued unabated at a global level. War has not disappeared from our lives; it has maintained its fascination for individuals and also for societies—rich or poor, advanced or developing.

Table 2.1. World Military Expenditure, 1998–2012. Perlo-Freeman, S., Skons, E., Solmirano, C., & Wilandh, H. (2013). Trends in world military expenditure, 2012, p. 1. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Fact Sheet. Url: http://books.sipri.org/files/FS/SIPRIFS1304.pdf. Please note: The totals are based on the data on 172 states in the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, <http://www.sipri.org/databases/milex/>. The absence of data for the Soviet Union in 1991 means that no total can be calculated for that year.


War in Human Society

Analysis and debate about the role of warfare in the evolution of human society has been a central focus of social scientists and historians for centuries. War has been identified as a crucial mechanism in the creation of human societies and the development of more complex and “civilized” patterns of living. I use the term “civilized” here in a deeply ironic manner. The evolution of human society has been marked by both great advances in the fields of education, science, health, and other aspects of human knowledge and well-being. At the same time we have developed and used ever-more sophisticated ← 11 | 12 → and industrialized weapons. The machine gun and the atomic bomb and the Predator drone are examples of the application of advanced systems to the job of killing.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead has described warfare as being a condition “in which defined groups engage in purposeful, organized and socially sanctioned combat involving killing each other” (1968, p. 215). This definition of warfare still has meaning in the twenty-first century and equally applies to inter- or intra-state conflicts and asymmetrical forms of war.

The literature from archaeological and anthropological disciplines is divided on whether organized patterns of violence and war are a product of the advent of more sophisticated social structures and the emergence of urbanized patterns of living, or whether or not early pre-agricultural and non-urban or small-scale societies were peaceful and idyllic settings where homicide and other acts of violence were relatively unknown (McCall & Shields, 2008; Roth, 2011). The academic debate on the nature of violence and warfare and its place in the development of human society is hotly contested and has been so for decades (Chang, Lu, Li, & Li, 2011; Bowles, 2012; Gat, 2000; Pinker, 2000). For the purpose of this book I will draw on the argument put forward by the anthropologist Keith Otterbein who argues that war is socially and politically engineered.

Otterbein, writing about the origins of war, has argued that “man is neither, by nature, peaceful nor warlike. Some conditions lead to war, some do not” (1997, p. 272). Chief among these conditions is the nature of the political structures within which people reside. For example, evidence shows that small-scale societies such as those that existed during the Neolithic period where people lived in tight familial and clan or tribal structures were more violent and subject to war (McCall & Shields, 2008; Nivette, 2011; Otterbein, 1997; Roth, 2011). Otterbein goes on to argue that the more complex the society the more likely it is to attack its neighbors. He also argues that the political form of the society impacts its propensity to be engaged in aggressive acts, so these early despotic states are also the most highly aggressive and likely to engage in armed conflict (1997).

Otterbein also asserts that when a state creates a standing army, whether for defensive purposes or whether it is openly belligerent in its stance, in time an army will be used. The fact of its existence and the high degree of preparedness implicit in the form and function of a standing army means that it will at some point be used in an aggressive external war. Detailed studies undertaken by writers such as Steven Pinker (2011) and Azar Gat (2008) posit a different ← 12 | 13 → view of the place of conflict, violence, and war in the development of modern society and its precursors (Lawler, 2012).

There has been much debate concerning the extent to which violent behavior and the propensity for states to engage in acts of war is a modern or civilizational condition. The debate has centered around two positions: one draws on Hobbesian notions of the importance of the state in regulating violence and improving the conditions of life, a view held by writers such as Pinker (2011) and Gat (2008), who argue that human society has over time evolved into a safer, less violent, more harmonious set of living arrangements. According to Pinker (2011) critics of contemporary society and, in particular, romanticized views of past human society are based on a misreading of the past. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker asserts:

Nostalgia for a peaceable past is… (a)… delusion… We now know that native peoples, whose lives are so romanticized in today’s children’s books, had rates of death from warfare that were even greater than those of our world wars. The romantic visions of medieval Europe omit the exquisitely crafted instruments of torture and are innocent of the thirtyfold greater risk of murder in those times. The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her nose cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccarine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal. (p. 838)

The view that the past was a peaceable and pastoral world has been a dominant perspective in both philosophy and the social sciences. This position draws on Rousseau’s critique of modern society and the establishment of the state, which is seen as the font of inequity, repression, and fear (Keeley, 1996; Lawler, 2012). Critics of Pinker and Gat argue that the nature of violence in both pre-modern and modern societies is too diverse and as a consequence we cannot generalize about it, nor, they argue, does the data tell us anything conclusive about the question (Armit, 2011; McCall & Shields, 2008; Nivette, 2011).

Whether or not the pre-history of humans was a period in which communities and their inhabitants were able to live for extended periods without the fear of violence is still open for debate. What is not uncertain is that war and the preparation for war has been an ever-present aspect of modern society. War has been a significant aspect of the historical record for as far back as we ← 13 | 14 → have written accounts. However, this is not to say that history is simply an account of a succession of conflicts in a pantheon of war. It would not be overstating the argument to assert that until quite recently while wars occurred they were the exception and not the rule. War has been a manifestation of a set of exceptional circumstances and not the norm.

In the remainder of this chapter and throughout the book I will develop the argument that in contrast to the historical record contemporary Western society has become profoundly war-like. This has been accomplished through the extension of a process of militarization and the emergence of a form of permanent war culture and form of continuous or forever war. As Deer has argued the

modern war culture is self-perpetuating and self-replicating; it normalizes and naturalizes a state of war. Peace is not the end of war culture. At its core, war culture seeks a postponement of peacetime “for the duration”; it seeks an adjustment to a state of permanent war. (2007, p. 5)

Constructing a War Culture: From Total War to the Cold War

The origins of the current normalization of war and the emergence of what González has described as a “Warfare State” (2010) can be traced back to the mid-century conflicts of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. After the declaration of the Cold War a range of low-intensity and brushfire conflicts during the 1950s and the 1960s provided the template for the measures needed to maintain the current state of perpetual war. The Second World War and the subsequent Cold War set in motion a range of processes and practices, the logical outcome of which has been the establishment of a machinery of war of unparalleled scale and reach.

