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The war with no end: why American television refuses to leave the trenches

David Boreanaz in Seal Team, Christina Ochoa in Valor and Demetrius Grosse in The Brave
David Boreanaz in Seal Team, Christina Ochoa in Valor and Demetrius Grosse in The Brave. Composite: Handout

Military shows have always had a special place in the American television landscape, often reflecting the country’s feelings about its armed forces, and their role in the world. The dominant mood in the 1950s and 60s was light. Sitcoms such as The Phil Silvers Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC and Hogan’s Heroes presented military life as a goofy romp, even if it was happening in a Nazi prison camp. When the national mood soured in the 70s, the tragicomedy M*A*S*H* hinted at the nation’s growing disillusionment with the Vietnam war. Even the 80s camp of The A-Team tapped into widespread distrust of the government after various scandals, including the Iran-Contra affair.

Since 2001, the global war on terror has been the focus of the majority of military shows, with most feeling fearful or angry. From network procedurals like 24 to prestige offerings like Homeland, the terrorist threat has been real, imminent, and often deadly. America’s enemies will not give up or sue for peace. They must be defeated. Fortunately, America is guarded by exemplary soldiers. Shows about elite military teams, like The Unit (2006-09) and Six (2017), have extolled the courage, camaraderie and loyalty of American soldiers. Only rare exceptions, like David Simon’s Generation Kill (2008), have expressed deep skepticism about America’s foreign adventures.

This autumn’s three new military shows – The Brave, Seal Team and Valor – don’t all share Simon’s skepticism. They may be more diverse in terms of cast, but they still portray American soldiers as heroes, their enemies as irredeemable villains and the global war on terror as necessary, even just.

These shows come at a time when the American public is ambivalent about its global mission. In a Pew survey from last year, 57% of Americans wanted the US to deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can”. But the survey also found that a plurality of Americans wanted more military spending. A majority wants the US to remain the world’s only military superpower, and an overwhelming majority listed Isis as the top global threat. The Trump administration has tried to seize on this tension, turning NFL players’ protests against racial injustice into a simple referendum on the flag and US military. While none of these new shows is so straightforwardly rightwing, they still subtly prop up the military-industrial complex.

Generation Kill … a rare example of a military skeptic TV show
Generation Kill … a rare example of a military skeptic TV show. Photograph: Contract Number (Programme)/CHANNEL 4 PICTURE PUBLICITY

NBC’s The Brave is potentially the wokest of the new crop and never misses a chance to insist that the women and Muslims on the squad are as committed and capable of fighting the terrorists as anyone. “Amir, doesn’t it make you angry to be sitting in a mosque next to a guy who might blow your head off some day?” asks the impolitic joker of the unit. “It makes me angrier than you, a non-Muslim, could ever understand,” retorts Amir, played by Hadi Tabbal. During a lull in the action, the unit’s female sniper tells her squad leader that he is “the only commanding officer I’ve ever had who looks at me and doesn’t see a woman first”. Their diversity, it turns out, is their strength.

Yet underneath this veneer of religious tolerance and you-go-girl feminism, The Brave is belligerent, even bloodthirsty. In the pilot episode, the unit’s handler in the “Defense Intelligence Agency” declares: “We are fighting people who want to wipe us off the face of the planet. That means we have to be as ruthless as they are.” Her team seems to agree. “Unfortunately there is evil in the world, and sometimes power only bows down to more power,” states the squad’s preacher, played by Demetrius Grosse. If so, then maybe the military does need more money. It certainly needs to maintain its global reach.

Seal Team also contrasts the expertise, valor and nobility of America’s soldiers with the cruelty of their foes. In the pilot episode the team’s leader, played by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer star David Boreanaz, would rather capture a terrorist than kill him. In another episode, the Syrian regime uses VX gas on its own people, while the American soldiers risk their lives to save them. But Seal Team at least hints at problems with America’s wars: Boreanaz’s character has PTSD, a soldier points out that the US army used to make VX gas, and the Department of Defense seems indifferent to the plight of the poisoned Syrian civilians.

But these problems are brushed aside rather easily. PTSD in this show is a personal obstacle, not a reason to doubt the wisdom of war. As for the VX gas, Boreanaz reminds his friend: “We are the good guys, because we’re not actually using this stuff.” When another soldier suggests that the top brass may be right (maybe America can’t take responsibility for imperiled civilians around the world), Boreanaz responds that there is “not a lot of honor in that” – meaning, in the name of America’s honor, the fighting must continue.

Valor’s trailer.

The most skeptical show of the bunch is CW’s Valor, which began this week and is about a crack squad of helicopter pilots. It trades the other shows’ moral “monster of the week” format for a longer arc, in which the pilots prepare to retrieve members of their squadron, left behind in a mission gone wrong, from Somali terrorists. The show’s hero Nora Modani, played by the Spanish actor Christina Ochoa, faces sexism on the job, both from commanding officers and her boyfriend. And while on The Brave and Seal Team the soldiers and intelligence agents work in perfect harmony, Valor suggests that the CIA may not have best interests of American soldiers at heart.

The show is even critical of the US public, presenting Americans as only too happy to have our battles fought overseas by tiny units like these. “People don’t want boots on the ground,” Madani’s co-pilot tells her. “So this is what war is now: covert ops, blurred lines. That’s what you joined.” Even if the government is indifferent to the fate of its soldiers, and even if American special forces blur moral lines, the rescue mission has to go forward. Valor may be critical of American warfare, but there still seems to be no other option.

These shows tell Americans, 57% of whom are skeptical of our open-ended, globe-spanning war, that the cause is probably just, and at the very least necessary. The soldiers on these shows are not invaders or occupiers. They are rescuers. Charged with liberating captives and defending the helpless, their missions, like the war on terror itself, must continue week after week, regardless of the costs, with no end in sight.

The Brave and Seal Team offer the soothing message that Americans can have it all: extending military power to every corner of the globe yet becoming “less involved” because there are fewer boots on the ground. It’s too soon to tell if Valor, like M*A*S*H*, will consistently voice doubts about the country’s longest-running war. Here’s hoping it does. As vital as it is to keep this administration from entering any new wars, it may prove harder to end the old ones. If these three shows are anything to go by, the end of the war on terror is hard even to imagine.

This article titled "The war with no end: why American television refuses to leave the trenches" was written by Paul Gleason, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12 October 2017 10.00am

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