03/05/2013 07:54 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Television's Endless War Opens a Brand New Front

We are now at war with everyone. Everywhere. All the time. Battling without cease over every conceivable subject.

And that's just on television.

Over the past several years, "Wars" and rumors of war have erupted in the strangest places. A reality series about the banality of the DMV becomes "Parking Wars." Scrounge artists bidding on abandoned lockers wage "Storage Wars." Interior decorators declare "Design Wars." The unshaven sprout "Whisker Wars." Stan Lee presides as nerds erupt in "Fan Wars." Trick-or-treaters have scared up "Halloween Wars," not to be confused with "Cupcake Wars."

These reality "War" shows seem to feature everything but real war. But even that is changing. Last summer, NBC squandered too many of its valuable Olympics advertising minutes promoting something called "Stars Earn Stripes," a reality TV contest pitting B-listers (Dean Cain, Todd Palin, etc.) in "real" war games. Critics and audiences were both appalled at the co-mingling of combat and mere celebrity. Host General Wesley Clark suffered collateral damage to his reputation.

But the military-reality complex has not been extinguished. On Thursday, Animal Planet introduces the three-part series "Rhino Wars" (9 p.m., Thursday, March 7, Animal Planet), featuring four former American special ops commandoes who have joined the effort to save Africa's dwindling Rhinoceros population from greedy, well-organized and heavily-armed poachers.

Since 2008, the network has broadcast five seasons of "Whale Wars" about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's ocean-going campaign to harass and turn back Japanese whaling fleets. Although these efforts have resulted in collisions, injuries and countless legal battles, they have fallen far short of actual warfare.

"Rhino Wars" ups the ante, marrying muscular environmental activism with the presence of four heavily armed commandoes. Three are former Navy Seals, including Team Leader Saw, a grizzled cross between Chuck Norris and Tim Allen, who does most of the talking. Rob has a background in intelligence gathering. Oz is a former Green Beret medic and Biggs rounds out the team as the resident sniper.

The series does a credible job of explaining the Rhino's dire fate and the violent nature of their adversaries. Over the past half century, the giant, ancient mammals have been hunted to near extinction. In the past year alone, we're informed, nearly 700 of the giant mammals have been slaughtered solely for their giant horn, prized in Asia for medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. A single horn can bring an impoverished poacher more than a quarter of a million dollars, making the trade more lucrative than drugs or gold, and resulting in the murder of more than 100 game preserve employees. And that's just in one South African park.

For emphasis, Saw takes us to the sight of a mother Rhino recently slaughtered. To make matters more grisly, her body has been been cut up and scattered. It's hard not to be emotionally affected by such needless slaughter. Everybody cried when the mother dies in "Bambi." But Disney spared us a visit to the abattoir.

The carnage brings out the soft hearts and blood lust in our four heroes. They want to save the Rhinos from extinction and stop the "scumbags" along the way.

What "Rhino Wars" does not exactly explain is just what four special ops veterans can actually accomplish in a vast wilderness or up against a worldwide criminal conspiracy. But since this is reality TV, we get to watch them engage in frat boy shenanigans and obsess for long stretches about their favorite subject: guns.

Biggs is hardly shy about his prowess as a marksmen, or about the power of a good sniper to "crush the morale" of any foe. While test-driving their new South African weaponry, he brags that each of the quartet has probably fired "a million rounds" in their time. Later, when their guide to a game preserve suggests that they disarm before a trip into the veld to observe wildlife, Biggs suffers a bit of a panic attack. He never goes anywhere, he explains, home or abroad, without his handgun. He never knows who or what he might encounter, and doesn't want to miss "an opportunity."

One needn't be a pacifist to find the militarization of nature programming to be a little unsettling. "Rhino Wars" also comes heavily freighted with historical and geo-political baggage. A generation ago, it was not unheard of for American Soldiers of Fortune and mercenaries from around the world to arrive in Rhodesia and other African nations to fight in some of the more unsavory conflicts of the late 20th century. Now, these hired guns stalk the same terrain, but as the "good guys" saving an endangered species from a faceless "Asian" menace.

"Rhino Wars" also arrives at a moment when American military forces are being deployed throughout Africa, waging covert and overt wars without an official declaration, robust policy debate, or much conversation on television or any other news medium.

Popular television has a way of dealing with real issues with perverse misdirection. Remember the Civil Rights struggle in Mayberry? Or the time Gomer Pyle served in Vietnam? Or how unemployment and lingering recession put a crimp into styles of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills"? Of course not. TV is often what we talk about when we can't, or won't, mention the Elephant -- or even the Rhinoceros -- in the room.

As American military and intelligence agencies wade deeper into a new continent of conflict, one would think some intrepid journalist might ask, "Just What Are We Doing in Africa?" Instead, we get "Rhino Wars." And its insistent message echoes the refrains of empires through the ages: We're the good guys. Delivering the innocent from evil. We're saving an entire species from extinction. And we just might require a few more troops to finish the job.