Extreme Makeover: Military Edition

Ty PenningtonThe American military is in need of a makeover. Recruitment is way down and no one wants to join the thousands of men and women stop-lossed into the Middle East. The death toll rises as supplies and morale dwindle. And just when the Pentagon thought it could lie its way out of Pat Tillman’s tragic death (murdered by friendly fire), his parents deride the military as disgusting and disrespectful of the legacy their son left behind.

With war against Iran on the horizon, it seemed inevitable that the Pentagon’s first campaign would be waged in the minds of Americans, not in the streets of Tehran. A battlefront of imagery reminding the bulwark of our society that fighting for one’s country is an honorable and noble deed, that dying for an ideology of freedom demands veneration, not scorn.

Such a task in this political climate is next to impossible. People who support our actions in the Middle East do so unflinchingly, and dissidents will not be swayed by typical government propaganda. How, then, can the military earn a little goodwill from the average cynic?

Simple: page the slavish executives over at the American Broadcasting Company and get them to ram five hours of suffocating dogma down our throats!

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There are few shows more cloying or nauseating than Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It draws huge ratings despite its shameful emotional pandering. I cannot overstate how dangerous a show like this is to society, particularly with men and women so crippled emotionally only musical crescendos and shots of weeping strangers can make them feel happy or sad.

Is the basic concept of helping people in need admirable? Absolutely. It’s unfortunate that Habitat For Humanity, a non-profit organization that does essentially the same thing without Sears and Kenmore plugs or airtime, receives only a fraction of the attention. But real people and real situations rarely help television networks in the end. What do they have if the product isn’t slickly packaged and hosted by a man who makes a crack-addicted chimp seem stable by comparison?

I understand that ABC is in the business to make money, and if it does so by airing a television series that is generally uplifting, more power to them. While I feel people who advocate “positive” programming on television need to find fulfillment in their own lives, seeing people help other people is generally better than receiving ad revenue for Britney Spears’ video dribblings — until it combines with ridiculous military policy.

In case you missed the “very special” season finale of Makeover on Sunday (and the subsequent “How’d They Do That?” on Monday), the family receiving sexy home remodeling was that of Private First Class Lori Piestewa, one of the soldiers who died in the same attack that left Jessica Lynch a blockbuster Sunday-night movie extravaganza. Lynch herself appears on the show, explaining Piestewa’s goal of returning home to Tuba City, Arizona, and building her parents a dream home.

Cue the snare drum and the bald eagle flying overhead. Launched into full-blown Patriotism Mode, the show recounts the media-friendly version of how Piestewa and her friends in the 507th lost their lives. Piestewa, the first woman killed in the Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq, is also supposedly the first Native American to die in a foreign war, giving producers and the military all the reason they needed to bolster the show as “Indian-friendly.”

To further drive home the point that serving in the military is the greatest tradition a man or woman could ever have, the show simultaneously built a Veteran’s Memorial Center for Native Americans, the first of its kind. Piestewa’s family tree includes a father who served in Vietnam and a grandfather who fought in World War II; every time you blink, some reminder of the military is up on screen to remind each and every viewer that the military would be proud to see you serve.

Flags are tastefully draped in memorial. Clean, crisp soldiers give a 21-gun salute at the dedication of the center. Reflective siblings of slain soldiers weep over how their sacrifice would not be in vain. And in case the imagery alone wasn’t enough, the 80-piece Czech orchestra specially hired by Makeover pumped up the aural assault. If you weren’t crying or wishing to God you could’ve blown up the infidels that were responsible for Piestewa’s death, well, you simply weren’t American.

I simply wondered two things. First, if Lori Piestewa was a single mother of two, why would the military position her in any remotely dangerous location? I recognize her Humvee caravan went off-course; that doesn’t change a thing in my mind. I don’t want to see anyone die needlessly, but if you are the sole guardian of two small children, surely the government can keep you off the firing line.

Second, how am I supposed to bask in the reflected glory of the American military when I realize that it takes a television show to treat Native American veterans with any sense of dignity? The Memorial Center is admittedly the first of its kind. Considering Native Americans are all too often ignored, couldn’t the United States government at least give back some of the billions they stole from Indian trusts and build some veteran centers on reservations? There are fifty trillion holocaust museums; why can’t Native Americans who fought and died for the U.S. get even a sliver of that kind of recognition?

I’m guessing none of that is remotely relevant to the propaganda machine responsible for putting together this travesty of television. A shame, because those questions immediately popped into my head. Makeover is usually just an insult to my eyes; now it’s an insult to my mind as well.

Not content to end the recruitment campaign there, however, ABC broadcast a two-hour USO extravaganza featuring Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey bravely avoiding the war zone by singing “R.O.C.K. in the USA” to soldiers safely tucked away in a hangar in Rammstein, Germany (there were other performers, but my gag reflex only goes so far).

How are these men and women in any form of danger from Iraqi insurgents? Most important, how does any television executive expect me to believe that thousands of hardened soldiers would jump up and down, scream and wave their hands at Nick Lachey?

Simple: lazy propaganda. Punching plot holes in reality shouldn’t be easier than doing so for Lost. Faceless Pentagon officials, please either try harder or just accept the fact that no one wants to be you. No amount of ratings-friendly television will change that.

(If you do accept the latter, please don’t try and draft us as some kind of impotent revenge tactic.)