Hollywood and the Laws of War

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| Feb 1, 2022

Hollywood and the Laws of War

Common Article 1 of Geneva Conventions of August 1949 (CA 1) imposes a legal obligation on all States, as parties to the Conventions, to respect and to ensure respect, in all circumstances, for international humanitarian law (IHL). Although the CA 1 obligation is undertaken exclusively by States, private actors could help promote IHL compliance. This post focuses on how private actors in one particular sector, the entertainment industry, can contribute to compliance with the encouragement and support of States.

A Long History of Mutual Cooperation

As my co-author’s and my recent edited volume, Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law makes clear, there is no one set way of giving effect to States’ obligation to ensure respect for the law of war. And the task is not an easy one. Although the obligation is imposed on States, State action alone cannot ensure global international humanitarian law (IHL) compliance (see, for example, Catherine Drummond in Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law regarding private actors).

Depictions of war and conflict are not uncommon in today’s movies, television shows, and video games. These forms of entertainment are enjoyed by the general public and members of the armed forces alike. Given the wide audience for its products, the entertainment industry could have a significant influence on how IHL compliance is portrayed in these various media.

Recognizing the influence of Hollywood and, for that matter, the international entertainment industry, the Pentagon first established its Entertainment Liaison Office in 1942.[1] Today there are many official offices within government set up for the purposes of liaising between producers and directors and the various arms of the military or intelligence branches of government (see, for example, the U.S. Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office).

Sebastian Kaempf has called the relationship between government and the movie industry one of “mutual exploitation.” Producers get access to military equipment—which would otherwise either not be available or hugely expensive—and the government gets the power to edit the script. The value of the arrangement cannot be overstated. George Lӧfflmann writes “the Armed Forces are not just passive service providers to the film industry, but in fact an active part in the process of filmmaking.”

The military’s intense interest in ensuring the entertainment industry tells stories as the military wants them told suggests the possibility of leveraging the relationship to give effect to the obligation to respect and ensure compliance with IHL.

Clearly film makers could benefit from the support of the Pentagon or other State entities. For example, The Long Road Home, a critically-acclaimed series produced by National Geographic about the battle for Sadr City in the Iraq War,  “probably could not have been made without Pentagon approval” and “extensive support” from the U.S. Army. Similarly, the Indian government’s relationship with Bollywood has resulted in government financial, logistical, and information support to military-related movies, including those that portray Pakistan in ways consistent with official Indian foreign policy.

Collaboration with the military has also benefited the video games industry. Video games have their origin in military technology—specifically nuclear technologies developed during the Cold War period. The long history of collaboration has yielded mutual benefits, including in terms of training and simulation. The video game industry has benefited from military-developed simulation technology in particular.

What Can States Do?

Violations of the law do occur, and those violations need not be edited out by the entertainment industry. Rather, violations of IHL should be acknowledged in a way that allows for reflection about the consequences that do, or should, result from noncompliance with the law.

Encouraging the entertainment industry to acknowledge violations of the law for what they are and to support stories that accurately depict IHL would contribute to the public’s understanding of, and respect for, the law applicable in armed conflict. I have previously argued that States should consider their IHL obligations when making decisions on the procurement and use of weapons, and others in Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law have argued that States should do likewise when deciding on, among other things, counter-terrorism laws and banking and finance regulations. Similarly, States should consider their IHL obligations when making decisions to support the entertainment industry.

Through their funding of the arts, States can play a role that acknowledges and promotes respect for the law. Additionally, as former military personnel are increasingly recruited to work in the film industry, there is no reason why the law of war should not be accurately depicted from a military perspective.

A Promising Way Ahead

There is no clear legal obligation requiring the entertainment industry to promote respect for IHL, and there is no expectation that there will ever be one. Nevertheless, actions that encourage private actors in the entertainment industry to consider depicting respect for international humanitarian law in their work are undoubtedly worthwhile. The way the law is portrayed in a movie, TV show, or video game could have a positive impact on the battlefield.

Depicting respect for IHL does not mean the industry must sacrifice commercial success.  Long running TV shows, such as M*A*S*H, which educated the public about the legal and ethical requirement to treat the enemy’s wounded and sick, have been highly popular. A variety of films based on legal compliance issues in armed conflict have also met with commercial success. For example, the Colombian film Los colores de la montana (The Colours of the Mountain), powerfully displayed themes of forced displacement and weapon contamination all too familiar in times of civil war. The Monuments Men introduced many movie goers to the idea of cultural property protection in times of armed conflict. And Eye in the Sky educated the public on the process of calculating “acceptable” collateral damage in the face of targeting killings.

Given their influence over the entertainment industry, States can play an important role in ensuring respect for IHL by determining when and how to support film, TV, and video game projects. Supporting projects that accurately portray the application of IHL, encouraging the industry to show consequences for violations thereof, and encouraging the industry to tell stories that celebrate those who apply IHL are all tasks that States should adopt. After all, why can’t our entertainment industry “be a positive medium of influence to reinforce understanding and respect for the law?”

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Dr. Eve Massingham is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. She is the co-editor of Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law (Routledge, 2020). This contribution is based on a longer article soon to be published in the Media and Arts Law Review.

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Footnotes

[1] The term “Hollywood” as a common shorthand for the American film industry is used throughout this post to represent film industries across the world including, “Bollywood,” “Nollywood,” and the British and French film industries, as well as other players in the entertainment industry such as television studios and video-game developers.