The Pentagon goes to Hollywood

I was watching the Olympics last night, when a disquieting thing happened. I don't mean when gymnast John Orozco fell off the pommel horse, or when the beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings lost a set for the first time in their accomplished Olympic careers (Relax: They rallied to win their match and advance to the next round). Rather, the disturbing event was a promo for a new NBC TV program entitled "Stars Earn Stripes."

The new show, hosted by retired General Wesley Clark, takes various minor celebrities (e.g., Sarah Palin's husband Todd, singer Nick Lachey, former Olympic skier Picabo Street, etc.) and runs them through some mock military training, apparently including a few live fire drills. The idea, as near as I can tell, is to show these semi-famous people doing the sorts of things that military personnel do. And using real ammo is supposed to lend a certain verisimilitude, make it seem at least mildly dangerous, exploiting the well-documented human fascination with seeing stuff blow up.

This whole idea strikes me as so wrong that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, war is a serious business in which real human beings die. It's not a sporting competition to be conducted for our amusement, even if wartime coverage here in the safe and secure United States sometimes makes it seem like entertainment. Turning military training into a tawdry reality show obliterates the moral significance of violent conflict and invites us to pretend that it's all some sort of game. Can you think of a better way to demean the idea of genuine military service than to have a bunch of minor celebrities play soldier on camera?

The new show is also going to be unrealistic, in the sense that its not likely to give viewers an accurate picture of the full range of combat activities. We'll probably get to see the stars doing basic drills, running obstacle courses, and maybe firing some weapons, but we're not going to see them getting wounded, experiencing PTSD, dealing with intestinal parasites, shivering for days in a high altitude foxhole, or watching a close buddy expire from an IED blast. For that matter, we're also not going to see any of them sitting in a cubicle here in the United States operating an RPV against some suspected terrorist group in Pakistan, Yemen, or some other faraway country.  Or how about another basic military activity: heading up to Capitol Hill to lobby for some expensive weapons system? In other words, "Stars Earn Stripes" will be presenting a selective and sanitized view of "military activities," chosen to be suitable for the viewing public and carefully designed not to make viewers less likely to buy the sponsors' products.

Finally, this new show must be seen as yet another manifestation of the uncritical deference to all things military that gets in the way of an intelligent national security policy. Don't get me wrong: I support a strong national defense and I am grateful for the sacrifices that real soldiers and sailors make on our behalf. But based on the promo I saw last night, this silly show portrays military service as the acme of human achievement, as the most demanding set of skills that these minor celebrities could aspire to master. As such, it subtly contributes to the idea that people in uniform are the greatest Americans, which in turn reinforces the belief that shoveling more and more money at the Pentagon is the best way to make Americans safer and more prosperous.

To repeat: A capable defense is a valuable asset, and the United States (and other countries), should spend what is necessary to protect their vital national interests. But both the Founding Fathers and experienced generals like former president Dwight D Eisenhower also understood that a healthy society must remain vigilant against the dangers of excessive military influence. By placing military activity on a weird sort of pedestal, "Stars Earn Stripes" will in some small way discourage the critical scrutiny that is necessary to keep today's powerful national security establishment under effective civil control. 


Stephen M. Walt

What the Olympics can teach us about nationalism

Like most of you, I'm spending some time these days watching the Olympics. It's especially fun to see more obscure sports like fencing, table tennis, and beach volleyball get their moments in the sun, and there are always a few upsets and feel-good stories to keep us riveted. And for the record, I thought that utterly wacky opening ceremony was flat-out brilliant.

But given my day job, I can't help but see the Olympics as a sublimely teachable moment about nationalism. Every Olympic year I ask my students who they rooted for, and whether they got a subtle thrill when one of their countrymen won. Are they disappointed when one of their fellow nationals loses out? Of course, the vast majority of students admit that they tend to do just that, and I'll confess to similar instincts myself.

But the next question I ask them is "Why? Why do you care? Is it because you know the actual people involved?" Of course not. I don't root for Ryan Lochte of the United States over Yannick Agnel of France because I know them both personally, and I happen to like Lochte more, or because my personal knowledge of the two tells me that Lochte is more deserving in some larger sense (i.e., he works harder, has overcome more obstacles, etc.). I have no idea, yet for some silly reason I get a certain pleasure when some American I've never even met does well. This tendency is even more true about team events: I really have no way of knowing if the American team is nicer, smarter, more ethical, etc., than any of their foreign rivals. Yet I find myself cheering for a bunch of strangers who for all I know might be mostly jerks.

But even though I know all this, most of the time I can't quite stop myself from being inwardly pleased when the Stars and Stripes is up on the podium, and I can't help feeling a bit disappointed when some American individual or team flames out. Some of this tendency may be due to the fact that coverage here in the United States tends to focus on the American athletes (and in a pretty flattering way), but that is itself both a reflection of nationalism (NBC knows that American viewers want to watch their countrymen) and one of the things that reinforces those beliefs.

Which is of course why my students say much the same thing, no matter where they are from. This feature of nationalism is what Benedict Anderson famously meant by the phrase "imagined community." A nation is a group of people that imagines itself to be part of a common family, even though most of the members do not know each other personally (and might not like each other if they did). Yet they have the sense of being tied together, to the extent that when one member of the groups succeeds (or fails) it actually affects how other members who don't even know them feel.

This tendency isn't absolute, of course (i.e., there may be some U.S. athletes I don't care much for, just as there are some members of the Boston Red Sox I've never warmed to very much). And in those cases, I won't be sorry if they don't emerge triumphant. But the general rule applies, because nationalism remains an incredibly powerful political force. Try it on yourself the next time you turn on the Games.

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