Before it even debuted last night, NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes was granted that highest of honors for a reality TV show: a protest. The competition, in which celebrities are paired with soldiers to carry out special-forces-type maneuvers, was denounced by nine Nobel laureates, including South African bishop Desmond Tutu, for glamorizing war and its violence by making them into entertainment. The show, they argue, tries to “sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition.”
Which, I guess I agree? That is, it makes war into entertainment in the way that billions of dollars worth of pop entertainment already does. The movie Battleship. The game Battleship. The movies of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. Half the so-called war-history documentaries on basic cable. Hell, we just finished watching the Olympics, an event founded in the principles of peace but one that features events that, like numerous sports, mimic combat or appropriate its tools—wrestling, archery, fencing, &c.
None of which is to minimize the way Stars Earn Stripes presents a cynical idea—giving people the excitement of battle minus its blood and consequences—by wrapping it in idealism: competing for charity, claiming to exist simply to remind us how dangerous the job of soldiers and first responders is. (Which it is. And acting as if we need a cheesy, staged reality competition to make us aware of that fact manages to insult the soldiers, the celebrities and the audience all at the same time.)
But when it comes to propagandizing war—or anything else—reality shows are more harmful when they take actual combat and package it in entertainment form. See, for instance, the short-lived group of combat-based reality shows, post-9/11, that I dubbed militainment at the time. (You need no better proof of how the culture has changed between then and now than the fact that Stripes host Gen. Wesley Clark, for a brief time in the 2004 race, was considered a good prospect to become President.) The offensive aspects of Stars Earn Stripes are relatively minimal; I’m more bothered by the constant product placement, suggesting some dystopian future where we will read about an attack led by the Buffalo Wild Wings 82nd Airborne.
And the offensive aspects of the show are, at least, the most interesting parts. Overall, the first installment was yet another overbloated, two-hour NBC reality marathon, The Biggest Loser with live ammo and C-list celebrities. (My favorite celeb ID was the one introducing Todd Palin, one of the challenge’s better performers, as a “four-time Iron Dog winner”—because I’m sure he just barely beat out all the other Iron Dog winners to get on this show.) Even the title is a clunky, trying-too-hard play on words. From the hyperbole—the more you tell me the stars could really die out there, the less I believe it—to the drawn-out elimination process, this militainment show was one long, slow march. If it raises money for any decent causes, I don’t begrudge it; if it gives some activists an opening to argue for peace, good on them too. But for me, this show is barely worth wasting the ammo on.