Best Defense

A plea to Gen. Wes Clark: Please get off the TV before you do even more damage

By "Hunter" Best Defense TV reviewer I’m embarrassed to admit, I recently watched a long portion of the second episode of the new "reality" TV show Stars Earn Stripes. The premise of the show is that eight D-list "celebrities" — predominately reality TV returnees, washed up actors, and athletes — train with former U.S. military ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

By "Hunter"

Best Defense TV reviewer

I’m embarrassed to admit, I recently watched a long portion of the second episode of the new "reality" TV show Stars Earn Stripes. The premise of the show is that eight D-list "celebrities" — predominately reality TV returnees, washed up actors, and athletes — train with former U.S. military servicemembers and first responders and take part in "missions" to demonstrate their prowess and nominally learn/appreciate something about military life. There’s also a Survivor element to the "contest" where a non-performing team is dismissed each episode. The "stripes" the remaining teams earn equate to $10,000 donations to service-oriented charities like the Wounded Warrior Project and their ilk. NBC claims the show will "pay homage to the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed forces."

I found the program lame and somewhat sad. Anyone with military experience would laugh at the canned explosions — M203 rounds do not blow up like that, especially when the blue training round lands under rather than in the target. ( I’m looking at you, Picabo Street.) The "tasks" that the "celebs" were charged to execute were laughable. Indeed, the marksmanship demonstrated (even by the military professionals) wasn’t that impressive given the high powered rifle sights, supported firing positions, and short distances to the target.

But the real kickers were the unconvincing hostess Samantha Harris — who previously co-hosted Dancing with the Stars, wearing sexy combat chic clothing that would make the Scud Stud blush, and General (Retired) Wesley Clark — the opportunist flag officer and onetime presidential candidate everyone loves to hate. The two co-hosts, respectively, bat their eyes and look grim and try to sell the concept as a credit to the troops, but the show devolves "combat" down to a series of Darby Queen obstacles with embedded squibs and targets that don’t shoot back.

How sad to see General Clark leering over a fake TV screen (badly overlaid on a circular table) in a fake command post, giving orders and commentary with fake gravitas. But Clark is well known for narcissism and never finding a camera he didn’t love. The late David Hackworth once called Wes Clark a Perfumed Prince — and later retracted his comment — but this made-for-TV endeavor seems to validate the moniker.

What’s most worrisome about this show is that it is a show, sold as entertainment. A squad of Nobel laureates has already criticized the program calling Stars Earn Stripes a "sanitation of war … likening it to an athletic competition." They called for the show’s cancellation stating: "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. Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People — military and civilians –die in ways that are anything but entertaining."

I have to agree with their sentiment, especially given the ham-handed nature of the exercises. There’s no real danger, and no real consequences. I’m sure the celebs retire to their Hollywood mansions after each camera shoot, whereas, somewhere in Afghanistan, PFC "Snuffy" finishes his real "shoot" and retires to his tent built for 6-8 of his closest squadmates. Surprising no one, I hope, there’s no reality in this reality TV. Even if this show was a well-meaning effort to bridge an increasing civil-military divide (as Clark claims), it is so poorly executed that it marginalizes the efforts of U.S. troops in the field. That’s what makes Clark’s involvement all the more worrisome. The public doesn’t know that Clark is not overly respected within the ranks, and likely accepts his involvement as a military stamp of approval.

The Army Profession campaign has spent almost two years trying to discern the impact of a decade of war on the profession. One of the ideas the campaign members have been considering is the concept of a "non-acting professional." In this case, they have been trying to analyze the role of the military retiree (p. 24) within the profession. This need arose as many general officers (e.g. Clark and Honore) took to the papers and the airwaves commenting on military operations and politics (e.g. Newbold, Batiste) from the safety of their retirement. The ongoing concern remains allowing for the proper balance of dissent, First Amendment rights and the role of former government servants — who, it should be remembered, remain subject to recall to active service. This is a continuing discussion that will not be resolved anytime soon.

Clark’s latest TV endeavor is more embarrassing than harmful, and likely grazes but does not fall within the area of concern which the Army Campaign is exploring. But I do think Stars Earns Stripes undermines the hard work of our servicemembers around the globe, by turning combat-lite into a game show. The fact that the show is giving money to veterans groups doesn’t redeem it in the least.

The best way to get rid of such a show is not to watch it. Unfortunately, an estimated 5.4 million Americans watched the Stars Earns Stripes first episode. We’re rapidly headed towards the world hypothesized in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, where the top TV show was Oww, my balls. [Note: Another reality TV show, this season’s America’s Got Talent, actually featured a segment that easily could have been titled Oww, my balls].The quality of what passes for entertainment is worrisome and getting worse.

I’ve often argued for a Sunday primetime reality TV show (probably on the fourth place network), filming soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with all their glory (and warts) in theater. Each week would spotlight a different unit, in a different place — not unlike news reels from World War II. If it was honestly handled, I think that would be a hit show that really better communicates what combat and service means while drawing some much needed attention to the troopers in the field. That would also be a worthwhile bridging effort for that civil-military divide we are always so concerned about. I’ll keep waiting; meanwhile, I’ll hope that Clark gets his face off of TV and Stars Earns Stripes goes AWOL.

"Hunter" is an Army officer. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the federal government, the College of Cardinals, the bullpen of the Washington Nationals, or "The Itchy and Scratchy Show." Then again, they might. Especially the bullpen guys.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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