U.S. Intellectual History Blog

War and Popular Culture

Does a society require war heroes?  The soldier in the photo to the left, hand on joystick, facing computer screens, is the contemporary version of America’s war hero.  He mans a drone, those remote controlled aircraft that kill, in our age of “smart” gadgets, with precision that promises to make damage less, what…collateral, perhaps.  Those with the misfortune to die from drone strikes do not see their killers; this is death by phantom menace.  The soldiers who kill sit in places such as Syracuse, New York, in air conditioned rooms, on soft chairs, and can drive home for dinner after a day of destruction (precise as it might be).  Such action does not warrant honorary medals, though.  A recent piece at Salon notes that only ten Medals of Honor have been awarded since 9/11.  Battlefield action–where medals are earned–has declined and the training for and deployment of drones has exponentially increased.  So what is the future of the war hero?

NBC offers a new, grotesque answer–reality television.  A new show called “Stars Earn Stripes,” according to the official website, “pays homage to the men and women who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and our First Responder Services.”  Lest the ability to capitalize on and monetize the legacy of 9/11 begin to fade, NBC has employed former Supreme Commander of NATO and presidential hopeless General Wesley Clark to create mock military exercises based on “real” missions.  NBC has the supreme audacity to claim a commitment to hiring vets in order (and I have to quote again from the website) “to inspire other employers throughout the country to make similar commitments to our returning heroes to show audiences just how incredible these heroes’ missions really are.”  Aside from the bizarre grammatical construction of that statement, the sentiment is horrendously misguided in the way it mocks both the decade of war that has left thousands maimed or dead and the half decade of recession that has left millions homeless, in poverty, and woefully underemployed.  But at least advertising dollars can be made on the disasters of our time.

The larger, even existential problem that drone warfare and “Stars Earn Stripes” raise is the steady drift away from a genuine conversation about war in our time.  While the actions and consequences of real war abound–from Syria to vets in hospitals–we do battle over chicken sandwiches and television ratings.  Perhaps, though, there is the possibility of NBC’s next big “homage” pitting out of work construction workers or teachers against bank executives in “The Most Dangerous Game.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for bringing this up it’s an important topic.

    I would say war making societies need heroes to sell the war to the public and for attracting new soldiers. Winning the war at home (propaganda) was/is just as important as winning the war in the field.

    As an aside, this is an interesting area in our society where I think the left has made very little impact. This is (dare I say the word) ironic given how much the left was defined by its opposition to the Vietnam War. The lasting effects of the left have had more of a cultural influence than anything on foreign policy.

  2. Thanks Paul. I agree that there has been a lack of sustained engagement among the left in the way that war and warriors (for that is what they are often called) understood in popular conversations. Andrew Bacevich and Tom Engelhardt might be the two most consistent representatives from the left, but I am concerned that there is not a sustained and vigorous commitment to speaking about war without merely decrying it. I have been impressed with the journal World Affairs and the some of the essays published there. What do you read these days?

  3. Ray-

    I can’t point you to any particular book or article that speaks to America’s attention to war and the warrior. I mostly read periodicals like TNR, Foreign Affairs, Dissent, The Atlantic etc. but what sticks with me is the overwhelming sense that America is obsessed with being The Hegemonic Power. Even with a Democratic President neo-conservatives such as Robert Kagan seem to hold sway over our foreign policy outlook. Any debate about the necessity of war or the conduct there of is completely off the table. Our main concern is about the ascendency of America and so called American values. I think our ability to make war, whenever and wherever we like, is a sign (to Americans) of our overall economic and spiritual health. Our historic willingness to export good will (financial aide, food, technology etc) albeit for strategic, diplomatic reasons with the right hand and to exercise devastating military destruction with the left is manifesting very troubling despotic characteristics.

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