A few weeks ago, I was stuck at a dealership, my car awaiting service. In the waiting room, The Today Show was blasting out, featuring a performance by a well-known pop star. Choreographed and repetitive, her performance was substance- and content-free, a repetition of words that were mostly unclear to me, set to a machine gun-like beat echoed by gyrating dancers on stage.
And I thought to myself: this is much like America’s wars, or at least how they’re packaged and presented to the American people.
America’s wars have been choreographed. Obligatory cheers for “our” troops. Plenty of flags and songs to “bless” America. Lots of video footage of gyrating jets putting “bombs on target.” Meanwhile, the overall meaning is unclear. Vague promises are made of “progress,” but signs of the same are difficult to decipher.
War has become the background music to our lives. A sobering fact: If you’re a high school student in America, you can’t remember a time when America has been at peace. Your country has always been at war – and so it always will be, for it’s impossible to win a war on terror, because war is terror.
But back to The Today Show. I watched it in the 1970s. Back then it featured serious news along with lighter “fluff” pieces like movie reviews (I fondly recall Gene Shalit). Now it’s dominated by entertainment and celebrities, infotainment driven by the pursuit of ratings. In other words, it’s much like our war coverage, which features celebrity generals and various forms of fluff, driven largely by “ratings,” i.e. keeping the people happy — and happily ignorant – about the realities of war.
I remember talking to an Army battalion commander about some of the realities he and his men faced in Iraq. Back in the Surge days, he mentioned a “churn rate” of 50% in U.S. infantry units: troops either didn’t want to reenlist, or they went into privatized militaries and doubled or tripled their pay. He mentioned repetitive overseas deployments that contributed to stress, domestic violence, divorce, and broken families. He himself was not at home for eight out of twelve Christmases.
In the field, his troops faced 12-16 hour days of drudgery. He referred to the Surge as “mental ditch-digging,” the fatigue that came with humping gear in the desert (or the cities) of Iraq with little to show for it. Such work, often frustrating, occasionally deadly, placed enormous strain on young troops, many of whom had been in high school not that long ago.
Nothing about this is exceptional – it’s just war. Demanding. Tough. Ugly. The kind of war that isn’t featured on American “news” shows, driven as they are by ratings and infotainment.
Of course, a real shooting war is far worse than simply long hours and repetitive duty. That’s why an Army major used to remind me, “Any day in the Army you’re not being shot at is a good day.” But our media prefers to put a happy face on war.
America’s latest wars are never-ending. A reason for this, not acknowledged enough, is the way they’re being packaged, sanitized, and sold to the American public as infotainment. As a performance that’s meant to be cheered briefly and just as quickly forgotten, like that pop star and her gyrating dancers on The Today Show.