The New War Story Begins at Home

Karen Hall

Wednesday nights were billed this past winter on the USA Network as "Action Wednesdays." A testosterone drenched action film kicked the evening off, followed by an hour-long episode of the fifteen part series, "Combat Missions."

Created by "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett, "Combat Missions" was a reality television show whose premise, in the words of the official website, was to watch soldiers "compete for bounty _ and, more importantly, for honor and pride." The size of the bounty _ a $150,000 cash prize to be shared among members of the winning team and $250,000 to the overall individual winner _ and the fierce competition for it created a realistic picture of the real purpose of military power in the US that producers and programmers could hardly have intended to glorify. "Combat Missions" showed the aim of US military strength and intelligence to be what many of us on the left paint it to be: a struggle to gain economic dominance and self-interest which has been emptied of honor, pride and justice.

The players in this game were four teams of six non-active military and law enforcement professionals competing against one another in a series of missions designed to simulate real-life combat, including combat training, hostage rescues, enemy attacks and urban assaults. Among the country's most elite warriors, the teams were comprised of men from the Navy SEALs, SWAT, CIA, Marine Recon, Delta Force, and Green Berets, and were selected from the 700 men who applied. Their training, experience and unit affiliations symbolized the epitome of US military force and know-how.

But who would have watched such a show, you may be wondering. The series premiere captured an audience of approximately 2.1 million viewers aged 18 and over. An internet search on the title of the series produces over 3,600 sites connected to the show, from media releases to fan-based chat rooms, bulletin boards and discussion groups. The series met with praise and excitement throughout its run. Houston Chronicle reporter, Ann Hodges wrote, "What puts `Combat Missions' far above the rest of TV's phony `reality' is the quality of its contestants. These are men, not kids, and they know what they're doing because they've done it." The combat on the series may have been simulated, but the competitors' skills and personal reminiscences brought a heightened sense of reality to viewers who could translate these handsome, friendly yet fierce faces onto the faceless daily reports from the ongoing "War on Terrorism."

Societies understand themselves and their reality through myth and stories. This is one important reason why a biased media as described by Tom Kerr in "Mainstream Media Favor Story of War" (see page 7) is so harmful to a society. Entertainment programming like "Combat Missions" is yet another example in the sea of media products that function to shape our understanding of contemporary US war culture. The series offered its audience more support for the myth that for Americans, war is an honorable game played by honorable men.

However, at the same time that "Combat Missions" sought to instill pride and support for the military's commando warriors and their tactics, it also presented viewers with the reality that honor for today's military personnel circulates in a closed system: warriors act to establish the honor of their unit, the honor of their buddies and their own personal honor. This honor is grounded from within the boundaries of the combat contest and the military's own code of honor and duty, rather than from without by a society asking members of its own citizenry to fight for a just cause and commonly held principles.

Contemporary myth production relies in part on the myths of the past. This is one reason why the nostalgic myths that circulate about World War II and are championed by the likes of Steven Speilberg have been circulating in such abundance. They help to create the illusion that wars are fought for just and noble reasons. In this nostalgic version of history, war is more than a game; it is a horrible yet necessary enterprise that requires the ultimate sacrifice a citizen can offer, their life for the assurance that the life of the nation and its ideals will continue.

These myths helped fuel and sustain public support during WWII and they still have great currency with Americans. They can readily be pulled off the shelf to rally an audience around military actions. The frequent comparisons between the attack on the World Trade Center and the attack on Pearl Harbor worked to link the events of the present to a war in which the US fought an imperialist Asian enemy, as did the image creation of firefighters raising a flag at ground zero, reproducing the famous scene of the marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima. (The phrase "ground zero" itself is a phrase which also came into the national vernacular after WWII, but which should uncomfortably remind media audiences of the US as the perpetrator of terrorism rather than the victim).

