The past month has been frightening for a lot of military families. Not to mention the civilian populations of Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea.
First, there were the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles we fired on an airfield in Syria – purportedly encouraged by the noted foreign policy and military expert Ivanka Trump herself. Then, there was Russia’s and Iran’s fire-and-brimstone flavored responses to those missiles.
Next, there was the fiasco with North Korea. The who-will-nuke-who-first-tit-for-tat-my-missile-is-bigger-than-your-missile-synchronized-temper-tantrums being played out in the international press between the American and North Korean governments. Meanwhile, “an armada” (thank you for that descriptor, Mr. President) of our loved ones cruised across the Pacific headed for the Korean Peninsula. But wait, did they really? Or was that claim just more sensationalism at the expense of our military families’ collective mental health? No one really cares when the administration needs a bump in the polls, though. Am I right?
Oh! Don’t forget dropping that MOAB on Afghanistan. I’m sure Russia and China were thrilled about that one. Never mind the fact that although it’s a weapon we’ve had at our disposal since 2003, we haven’t used it before because the collateral damage was considered too high even for Rumsfeld and Cheney.
After 16 years, we are still engaged in multiple undeclared wars, but somehow this administration thinks nothing of adding a few more to our plates. And while America’s military families are struggling to breathe, the rest of America seems to be enjoying the show.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Broadcast networks and cable news went wall-to-wall with coverage after it was reported that the United States fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria…” Tough luck for all those Chicago Med fans. But hey! NBC has something even better for you! Gather ‘round the television kids, let’s watch a war.
I recognize that I’m being snarky, but I think America needs to get something straight: War is not a reality television show.
Does that mean the news shouldn’t cover it? Absolutely not. Of course the news should cover, well, the news. And firing cruise missiles into Syria and dropping a MOAB on Afghanistan is certainly newsworthy.
But the militainment of the American public has become grotesque.
And before anyone brings it up, this is not the same phenomenon as Americans gathered around their televisions in the 1960s and 70s, watching Walter Cronkite narrate images from Vietnam, and waiting for their (or their loved one’s) birthday to be called. There was a draft. Most Americans knew at least one person fighting.
But today, less than 1% of Americans serve in our armed forces. Most of America has zero skin in the game, which makes our national obsession with these “military actions” even more disturbing.
I was making dinner when the Syria strikes happened, watching The Big Bang Theory reruns on my DVR while I chopped. I don’t watch cable news, but I do get news alerts from various outlets on my phone, and I was well aware of what was happening. As I was trying not to succumb to the terrible anxiety that all military families face at the outset of another war – excuse me, “military action” – my husband swooped in through the garage and flipped on NBC.
I was immediately sickened by the images on the screen. It wasn’t the missiles – although those bothered me too. It was the reporter, Hallie Jackson. She looked just short of gleeful. And she was talking about the strikes as a “significant moment for President Donald Trump.”
At my insistence, my husband flipped the channel but it was just more of the same – talking heads jabbering on about how “presidential” these strikes made Donald Trump seem, and how “powerful” they made America look on the world stage. Even Fareed Zakaria fell prey to the ridiculous notion that dropping bombs equates to leadership.
All of this expressed so eloquently against a backdrop of red, white, and blue graphics surrounding images of missiles firing from the deck of the USS Ross.
Ummm…really? Is this a fireworks display on the 4th of July?
MSNBC Anchor Brian Williams apparently thought it was. He went so far as to say:
We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons…’ They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield… What did they hit?
And that sums up the modern American attitude towards wars fought live on television. Wars that most Americans can turn off with the touch of a button anytime they want. The truth is, America salivates over these images. If you don’t believe me, check out the ratings bump that cable news gets every time they show our military projecting its might.
But I doubt the average American would feel like they were watching the latest episode of Survivor if their spouse was part of the “armada” that’s (maybe) headed for Korea. Probably headed for Korea? Oh, who the heck knows anymore?! The point is, America’s military families might be glued to the news as well but it’s for entirely different reasons.
We are exhausted and we are worried sick. I know because I have waited as our nation has sent my husband to combat 5 times. Beyond our present state of exhaustion and anxiety, there’s a few other things America should understand about military families (*clears throat*):
We do not appreciate being used to generate a “bump” in the polls for any politician. We do not appreciate being exploited for the entertainment of cable news junkies, macho flag-waving “patriots” who have never worn the uniform of their nation, or Anderson Cooper’s ratings. We do not appreciate America’s willful misinterpretation of military action as the litmus test for what makes a president “presidential”. And we do not appreciate America’s willingness to trot out a Veteran and pat her on the head every time they want publicity for their [insert business/cause/event/show here].
War is not entertainment. It’s not something we should be watching with a bucket of popcorn in our laps. And our Veterans are not mascots.
The actions of the past several weeks are going to have real consequences for our servicemembers and their families. And I get it. The nation is only watching because it’s the “responsible” thing to do. We have to be informed, right? Absolutely. Heck, I watched for almost ten minutes before I insisted that my husband turn it off. And I hate television news.
I’m not asking anyone to ignore reality. I’m asking that Americans – and particularly the press, including the cable news anchors, reporters, and producers who have the power to show these events through any lens they choose – remember that this is not theater. It’s not something to look at and say, “Ooh! Pretty!” (I’m looking at you Brian and Fareed.)
Going to war (or engaging in “military action”) is something we should reflect on soberly, thoughtfully, and in context. It should be debated in Congress. An end game should be determined. It should be declared. And it should have the support of the American people, not for its entertainment value, but because we have collectively decided that it is a necessary action to take.
None of that has happened. Instead we have tuned into to our favorite cable news channels and gawked, while the executive branch of the last three administrations have made unilateral decisions that keep us engaged in a series of never-ending wars.