When the summer Olympics ended, they left not only a blank schedule on NBC, but also a vacuum for displays of strength and competition. The network spared no time in debuting Stars Earn Stripes, a new reality show that pairs 8 celebrities with 8 members of special operations teams from various sections of the military. The premise is simple enough: each celebrity, be it Laila Ali, Picabo Street, Todd Palin, Dean Cain, Nick Lachey and others; teams up with members of elite forces: a navy sniper, a member of the “classified” delta force, a green beret (and on); these teams take part in mock missions, based on real special operations that have taken place in the war on terror. The stars that perform the best receive money to be donated to an active-duty or veteran’s charity of their choice. The show carried the torch of the spectacle of the Olympics, and is the latest theater for the glorification of war.
The first episode opened with Wesley Clark, former Supreme NATO Allied Commander for Europe and host, explaining that he “loves this country” and is doing the show to “introduce you, the viewer, to the individuals who have sacrificed so much for all of us… the men and women who do this everyday to protect our freedoms [emphasis added].”
At best, it is dangerous propaganda, putting militarism on display and serving as almost a celebration of these operations without questioning the consequences of the actions, let alone the wars. One only needed to watch the first few minutes of the first episode to get a tone of what the show entailed. Terry Crews summed up the excitement of the celebrities, explaining “I can’t wait to fire a real gun, with real bullets.” What Crews and the show in general doesn’t examine are the circumstances around the mock operations. In the real war, Crews’s bullets could easily enter the body of innocents in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Baghdad.
The show also comes with healthy doses of hypermasculinity and hero worshipping. When Superman Dean Cain met his partner Chris Kyle, a sniper in the Navy Seals who was celebrated for having over 160 confirmed kills, he recounted the story of explaining to his 9-year-old son what an “American Hero” was by showing him Kyle’s picture. This reductionism leads to a simplified treatment of war and an unethical definition of “hero” for kids who may be watching at home.
Tom Stroop, a SWAT Commander, explained that he was there to “raise awareness for all of our troops that are dying and struggling everyday,” but misses the mark when he continues “to keep our freedoms.” It is true that our troops are dying everyday, but no attention is paid to the troops who are struggling after having their lives torn apart by service to defend the interests of the 1%. The New York Times recently reported that there are 18 veteran suicides a day. 13% of America’s homeless population are veterans. And it has been long known that veteran mental health is in shambles. In a review of the show for WBEZ Chicago, veteran Matt Ulrich reminded listeners, if the celebrities wanted to get the real experience then he’d “like to see that celebrity come home [from war] to a country that now seems foreign… Integrate them back into society and watch them attempt to drive down a familiar and friendly road with full blown anxiety… And the real winning shot: give us a closeup of the face of the celebrity when someone asks them, ‘Oh, you’ve been to war! Did you kill anyone?’” It might seem redeeming that the celebrities are competing for various charities, but none of the charities are aimed explicitly at helping veterans overcome their ptsd, depression, or suicidal thoughts–the everyday enemies of soldiers after the war.
The show has been met with much criticism. Most notably are the calls for cancellation from nobel laureates, Desmond Tutu, José Manuel Ramos-Horta and others (notably absent is Henry Kissinger). We must not stop there however, such entertainment will continue as long as we are fooled into fighting our brothers and sisters across the world to defend Empire. We should support our troops by bringing them home and providing them the care they need when they return–there is a way to support veterans without supporting the wars and glorifying military action. This is not it.
This originally appeared in the4 print edition of Streetvibes.