Rewriting History: How Hollywood sees the Afghanistan War on the Big Screen

Just 18 months after the evacuation of Kabul, America is reflecting on the end of its 20-year War in Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent the past year and a half honouring its fallen soldiers. From those who first jumped into the War in the fall of 2001. To those who helped evacuate thousands of Afghan civilians from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in August 2021. Now Hollywood has also decided to step into the fold to work its movie magic on the American public.

The Latest Hollywood Trend: Afghan Rescue Mission

There are currently three films under production in Hollywood. The plots revolve around the idea of a U.S. service member on a mission to rescue the interpreters and other Afghans who served alongside them, often at significant personal risk, during the Afghan War. 

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In fact, not even three months after the Kabul evacuation, Universal Pictures gave the green light to shoot a film about former Army Special Forces soldiers returning to Afghanistan. These were to help evacuate some of their former compatriots and family members.

Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy is to star with Channing Tatum in a new film about former Army Special Forces soldiers in Afghan

The movie is said to star Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy in the lead roles.

Following in this same vein is Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. This follows a Special Forces soldier, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who returns to Afghanistan to rescue the interpreter who once saved his life. Another movie, Kandahar starring Gerard Butler, with a similar plot, is set to debut as early as May. 

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All three of these movies suggest a rising trend. These Hollywood movies feature special ops personnel returning to Afghanistan. Always for one last mission to help the people who helped them. But it’s worth raising the question. Is there a darker subconscious desire that seems to have come to light by this growing trend?

A History of the US Military-Entertainment Complex

The term “military–entertainment complex” describes the cooperation between militaries and entertainment industries for mutual benefit, especially in cinema, multimedia, and virtual reality. The most prominent example of such a complex is the relationship between the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and Hollywood.

Jake Gyllenhaal and team in Guy Ritchie’s Covenant. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

In Hollywood, many movie and television productions are contractually supervised by the DoD Entertainment Media Unit at the Pentagon. Producers looking to borrow military equipment or film on location at a military installation must apply to the DoD for a permit and submit their movies’ scripts for vetting. Ultimately, the DoD has a say in every American film that uses DoD resources in its productions.

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The seeds for America’s military–entertainment complex were sown during World War II. Hollywood became the “unofficial propaganda arm of the U.S. military.” From 1942 to 1945, the United States Office of War Information’s (OWI) Bureau of Motion Pictures reviewed 1,652 film scripts. It revised or discarded anything that portrayed the United States negatively. Including material that made Americans seem “oblivious to the war or anti-war.”

Elmer Davis, the head of the OWI, said that “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they’re being propagandized.”

An Analysis of the “War on Terror” According to Hollywood

Since it began in 2001, the Global War on Terror has played out on screens worldwide. There was 24-hour news coverage of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and combat footage became a staple of war. When Hollywood first caught on to what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, the original plot theme was how “the troops” were mostly good.

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However, by the end of the 2000s, a rebellious “operator” began to enter the mainstream. Such operators fought against the bureaucracy and emerged as the true heroes who got the actual work done. These troops fought in the War, or so the message seemed to be.

Films were in the pipeline as US troops still vacated Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kylee Gardner)

As the Iraq War ended and Afghanistan entered its second decade, a new snarky, cynical take began to take root. Movies like War Machine commented on how genuinely disorganized and confused the whole Iraq and Afghanistan wars had indeed been for everyone involved. Things had undoubtedly taken a different route from the early days. Then patriotic onscreen displays that signalled the start of the War on Terror were encouraged.

With the War on Terror now over, however, the next step in the genre seems to be solving the plight of thousands of Afghans who had grown up under an American-backed government. One thing is for sure, such heroic plots certainly try their best to turn a blind eye to the bitter shame of an otherwise pointless war.