NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes, a reality competition show in which “stars” ranging from Todd Palin to Nick Lachey complete challenges theoretically drawn from military missions and raise money for military charities when they win, was always going to attract some raised eyebrows. Whether it was the show’s contribution to the growing Palin family reality empire, the involvement of an apparently severely underly-employed Gen. Wesley Clark, or the late-summer cheesiness of the concept, Stars Earn Stripes is perfectly engineered to win news cycles if not fans. But I don’t think NBC anticipated this latest twist: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a number of other Nobel Laureates have published an open letter to NBC president Bob Greenblatt (who in between this and Sharon Osbourn’s accusations of discrimination is not having a great start to this season) and other executives involved with the show, calling Stars Earn Stripes an ugly glorification of war.
I don’t entirely agree with Tutu and his esteemed company: Stars Earn Stripes doesn’t make it look exciting or fun to fire on live targets, or to expose yourself to real risk. The show is marked by a patent phoniness, whether it’s the cheerful blue and red plastic targets and paint used to mark competitors’ courses, the hay bales that simulate houses, the command center General Clark hosts from that looks like it was sold off the lot of a canceled science fiction show, and the corny, B-movie explosions. This is a rich man’s paintball course, not an effective tool for convincing people to kill in their country’s service. The signatories are right when they say that “Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining.” And the show doesn’t actually make entertainment out of those deaths.
But Stars Earn Stripes is a perfect illustration of a deeply pernicious problem: it severs the concept of supporting the troops from any other meaning than praising their competence. “This is a show to say thank you to the people who are in uniform now, who have been in uniform, and the people who protect us 24/7, 365 and do things that you can’t pay people to do,” Dick Wolf, who is executive producing the show, said at the Television Critics Association Press Tour And what I hope, if there was one sentence that comes out of the show at the end of it, it’s going up to people in the military and just simply saying thank you for your service, because they don’t mind hearing it.” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea that we should thank members of the military for their service. But reducing support for the troops to the sum of thank-yous and viewing them like action movie stars is the equivalent of President Bush suggesting that American families hit up Disney World as a way of affirming the goodness of life in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Saying thank you, or appreciating military service as a particularized skill set that not all of us have the physical or mental fortitude to perform, is the easy part of the equation, in part because those are sentiments that are broadly applicable, and don’t require an acknowledgement that sometimes, the best thing we could do to support the troops is to call for internal reform of the armed forces. The “troops” are not a monolith with undifferentiated needs. Gay service members can’t access all of the family support programs the military provides for their straight counterparts. If married gay couples have children from previous marriages, those children can’t be covered under military benefits programs, and married gay couples don’t have the same housing and movie benefits, nor the legal protections available to heterosexual married couples. Similarly, supporting female service members means a serious examination of the factors that have made sexual assault so widely prevalent in the military. And supporting troops wounded in overseas action means a commitment to get them excellent treatment all the way through their recovery. American service members have material needs, not simply emotional ones, and there’s something glib and facile about suggesting that the priority in supporting them is simply affirming the coolness of the deeds they perform.
Part of the reason this bifurcation is troubling is that Stars Earn Stripes is helping raise money for some organizations that provide those kinds of material support, including the Armed Services YMCA of Alaska, a state that is home to a disproportionate number of military families, the Wounded Warrior Project, the USO, and the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides educational scholarships to service members and their families. But in its first episode, at least, the emphasis is more squarely on the competition aspect of the program, the sight of Terry Crews talking about how awesome it is to have figured out a sniper challenge, seeing Picabo Street kick in a door, than on the charities their efforts benefit, and the reason those charities need public support so badly.
Awesome and staged explosions are easier for a reality show to pull off than building long-term support for efforts to fill in the holes in our official support systems for service members and military families. But it would be nice if Stars Earn Stripes embraced a deeper and more nuanced sense of what it means to support the troops. The stories behind the charities the show supports are a lot richer than the sight of celebrities running around an obstacle course playing with military hardware.