These references worked as a neat form of shorthand, insinuating that today's enemy is just like yesterday's. Political, historical and economic facts fall by the wayside as the media manufactures today's enemy out of yesterday's propaganda.

This form of recycling is especially useful as it is increasingly difficult to manufacture the representation of an enemy who poses a viable threat to global democracy, freedom, justice and humanitarian rights. Despite the US's imperial designs during and immediately following WWII, the axis powers were a formidable force guilty of crimes against humanity. Today's enemies present a far more difficult case for the spin doctors of image construction. They are men many have not heard of in lands few could locate on a map, who have committed crimes against ethnic minorities in their own countries whom even fewer can imagine.

As one sector of the media industry works to create an image of the enemy Americans will find motivating, the other churns out a stream of images of the US warrior, knowing that once deployed, patriotism will demand that citizens support our troops regardless of how people feel about the enemy or the stated objectives of a campaign. "Combat Missions" drove this point home with vigor. Audiences identified with and supported their troops in a contest for prize money against a completely fictional enemy. Ironically, the series truly did paint a realistic image of today's military as it displayed the image of the US warrior in the context of the self-interested mercenary, fighting for his own economic gain. The rhetoric of honor, patriotism, service and sacrifice appeared dangerously thin as warriors became game show contestants who at one point even cheated to achieve a higher score.

US audiences need new myths produced to contain the problematic realities caused by fighting wars against far weaker and poorer enemies in order to further establish the military and economic dominance of the US empire. Under these circumstances, it is far more difficult to convince a citizenry that the purpose of war, wounding and destruction is to bring peace, freedom and democracy to the world. The new warrior myths must have a sophisticated spin on economic issues. And this was one truly ironic aspect of "Combat Missions" _ the reality of today's resource wars was right under the audience's nose. The soldiers of "Combat Missions" fought for money and called it honor. Performing this twist of logic during prime time entertainment hours helps to teach audiences to apply this new logic elsewhere. The next time we see soldiers battle for financial gain, we will be ready to recognize their efforts and label them honorable.

When Team Bravo, a squad comprised predominantly of SWAT police officers, became the undefeated winner of the competition, another truth from the reality of today's militarized state was exposed under the very noses of viewers. One of the fundamental beliefs supporting the mythology of today's military is that a strong military presence protects citizens from foreign threats to freedom. When the domestic soldiers proved to be more combat-ready than men from the most elite military squads, viewers had the opportunity to grasp a concrete metaphor of the militarized police state. For just as John Freie's article, "US Civil Liberties After 9/11" (see page 5) argues, the current war on terrorism is impinging on the rights of citizens here at home, and the gung ho military spirit and tactics of our elite combat squads is increasingly infecting our domestic forces.

From the first episode, fellow contestants began to discount Bravo because the police officers were in poorer physical condition and lacked the military training of the soldiers. As the season and the missions progressed, however, the rhetoric shifted. Suddenly the fact of the police officers' daily experience became a distinct advantage as many of the missions required C.Q.B., or Close Quarters Battle.

Scratch the surface of the new war mythology produced by "Combat Missions" and you have the representation of an internal military force bringing combat readiness and combat tactics to our domestic urban zones. For all too many urban dwellers this does indeed sound more like reality than myth. For the rest, this myth should be a startling wake up call. That the municipal police officers of some of our urban centers are more combat ready than the most elite trained operatives we send out to police and enforce the far reaches of the empire and the global frontier, is an indication of one cost of US empire _ citizens must acclimate to and accept the need for and deployment of combat-ready forces in domestic zones.

The description of combat-ready police officers reminds me of the helicopters with their search lights that circle my neighborhood late at night. The Syracuse Police claim they must perform these drills in order to practice deployment and readiness. The more accustomed we are to living in a war zone, to the sights, sounds and smells of the military among us, the more readily we will consent to making all the world our war zone.

Karen Hall is currently writing a thesis on war culture and entertainment. Look for her essay on war toys in a forthcoming issue.