NBC’s war for fun and profit

By Glenn Greenwald

A new military-themed reality show from NBC, entitled “Stars Earn Stripes,” debuts tonight. The show “enthusiastically melds warfare and fame,” as a Washington Post review today put it. It features eight celebrities (using the loosest definition of that term) — such as husband-of-Sarah Todd Palin, former Superman Dean Cain, and former boy band member Nick Lachey — paired up with “military and law enforcement veterans, including a Green Beret, a SWAT officer, two Marine sergeants, a retired member of the Delta Force and two Navy SEALs”, whom NBC hails as the “Bad Ass Operatives.” They’re all under the “command” of Gen. Wesley Clark, who once actually thought he should be President, as he co-hosts this reality show with former Dancing with the Stars host Samantha Harris (subjecting oneself to the two preview videos below, one wonders how much NBC had to pay to purchase Gen. Clark’s dignity in full: probably more than the Terror group MEK paid him to become its loyal shill).

Together, says the LA Times quoting NBC, the “stars” and the Bad Ass Operatives will participate in “missions reminiscent of counterinsurgencies that have taken place all over the world,” with “real bullets” and “real danger.” Just in the first episode, says the Post, “they have to leap out of a helicopter into a lake while weighted down with automatic weapons and full gear; swim to a motorized raft; wade ashore under enemy fire; destroy a lookout tower with a grenade; shoot at paper ‘enemy’ targets with live rounds; wade through mud to seize the enemy’s ammo cache and then, finally, blow it all to kingdom come.” In this maiden episode, one of the Bad Ass Operatives marvels at Todd Palin’s skill in performing one of these tasks, and exclaims: “[He] is an animal! Good God! . . . . He’s just straight-up Rambo!” The Bad Ass then adds: “Next time I go to war, I want Todd Palin on my side.” Another Bad Ass Operative vows to take “Nick Lachey, guy in the boy band, and turn him into Nick Lachey, bad boy guy with a gun.”

Needless to say, this is all being done To Honor The Troops. The winner will receive $100,000 to donate to a military-related charity of their choice. Referring to NBC’s claims about the purpose of the show, the Post says it is all done “to raise awareness about how hard our fighting forces work, how much they sacrifice, and so on and so on, until it begins to sound like nebulous praise.” Reflecting broader cultural realities, the show’s Bad Ass Operatives are treated like deities (one of them “starts to feel self-conscious when Cain, his teammate, won’t stop fawning over him”). I wonder how actual troops who face real danger to their lives feel about having NBC exploit The Troops and convert their combat burdens into a fun reality show with feigned “danger.” And, of course, the substantial profit NBC hopes to make from selling commercials won’t be donated to veterans groups at all but will be tallied up as corporate profits — but that’s all just totally incidental to the Honor The Troops goal motivating all of this.

The ways in which this is all so sleazy, repulsive and propagandistic are too self-evident to require much discussion. There is, though, a real value: here we have a major television network finally being relatively candid about the fact that they view war and militarism, first and foremost, as a source of entertainment and profit. Recall the incredible April, 2003, speech given by then-MSNBC-star-war-correspondent Ashleigh Banfield regarding how NBC and MSNBC, then owned by military supplier GE, benefited from propaganstic war coverage in Iraq, a speech that (as she clearly anticipated when she delivered it) caused her subsequent demotion and then disappearance from MSNBC and cable news:

I suppose you watch enough television to know that the big TV show is over and that the war is now over essentially — the major combat operations are over anyway, according to the Pentagon and defense officials — but there is so much that is left behind. . . .

That said, what didn’t you see? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage?

There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news.

But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.

When I said the war was over I kind of mean that in the sense that cards are being pulled from this famous deck now of the 55 most wanted, and they’re sort of falling out of the deck as quickly as the numbers are falling off the rating chart for the cable news stations. We have plummeted into the basement in the last week. We went from millions of viewers to just a few hundred thousand in the course of a couple of days. . . .

I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. . . .

This TV show that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do.

War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate. . . .

I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

What this NBC sleazefest really reveals is the way in which reverence for all things military has become America’s national religion, seamlessly embedded into virtually every cultural event. I recall this email I received from a friend in South Florida last September after he attended an NFL football game in Miami:

Let me describe the patriotic display at last night’s NFL opener. Men with machine guns at all entrances, to scare off the terrorists. Pat down on the way in, to make sure [my wife] and I weren’t carrying plastic explosives. A moving national anthem with troops out on the field spelling out U.S.A. A moving tribute to the thousands who perished in 9/11 and to our nation’s brave response to that atrocity (which was, of course, the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the world). A U.S.A., U.S.A. chant. Then a Stealth B2 Bomber flew over the stadium, followed by fireworks. At half time, a US Army paratrooper squad jumped out of a plane and landed on the field. Maybe next week they’ll shoot some missiles from unmanned drones.

