D-Enlist: “Stars,” Stripes and Stupid

Battle of the Network Stars. Literally a battle.

By Chez Pazienza: Let me make it clear right off the bat: I’ve only seen a few extended promo clips of NBC’s shockingly silly new competitive reality series, Stars Earn Stripes. I haven’t watched a full episode of the show itself and don’t intend to; the commercials for this thing have been more than enough to prove that it holds nothing for me other than to provide material for online ridicule, and to be honest I’ve got enough of that already. It’s an election year after all and Mitt Romney just named Paul Ryan, whose facial expressions bear an uncanny resemblance to Hanover Fiste of Heavy Metal, as his running mate. Tell me I don’t have my hands full.

In yesterday’s Salon, the always delightful Glenn Greenwald went off on NBC and Stars Earn Stripes, calling the show “sleazy, repulsive and propagandistic” and claiming that the notion of turning war into a game and turning that game into a reality TV show just proves once again that our national religion involves the worship of military might. I know that I said on these very pages not too long ago that I’d given up reading Greenwald because his sanctimonious moralizing and intellectual dishonesty had become nothing short of insufferable over the past few years, but I have to admit that I was curious why he was taking on this particular topic, given that a) it was outside of his usual drones/Assange/Manning/evil-Obama beat, and b) constant, pants-pissing paranoia over the Pentagon’s nefarious plot to use pop culture to preach war-lust to us has typically, at least at Salon, been the territory of David Sirota. For the record, Greenwald did manage to slip in a couple of drone comments and a slam at Obama, because, well, he really can’t help himself — but overall he was correct in pointing out that there’s something about Stars Earn Stripes that should rub any decent human being the wrong way. I’m not entirely sure it’s what he thinks it is, but it’s certainly worth discussing.

It’s a standard liberal trope to complain about the media and the entertainment industry’s glorification of the military, or at the very least its unwillingness to paint combat in images “realistic” enough to satisfy the left’s contention that war is rarely if ever justified. That kind of thing has been going on for decades and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. As long as there has been nationalism and that nationalism has manifested itself in warfare — and as long as there have been media of one kind or another — there’s been the promotion of the military through entertainment. In this country, there’s been a direct line between Hollywood and our military for almost a century, which doesn’t mean that Hollywood and the media haven’t also taken great pains, certainly over the past thirty years or so, to attempt to show the horrors of armed conflict to contrast the heroism exhibited by some of those fighting in our name. But there have always been people who believe that any portrait of combat that seems to trivialize it and which is used for entertainment purposes has no place in an evolved culture. On the one hand, this is an understandable argument — on the other, it’s kind of crap.

There’s no doubt that not only is Stars Earn Stripes an almost laugh-out-loud stupid show — one that’s disingenuous on every level, from its sanitized portrayal of armed combat, to its contention that it has only the best pro-troops intentions at heart, to its willingness to call Nick Lachey and Todd Palin “stars” — but its premise is indeed more than a little tawdry. I’m not outright offended by the show, but I can certainly see how some people would be: It casts what our military does in terms of an athletic competition, without any of the nasty little business of killing a lot of people. I’m not going to play the left-wing moral relativist card simply because I accept that, while our military doesn’t always do the right thing — and certainly if you put moral people in highly immoral situations and leave them there for too long, they’re going to crack — for the most part our troops are incredibly honorable people and do, in fact, deserve our respect and admiration. Their job is to kill our enemies — simple as that — the same way the job of any military is to eliminate its enemy and protect its people. And while I understand the grotesqueness inherent in glorifying death, almost every country has, throughout its history, had those who fight for it — and when those people volunteer willingly to do so, with a few noteworthy exceptions, they should be afforded the respect of the citizens who live under the protection they provide.

As for the macho bluster that no doubt goes hand in hand with a show like Stars Earn Stripes and the slavish fawning over our military might that Greenwald complains about, well, that’s simply how it is — which I’m pretty sure was his point. Our culture, again, has always at most lionized and at least been fascinated by the jobs of people who risk their lives and submit to the constant threat of immediate danger. It’s why there are so many cop shows on TV. And it’s why kids grow up playing cops and robbers. There’s admittedly something primal, something viscerally thrilling about imagining yourself in the kinds of situations men and women who look death in the face for a living do; you wonder how you would react, whether you would have the strength to make the right call or do what needs to be done were you in their shoes. But here’s the thing: Only an insane person doesn’t recognize that the last thing he or she would want is to be, say, holding an automatic weapon and dodging bullets on a battlefield; it’s one thing to do it out of an incredibly admirable sense of duty and responsibility, but it’s another thing to actually think it’s fun — and nothing, not a show like Stars Earn Stripes, or a game like Call of Duty, or a weekend retreat playing paintball or airsoft in the woods is going to make any well-adjusted person honestly believe that war is something glamorous. It isn’t a game. You don’t get to fight alongside Dean Cain. You kill and you risk being killed. It’s serious fucking business.

Nine Nobel Peace Laureates have now written a scathing letter to NBC demanding that Stars Earn Stripes be taken off the air. There isn’t a chance in hell NBC’s going to do that. It’s very likely going to make quite a bit of money off the show — and I think that’s what I have the most problem with. It’s not about the propaganda — it’s about the profit.

I already look up to our men and women in uniform and respect the difficult job they do and their skill at doing it. I don’t need a crappy reality show on NBC to convince me that they deserve my appreciation or to cheapen the burden they carry and the risks they take.

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