During the Second World War a range of institutions and practices, both material and ideological, were assembled to enable the prosecution of the war. The material and ideological constructs necessary to conduct the war encompassed the production of propaganda, the marshaling and coordination of large segments of the population, as well as adaptation of the economy to the requirements of war production. This set of material and ideological constructs was facilitated through the adoption of a Total War strategy. As I will discuss in more detail later in the book, the Total War strategy established during World War II did not disappear with the defeat of fascism. Instead ← 14 | 15 → the political, economic, and sociocultural forces generated in support of and through the strategy were reconfigured and became fully embedded within the fabric of American society. The vast apparatus of war—the infrastructure, both private and public, the economic capacity, the political and cultural forms of propaganda needed to wage ideological combat—morphed into what President Dwight Eisenhower (1960) called the “military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower used this term to describe the set of wartime institutional, social, political, and economic practices and structures he believed endangered American democracy. Once in place this apparatus of war was not readily abandoned, nor was it easily scaled back.

On its own, the “Complex,” as Nick Turse describes it (2008), would not have been able to sustain popular support for the massive levels of expenditure required to maintain an emerging global empire and the multi-hemispheric nature of conflict that this has entailed (Robin, 2009). American voters, and by extension the populations of their allies in other advanced capitalist societies, would need to be convinced that this apparatus was both necessary and affordable. This has required a process of ideological scaffolding in support of the maintenance and expansion of the Complex even at times of relative peace.

The Total War ideology of the 1940s was reshaped in the 1950s to service the needs of the brushfire and proxy conflicts of the Cold War. The promotion of fear and a commitment to national preservation in the shadow of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) became a primary task of government. In this context media became a crucial weapon in the prosecution of this new form of warfare. Anticommunist propaganda messages through a range of media—film, print, and radio (e.g., Radio Free Europe was a potent weapon in the West’s arsenal) were used in all their analog glory to project the fear of communism and the looming threat of global conflict and possible annihilation.

The Duck and Cover propaganda short film of the 1950s played heavily on this fear but also illustrated that Americans could do something practical in the face of possible attack (Jacobs, 2010): hide under a table and wait for the nuclear fallout to subside. The possibility of nuclear conflict following the Soviet Union’s acquisition of atomic technology meant that this fear and the notion of a surprise attack—a first strike—became an element in the subconscious of ordinary people.

The sense of the imminence of atomic war can be discerned in an article written in 1950 by Robert Cahn for Collier’s Weekly magazine. Cahn was invited to visit the Indian Springs Elementary School, which was located near Las Vegas, Nevada, and not far from the Nevada proving grounds. The article ← 15 | 16 → was written at the height of the Cold War, and it illustrates how the prospect of nuclear conflagration had begun to embed itself in the minds of Americans. According to Cahn the children who attended the school had “witnessed four atomic blasts in the last few weeks. Some of the children have seen as many as a dozen of the atomic test detonations”(Cahn, 1952).


Figure 2.1. Duck & Cover!

Source: Duck and Cover. (1952) Director Anthony Rizzo. Archer Productions. https://archive.org/details/duck_and_cover_ipod.

The young children in the school had become accustomed both to the prospect of nuclear war (they had begun to play games within which the atom bomb featured prominently) and to the normalization of the mushroom cloud as part of their everyday life. Many of the families of these children were employed in some form by the defense industries and the armed forces. At the time the level of exposure to the bomb and the normalization of its place in the lives of youngsters at the Indian Springs School was regarded by the authorities as a positive. As one of the staff at the school pointed out in the article:

“The Indian Springs school children take great pride in being so close to the bomb tests,” says Mrs. Bartley. “Every youngster likes to feel his school is superior,” she says. “These children, living on the desert far from the city, have few of the advantages ← 16 | 17 → that city kids have. But seeing these bombs seems to make up a little for the things they miss.” (Cahn, 1952, p. 16)

The close proximity of these children to the proving grounds and the exposure to nuclear explosions was seen as preparing them for the prospect of all-out nuclear warfare. As a spokesman for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) pointed out to Cahn, this level of exposure meant that the children could be seen as “models for the rest of America’s youngsters” (Cahn, 1952, p. 16). According to the AEC spokesman:

The children in this school by their sheer proximity to the tests are getting the same type of psychological indoctrination we are giving some of our combat troops. If all the school children in the nation could witness an A-bomb blast, it would do much to destroy the fear and uncertainty which now exist. (Cahn, 1952, p. 16)

This indoctrination was not simply restricted to an appreciation of the reality of nuclear weapons—the youngsters spoke in a particularly blasé manner about the A-bomb. As one youngster put it:

“I guess I’ve seen at least a dozen bombs,” says Carol Ann Starnich, the veteran of the school, who has lived in Indian Springs for some time,… “The first time,” she says, “we were playing hopscotch and heard a big plane and saw a flash. It scared us so, we fell down. Then we saw a great big cloud. Then we played hopscotch some more. I’m not scared now.” (Cahn, 1952, p. 16)

It’s interesting to note that the imagery of a young child counting down to Armageddon was effectively used in the 1964 U.S. presidential election by the Democrats to paint Republican Senator Barry Goldwater as a dangerous pro-war candidate.

One can argue that the exposure of these young people to both nuclear weaponry and to the general militarized nature of their lives—not only were most of their parents engaged in war-related activities, but they were constantly exposed to large numbers of military personnel on the base and in their community—helped normalize as just another aspect of everyday life the preparation for war. As Cahn points out in the conclusion to his article:

Seeing the Marines who took part in the recent simulated combat test maneuvers has left its mark on the children. A group of four school kids were discussing the future. “I’m goin’ to be a rodeo rider and earn $100 in 5 minutes riding broncs”… “Aw. You mean you’re not goin’ to fight for your country?” said the first, disgustedly. (Cahn, 1952, p. 16)

← 17 | 18 → It is interesting to consider the argument that what was learned during the Cold War in places such as Indian Springs was that exposure to weapons and the playfulness of humans made a potent mix and that familiarity with war and the terrible weapons of modern warfare was useful in the broader process of militarization. Play and the conduct of war would, in the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, become firmly intertwined in both the cultural and the physical domains. The normalization of war and a familiarity with weaponry—military thinking and the preparedness to engage in warfare—became embedded in popular culture, political discourse, and the general mental framework of the citizens of advanced societies. Thus amplifying the underlying war culture as part of the societal process of militarization.

Ideological Constructs

How do we understand the mechanisms through which war and warlike thinking have penetrated and become enmeshed in the fabric and constitution of modern society? The creation of a war culture has gained impetus and has been sustained by a number of complex and complementary processes. Since the end of the Second World War the advanced societies of Europe and North America have undergone a transformation through which everyday culture and life has taken on a military hue. By this I mean that military ways of thinking and dealing with social and political issues have come to dominate social and political discourse. Concepts such as “Total War,” the “Cold War,” and more recently the “War on Terror” have been used to mobilize society in order to gain support for what can only be described as a continuous state of war (Gagnon, 2010).

