I guess I should not be surprised at this news that the Pentagon did not cooperate with Marvel Studios to make The Avengers movie (h/t to Jacob Levy for pointing this piece out to me).  After all, immediately after seeing the movie, I enumerated the many principal-agent problems illustrated in the movie, and the military abhors P-A problems.  It turns out that the Pentagon found unrealistic not the part about the Norse Gods, the large green rage-machine (best depiction yet by Ruffalo and Whedon), nor the un-icing of a Super-soldier.  Nope, the unrealistic part was:

We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it,” Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. “To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film.

Luckily, I have been training for years to answer precisely this question.  Well, I have been working on a book project on NATO and Afghanistan with David Auerswald that contains the seeds of an answer to this challenge.  See below the break where there might be spoilers:


Let’s start with today’s reality and then extrapolate to a world with SHIELD [Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division].  The US and other countries are quite accustomed to working with international organizations.  There are two basic processes that can potentially be in play here since the military operation ends up on US soil.

The first is a status of forces agreement [SOFA].  The US, when it wants to work in another country, negotiates an agreement that specify the conditions of its presence–can the US forces use force?  Under what conditions?  Are they immune from prosecution?*  The US signed a SOFA with Iraq that ultimately led to the American withdrawal but also established the conditions for the American presence in Iraq before that happened.  The recent US agreement with Afghanistan may not officially be a SOFA (I am not a legal expert) but seems to approximate one or is the basis to negotiate one–what will the US (and NATO) role be in Afghanistan post-ISAF.

 *In the last month or two in my year in the Pentagon in 2002, one of the tasks we were assigned on the Joint Staff was to get exceptions from International Criminal Court prosecution written into the mandates of the various missions in which the US was participating, including SFOR in Bosnia (my desk). 

So, in a hypothetical reality with SHIELD, one can imagine that the US has signed an agreement that allows SHIELD to operate in and over the US under various rules.  Now, one of them may actually be that SHIELD can nuke an American city if the stakes are high enough (this is where the “realism” does fail but we had to have a moment where Tony Stark plays the Kobiyashi Maru test since Captain America raised that scenario earlier in the movie).

The second process is a transfer of authority.  See the NATO jargon:

Transfer of authority of forces is the formal transfer of a specified degree of authority over designated forces both between nations and NATO Commanders, and between any two NATO Commanders.

This is really what the Pentagon means by “our place in it.”  In NATO and in other multilateral endeavors, countries transfer operational control (but not complete authority) of a unit to the commanders of the multilateral endeavor.  Countries will maintain influence over how that unit is operated, however, via a variety of means that are the subject of the aforementioned book project.  Among these means are surprise and fear the careful selection of senior leadership for the units being transferred, limits on what the units can and cannot do (caveats! more below), the requirement to call home for permission, the enabling of one’s personnel to invoke red cards which means they can say no to a command, oversight, and incentives (such as promotion or demotion) for the officers running the operation.

This transfer of authority process happens all the time and is not new at all and not new to the US.  However, one of the traditional American caveats when it participates in a multilateral endeavor is to insist that the top of the chain of command is an American.  So, Commander of ISAF is an American–General John Allen, who replaced General Petraeus, who replaced General McChrystal who replaced General McKiernan who replaced General McNeill who replaced General Richards.  Ah, but Richards was/is a Brit and his predecessors were Italians, Canadians, Germans and Turks.  The fudge that the US used prior to to McNeil was that COMISAF was a Brit but the commander of all NATO forces–SACEUR was/is always an American.  Similarly, in Kosovo, COMKFOR has never been an American (unlike COMSFOR in Bosnia), so Americans in Kosovo operated under an American general in the American sector but under a non-American general running ISAF.

So, again in alt reality with SHIELD, one could easily imagine an international organization dedicated to unconventional threats (aliens, superpowered folks, whatever) would have worked out agreements where countries would put their troops under SHIELD command.  Countries would still retain some control over these troops via caveats (Americans will not launch nukes on American territory), red cards (any American commander might refuse to obey an order to nuke an American city as an illegal or unwise command or at least call to his or her national command authority NORTHCOM-> SecDef-> President for permission), and so on.

Of course, another way to influence an international organization, as mentioned above, is to make sure that you have a countryman/woman in charge of the organization.  Nick Fury in the comic books and in the movie is very clearly an American.  His deputy, Maria Hill, is also clearly an American (and not Ted’s kids’s mother).  Having two hats, as an American officer and as a SHIELD officer, Fury would then be less likely to follow policies that would be against American interests, such as nuking Manhattan.  Indeed, this is precisely what happens: Fury defies his multinational chain as he prevents one plane from taking off and assists Iron Man and the Avengers in preventing the missile from hitting Manhattan.

The movie does not make clear what the governing council’s relationship is to the US.  It does seem fairly clear that the US is not just a member but a vocal powerful member, as portrayed by Powers Boothe.  The Council clearly included representatives from Russia, China, and Britain** at the very least, looking quite UN-ish (in the comic book source material, SHIELD was sometimes conceived as a UN organization).  Now, this might make SHIELD appear to be the black helicopter folks that various conspiracy theorists fear today, but that is not the claim the military folks told Wired.

**  The British woman was played by Jenny Agutter of Logan’s Run and American Werewolf in London, which I believe was a Whedon nod to some of the key movies of his childhood, but I might just be projecting.

My extended treatise here really leaves only one question:*** Why did the folks who have the authority in the Pentagon on movie clearances not call or walk over to the folks in the NATO division of the Joint Staff to ponder how operations with international organizations work. It is a big building but still coordination among different pieces of the Pentagon is what the folks in the building do every day.

*** We had to add a Libya chapter to our book on NATO and Afghanistan.  I don’t think my co-author will let me add an Avengers paragraph to our conclusion.