Venerating the military is such a common American cultural ritual that one barely notices when it happens any longer. This morning, ABC News‘ Jake Tapper pointed to a fun, playful video of his ABC News colleague, Pentagon correspondent Luis Martinez, jumping out of a military airplane with the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army team that regularly parachutes into football stadiums during halftime as the adoring crowd cheers. In the four-minute video, Martinez plays the role of the hapless clown, acting goofy and nervous with his manly, stoic military guide, Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Figel, over whom Martinez openly slobbers and to whom he is symbolically tied as he jumps.

That worshipful, tongue-wagging fun and games with the U.S. military might not be the most appropriate activity for someone who is supposedly an adversarial reporter covering the Pentagon would never occur to any of them, because, like NBC, they’re just practicing America’s national religion — military worship — and who would ever object to that? Martinez was the reporter who gave anonymity to military officials to smear Michael Hastings over his Rolling Stone article that ended the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, allowing the anonymous officer to claim — falsely — that the quotes used by Hastings were off the record. Martinez did the same when he gave anonymity to a military officer to falsely attack a story by Jeremy Scahill exposing the network of secret prisons in Somalia which the U.S. effectively operates. Nobody practices this religion of military worship like the Pentagon Watchdogs who work at the nation’s major television networks.

Experiencing great fun and pulsating entertainment from sending one’s military off to war is hardly unique to our time. Adam Smith lamented this warped dynamic back in 1776 in his Wealth of Nations:

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

It’s actually necessary that America have a network reality show that pairs big, muscular soldiers with adoring D-list celebrities — hosted by a former Army General along with someone who used to be on Dancing with the Stars – as they play sanitized war games for the amusement of viewers, all in between commercials from the nation’s largest corporations. That’s way too perfect of a symbol of American culture and politics for us not to have.

* * * * *

This weekend, on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow denounced the Romney campaign for using an out-of-commission battleship as a prop for its Vice Presidential announcement, condemning such efforts to exploit the military for political ends as “offensive,” especially given that Romney and Paul Ryan have no military service. Moments later, literally, MSNBC weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry gushed about all of Obama aggressive’s military policies that give him such a hard-core political advantage; he has such “an impressive record on foreign policy for hawks,” she explained, including “continuing to prosecute wars, the drone attacks, the death of Osama bin Laden.” Wars, drones, and the killing of an unarmed accused Terrorist and the dumping of his corpse into the ocean: behold what is now praised on MSNBC as impressive political assets, all in the midst of condemning the exploitation of the military for political advantage by someone who has never served.

UPDATE: Nine Nobel peace laureates have called on NBC to cancel this show, pointing out that “war isn’t entertainment” and “people—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining,” adding: “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.” The list of those peace laureates singing the letter includes 1984 winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1987 winner President Oscar Arias Sanchez, and 2003 winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi, though — shockingly – it does not include the 2009 winner and current American President, Barack Obama (the one who, according to MSNBC’s Harris-Perry, has “an impressive record on foreign policy for hawks”: quite a strange attribute for a Nobel Peace laureate). Numerous anti-war groups have also been circulating a petition against the show and “war-o-tainment,” which can be signed here

UPDATE II: Several commenters predicted what future episodes will likely entail, including this from 2millionlightyearstoandromeda:

The celebrity with the fewest points will spin a giant wheel and have to endure whatever “enhanced interrogation technique” it lands on. (NBC has assured its affiliates that if the wheel lands on “electroshocks to the genitals” all naughty bits will be censored.)

The celebrities with the most points move on to next week’s episode. There they will lead a caravan of Humvees through downtown Hollywood spraying bullets at anyone who looks like they may have ever cracked open a Koran.

The celebrity with the most “militants” killed will be showered in a celebration of depleted uranium confetti and receive a $100,000 check which will be donated to the defense contractor of their choosing.

Viewers at home who text the word BUGSPLAT to NBC will be entered to win a day with a CIA drone operator!

There you will learn how to launch a precision drone missile and kill a militant (plus his entire family, friends and all his farm animals)!

Nobody should give competing network executives any ideas.

This article originally appeared on Salon.com on August 13, 2012.