These ideological constructs are markers along the path toward a militarized society. Advanced capitalist states such as the United States have been transformed into hardened territorially bounded power containers within which the ideological and political struggle against the “Enemy”—a shifting Orwellian-like configuration of groups and individuals who are at one time allies and then are transmogrified into potent threats. Here I am referring to the example of the erstwhile freedom fighters, the Mujahedeen, who tormented the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s—trained, resourced, and cheered on by the United States—and who as the Taliban in the twenty-first century facilitated the attacks of 9/11. In the current political context, who constitutes the “enemy” has become permeable—both nation-states as Iraq under ← 18 | 19 → Saddam Hussein and non-nation-state actors such as the global networks of Jihadists and the Taliban have been assigned that role.

Although the depiction of the enemy in political discourse and in popular culture has shifted or morphed over the past century or so from the Nazis to the Reds to the Jihadists—the nature of the enemy is always shadowy and unknowable, a phantom that can be made to take whatever form current political needs require. This practice of identifying an enemy, one that is both external—located in a distant and unknown land—coupled with an internal threat—“the Enemy within”—has been a political tool used in the United States and other advanced societies since the mid-century.

Writing about the Cold War, Ron Robin, in his book The Making of the Cold War Enemy (2009), has referred to the way in which academia and the military-political establishment collude in the creation of a mutually beneficial “rumor” of an enemy. According to Robin:

Rumor—an amalgam of opaque knowledge and cultural codes transformed a distant adversary into a clear and present danger. Plausible, yet unauthenticated explanations replaced an uncomfortably ambiguous reality… This powerful rumor induced periodic harsh twists and sudden turns in the nation’s global and domestic policies.The mutant enemy appeared everywhere—in foreign lands and at home. Exorcising his presence became a national obsession. Occasionally the rumored enemy unleashed dangerous forms of escapism. The “cult of the superweapon”—the dependency on superior American technology as a substitute for a painstaking assessment of enemy strengths and weaknesses—was the most prominent example of the impulse to circumvent rather than confront the enemy. These and other reactions to the presence of the Cold War enemy shared a crucial common denominator: the image of the enemy was derived from an uneven mixture of fragmented information and unauthenticated presumptions. It was a rumor. (p. 3)

The promotion of war as a solution to current political problems has its roots in the work undertaken during the late 1930s through the Second World War and beyond into the Cold War era. The knowledge of how to engineer the mass mobilization of the civilian populations necessary for the successful prosecution of World War II has been refined and extended in subsequent decades through a range of processes—advertising, mass media, and the low-intensity proxy conflicts of the Cold War, and on through to the current and ongoing War on Terror. Ideological tropes such as the War on Terror have their origins in the mass mobilization of civilian populations during World War II and the ideological and propaganda work that enabled this to occur.

← 19 | 20 → Until the twentieth century armed conflict had in Europe and North America, at least since the Napoleonic wars, consisted of fighting between standing armies of professional soldiers or militias. War in the nineteenth century and the early decades of the last century involved large set-piece battles between standing armies. This is not to deny that other forms of armed conflict have occurred and that noncombatants have been victims of war and its aftermath. Conflict was, more often than not, remote and divorced from everyday experience. The role of the United States in the First World War is a good example. During that conflict American forces were deployed to Europe and at no point were the continental United States and its population in any danger of being harmed by the forces of Imperial Germany. War was still on the whole about conflict between large bodies of armed men.

The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s changed all that. The intentional targeting of civilians and the use of terror through the bombing of cities and the intentional killing of prisoners of war and civilians, as well as the mass mobilization of the entire population as part of an ideological and material conflict, a culture war, was a precursor to what was to come in World War II and beyond. The Spanish Civil War was the first modern conflict—it drew not only on simply nationalist ideas for its conduct, it also was an ideological war facilitated by advances in technology (Davies, 1999; Fraser, 2012). It was a precursor to what would unfold later in the 1930s when within the cauldron of the Second World War the apparatus and practices that became known as a Total War emerged as a distinct socio-cultural-political-economic manifestation.

The term “Total War” was coined to describe the situation in which every aspect of life during conflict could be monitored, regulated, and put at the service of the nation. Writing in his monumental work on the origins and practices of National Socialism, Behemoth, the political scientist Franz Neumann describes the emergence of this concept in Germany in the lead up to and prosecution of the Second World War. Neumann argues:

Through out the history of modern imperialism, imperialistic propaganda always tried two different approaches: first, to present any war as a defensive one, as a fight for life; secondly, ideologically and organizationally to incorporate the masses into the war. The white man’s burden, the mission of a people, manifest destiny are examples of the second kind of approach. This kind has never been able to produce support for a large-scale aggressive war. People will not voluntarily decide totally to organize themselves for imperialistic expansion when collosal sacrifices in blood and energy are required. They must be compelled to do so. They must be organized in such a way ← 20 | 21 → that they cannot resist. They must be submitted to such propaganda that they do not express open resistance. Their deomcratic convictions must be uprooted and other ideologies must be implanted. (2009 pp. 186–187)

According to Neumann mobilizing a democratic people to undertake a war of aggression as in the case of Germany required the careful manipulation of both the personal and public lives of the population. Writing at the height of the Second World War Neumann argued that the war was total and as a consequence it meant:

No sphere of life remains untouched. Every activity must be subordinated to it; the individual must become completely immersed, must become part and parcel of it. Such incorporation is particularly necessary because a society that has passed through the phase of large-scale democracy can no longer exclude the masses. Organizational, ideological, and propagandistic patterns must be elaborated for this purpose. The new ideology must be democratic, at least in appearnace. The rulers and the ruled must be represented as pursuing identical interests; the internal social antagonisms must be utilized and transformed into external aggression. (2009 p. 187)

Neumann’s definition of Total War and his explanation of the process by which the Nazis were able to shift an erstwhile democratic people into a position where they would embrace, often enthusiastically and with a sense of rapture, the prosecution of a war of aggression is both powerful and also instructive. The sophistication of the Nazi propaganda machine and the means it used to reconstruct the mental framework of the German people effectively demonstrated the capacity of the state to manipulate its subject population in order to accomplish specific political and war aims.

