U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley garnered headlines earlier this week with her comments on the U.S. conflict with North Korea. In a statement to an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, Haley stated, “enough is enough, we have taken an incremental approach, and despite the best of intentions, it has not worked.”
After explaining the North Korean threat, she outlined the Trump administration’s toughest stance yet on the region.
“War is never something the United States wants—we don’t want it now,” Haley said. “But our country’s patience is not unlimited. We will defend our allies and our territory.”
While this language shows greater restraint than Trump’s “fire and fury” remark, it raises concern due to its presentation at an international summit.
With this statement, Haley signaled the growing frustration and lack of patience within the administration for North Korean affairs. Beyond Haley, a 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey finds that 75 percent of Americans see North Korea’s missile program as a pressing threat to the United States, and 9 in 10 don’t believe they should possess nuclear weapons. The American public views North Korea as a present danger and the federal government reflects this sentiment by acknowledging the possibility of warfare.
So why is a nation still fighting a lost war in the Middle East so eager to enter another conflict? American entertainment provides a clue. Over the past year, a cluster of war shows has appeared on television. Shows such as “Valor,” “Seal Team Six,” and “The Brave” all kick off this year with a similar narrative of special operations teams accomplishing military goals. These shows run for around an hour and depict quick-hitting, high-intensity operations that make conflict appear satisfying and an easy fix to an issue. This is not a new occurrence, however, as rosy Hollywood portrayals of war existed prior to the Trump administration.
During the Obama era, movies like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Act of Valor,” and “American Sniper” were released in theaters, all of which portrayed warfare in a way that reflected positively on the U.S. military. Even though many of the characters struggle with PTSD or balancing their home lives with their military service, the takeaway of the story is battlefield heroism and a clean, simple solution to complex problems. For “Zero Dark Thirty,” then-CIA director Leon Panetta granted filmmakers access to classified information about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. This included details as specific as the floor plan of bin Laden’s compound. In an interview with PBS, longtime intelligence reporter Greg Miller stated that the CIA cooperated with the film producers without hesitation, while blocking out normal reporters. This information reveals the CIA helped control the narrative of the movie, turning a political thriller into a public relations win.
One movie, in particular, stands out as a symbol of pro-military Hollywood. The film “Argo,” winner of three Academy awards, depicts a CIA specialist who aids in the rescue of six Americans from a hostile Iranian government during its revolution. One former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, recalled seeing Ben Affleck walking around CIA headquarters in Langley multiple times. He was given access to a top-secret facility with the assumption he displayed the CIA in a positive light. After the accolades and success earned by the movie, Jimmy Carter stated the film was factually inaccurate, and that 90 percent of the plan was developed by Canadians. Additionally, the operation required open dialogue between the United States and Canada, but the movie focuses on the strength of the American military community. Seemingly, the federal government thinks these films represented major public relations victories.
As tensions rise between the United States and North Korea, Americans who want to understand the issue look to the media for help. Whether we acknowledge it or not, seeing pro-military TV shows, news clips, and other forms of media influence our leanings on this controversy. While negative perceptions regarding North Korea have largely remained the same since the early 2000s (hovering around 86 percent), Americans’ public opinion regarding the Iraq War has become more positive. In 2007, 62 percent of the population thought the Iraq War was a mistake, compared to 36 percent who approved of the war. In 2015, the margin shrank from 51 percent to 46 percent. This evidence suggests that the public forgets the mutual devastation caused by war. If the trend continues in this direction, the United States put itself at risk for the rally ‘round the flag’ effect, making it easier for the country to get behind a major war effort.
From a political standpoint, discussing a potential war between North Korea and the United States can be politically expedient. If President Trump or Ambassador Haley threaten North Korea, they appear as powerful leaders to the public. While they may be pandering to a hawkish base, this type of discourse fails to intimidate Kim Jong-Un, who shows no tendency toward cooperation with the United States. Whether knowing or not, Hollywood’s portrayal of conflict compliments the Trump administration’s combative attitude. For Americans who look to the federal government or right-wing news sources for a narrative, they may be more inclined to support war and ignore peaceful diplomacy. However, military escalation is a dangerous path to follow, especially when the American public is pushed to be comfortable with this possibility. The current issue has no easy fix and requires experts and diplomats to examine consequences and all possible solutions (especially when nuclear weapons, China, North Korea, and Japan are involved). It’s not as easy to say that the American government should bomb the nuclear silos—simplifying the narrative shifts the focus from a nuanced approach and prevents a productive dialogue.
Jack Leger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.