Transformers, Militarism in Disguise

Transformers – a film about robots from space that can change into cars and trucks – was released just prior to the July 4th.  The storyline is that evil robots have come to destroy earth.  Good robots team up with the U.S. military to defeat the evil robots.

On the face of it, Transformers would appear to be a film directed at the pre-teen male audience, but I’d like to examine some of its underlying assumptions.  The story starts with American military forces in Qatar under attack from an unknown enemy – which is, as it turns out, an evil robot.  Indeed, in real life, Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar serves as the forward headquarters for Central Command – from which the U.S. military conducts its current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We see a platoon survive the initial attack to defend Arab villagers from another evil robot.  So, the first assumption is that the U.S. has an unquestioned right to project its military in other people’s lands – and that it is there for the benefit of those other people.


Initially, the Pentagon is unsure as to who the enemy is.  The brass ask, is it North Korea?  Is it Iran?  So, given that it has turned out that one member of the Axis of Evil (Iraq) did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction after all – attention turns now to the other two members.  I’m not sure if the filmmakers were deliberate in their irony, but perhaps only a prepubescent audience – one that was busy playing with their Transformer toys back in 2002 and 2003 – would find a credible a film plot that suggests that the Free World is threatened by WMDs from North Korea or Iran.  But then again, our current administration is seemingly composed of adults, and this is what they would have us believe.  In any case, the second assumption is that we must continue to be afraid of the Axis of Evil. 


Eventually, the evil robots are exposed as the source of the attack on Earth.  Of course, the good robots come to the humans’ rescue.  In this, they are aided by the U.S. military.  The film becomes a showcase for gee-whiz high tech weaponry such as laser-guided air strikes.  Such weaponry received much favorable media attention in the early days of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.  The air assault on Iraq, which started with Shock and Awe in March 2003, actually continues apace (1, 2) – but it receives little attention today.  Why?


Air attacks are not as accurate as they are portrayed.  Non-combatants, including women and children, are often killed by air attacks.  Homes and neighborhoods, shelter, water and sanitation, people’s livelihoods are destroyed.  In the military parlance, this is called “collateral damage.”


It is estimated that since the March 2003 assault on Iraq, by July 2006, 655,000 excess deaths have occurred among Iraqis.  Of these, 90% of these excess deaths were violent deaths.  Thirteen percent of these violent deaths were from airstrikes.  (3)


So, here is another assumption in Transformers, that high tech weaponry is a good thing, and that it is only used to kill the bad guys.


At one point, we witness a good robot doing amazing things.  Well, who could have come up with such clever gadgets?  “It’s probably Japanese,” the hero says.  Then a good robot does something even more amazing.  “It’s definitely Japanese.”   Perhaps this is intended as an in-joke for those who are aware that Transformers started as a Japanese toy in the 1970s.  The TV programs were effective advertisements for the toys.


Let’s take a little closer look at the assumptions here.  Japanese aren’t demonized in the way that, say, North Koreans or Iranians might be.  (Indeed, former Prime Minister Koizumi deployed Japanese troops in Iraq as part of the “Coalition of the Willing.”)

If anything, the Japanese might have been responsible for building good robots.  In the end, it turn out that both the good and bad robots are aliens from outer space – but powerful weapons are manufactured by “our side” aren’t labeled WMDs.


Perhaps it is useful to view Transformers as a parable about the role of militarism and the weapons industry in our present-day mythology.  The evil robots are akin to WMDs in the hands of rogue (Axis of Evil) nations.  The good robots are akin to “our” high-tech weaponry.  Transfomers serves as a morality play for the next generation to be taught the lies of our times.


1.  Seymour Hersh.  Up in the air.  New Yorker.  5 Dec 2005.


2.  Nick Turse.  Did the U.S. lie about cluster bomb use in Iraq?  24 May 2007.


3.  Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, Les Roberts.  Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq:  a cross-sectional cluster sample survey.  Lancet.  11 Oct 2006.


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