If you sat through the two-hour debut of NBC’s “Stars Earn Stripes” on Monday, you heard the promotion for next week’s show: “They barely survived the first week!” And you thought to yourself: “Uh, no, that was me.”
What intolerable filth! In this “reality” show, “celebrities” we’ve mostly never heard of are paired off with current or former members of the U.S. military to “play” at “missions reminiscent of counterinsurgencies that have taken place all over the world.” It’s war for fun. This sport has all the excitement of golf, but without the same level of danger. Nobody “barely survived.” Nobody killed anybody. Nobody’s suffering moral anguish from what they’ve seen and done. Nobody’s lost any limbs. And nobody’s a suicide risk, with the possible exception of the producer.
Just prior to the show’s debut, nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates, not including the one whose “counterinsurgencies” the show reenacts, released a statement demanding the show’s removal from the air:
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 short-lived or going on for decades as in too many parts of the world, leaves deep scars that can take generations to overcome – if ever. Trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition further calls into question the morality and ethics of linking the military anywhere with the entertainment industry in barely veiled efforts to make war and its multitudinous costs more palatable to the public.
In other words, we’re dealing here with the crime of war propaganda, not for any particular war, but for the normalization of eternal war on the borders of the empire.
A crowd protested the show at NBC headquarters in New York on Monday evening, chanting “Shame, Shame, War is not a Game,” and delivering a petition bearing thousands of signatures.
The show’s first episode opened with co-host and retired general Wesley Clark claiming that soldiers sacrifice for the rest of us. Dean Cain, an actor who played Superman, remarks that he had never before had to “be a superhero for real.” Numerous other voices go on and on about soldiers’ heroism, claiming that they “do this” “for our freedom.” But the “this” turns out to be a game that the contestants describe themselves as “playing.”
One of the military “operatives” paired with a celebrity brags about having killed 160 people. That split-second comment is the only appearance in the two-hour marathon of the enemies or victims of war. One celebrity asks their partner if he’s ever killed anyone, and he replies, “We don’t talk about that.” Neither does NBC. The people whom U.S. troops slaughter in our one-sided occupations or wars are never brought up.
The episode involved training for a mission and then performing the mission as a contest with four people on each team. The “mission” was to “infiltrate a hostile encampment.” This meant that they had to ride in a helicopter, jump in a lake, climb in a boat, pretend to be shot at by “enemies” not actually shooting or appearing, blow up a guard tower with no guard in it, shoot human-sized paper targets, wade through mud, locate a box of ammunition and move it into a building, and blow up the building by pushing a button.
This stupidity is chock full of exclamations and commentary about real bullets and real explosives that are really real. It may be the noise of their own voices that prevents anyone involved from discovering that they aren’t actually shooting at anyone and no one is actually shooting at them.
Kicking in doors is a big focus of the mission. This ought to inform thoughtful viewers about what “battlefields” look like in “counter insurgencies.” Our wars are fought in people’s homes. But when these celebrities and the tough guys they worship kick in doors there are no screaming children behind them. This act of terrorism is transformed into an act of athletic accomplishment. Blowing up a poor person’s house is transformed into an act of special effects, creating a gigantic explosion with the push of a button while being lifted on a rope tied to a helicopter. When, at the end of the show, it is time to eliminate the worst warrior from future programs, the two worst warmakers thus far pair off in a contest that involves kicking in a door, entering a room, and shooting a bunch of humanoid targets in the head. I wonder which missions that is reminiscent of.
Muhammad Ali famously remarked, when refusing to participate in war: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. . . . No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” His daughter Laila Ali is a Stars Earn Stripes celebrity contestant blissfully unconcerned about whether or not she has a quarrel with the people who theoretically might inhabit the buildings she’s shooting up. War lovers must feel some satisfaction in having brought Ali’s daughter into the fold, along with the late football star and soldier Pat Tillman, who had turned against our wars but for whose charity one of the Stars Earn Stripes celebrities is competing. When one of the celebrities lies, “I know there’s a chance I could die,” one imagines he must have in mind friendly fire. Like Tillman, he would die with no enemy present. To make the show seem dangerous, the producers show one celebrity, Dolvett Quince, having trouble swimming.
The losing team in each mission/sporting event loses by completing the mission with the slowest time. Yet the show itself is almost unbearably slow, repetitive (literally replaying the same little snippets of “action”), and so packed with commercial breaks that it’s hard to imagine people waiting through them voluntarily. But the whole thing is a commercial for war, the business of 49% NBC owner General Electric. No matter how small the audience for this slime, it is likely to be disproportionately made up of young people contemplating enlistment. And what a massive and deadly lie this show is to them!
These celebrities are unlikely to suffer PTSD or to die in the most common way in which actual members of the military die (suicide). There’s no fear, no horror, no revulsion, no moral crisis. Asked what their biggest concerns are prior to their “mission” they say things like “how high the helicopter will fly.” This is beyond promoting war as a hell that is somehow necessary as a last resort. This is war as exciting sport with no moral component, no killing, no dying, no downside. Now we don’t have to be sociopaths to support the military as a jobs program; we can be patrons of the arts (or the sports anyway).
At one point, one of the celebrities, Eve Torres, in tears, says that she appreciates those who do such difficult stunts “every day” as their job. “We do this for fun,” she says. Yet, when her heroes practice these extreme sports they do so with real victims in real nations, generating real enemies. NBC doesn’t include that complication. Nowhere in Stars Earn Stripes do we hear about the list of countries that Wesley Clark said the Pentagon wanted to attack and overthrow right after 9-11: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. And of course we are not told what he said the motivation for those attacks would be, namely trying to look strong and to dominate the globe. Clark was outraged to learn that “the purpose of the military is to start wars and change governments, it’s not to deter conflict; we’re going to have to invade countries, and you know my mind was spinning; they wanted us to destabilize the Middle East . . . . They could hardly wait to finish Iraq so that they could move into Syria.” Clark was talking then about the same sort of people who are running the U.S. military now.
Stars Earn Strips could have gone differently. Imagine if the “mission” were to put out a fire or rescue people from a storm. Or the mission could have been to save our atmosphere. Or how about a mission to see who is fastest at building the fastest and most energy efficient trains? Or . . . anything useful in any way!
The excitement (such as it is) of NBC’s “reality show” lies precisely in its being “reminiscent” of war, and not of some beneficial project. And yet it is not war. And it may be doomed to low ratings. If it were war, however, its ratings wouldn’t necessarily rise. Americans don’t want to see families slaughtered, children mutilated, whole regions of the world ruined for human life, refugees struggling to survive, cluster bombs and depleted uranium killing for generations. What’s fun about that?
If NBC would like to show the uglier side of war, we’ve provided resources to get them started here.