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Howard Hinterthuer Headshot

Stars in Stripes

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I just got off the phone with a casting director for a new soon-to-be-hit TV show. "Stars In Stripes," she called it. The premise is that high profile figures from the entertainment industry will be paired-up with "highly decorated veterans possessing expertise in tactics, explosives, and automatic weapons." These teams of two (star plus veteran) will then compete with the other duos for eventual dominance. They will be exposed to a variety of combat scenarios.

"As close to real as we can possibly make it," said the casting director. "Like Survivor," she added.

"Like play acting?" I asked.

"No, it will be just like real combat," she insisted.

With as much politeness as I could muster, I explained to her that there is really no simulation that can even remotely replicate the experience of real combat; the stark terror, the brain numbing horror, the absolute loss of control, and the gut wrenching images, sounds, and smells burned forever into one's consciousness.

"You can make it sound and smell like combat," I suppose. "A little 'plastic' here and there, plus you burn a length of det-cord and pop some smoke. Hell, it might even look like combat. Napalm a piece of desert and it's a show stopper. But everyone goes home afterward, just like John Wayne. The stakes aren't really very high, are they?"

"We're very pro-military," she said. "We're going to involve all branches of the service."

I pointed out, "I work daily with veterans who have been and continue to be torn apart by real combat experiences. Why would you even attempt to replicate something like that?"

Of course, the answer is "because there's money in it." These are my words, not hers. I hope she really believes that she, the producers, and the network are doing a good thing, because doing it for money is disturbingly cynical.

I'm guessing it will be a money maker. We Americans cling tightly to the archetype of the "surviving hero." It is part of our mythology in the Joseph Campbell sense of it. Plus we are attracted to the warm fuzzy notion that the ingenuity, training, and equipment of the American Fighting Man/Woman are second to none. As I write this, I am feeling a sense of pride well up in spite of the certain knowledge that the outcome in wars and individual battles is often a numbers game, or who strikes first, or luck etc.

In basic training, the drill instructors seemed tickled to tell us that everyone has a bullet with his name on it. "Our job is to teach you to avoid the ones marked 'To Whom It May Concern.'"

One ignored this advice at one's own peril. D.I's came in many stripes, a full spectrum of personality types, but I don't believe any of them ever lied to me. Every bit of their foxhole wisdom eventually proved itself to be true, or substantially so.

In my world, there is also a nearly universal trait among living heroes. In humility they insist, "I'm lucky to be alive" or "I am one of the lucky ones" or "I should be dead, but I'm not." It is not empty rhetoric. They are expressing the overriding reality of their experience. It will color their lives moving forward in profound ways, not all of them good.

There are claims made in recruiting ads as to the relative toughness and commitment of members of the various branches of the service. Here is the truth. Heroism and effectiveness are not functions of Branch of Service. Rather they are personal qualities, and they are contextual. Courage is not being "fearless." Courage is being massively frightened, but doing what has to be done anyway. Let's be clear about that.

Will Stars In Stripes be produced? Probably -- or something like it. Will Americans watch it? In droves, I'm thinking. Boys will be boys! We all have stories of blowing-up things when we were kids, the cherry bomb flushed down the high school toilet, the match head bomb in the mailbox, the M80 under the sawdust pile. Kaboom!

But eventually, that stuff loses its luster. Seeing a village flattened by an artillery strike is frankly unfunny unless it is the only twisted emotion one has left. The entertainment value is lost.

Sorry! I won't be recruiting "highly decorated veterans" to play war games on TV for entertainment. The vets here are busy meeting with counselors, attending group sessions, having physical therapy, learning a new set of job skills -- perhaps a job they can do with no legs, a damaged brain or both? They have more pressing things to do than line the pockets of a TV producer.