If there are two things that I am unequivocally not a fan of, reality television and Gen. Wesley Clark have to be near the top of the list. I don't like reality TV for all of the obvious reasons -- I don't want to reward those who would cash in on every meretricious cultural trend, and I can't stand how obviously scripted and fake "reality" TV is. And Wesley Clark, well he's pretty much every thing that's wrong with the modern military. He's living proof that nowadays you can advance to the rank of General by being a technocrat whose expertise isn't confined to the battlefield, but rather sticking your finger in the wind to see which way the political trends are blowing. Writing at Slate over a decade ago, Chris Caldwell rather damningly dissected Clark's military career and his "agenda of score-settling and [expletive]-covering" -- and this 2003 New Yorker profile didn't do Clark any favors either. But more specifically, here's how Caldwell described the problem with Clark's approach to the battlefield:
I don't really see the difference between "modern war," as Clark describes it, and a cynical kind of media savvy. ("For large democracies, the home front is the critical theater of war, and words and images are the key weapons.") Like his fellow airwave-hog Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's special negotiator in the run-up to the Kosovo bombing, Clark sought to wage the war by chatting up Tom Brokaw and Christiane Amanpour. He made end-runs around the U.S. Army chain of command and leaked information to other branches of government (State, in particular) and other governments (Britain's, in particular). ...
But at the same time, his methods led him into a propagandistic press strategy that was transparent to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the war. And they hurt him in U.S. military circles, where he was considered a showboating egotist and a devious political operator. Defense Secretary William Cohen told Clark, through Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, "Get your [expletive] face off the TV."
So who here is surprised that Wesley Clark's now hosting a reality show on on NBC? I groaned when I saw the ads during the Olympics, for a show called "Stars Earn Stripes," which is kind of like Circus of the Stars meets Full Metal Jacket. Apparently the idea is that you get some former special forces commanders to walk That-Guy-Who-Used-To-Be-Famous-For-Being-Married-To-Jessica-Simpson and a dozen other no-talent Hollywood hanger-ons to go through some elaborately staged "mission" each week. Presumably Wesley Clark shows up at some point to kick one of them off at the end of the show with some silly catchphrase. ("Sorry, Nick Lachey -- You've Been Fragged.")
Anyway, as you can see, I was down on this whole enterprise -- until now. Suddenly, even I am inclined to defend sticking Wesley Clark in front of the TV cameras:
Nine Nobel Peace Laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have demanded NBC scrub its new reality series “Stars Earn Stripes” because, “war isn’t entertainment.”
“This program pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence,” the Laureates wrote to NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, producer Mark Burnett, and to General Wesley Clark, the former presidential candidate who’s hosting the competition series.
The show is, in fact, they said, “a massive disservice to those who live and die in armed conflict and suffer its consequences long after the guns of war fall silent.”
“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 nine continued.
Oh come on. It seems pretty clear to me that the point of the show, or at least how it's being sold, is that it's a patriotic endeavor to show how difficult the job of soldiers really is and what they go through. I'm obviously cynical about Wesley Clark and his motives, but even I have no doubt he belives the courage of soldiers is something worth commending and reminding the American people of. I could understand and am sympathetic to the idea that graphic depictions of war aren't necessarily needed, but after decades of violent war movies, a fairly sanitized reality show premised not on depicting death but on soldiers' skills and sacrifice is -- forgive the metaphor -- the hill that Desmond Tutu wants to die on? If you object to "war as entertainment" why this program and why now? And if you want to promote peace great. But decrying relatively anodyne facsimiles of war in the belief that this will rewire human nature so as to prevent armed conflict is out of touch with, well, reality.