This success resonated with the major powers involved in the war. They took notice of the practices employed by the totalitarian nations and adapted them. The Western Allies did not take on the extreme police state measures that the Nazis had perfected; however, they made use of the propaganda concepts and tools honed by the Nazi state—in particular mass media.

Media had been effectively used in one form or another to prosecute war aims and to engage the population in the task at hand. The First World War took place in a time when film was gaining huge audiences and provided an easily accessible medium with which to promote the need for sacrifice in the ongoing struggle. By the commencement of the Spanish Civil War, both film and radio (Davies, 1999) had become effective tools in the propaganda mechanisms used by both the republican government and the fascist insurrectionists under the command of Generalissimo Franco (Caparrós Lera, 1986; ← 21 | 22 → Vernon, 1986). Beyond the immediate zone of conflict film and other media helped promote the republican cause as well as that of Franco at a number of levels and gave governments a taste of what could be accomplished.

Films such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) were powerful examples of how media could effectively project a new perception of reality and a visual manifestation of political power. Media as a propaganda tool was not enough to shift the people of Germany in the direction of a war of aggression in the short period from when the Nazis gained power to the invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, but it was a key component. The Nazi state drew on a huge array of repressive apparatus to accomplish this—secret police, legislation, and violence. They also engaged in culture war through the media, institutions, and in the invasion of everyday life by the party and its apparatchiks.

What the Allies learned during the Second World War and the subsequent decades of Cold War was that a democratic people presented with an external or internal threat presents a malleable object. Given the right type of stimuli they are willing to support a range of political and economic measures necessary to prosecute a war. The Total War ideological and organizational construct of the Second World War gave way during the second half of the twentieth century to a less overtly warlike political formation. The mid-century mass mobilizations essential for the conduct of Total War became not only less necessary for the effective prosecution of modern warfare they were, in the case of the War in Vietnam, for example, counterproductive.

The emergence of large-scale opposition to the War in Vietnam despite the rhetoric and propaganda of the Cold War proved that, while the initial enrollment of the population in the cause of war was relatively straightforward, this did not mean that an ongoing commitment to the prosecution of the war followed. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 was used by the United States as an excuse to commit ground forces to Southeast Asia—a decision that was regarded at the time as being a logical outcome of the ongoing Cold War. By 1968 the popular sentiment in relation to the war had hardened to the point where the U.S. military victory against an insurgent offensive during the Tet offensive in 1968 was instead perceived as a political defeat of American policy, leading to the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region.

It is interesting to contrast the mass public opposition to the War in Vietnam in most Western societies during the 1960s to the palpable silence that has shrouded the nearly three decades of military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Gulf War II began in 2003 there were huge antiwar rallies in various parts of the world (Mueller, 2005). Unlike the Vietnam War, ← 22 | 23 → the conflict in Iraq did not spawn ongoing large-scale opposition or a powerful antiwar movement during the early 2000s—either in the United States or elsewhere (Hayes & Guardino, 2010).

When, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, then–U.S. President George W. Bush stated that, as a consequence of the attack, “every American is a soldier” (Orr, 2004, p. 251), very few voices were heard in dissent. I am not arguing that no one opposed these conflicts or that it was not clear to large numbers of people that the reasoning behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on a fabrication—an act of economic aggression balanced upon a thin tissue of lies. However in the decades following the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, something changed the thinking of both the military and political elites. It became apparent that engaging in war and justifying it as a state of exception was problematic. It can be argued that the United States prosecuted both the Korean War and the Vietnam War as though both were “lite” versions of the Second World War: D-Day morphed into Inchon in Korea and Khe Sahn in Vietnam.

The complexity of the post–Cold War world—the advent of asymmetrical warfare and the emergence of de-territorialized non-state-armed groups euphemistically described as “terrorist,” “pirate” groups, or “drug cartels”—has had profound implications (Gregory, 2011a). The rhetoric and policy settings underpinning Total War and the Cold War, while useful in the mass mobilization necessary to conduct a global war between huge standing armies and competing politico-economic hegemons, is less useful in the twenty-first century. It is not necessary to place entire populations directly at the disposal of the machinery of war.

Digital technology and the advent of relatively inexpensive weapons systems such as aerial and other forms of drones and cruise missiles coupled with advances in infantry techniques and the reliance on elite Special Forces to actually engage with the enemy means that huge standing armies are ruinously costly and at the same time militarily superfluous. At the same time the growing sophistication of contemporary liberal democracies makes it politically difficult to engage the entire population in contemporary asymmetrical warfare.

The American-led invasion of Afghanistan in the post–9/11 aftermath highlighted what a small, highly motivated, technologically advanced military force is able to accomplish (Kahaner, 2006; Laub, 2011; M. Williams, 2012). This stands in stark contrast to the botched U.S.-led invasion of Iraq later in that decade. In Iraq both the conduct of the war and its subsequent ← 23 | 24 → aftermath illustrated the inadequacy of traditional notions of war in an era of networked asymmetrical conflict. The political dynamics of Iraq made it clear from the outset that the invasion had precipitated a Civil War and did not present an identifiable victory point. The conflict continued on well after the United States and its allies left the field of combat.

“Semi-war” to “Forever War”: The Normalization of War

The processes that underpin the creation of this war culture with its concomitant war consciousness involves a set of overlapping and mutually supporting cultural, social, and political processes and practices. The ability to engage in and sustain two wars, Gulf War II and the war in Afghanistan, while sustaining an extensive global military, economic, and political empire has been the defining characteristic of American political history over the past few decades. Patrick Deer (2007) argues that

modern war culture is self-perpetuating and self-replicating; it normalizes and naturalizes a state of war. Peace is not the end of war culture. At its core, war culture seeks a postponement of peacetime “for the duration”; it seeks an adjustment to a state of permanent war. (2007, p. 5)

The signs of a permanent state of war to which Deer refers can be discerned in the heightened sense of fear associated with the War on Terror. An example of this is the acceptance of the diminution of civil rights in the United States that followed the creation of the Patriot Act in the aftermath of 9/11. In other parts of the West, similar statutes were passed as the fear of ongoing terror attacks grew. These policies have not been rescinded in the years following 9/11; in fact they have been expanded and refined.

The notion that the United States and by extension its allies are confronted by a state of perpetual crisis, or series of crises, requiring decisive political and military measures has existed since the beginning of the Cold War in the mid-twentieth century. From the Berlin blockade of the mid-1940s to the Korean police action of the 1950s, mid-century America maintained its war stance. According to Andrew Bacevich the idea that the United States needed to be in a permanent state of preparedness for armed conflict was promulgated by the first American Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who described this as a state of semi-war (Bacevich, 2010). The concept of semi-war ← 24 | 25 → provided the bedrock upon which the U.S. national security state was established and has underpinned the ability of the liberal-capitalist political form to expand globally and meet and defeat its ideological and geopolitical enemies.

