I think the first time I made a serious connection between the way the military-industrial complex makes us see the world and the way cinema imagines the world was when I happened upon Jean Baudrillard’s argument in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. To massacre a nuanced and compelling booklength piece of theory into a single sentence: part of what Baudrillard is discussing here is the way modern warfare has become a media spectacle, more of a multimedia propaganda performance than the wars of yore that we learn about in school. By the time the second Gulf War came around, the trends that Baudrillard identified were even more evident, with stenographers/reporters embedded directly in military units and feeds of the arrival of U.S. forces being broadcast in real time, as though you were seated in the racing assault vehicles.
I don’t know who was the first to make these sorts of arguments, but I do know that Paul Virilio’s 1984 book, War and Cinema, started connecting the dots, and did so not with contemporary warfare like Iraq I and II but rather going back to the First World War. The starting point of his argument is that industrialized warfare was the point at while the representation of reality in the mass media began to outstrip the ability of actual facts to reach the eyes and ears of interested viewers. Pretty soon, that nascent medium, film, was beginning to take its lessons from the way warfare projected reality for the masses.
I particularly liked the chapter “The Hell of Images,” where Virilio discusses how cinema took up the baton from warfare in terms of creating civilization’s heroes and central myths—in effect it “shape[d] society by putting order into visual chaos.” In this chapter Virilio constantly makes comparisons between the gigantic cineplexes of of the era and the necropolises and cathedrals that were the key artifacts of the religious order. It’s become something of a commonplace that cineplexes are the cathedrals of the modern era, and “The Hell of Images” is one of the better statements I’ve read on fleshing out what that is and just what that thesis means.
There is a lot, lot more in War and Cinema—I’ve only really sketched out a few of the things that Virilio takes us through in the book. The arguments he makes are very in-depth, and it’s a rather quotable work. Perhaps most importantly, for something that was written in 1984—ages ago so far as technology is concerned—it has held up very well, maintaining a lot of its relevance and impact.