The Pentagon has a well-documented history of seeking to influence entertainment that Hollywood produces so that negative portrayals of the United State military are not produced, but the NBC show “Stars Earn Stripes” takes the propagandistic efforts of the military-entertainment industrial complex to the next level.
The show, which features special operatives or first responders from the military or law enforcement competing with athletes and D-list celebrities, combines the tackiness of reality television with the qualities of action entertainment that are symptomatic of any production featuring Defense Department involvement or consultation.
Nobel Peace Prize laureates have condemned the show, which was promoted throughout the London Olympics and premiered on Monday, August 14.
It is our belief that this program pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence. Military training is not to be compared, subtly or otherwise, with athletic competition by showing commercials throughout the Olympics. Preparing for war is neither amusing nor entertaining.
Real war is down-in-the-dirt deadly. People – military and civilians – die in ways that are anything but entertaining. Communities and societies are ripped apart in armed conflict and the aftermath can be as deadly, as the war itself as simmering animosities are unleashed in horrific spirals of violence. War, whether relatively shortlived or going on for decades as in too many parts of the world, leaves deep scars that can take generations to overcome – if ever.
The show aims to transform the operatives who appear in the show—a Green Beret, a SWAT officer, two Marine sergeants, a retired member of the Delta Force and two Navy SEALs—into celebrities, as a number of prior reality television shows have managed to do. It does not promote war as much as it promotes warrior culture, the kind of warrior culture that led many Americans to celebrate the execution of Osama bin Laden and revere the special operatives who carried out this mission. And, by pairing operatives up with celebrities, the operatives are given a human being who they can count on to endlessly fawn over them (sometimes so much that they feel uncomfortable) and also show what they “do” in their job.
The most repulsive moments in the show come after each of the teams complete their task and give the show’s creators what could be referred to as post-game interviews.
…DEAN CAIN: [to camera] Having done a mission now with these professionals, I am even more overwhelmed at how good they are. It’s really an amazing feeling that we’re getting to be teammates and really do teamwork. with these incredible people who are just the best of the best in the world at doing what we’re doing right now.
You guys were my heroes before but now you’re really my heroes. I’m an actor. I’ve acted like an action hero a lot of times. I never had to really be one. Pretending is great. To do it, it’s a whole ‘nother thing…
…LAILA ALI: I just have a whole new respect for you guys just as athletes. Endurance level is, like, crazy…
…EVE TORRES: The first mission is way harder than I ever could have imagined it would be. It just put things in a perspective so much for me at how hard this stuff really is and how many elements you don’t take into consideration. I just give so much credit to these guys, who are able to do this like every day. You know, this is their job.
I just want to say I do appreciate you sharing what you do with us cause that was incredible. [tears dripping]
OPERATIVE: This is like recess for me. This is great.
TORRES: We do this for fun.
OPERATIVE: So do we.
OPERATIVE: [to camera] It says something about Eve being able to let go of emotion in front of everybody but it also showed me how much she really does support the men and women of our armed forces for what they do…
This kind of gushing is part of what makes the television show so propagandistic. It is a critical aspect of what the producers are trying to communicate to the show’s audience of Americans. New York Times television critic Neil Genzlinger wrote that the show “drenches a promising premise in a distracting amount of troop-thanking.” But, that is the point. The sole purpose of having D-list celebrities on the show is so they can act as a vector for Americans, who wish to endlessly make it clear that they support the troops. It is what sets this apart from “Combat Missions,” a show that was produced by Mark Burnett, a producer for this show. In fact, “Stars Earn Stripes” is Burnett ripping off his own show, which aired in 2002 on the USA Network and featured teams of military or police operatives competing against each other in physical challenges or “mission” scenarios, and adding celebrities and General Wesley Clark so no opportunity is lost to remind the audience why the men and women who “serve” this country deserve appreciation.