This semi-war strategy has been maintained for more than half a century and has involved the creation of the quasi-imperial structure whereby the globe is divided into military commands under the watchful eye of the U.S. military. The militarization process has been the outcome of the long-term project of convincing the population of the United States and its Western allies that they are in a permanent state of crisis and thus the preparation for war that is implicit in Forrestal’s concept is logical, normal, and unavoidable. This positioning has provided the ideological and logistical basis for the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower (1960) talked about at the end of the 1950s—a structure that has gone on to extend beyond the initial construct to now militarize society (González, 2010; Ottosen, 2009)

The normalization of war that is implicit in the idea of semi-war has enabled the construction of a vast military apparatus and an entire ecology of industry, science, media, and entertainment devoted to its promulgation of U.S. power and the ability of the United States to strike at its enemies both in the real world through boots on the ground, or with missile and drone strikes, and in the virtual-digital domains. The normalization of a culture of war has been facilitated through the expansion of militarization into almost every aspect of society. The military-industrial complex draws upon an arsenal of cultural weapons, which today encompasses the Internet, film, music, and entertainment. In this context the First Person Shooter can be seen as both a weapon for the projection of particular values, ideological structures, and as a form of anticipatory socialization in the constant state of semi-war.

The normalization of war in the West—as evidenced by the ongoing engagement of the United States and its allies in the conflicts of the Middle East—demonstrate both a capacity and willingness to swiftly move from one conflict to the next. A New York Times article written in 2005 by Mark Danner argues that the War on Terror has become a form of “forever war.” According to Danner:

In this new world, where what is necessary to go on the attack is not armies or training or even technology but desire and political will, we have ensured, by the way we have fought this forever war, that it is precisely these qualities our enemies have in large and growing supply. (2005, p. 9)

← 25 | 26 → The enemies of the West are in a sense being encouraged to engage in conflict by the ease with which the “coalition of the willing” is able to embark on war and sustain the war effort. Asymmetrical warfare has guaranteed the maintenance of the apparatus of global warfare despite the numerical inferiority of the belligerents that are involved. As Patrick Deer points out, even if the

prospect of an endless war on terror is less than appealing, it at least offers the compensations of proving “our” technological and economic superiority. The seductive mythology of high-tech, postmodern warfare still enshrined in the mythic active-combat phase of the invasion of Iraq has been kept carefully uncontaminated by the brutal, chaotic realities of the occupation. According to its unstable temporal logic, the invasion of Iraq (20 March–1 May 2003), like the 100-hour 1991 Gulf War, is completely incommensurable with the Cold War and old “hot wars.” (2007, p. 1)

The political will of the enemy combatants in the hills of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq and Syria have not diminished, and this enthusiasm for Jihad has meant that the U.S. military is in a state of constant preparedness.


The establishment and maintenance of a war culture has enabled the United States and its allies to engage in continuous and asymmetrical warfare on a planetary scale. The military prowess that the United States demonstrated during Gulf War II (here I am referring to, in particular, the initial shock-and-awe campaign that heralded the beginning of the second invasion of Iraq) is unparalleled (Der Derian, 2009). The normalization of warfare, and acceptance of the existence of a war culture in America, has been demonstrated by its ability to conduct the War on Terror with little if any antiwar public sentiment. The notable exceptions have been the public outcry following the publication of evidence of torture and other illegal activities at Abu Ghraib prison (Mitchell, 2011) and the global reaction to WikiLeaks revelations (Ludlow, 2010).

How this war culture has evolved and been maintained reflects a complex set of processes, political, cultural, and economic. The end of the Cold War in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union did not produce the peace dividend that many had hoped for. The vast apparatus of war that emerged out of World War II—Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex—has embedded itself through militarization within the fabric of modern America. The global ← 26 | 27 → reach of this process cannot be overstated. In Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe the drumbeat of war has had an almost hypnotic effect on both government and citizen alike. The threshold for deciding on military action has been lowered year after year since 9/11.

War is no longer the exception to the normal state of affairs. Instead it is now an expectation that the U.S. military and its allies will exert direct military power whenever and wherever it is deemed necessary. There is very little debate and almost no large-scale opposition to such decisions. Why would there be when we have been inured to the background noise of war? The procession of flag-draped coffins returning to small town America so emblematic of the conflict in Vietnam has not been repeated in contemporary conflicts. War is now so ubiquitous, so matter of fact, and the enemy so monstrous and cruel that we are no longer interested in the personal or social costs of conflict. War is no longer hell—it has been digitized, commercialized, and sanitized. ← 27 | 28 →

← 28 | 29 → · 3 ·


Even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks, through more
targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners,
America must move off a permanent war footing.

President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 28, 2014

I am not a conspiracy theorist: I only describe logics.

—Virilio, Richard, & Hodges (2012, p. 24)

Political scientists, sociologists, and historians have pondered the question of what role the military has and should play in modern societies. The history of the twentieth century is peppered with examples of open and proxy conflicts and wars, military strongmen, and foreign military interventions. These events are seen as a legacy of an earlier stage in the evolution of advanced societies and today as part of the everyday experiences of the global South as part of the development pains of less-advanced societies. It is easy to look back at the 1930s and 1940s when the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, and Japan, backed by military forces, wreaked havoc across the world and argue that was in the past. This complacency ignores a significant social change that has emerged in liberal-capitalist societies—the process of militarization. Militarization has embedded itself in both the fabric of society and in the ← 29 | 30 → consciousness of the populace. Militarization as a sociocultural force works toward the prepositioning of advanced society for the conduct of war. The ease with which the first and second Gulf wars were commenced and then prosecuted, and the lack of effective opposition to these conflicts says much about the power of this social process.

The privileging of the military within society and its dominance over civilian authority has been described as “militarism” (Geyer, 1989). Militarism is also characterized by the existence within certain societies of what Gillis has described as “warlike values” (1989, p. 1). Militarism in the twentieth century was linked to particular state formations and political ideologies, such as National Socialism in Germany, Italian Fascism, and the Franco regime in Spain (Mann, 1987; Skerret, 2010).

In a classic collection of essays on militarization, The Militarization of the Western World (Gillis, 1989), the American historian Michael Geyer argues that militarization is a much more complex process than that of the militarist states of the twentieth century. Geyer argues that militarization can be understood as “the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence” (1989, p. 79).

