Super Bowl XLIX as a Case Study in the Mechanics of Pro-War Propaganda


The Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza is situated just a couple hundred yards away from the entrance of the University of Phoenix Stadium, the host of this year's Super Bowl. Built by the home franchise Arizona Cardinals, the memorial features a solemn concrete slab surrounding a life-size bronze statue of its namesake, forever frozen in a warrior's roar. Patrick Daniel Tillman instantly became an icon of self-sacrificial patriotic enthusiasm when he walked away from a multi-million dollar NFL contract to join the Army Rangers in the wake of 9/11. His legend was secured when he was killed in action in April 2004.

Tillman was a man possessed of exceptional bravery and a fiercely independent mind. But his story is also one of cynical image management conducted at the highest levels of the American military in order to foster public support for war. And it's precisely this kind of pernicious narrative building that animates much of the U.S. military's marketing, which, it just so happens, thoroughly saturates NFL games.

Tillman died from "friendly fire." His Ranger platoon was traveling through a valley in Southeast Afghanistan when, in response to a couple of rifle shots from local insurgents aimed at the back half of the convoy, Tillman, another ranger, and a local Afghan militia fighter set up position overlooking the mouth of the valley. One of the tail-end humvees emerged, mistook Tillman and the others for enemies, and opened fire. During several minutes of shooting, three bullets shattered his skull. He'd been repeatedly shouting—screaming—"Why are you shooting at me? I'm Pat fucking Tillman!"

An internal investigation determined Tillman's death resulted from reckless bloodlust and "gross negligence," not exactly unpredictable phenomena when pairing young males with high-powered weaponry. One of the shooters flat-out admitted to investigators he'd failed to follow proper Ranger protocol for identifying a target because he "just wanted to be in a firefight."

The United States government immediately moved to suppress the circumstances of Tillman's death from the public and preserve a useful iconography. In violation of military regulations, Ranger personnel destroyed his body army, helmet and uniform. Top brass ordered his platoon mates not to tell his family he'd been killed by another American soldier. Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star based on forged soldier testimony. And, contra explicit instructions he left on his deployment forms, officials gave him a full military funeral—nationally televised, of course, and including a Ranger eulogy claiming Tillman had died defending against a Taliban ambush.

Pat's mother, who thinks this cover-up extends to the highest reaches of the military, had to battle a stonewalling bureaucracy for years to unearth the truth about her son's death. Her fight culminated in a 2007 congressional hearing which, predictably, devolved into repulsive kabuki theater, capped off with the patented loose-skinned mendacity of one Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Pat Tillman is worthy of awe. But what the government did with his death is propaganda, full stop. It constructed a false narrative to advance a political agenda. And this is not an isolated incident. Such calculated image-crafting undergirds a lot of the American military's $700 million a year public marketing efforts.

You'll definitely see this in action today, as the NFL audience is replete with the military's prime recruitment demographic. The biggest chunk of that overall marketing total—about $200 million—goes to the Army, giving it the single biggest ad contract in the federal government. And the Army devotes a full five percent of its marketing budget just to television advertisements during NFL games.

An emblematic spot draws a crass parallel between competitive sports and combat:

Another from the Navy—which I've seen pop up while bearing witness to the sustained exercise in expensive mediocrity that is the Washington Redskins—scores a series of slow-motion action shots to some soldier testimonies filled with capitalized warrior watchwords ("Democracy," "Freedom," "Honor," etc.):

And I've seen at least one of these ads from the Marine Corps (1:06), whose marketing more than occasionally resembles a Jerry Bruckheimer-directed LSD trip:

This advertising relationship runs both ways. The NFL funnels about $800,000 a year to various military charities through its "Salute to Service" program—a pittance for a multi-billion dollar operation that pays its commissioner $44 million annually—and in return the league gets to drape itself in hollow pro-soldier branding.

We do not live in some sort of Chomskyite dystopia in which all patriotic sloganeering is simply a smokescreen for Halliburton to keep harvesting Arab orphans or what not. And I'm personally sympathetic to an emergent libertarian wing that rejects the extreme isolationism that has historically categorized the movement's foreign policy philosophy.

But marketing that myopically focuses on the theatrical heroics of soldiers does obscure the messy complexities of the battlefield. And it cultivates a reflexive sacralization that draws attention away from the often inept decision-making that puts our soldiers in harm's way in the first place.

And this is always worth repeating: the conception and execution of American wars in the 21st century has often been epically inept. In Iraq, as extensively documented, a complete lack of post-invasion planning left allied forces flat-footed once sectarian violence filled the power vacuum created by Saddam's fall. Seriously: a 21-year-old whose most significant job up to that point had been driving an ice cream truck was charged with purging the central government of Baathist militia.

The cost of this ineptitude comes denominated in corpses. Since 2001, 6,845 US soldiers have been killed in the Middle East theater. Thousands more have returned home ruined by the physical and psychological ravages of combat.

The military's agitprop, exemplified in the Tillman story, actively fosters a kind of lazy patriotism that makes people disinclined to ask tough questions about the broader context of our soldiers' sacrifice. Just snap a selfie with the statue, dutifully bow your head when some "support the troops"-type bromide gets blasted through stadium speakers during warm-ups, and that's it. You've done your duty. Now, can we please just get to the game?