What is surprising is that the American public did not see the Defense Department and a media conglomerate push a show of this nature earlier, like when George W. Bush was president. Reality shows are known to be cheaper than sitcoms or dramas that actually might require a higher level of craftsmanship that includes first-rate writers or quality actors, like “30 Rock,” “Community,” “Breaking Bad,” “Damages,” “Mad Men,” or other shows that have garnered praise. NBC knows it can turn to the military for resources for shows that make budgets cheaper than if they had to get the resources elsewhere. It knows the Pentagon won’t pass up an opportunity to showcase the skills and character of members of the military in a way that makes it pointless for them to shoot their own additional videos aimed at recruiting young people into the military. Therefore, ”Stars Earn Stripes” is perfect: it serves NBC’s bottom line and it serves the Pentagon.
The celebrities constantly talk about how “surreal” it is that they are firing “real bullets” or using “real weapons” but the show is not about making war more “real” for an audience so these natural reactions are out of place.
It definitely continues the tradition of the Pentagon keeping portrayals of soldiers sanitized of real details of war. For example:
LAILA ALI, Boxer: So tell me about yourself.
TALON SMITH: I’m an active-duty Navy corpsman. I just got back from Afghanistan two months ago. Got a beautiful wife and a baby due any day now.
Smith: Yeah, a little baby girl, yes.
ALI: You actually ever killed anybody before?
SMITH: We really don’t talk about that.
Not that NBC intended to include actual testimonials or experiences from war, like for example what can be heard and seen in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo or the Academy Award-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again. The Pentagon likely had nothing to worry about with this production. From the start, they likely knew the producers aimed to glorify the “work” and “profession” of The Warrior. They would inevitably obscure the ultimate impact of the collective group of Warriors in the military and what they do in war zones. They would ignore the militarization of law enforcement, which made it possible for them to feature police operatives capable of engaging in military-style missions.
As has been tradition, there would be no images of Warriors massacring civilians, no Warriors taking drugs, no Warriors following illegal orders, no torture, and there would most definitely be no suggestion that Warriors, if they commit heinous acts, would be able to dodge accountability for committing war crimes. There would be no mention that a Warrior might ever commit a war crime. The very nature of the show is to evoke this image of a saintly Warrior whose violence, no matter the enemy, is for the greater good and the security and protection of America. He or she would not commit war crimes ever because all violence that happens is for good plus if anything bad ever happened it would be a result of the stress that comes from being a Warrior. So, do not second-guess Warriors, the people who carry out the sort-of exercises which are “replicated” in this competitive reality show.
What is fascinating is how revolting this presentation of soldiers could be to actual enlisted members. No real bullets are being fired. No one has to worry about an IED going off. None of the contestants should walk away wounded. They are not likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath. They won’t return home to a culture of people who are entirely disconnected from the war zones and revere troops have little idea about the mental or physical duress experienced on a daily basis. They have no idea what it is like to know society opposes the war you are fighting in Afghanistan but yet will worship you at sporting events or in entertainment. They do not really know why so many soldiers are committing suicide when they return home or what it is like for a soldier to be unemployed and jobless after serving their country.
In that sense, this show may actually be for the troops and not the people of America. Americans are overwhelmingly confident in the military. They don’t need some cheesy network reality show that celebrates what individuals in the armed forces do to convince them they should care and support them each day. However, the soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, as they struggle, might want to know that someone cares about what they went through. They may want to stop being warriors and be average human beings like most Americans who aren’t deified by culture.
The disgraceful reality is all this country can offer is superficial entertainment. It cannot tell soldiers they were pawns in wars for empire. It has no meaningful antidote to rehabilitate people the country turned into killing machines. It will never come out and confess not every Warrior gets the opportunity to be someone who gets off a head shot on the next biggest enemy of the United States. That is because war, especially warrior worship, is part of American culture. It inevitably seeps into American entertainment making it even easier for the wide population to be warlike people. And, from the Warrior-in-Chief in the White House on down to the lowest level Warrior in the military, Americans are taught to worship these individuals, which inevitably leads to less questioning of the operations they carry out abroad in the country’s name.