The process of militarization has the effect of weakening the boundaries “between military and civilian institutions, activities and aims” (Orr, 2004, p. 456). There is a deep integration between the needs of the military and the everyday life of the citizens of advanced societies. Nick Turse (2008) has described this as the “Complex”—a theme we will consider in more detail below. One of the key mechanisms in facilitating the process of militarization is media in all its forms. The importance of the military in American culture as portrayed in literature, films, television, comics, and the press and other news media for more than a century has been pivotal in this process of boundary weakening. It is my contention that computer and video console games, in particular those with a military theme, act in a manner that extends this process of boundary weakening between the military and civilian institutions (Orr, 2004).

Further, the process of militarization has been ← 30 | 31 → enhanced through the materialization of technological capacity (the exponential increase in computing power, software sophistication, and the expansion of the Internet). These technological advances have emerged through a process of military, scientific, and political relationships, structures, and networks. The increased availability of advanced technology, both hardware and software (Mack, 2011), has provided a mechanism through which the process of militarization has been amplified. The process of militarization extends its reach into people’s mental framework or consciousness through a range of mechanisms.

People are militarized in numerous ways including fashion, films, TV, print, and through institutions such as schools. New forms of media such as video games and social media enhance and amplify this process. These assemblages help disseminate a particular set of cultural meanings and ideologies. In particular, militarization—the preparedness to engage in or acquiesce to the use of military force—is constructed within the everyday life of advanced society.

Later in this book we will examine in detail the manner in which one particular element from this cultural assemblage—the First Person Shooter (FPS) and other military-themed or-oriented video games—help to militarize the players through the creation of a form of military habitus. When I refer to “habitus” I am referring to the process whereby a particular structure or mental framework (a schemata) is established within individuals determining their understanding of the world, their disposition, and their taste (Bourdieu, 1977). This is due in no small part to the immersive nature of these games, their scenarios, and supporting infrastructure (tally boards, web sites, online forums, books, and other forms of media).

Militarization has embedded itself within both the physical world—in places and spaces—in cities and border regions as well as within the digital and virtual worlds of media—video games, social media, and other forms of contemporary culture. In a sense the extension of militarization through these new forms of media have created a new form of what we can refer to as “cultural machinery.” These technologies provide the platforms with which militarization is both disseminated as a cultural idea and constructed as a political-ideological reality. Militarization has become a powerful societal process through the combination of political, sociological, economic, and cultural assemblages. Militarization has become a pedagogical force within advanced societies much as the civilization process that Elias wrote about helped transform European society from feudalism to the modern state formation. Militarization is a transformational process; it is a form of pedagogy that is reshaping the nature of contemporary society.

Militarization is not an organic process; it did not just happen. Militarization is the logical outcome of intimate and deep linkages among industry, the military, the state, and the scientific-academic segments of advanced society. In the next section of the chapter the logistics of militarization, and the manner in which the process has embedded itself within the lifeworld of ordinary people will be examined.

← 31 | 32 → The Military-Industrial Complex: The Logistics of Militarization

The process of militarization had its impetus in the middle of the last century during the most destructive planetary conflict seen thus far in human history, the Second World War. Militarization and its concomitant culture of war has embedded itself into the fabric of the lifeworld of advanced societies through the mechanism of what President Dwight Eisenhower once described as the “military-industrial complex” a configuration of government, academic, and industrial networks and policy settings that emerged during World War II as a necessary adjunct to the prosecution of Total War.

The American sociologist and public intellectual C. Wright Mills presaged the concept of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower described and to whom the notion is attributed. Writing in his book The Power Elite (1956), Mills points to the manner in which the logistics of militarization that had emerged during the Second World War had begun to transform American society. The war effort led to close connections among industrial enterprises, the military, academia, and the government. According to Mills a pattern emerged after the war in which corporations seeking lucrative contracts began to employ ex-military officers, particularly generals, to manage corporations. C. Wright Mills argues that the

increased personnel traffic that goes on between the military and the corporate realms… is more important as one clue to a structural fact about the United States than as an expeditious means of handling war contracts. Back of this shift at the top, and behind the increased military budget upon which it rests, there lies the great structural shift of modern American capitalism toward a permanent war economy. Within the span of one generation, America has become the leading industrial society of the world, and at the same time one of the leading military states. (p. 223)

The positioning of America as a leading military state was an outcome of the tremendous effort required to conduct a global war—and to win. The consequent collateral damage to American society, the emergence of the permanent war state that Mills (1956) describes, has had profound planetary-wide consequences.

The emergence of the economic-military alliances to which Mills points was publicly confirmed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell speech to the American people. In his talk Eisenhower described the growth ← 32 | 33 → of what he called a military-industrial complex, which he argued was a product of a:

conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry… (whose)… total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. (1961)

Eisenhower went on to say that while he understood the need for this development he cautioned Americans not to:

fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. (pp. 14–15)

Eisenhower, unlike Mills, did not envisage how the emergence of this structure would reshape America and, by extension, the fabric of advanced society. Eisenhower and his generation were prepared to fight a Cold War with a powerful adversary, but the notion of permanent war, or the administration of a planetary empire, was something that emerged over time and only reached its point of distillation in the post–9/11 era.

The military-industrial complex provides the circuits through which the process of militarization has emerged and taken root at the core of American society. The patterns of relationships—the close ties between economic, political and military personnel have facilitated the expansion of the US military to phenomenal levels of ability and resourcing. According to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States is by far the biggest spender on their military.

However, this is only part of the picture. Beyond the direct expenditure on the conduct and preparation for war is the manner in which American society is, as Geyer (1989) argues, organizing “itself for the production of violence” (p. 79). This is not simply a question of creating new and more types of weapons systems. Militarization is intruding into a whole range of social, cultural, and economic domains. We are witnessing the reshaping of American society into a militarized techno-modernist political form engaged in permanent planetary-wide war.

The definition of the term “military-industrial complex” has been added to or referenced by writers seeking to develop a language capable of capturing the specific sociopolitical configurations that have emerged under ← 33 | 34 → contemporary conditions. According to Nick Turse (2008) in his book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, as early as the

1960s, some scholars began to write about a “military-industrial-academic complex” or a “Golden Triangle” of “military agencies, the high technology industry, and research universities”. Others focused on the “Iron Triangle” of military contractors, the Pentagon, and congress. Still others have proposed such self-explanatory formulations as the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network,” “military-industrial-entertainment complex,” “military-industrial-think tank complex,” or even the “metropolitan-military complex.” (p. 15)

These configurations are an attempt at explaining the pivotal role that the process of militarization has come to play in American and other Western societies. The complex as Turse (2008) describes it is not an institution. The complex does not function in the same way that the militarists of the twentieth century used the state and the institution of the army to take control openly of the political and social institutions of the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) nations in the mid-twentieth century. Nor is it like the postwar quasi-fascist military governments of Africa and Latin America. It is much subtler, more pervasive, and deeply ideological. In a sense militarization has been embedded in the fabric of everyday life.

