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NBC’s War for Fun and Profit

A new reality show of soldiers and celebrities showcases our national religion: Military worship

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, 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.

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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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