Manufacturing Militarism: US Government Propaganda in the War on Terror

The stands at Super Bowl LV were filled with cardboard cutouts. The half-time show by the Canadian singer known as “The Weeknd” had some of us wondering where he spent that extra $7 million. A man streaking in a skimpy pink leotard ran for more yards than the Kansas City Chiefs. If Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady keeps up his Super Bowl winning streak, he’ll run out of fingers for rings.

The Super Bowl looked different this year in many ways. But one thing remained the same–the overwhelming displays of patriotism.

While Jazmine Sullivan and Eric Church belted out the National Anthem, viewers saw images of military personnel stationed in Kuwait wearing their camouflage. NFL players and coaches, hands over their hearts, turned toward the flag. The song came to an end with fireworks and the familiar military flyover. Three Air Force bombers conducted a “first-of-its-kind” trifecta flyover. The B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and B-52 Stratofortress were deployed from South Dakota, Missouri, and North Dakota, respectively. They met up in time for the festivities and have now returned to their bases. According to the Air Force, the display “demonstrates the flexibility of AFGSC’s bombers and their ability to deploy anywhere in the world from the continental United States.”

Highlighting the military is not a new thing for the National Football League. From surprise homecomings and on-field enlistment ceremonies, to members of various military outfits singing “God Bless America,” to flyovers, the NFL has a long history of draping itself in the flag.

What you may not know is that the Department of Defense has paid them for it.

Between 2012 and 2015, more than half (18) of the NFL’s 32 teams received at least $6 million in taxpayer dollars from the DoD to host a number of “patriotic displays.” The National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Soccer (MLS), and NASCAR have likewise received funds from the Pentagon to engage a variety of patriotic tributes. This phenomenon, known as “paid patriotism,” is undeniable propaganda on the part of the Department of Defense. And it’s been kicked into overdrive since the start of the war on terror some 20 years ago.

In our forthcoming book, Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror, my coauthor Christopher J. Coyne and I discuss these propaganda displays, their effects on popular support for U.S. foreign policy, and their overall contribution to a culture of militarism in the United States.

While propaganda is often associated with autocratic regimes, we highlight that democratic governments likewise peddle misleading, biased, or false information to the public for the purposes of advancing their own agenda. We develop a political economy of propaganda and argue that various features of democracies make countries like the United States particularly susceptible to government misinformation. These problems are amplified within the context of defense and “national security.”

In addition to analyzing paid patriotism and sports, we examine a number of instances of post-9/11 propaganda in the United States. This includes the domestic “sales pitch” leading up to the Iraq War as well as the PR campaign following the invasion. We analyze the rhetoric surrounding flying, terrorism, and the Transportation Security Administration. We investigate the cozy relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood film studios.

The Weeknd might have been “blinded by the light” at Super Bowl LV, but how many Americans have been blinded by propaganda?

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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