Embedded: Militarizing Everyday Life

When we examine the impact of the militarization beyond the simple accounting of military expenditure it is arguable that there is a pervasive yet almost invisible embedding of militarization within the composition of everyday life. This is the outcome of a cultural process that invades our lived experience in both conscious and unconscious ways. It is both open in its objectives and hidden in its practices. Military thinking (the use of violence to solve problems), military underwritten economic activities, academic and commercial research, social processes, and cultural artifacts have extended the reach of militarization.

The impact of the embedding of militarization in everyday life begins as early as the womb. As Shadiack (2012) points out:

Inspired by the sonar systems used in World War I, ultrasound technologies have become a staple of prenatal care to check on the health of the child. As they become toddlers, many will expand their imaginations and cognitive abilities by playing with ← 34 | 35 → toys that have been ascribed to certain genders. Girls play with dolls and tend the home, acting out scenarios involving traditional families and preparing them for roles as homemakers; in contrast, boys build toy fighter jets and battle the enemies of America with their GI Joe action figures that feature the tagline “A Real American Hero,” enforcing the idea that for someone to be a veritable “hero,” he must be a soldier fighting for country and cause, protecting the women at home and the family, the “fountainhead of national spirit.” (p. 43)

Toys and other products of popular culture help construct and extend the process of militarization and war culture. GI Joe is perhaps the most readily identifiable and enduring object in what Luckham has described as the “cultural processing of war” (1984a, p. 2). The picture painted by Shadiack (2012) in the text above of young boys playing at war with their war toys while girls play at being housewives neatly depicts the pro-war cultural work Luckham (1984a) first pointed out.

There has been a longstanding relationship between the military and major toy manufacturers such as Mattel and Hasbro (González, 2010; Hamilton, 2003; Luckham, 1984b; Shadiack, 2012). Games manufacturers continue to produce and market military toys and games, which in turn gives them access to military imagery and technology. The relationship has been a two-way process, as these toy companies have helped inspire both the military in its design of state-of-the-art weaponry and helped prepare youngsters for an easy transition into a military life. For example:

“The M-16 rifle is based on something Mattel did,” says Glenn Flood, a spokesman for the Pentagon, which is looking to toys and electronic games for parts, prototypes and ideas that can be developed effectively and inexpensively as battlefield tools. Inspiration has come from model planes (reconnaissance drones), “supersoaker” water guns (quick-loading assault weapons), cheap cellular phones for teenagers (video-capable walkie-talkies) and gaming control panels (for unmanned robotic vehicles). Today’s troops effectively received basic training as children. (Hamilton, 2003)

The close collaboration and, in many instances, synergy between the material work of the military and the cultural work of the media and the producers of popular culture is evident in the recent history of American cinema.

The production of films such as Iron Man (2008), GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), and more recently Act of Valor (2012) are tangible products of the process of militarization. Cultural products such as these films are powerful representations of a larger social, cultural, and political project and in a sense are unabashed advertisements for the military-industrial complex ← 35 | 36 → (González, 2010). Iron Man, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and Act of Valor were produced with assistance from the U.S. military and, in the case of the later, used active service military personnel as actors. But films are not the only cultural artifacts that help to facilitate the embedding of militarization into the culture and consciousness of advanced societies.

González (2010) and Cynthia Enloe (2000) describe the process through which militarization penetrates the culture of everyday life and reworks both our consciousness and our lived experiences. We are militarized by and through a range of mechanisms—both open and surreptitious. In her book Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2000), the feminist writer Cynthia Enloe paints a vignette of how militarization has embedded itself into even the banal aspects of everyday life. She explains that in the 1980s while in Britain she purchased a can of tomato and noodle soup—an unexceptional event in many ways. What was novel about this can of soup was that the noodles had been shaped as Star Wars satellites. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this book, Star Wars—the military-ideological strategy, not the film—was a product of the Ronald Reagan White House and played a pivotal role in the campaign to destroy the Soviet Union—the “Evil Empire” as President Reagan was fond of describing it as.

As Enloe points out in her book:

One can only conjecture about the conversation at the Heinz headquarters when this innovative soup design was first proposed. Since marketing specialists know that women do most of the food shopping, they must have imagined that Star Wars noodles floating in a tomato liquid would be appealing to women. Why? What would catch a double burdened woman’s attention, what would “speak to her,” as she moved purposely along her local grocery store aisles on the way to or from her paid job? The designers and dietitians sitting around the corporate table probably tried to imagine a typical mealtime in the household of a busy woman. Tomato soup is healthy. But a mother has to get a child to eat the healthy meal she has prepared. Sometimes that can be a challenge. Little a, b, and c’s might not be sufficiently enticing to a French fries and a coke lusting child. But add little space weapons. Maybe that would get the young diner to dig the spoon down deep into the mealtime soup bowl. Everyone would be happy—the vitamins phobic child, the harried mother, and the soup company. (p. 1)

Enloe goes on to assert that militarization does not simply affect those who work directly within the orbit of the military-industrial complex but also extends its reach to draw in civil populations. The process of militarization extends to incorporate not merely the

← 36 | 37 → executives and factory floor workers who make fighter planes, land mines, and intercontinental missiles but also the employees of food companies, toy companies, clothing companies, film studios, stock brokerages, and advertising agencies. (p. 2)

We can now add militarized video games and games designers, manufacturers, and end-users to this list of sections of modern society drawn into the ambit of militarization. This is a conscious process and it proceeds along a ration-al—and to those involved in its sustainability—unproblematic path. Those involved in the process of generating cultural products such as the Heinz soup have undergone a process of militarization. As Enloe argues:

Employees are militarized insofar as they take their customers’ fascination with militarized products as natural, as unproblematic. Employees are militarized also insofar as they imagine that promoting military ends serves the general welfare. Such employees may go further than just taking these militarized values as a given; they may start to define these values as a corporate resource, something to be reinforced and exploited. Latex condoms designed to look like army camouflage, films that equate action with war, fashions that celebrate brass buttons and epaulettes—each has been consciously designed by someone. (p. 2)

It is in these ways that militarization penetrates the fabric of everyday life and helps to reshape consciousness and culture. There is no need for the martial pageantry that was featured prominently in the militarist societies of the past. In fact such outward shows of force and military capacity would be an anathema to modern sensibilities and counterproductive. The United States, like Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, has a strong tradition of citizen soldiers, a tradition that does not sit well with notions of militarism (Millar, 2010; Wilcox, 2013).

