For the first time in human history, a collection of Nobel Peace Prize winners — led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu — issued a statement about a reality TV show. They targeted Stars Earn Stripes, the new NBC series starring a collection of celebrities and veterans who raise money for military-themed charities by competing in a series of military-themed challenges. The show is entertaining, but no reasonable person watching it could think that it truly simulates war. It does, however, give you a tiny glimpse into the kinds of skills (and stamina) required to complete even the simplest tasks, and it’s full of tributes to men and women in uniform. So what’s the problem? Here’s the key paragraph from the Nobel laureates:
It is our belief that this program pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence. Military training is not to be compared, subtly or otherwise, with athletic competition by showing commercials throughout the Olympics. Preparing for war is neither amusing nor entertaining . . . Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People — military and civilians — die in ways that are anything but entertaining.
They go on to call the program “a massive disservice to those who live and die in armed conflict and suffer its consequences long after the guns of war fall silent.” While I share the laureates’ desire for peace, I disagree with their criticism of the show — for three reasons:
First, it is right and good to honor martial courage. For eleven years, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have risked their lives for their country, tens of thousands have been horribly wounded, and thousands have died. Yet aside from the obligatory “thank you” to the troops and the inevitable avalanche of anti-war movies from Hollywood, our pop culture has been remarkably devoid of a military presence. This has not always been the case. When Alvin C. York won the Medal of Honor in World War I, he was perhaps America’s most famous celebrity. The heroes of “Flags of Our Fathers” — the men who hoisted the flag atop Iwo Jima — helped boost a nation’s flagging spirits in the midst of a bloody war. Yet after more than a decade of war, is there a single soldier who’s a household name? Until war ends, we need warriors, and how much better is it to honor men who laid down their lives for their country than it is to honor a football player who hustled for a sack or a celebrity who wore a particularly fetching dress to a premiere?
Second, it’s a mistake to assume that American pacifism means peace. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I must admit that I’m puzzled by those who seem to insist that if only Americans were less militaristic, the world would be more peaceful. Do they not understand that while war requires only one party, peace requires universal assent? During the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, Americans thought we were at peace, but the war had already started — in fact, it had been underway for some time. If we demilitarize our culture, we don’t foster peace, we make war more likely (and more terrible, once it arrives). After the bloodbaths of the Twentieth Century (each started when America was weak), the new century has seen less war and less death — in large part because of American strength.
I enjoyed Stars Earn Stripes. My family cheered when Todd Palin (a man who understands the pain of separation from a soldier son and the fears of the family left behind) carried his team and beat even the “operators” through the barbed wire obstacle. My son immediately identified each weapon and was thrilled to see them in action, but we were mostly happy to see some of our finest vets get a moment in the sun — a moment when they could showcase some tiny part of the skills they’ve learned, the skills they’ve used to make sure that days like September 11 never happen again.
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