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Here's how Hollywood can make things right with our vets

  • America can't win a war unless Hollywood is behind it.
  • Hollywood did its part in World War II, but demonized veterans of Vietnam and the Iraq War.
  • A new effort to get veterans on camera could help turn the tide.
Hollywood sign
Rich Polk | Getty Images

When America goes to war, what's the one thing it needs to ensure victory? Is it better supplies, more troops, or a clear strategy?

All those things help, but history shows us that if the U.S. wants to win a war and feel good about its efforts the one thing it needs more than anything else is Hollywood on its side.

No, the movie and TV industry don't command any divisions, provide tanks, or map out winning battlefield maneuvers. But it does hold the key to the most powerful source of moral support for the war effort overall and the troops fighting in it: The public's imagination.

This has been very clearly true since World War I, when stars of the then-very new industry became the most successful spokespeople for war bonds at dinners and rallies. In World War II, that effort was magnified and expanded in every conceivable way. As Emmy-winning screenwriter and Hollywood historian Robert Avrech notes:

"During World War II, every studio in Hollywood backed the Allied effort against the Axis. Hollywood stars enlisted for active duty, raised money for war bonds, toured and entertained our troops, and the studios produced films that went all out for freedom and liberty against the tyranny of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Hollywood played a huge role in America's victory."

I'd add to that by noting how the entertainment industry doubled (and tripled) down on that effort, by continuing to portray the war and American soldiers positively for decades after the war.

Think fast: can you recall any movie even in recent years that depicted the Allied efforts in World War II as a negative? In other words, the entertainment industry really made a long term investment in making sure the people who fought in World War II never felt demonized or forgotten.

Sadly, that strong track record was marred by Hollywood's conduct during and after the Vietnam War, and more recently in Iraq. While the movie industry at least waited until the Vietnam War was over to produce a series of negative films about that conflict, it wasted no time pumping out movie after movie excoriating the Iraq War — even during the height of the fighting.

Those negative movies didn't just focus on the war, but also on the character and condition of the people fighting them. During the 1980s and early 1990s, images of the shell shocked and not-too-bright Vietnam vets permeated every dramatic depiction of the war and its aftermath here at home. Similarly, when did you last see a movie or TV show featuring an Iraq War veteran who wasn't emotionally scarred, or even volatile?

It goes without saying what this kind of trend in popular culture does to U.S. efforts in the war on terror and other threats to national security. What some people may miss, however, is how this hurts our veterans when they come home and try to get civilian jobs. Can potential employers really prove they're above falling for the stereotypes of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans that we see created in the entertainment industry?

Now, there's one group that's trying to fix this problem at its source. Called "We are the Mighty," the organization is working to get more veterans working in Hollywood — both in front of and behind the camera.

Writing in the Hollywood Reporter last week, We are the Mighty Founder and CEO David Gale noted that, "Hollywood rarely gets it right, often resorting to stereotypes and common tropes to portray veterans as either dysfunctional misfits or larger-than-life heroes." Gale and his colleagues are also not waiting for the big studios to go along; they're creating their own media content by and for military veterans and their families.

Groups like "We are the Mighty" are making it easier for the entertainment industry to prove that while it may or may not support any given war, it still supports the troops. This effort just might have a secret weapon on its side: Profit.

It really should be noted that despite an unending run of anti-Iraq War movies that came out of Hollywood between 2004-2012, none of them made much money. That's true even for the Best Picture Oscar-winner "The Hurt Locker." Meanwhile, "American Sniper," the only film that really depicted an Iraq War soldier, (or in this case a Navy SEAL), in a positive light was a massive box office hit and the number one grossing film in the U.S. in 2014.

So making positive movies about veterans, and the causes they fought for, isn't just good for the psyche. It's good for the bottom line.

On this Memorial Day when we honor our military heroes, it's past time for our troops' most effective ally to step it up for them again. Hollywood's writers and directors certainly have the right to oppose wars they don't believe in. Still, perhaps choosing their on-screen work to oppose those wars may not be such a good (or financially lucrative) idea.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.