The process of militarization depends not on the direct participation of the military in the economic, social, and political mechanisms of society. The penetration of military thinking, military values, and the positioning of society to accept and support the use of violence as a problem-solving mechanism occurs at a much subtler level and entails the reconfiguring of consciousness as a political end. The manipulation of popular culture through the mechanism of the market is a powerful and effective means of achieving the political goals of militarization. There is no need for jackboots when one can rely on a can of soup to promote military thinking in the general population.

The penetration of military thinking and military imagery has continued beyond the example Enloe (2000) used in her book. The can of highly ← 37 | 38 → caffeinated soft drink can depicted in a photo in Chapter nine continues the grand tradition of linking consumer products to military culture, in this case the First Person Shooter Call of Duty game franchise. Which, while not a weapons system as the Star Wars satellite–themed soup that Heinz produced decades ago was, it is nevertheless an example of the embedding of military imagery and thinking into our everyday lives. It illustrates the close alignment between entertainment, commerce, the military and the normality and acceptance of war as a cultural product and an everyday aspect of life. Militarization takes on:

a rationality that deeply influences the structures and practices of the general society through storytelling, mythology, media images, political messages, academic discourses, and simple patriotic indoctrination. (Boggs & Pollard, 2007, p. 19)

The forms of rationality to which Boggs and Pollard refer are pivotal in helping us to understand how militarization functions within society. Militarization is a process that reconstructs what is normal, what we can expect to be part of the experience of everyday life. In this context the privileging of war, the normalizing of warlike practices, and the celebration of the “warrior” in both mass media and political discourse have helped embed militarization within contemporary society. War is no longer an event that happens under exceptional circumstances perhaps once in a generation. It is now a constant reality, a tangible component of everyday life as it constitutes a form of background noise in advanced society. War and the process of militarization are an accepted part of what living in the twenty-first century is like.

Though the conduct of modern war occurs on the periphery of the global empire through terrorism and a reversal of asymmetrical warfare, it does from time to time impact the civilian population in an often horrific and visceral manner. The positioning of society to engage in war through the logistics of militarization, and its embedding in our consciousness, is something that we all live with. It is as real as the latest First Person Shooter, or the commitment of troops to a fresh combat zone as part of the forever war.

Militarizing Spaces

The process of militarization operates at a number of levels within advanced societies. It has penetrated a range of domains—social, cultural, economic, and political—in a manner that rarely causes alarm. The process of militarization extends into both physical as well as digital spaces in a fluid and dynamic ← 38 | 39 → manner. While the focus of this book is the extension of militarization into the digital domain and the virtual spaces of video games—specifically the First Person Shooter—it should be noted that the process of militarization also reconstructs physical spaces, populations, and regions.

The process of militarization shapes physical space through the designation of particular regions and their populations as being lawless or as posing a threat. In this context the militarization of physical space encompasses the reconfiguring of political and social attitudes, policies, and practices in a manner that constructs cities and urban regions as zones of conflict. This has consequences for individuals and communities as a result of the shift in security regimes from a civilian to a militarized stance. Thus cities and urban regions are no longer policed in a traditional sense. In place of policing, a heightened quasi-war stance is being adopted in most advanced societies. Many cities are now militarized urban combat zones. As Stephen Graham has pointed out in the post–Cold War world:

Western security and military doctrine is being rapidly reimagined in ways that dramatically blur legal and operational separations between policing, intelligence and military force; distinctions between war and peace; and those between local and global scales. State power centres more and more on efforts to try and separate mobilities and bodies deemed malign and threatening from those deemed valuable and threatened within the everyday spaces of cities. (2009, p. 389)

The 9/11 attacks led to both a reimagining of cities as zones of conflict and also to a reconfiguration of the nature of citizenship. Populations within cities and nations are now being characterized pre-emptively as being worthy of protection or as potentially violent and likely to commit a criminal act or to actively resist the state. Resistance and protest is equated with the threat of violence and is forcibly dealt with within the context of a hardened territorially bounded and militarized nation-state. Here I am referring to the Occupy Movement and other organized forms of protest.

The process of militarization also extends to the more conventional border regions of the modern state. As part of this process the power of the modern state was reinvigorated through a reassertion of notions of territoriality. Consequently the modern political form, the territorially bounded and hardened power container, has become militarized. Its borders bristle with the accouterments of a hybridized form of militarized policing and a state of semi-war (d’Appollonia, 2012; Salter, 2013).

← 39 | 40 → In Australia, Southern Europe, and along the Mexico-America border, the process of militarization colors how governments deal with issues such as refugees and nondocumented workers (Lacy, 2013). Policing is being reimagined and superseded with warlike responses and the constant threat of escalation. Both in the cities and on the borders this process is being facilitated through advances in technology such as biometric monitoring, the gathering of data through the Internet and social media, the use of drones, and the creation of paramilitary security forces and bodies (d’Appollonia, 2012; Pickering & Cochrane, 2013). These technologies and practices are augmented through the harnessing of Big Data and the global surveillance regime of the National Security Agency (Priest & Arkin, 2010).

Militarized Accumulation

The expansion of militarized forms of control and surveillance so as to encompass populations within urban settings, on the borders, or in the periphery, and also within the virtual or digital domain has been facilitated through the emergence of a new political form. The traditional nation-state—which had in the late twentieth century been subjected to the forces of economic and political globalization—did not evaporate as some social scientists and much of the popular media had prophesized. Instead in the twenty-first century the nation-state reasserted its capacity to control its subject population through the application of new technologies of control and surveillance. The emergent political form may be characterized as being a militarized territorially bounded power container. Embedded within and providing the foundations for the reconfiguration of the state into this new political form has been what Stuart Hall described in the last century as the emergence of an “authoritarian populism” (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978, p. 305).


X, 191
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2013 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 191 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

John Martino (Author)

John Martino (PhD, BA, DipEd) holds the position of Senior Lecturer in the College of Education at Victoria University, where he also lectures in media studies and the sociology of education. He has published in the fields of political sociology, critical media studies, and in education.


Title: War/Play