Posted on Friday, August 17th, 2012 at 12:50 am
Author: s.e. smith
NBC’s new reality show, Stars Earn Stripes, premiered this week to epic outcry and unimpressive ratings. The low ratings are hopefully a signal of things to come—if the network is wise, they’ll yank this particular offering from their lineup sooner rather than later, because it manages to simultaneously offend a wide range of people, while also being mindnumbingly dull.
The premise of the show, for those who mercifully managed to miss the heavy promotion during the Olympics, involves pairing C-list celebrities with military personnel for a series of ‘challenges’ that allegedly mimic the experience of being in combat. Winners get cash prizes donated to military charities of their choice.
The network claims the show is meant to celebrate the US military and veterans, but viewers feel differently. Veterans’ groups argue that Stars Earn Stripes demeans their experiences and underplays the very real dangers of military service, and some feel that the show turns war into a game instead of a serious endeavor with actual risks. When you lose a reality show, you don’t get a cash prize. When you lose in war, you come home in a coffin.
Antiwar groups are concerned with the way Stars Earn Stripes appears to glamorize military service without touching upon the hard facts behind it, and that includes groups that work with veterans returning to civilian life after being in the service. Organisations like Swords to Ploughshares point out that: ‘The real warriors who go out there and come home from war don’t win a reality prize. They live with the consequences of being exposed to the dangerous elements they survived.’
No less than nine Nobel prize winners have written to condemn the show as well, saying that it treats violence as entertainment and glorifies war. They argue that NBC’s production treats war as an athletic competition, not serious business with real-world consequences. The decision to run advertising during the Olympics was most certainly not coincidental; NBC is consciously linking war with athleticism. While the roots of the revival of the Olympic movement do in fact lie in the military, there’s been a significant divergence since then, and you’re more likely to see veterans at the Paralympics than the Olympics these days, which is a telling illustration of the high cost of war.
NBC, of course, is hastily defending itself and the show. With General Wesley Clark on board, it claims that the show is introducing the viewing public to members of the military and providing them with a real-world connection to the tasks active-duty military perform. Veteran Andrew McLaren, who works on the show, says that it’s working to ‘bridge the gap and disconnect between civilians and the military.’
Like Clark and McLaren, I also see a significant disconnect between the US public and the military. Where we differ, though, is on the best approach to confronting that gap. Without mandatory service or a draft, military service is no longer universal, and large numbers of people in the US don’t have service records and don’t know people in the military. Members of the military are overwhelmingly from low-income, minority backgrounds, taking on military service with the promise of benefits like tuition under the GI Bill as well as a chance at developing career skills that may be useful in the civilian world.
‘The poverty draft,’ as it’s known, is an inescapable fact of military service in the US. Recruiters focus on areas with limited opportunities, promoting military service to people looking for a way out of their communities. The Pentagon dedicates substantial funds to researching minority communities and developing recruitment campaigns specifically targeted at them, which is why they’re disproportionately represented, particularly in the lower ranks of the military. New enlistees are promised benefits that don’t always manifest, and along the way, they’re required to risk life and limb in service of the United States. None of this comes up in Stars Earn Stripes.
People on the left and the right don’t understand what military service is like, and reality television positioning war as a game where you crawl around and shoot things isn’t doing much to break down the divide between the public and the military. Viewers already have a range of films and television shows to choose from for depictions of military life; seeing celebrities writhe around talking about how dangerous it all is doesn’t offer anything new to the discussion, and certainly doesn’t make the public feel more connected to the military.
War has always been glorified, most particularly in times of war, when the government wants to bolster support for military involvement overseas. With the United States sending troops all over the world and suffering casualties on a regular basis, distilling the military experience to a weekly game show strikes me as deeply offensive; contrast Stars Earn Stripes with the PBS series Carrier, which followed actual sailors on board the USS Nimitz to give viewers a taste of their lives. Or, for that matter, with Restrepo (2010), a feature film that took viewers into the heart of the fighting in Afghanistan, showing the very real and very dangerous consequences of serving on the front lines.
In the face of outstanding documentary filmmaking on the military experience, and the amazing work coming from embedded reporters risking their lives alongside troops in service, along with creative work from servicemembers themselves, Stars Earn Stripes rings hollow. The fact that it positions war as entertainment makes it all the more revolting, turning a serious social issue into something people can gather ‘round while eating popcorn on Monday nights. It creates a strange distancing, rather than a connection; Stars Earn Stripes is about us versus them, where the viewers become the consumers of military lives rather than participants in the culture that contributes to war.
Under this metric, war becomes a terrible but necessary and also glamourous duty, a reason to attach yellow ribbons to cars and wave US flags without probing much deeper. And without a true understanding of the costs of war, the US populace will remain forever disconnected from military actions overseas.
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