Critics hammered NBC broadcast executives recently for linking the excitement of the quadrennial Olympic Games to their deranged new reality series “Stars Earn Stripes.” Clever packaging, indeed, to fuse flag-splashed images of genuine athletic “combat” with those of buff celebrities fighting faux battles at no risk to their flawless skin. Such co-branding leaves me pondering what seems a consequential drift in American culture to firm up our war footing for conflicts that might loom ahead.
This phenomenon came into focus for me at a Harvard conference on social enterprise a while back when David Gergen, esteemed advisor to several U.S. Presidents, praised Harvard in his welcoming comments. Apropos of nothing in the gathering’s purpose, Gergen lauded Harvard for giving the nation the highest number of Medal of Honor recipients of any American university or college in history besides traditional military academies. The Medal of Honor is the highest service decoration a combat soldier can receive for valor in battle above and beyond the call of duty. The vast majority of awardees win the medal not because they pursued it, but because they died in a heroic act. Gergen flattered Harvard further for rescinding its decades-old ban against on-campus ROTC activities.
Weird and misplaced as what he said sounded to me, it was applauded by Gergen’s young audience as if it were the conference’s central point. To be fair, Gergen did thread his remarks back to the heroism we had gathered to learn about and celebrate – the kind that comes from lives committed to the public good through innovative social action in communities. What I heard was one of America’s most trusted voices in the sphere of public affairs deftly place one of our nation's most prestigious institutions of higher education in the vanguard of elite military heroics. My worry is that few in attendance consciously noted this.
For a people to become inured to the awful consequences of total conflict is a gradual process requiring a great deal of saturation over a very long time. Self-preserving and communally protective as a species, we shed our natural revulsion for mayhem, misery and death only with great difficulty. Americans have been bathed since September 11, 2001 in more than our share of morbidity wrought from war’s terrible toll. Physical destruction and mass civilian casualties at home and abroad. Shattered warriors struggling to heal; others radicalized and driven to turn on their own. Armed drones languishing at high altitude, waiting for orders to kill. Flag-draped coffins carried from Dover Air Force Base’s C-130’s, exposed to the glare of media lights. Through it all, our elected officials and generals have appealed for us to buck up and tolerate war’s regrettable but necessary violence. We seem, indeed, beyond the point of saturation.
I take no pleasure in noting any of this. Nor am I especially predisposed toward fatalism. I have two lovely, healthy sons who happen to be of prime military recruitment age. I lost a beloved brother in Vietnam. But moments arise in our history – and I believe this is one of them – when we must ask ourselves if we are veering into what astronomers call an “event horizon.” That’s the point of no return past which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape impossible. Typically, it refers to the galactic territory of black holes. No amount of good human intention baked into civic innovation and social enterprise can possibly counter such awesome force. Here, on Earth’s spatial plain, it seems that nationalist sports, popular entertainment, celebrity culture and elite education have converged to create a vortex of their own, pulling us all toward one unified view: that war writ large is okay for America, so it’s gonna be okay for you, too.
If that is indeed the case, then all that our politics – or, worse, random bad actors awaiting their cue – have left to determine is the specifics of time and place where events will play out.
So how did this year’s fierce, televised clash between the top two Olympic medal winners end up? United States, 104. China, 88.
Let’s constrain our appetites, if we can, to winning medals on playing fields. Any other field of battle is unbearable to imagine.