Friday, October 7, 2016

The Poetics of Militarism

Military recruitment videos aren't the place anyone goes to experience art that plumbs the depths of the human soul or speaks profound truths to our historical situation, so subjecting them to poetic analysis can seem excessive to the ordinary American, who has been trained to think of poetics as an elitist luxury rather then a central necessity of life. But one of the goals of this blog from its inception has been to argue for greater poetic literacy. Without understanding the poetic function, which is inherent to all human beings and a necessary capacity we must all develop, we are easily manipulated and used. That our current educational system is hyper-oriented towards STEM training while virtually ignoring poetics, rhetoric, music, philosophy, and art is not only alarming in the sense that our current generation won't be "well rounded" as people: it's more directly a threat to their freedom, in that they will be completely ignorant to the very real powers of propaganda, persuasion, and coercion that are common practice in this world. Without poetic analysis, we are left at the mercy of rhetoric we can neither decipher nor effectively oppose. We are left adept at manipulating gadgets, but incompetent to reasonably dismantle obvious rhetorical lies.

The following U.S. Army recruitment videos, currently airing, serve as good examples of creeping militarism in advertising. They were launched in 2015, but I recently saw them pop up when surfing YouTube, and was shocked by their message. As works of recruitment propaganda, they are well executed. Stylishly filmed, they deftly blend a sense of epic majesty with the personal and heartwarming, and extend that to even the technical. Entitled "Narrative 1", "Narrative 2", and "Narrative 3", they work as a progression of thought. The music is patterned off of what is by now a well known cliche--majestic, open voiced orchestral music, with a reflective,  resolved, 'patriotic' sounding brass motif, culminating in a figure reminiscent of John Williams's Olympic Fanfare. This type of music is a staple of every Hollywood war film, generally used at a 'reflective heroic' moment in the plot. [note: for a more detailed discussion of the music, composed by Hollywood composer Mark Isham, read Jordan Newman's "Sounding Military Identity through US and Canadian Recruiting Videos." Ethnomusicology Review, Vol 18 (2013)].  It's worth pointing out that what we view as drama these days is mostly what people of past eras would have called "melodrama"--drama which is so thin as to need musical support for the emotions expressed on stage. In most of the films we consider classic, melodrama plays an important role. Remove the soundtracks from them, and witness how empty the dialogue and acting actually are. Once upon a time, this was understood. Now, more often than not, people uncritically accept the emotional experience, thinking the plot, acting, or camerawork was actually profound, when it would have failed without the extra boost given by the music. Musical ignorance ends up dumbing down a nation emotionally and cognitively.

This digression aside, these recruitment ads would fall flat without the music, and without the skillful montages depicting a little girl rescued, and attractive intelligent young recruits hard at work. Those are so skillfully weaved, that one barely notices the shocking message of the words.

The words themselves are carefully shaped little poems, using techniques well worn by American poets and script writers. In them we hear similarities to Whitman, Sandburg, and even Pinsky.

"Narrative 1" begins with a strong 'call and response' style opening:

The challenges facing the country never stop. 
So neither does the US Army.

This is followed by rhythmic listing, in threes, similar in cadence to Whitman:

We train, adapt, and get smarter. 
Every soldier, every unit, every day. 

And as so often with Whitman, there is a rhythmic pivot to emphasize the next, crucial line:

Not to keep up with change, but to drive it.

This is the shocking line of the ad. In the history of the U.S. Military, there have been many technological breakthroughs, it is true--and this ad emphasizes that with the imagery flashing before our eyes.  But the language is nebulous and elemental. "Not to keep up with change, but to drive it" doesn't imply technology or even military tactical theory but, especially in our recent political climate, something more like progressive campaign rhetoric. Now I don't wish to be misunderstood: there is nothing inherently wrong with people wanting change. But to suggest that it's appropriate for the military to drive it is very dangerous. The military's basic mission must be to protect and to serve. It cannot espouse a role of driving change without being in some ways antithetical to a free society.

The ad ends by retreating, quickly, from this point, and pivoting in message altogether:

Nobody knows what problems tomorrow will bring. 
But we do know who will solve them.

There is, of course, a logical inconsistency here. If the Army is going to drive change, someone in the Army will, at least in some ways, be able to predict at least some of the problems of tomorrow. There is a misdirection here that is not altogether honest or comforting.






"Narrative 2" dangerously suggests that the Army is the underpinning, rather than the defense, of the nation. It is arguably the tightest poem of the three videos, in many ways. It's three sentences, interlocked by subtle rhyme if not by reason, mask the jaggedness of the message:

Before there could be a nation
there had to be people willing to fight for it:
to take on the world's greatest challenges
whatever they might be.
So the US Army masters not only tactics and strategy
but also physics and chemistry
we make battle plans and create breakthroughs 
in medicine, science, and engineering. 
Our next mission could be anything
so we prepare for everything. 

Note the rhymes linking "be...strategy...chemistry" and at the end, the rhythmic surety of the last three lines, with their resolved sounding, identical suffixes: "engineering....anything....everything." That these devices interlock over various ideas gives the text a sense of cohesion that it doesn't actually have, logically. Rhetoric, which in many ways is the application of poetic diction to ideas, can sway our opinions without making rational sense. This ad isn't necessarily that bad (it can be read, as all poetry, in multiple ways), but it makes certain emphases that are not carefully separated from dangerous ideas--and should be in a U.S. Army recruitment video.   





The "Narrative 3" text reads (and sounds) like it might have been alternate dialogue for a less temperamental Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men--at least in some lines. The voice-over artist even delivers the first very similarly in contour to Jack Nicholson.

When it's your job to protect the world's greatest nation,
it's your responsibility to solve the world's greatest challenges.
This is why we search for the best and brightest,
why we train for every eventuality;
on land, in water, in the air, space, and even cyberspace.
We operate in a complex world, with one simple mission:
Win.  






In a very short window, this ad manages to flatter both the nation and the recruit, pivot to brag about the Army, then acknowledge the world's complexity only to immediately oversimplify to one, basic idea, framed outside of any ethical structure: to Win. If "Narrative 1" sounded like current left wing political rhetoric, this sounds like current right wing political rhetoric: to Win, unreflectively, at all costs. 

American society has been force fed the notion, enshrined in Vince Lombardi's insane dictum "Winning is everything, it's the only thing" for several generations now. In many ways, this saying has supplanted the common and more ethical, older American proverb "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." This final U.S. Army "Narrative" washes away any notion of ethical or moral concerns. Duty and honor are not discussed. Change and Winning are the goals, supported by the notion expressed in the middle video that the Army is the basis of the country; that the country--then and now--owes its existence to the Army. 

These videos are markedly different from the recruitment ads of the 1980s; the "Be All You Can Be" campaigns which emphasized self-improvement (socially, educationally, and financially) through Army service. Those tended to offer the Army as an advancement program: the recruit would help themselves while serving a worthy cause. That's not what these ads are. I believe they are creeping militarism.

We shouldn't expect that military recruitment videos be great works of art. But we should take seriously the poetic devices they use, what they suggest, and whether their "narrative" is true and healthy to the nation they ought to serve.    


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