Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi and José Ramos-Horta, have written in protest against NBC's reality TV show 'Stars Earn Stripes'. This tests the participants in military simulations of various kinds, and the Nobel prizewinners see the programme as part of a tradition of glorifying war. They write that preparation for war, so far from being entertaining, is 'down-in-the-dirt deadly', ripping societies apart and leaving deep scars; they lament the 'long history of collaboration between militaries and civilian media and entertainment'. A spokesman for NBC has replied that 'Stars Earn Stripes' is a glorification, not of war, but of service.
In posting about this I don't mean to defend the programme. I haven't seen it and nor will I, since I've never watched any reality TV that didn't repel me. If I've ever watched 10 continuous minutes of reality TV, I've repressed the experience from my memory. For all I know, 'Stars Earn Stripes' does glorify or trivialize war, as Archbishop Tutu and the others claim. What I want to discuss is a more general issue: whether a compelling argument can be made for saying that war should never be a subject for entertainment. I don't know if this is what the nine Nobel Peace Prize winners mean to say, but it's a possible inference from what they do say.
The difficulty in such a position, as I see it, may be expressed in a single word - art. Not that art and entertainment are the same thing. They can't be, since there is entertainment that we wouldn't describe as art - darts or speedway, for example, or playing Cluedo or charades - and there is also, for nearly all of us, some art which we don't find entertaining, because we find it dull. So the boundaries of the two concepts are different. There is, however, a significant overlap between art and entertainment. I could give many examples but will stick to one: film.
War is a common topic in the cinema; indeed, war movies are a genre of their own. Could we reasonably say that there should be no (more) war movies? I don't see how one could defend that. War is a major part of human experience and one of the things art does - likewise, therefore, that cousin of it that we know, loosely, as entertainment - is to reflect the realities of human life back at us; to highlight aspects of it, whether in celebration or criticism of them, or simply to show up a complexity or something not previously noticed, and so forth. Of course, this can be done well or it can be done badly, but to enjoin that things should only be done well would be a vain plea.
Might one then say, perhaps, that war should never be shown in a positive light in art or entertainment, only treated realistically and critically? Even this seems to me a stretch. In their best forms representations of war will surely include enough realism about it that the experience of war will not be romanticized or trivialized. Yet if there is heroism, or courage, or compassion, or friendship, or mercy or other humane qualities, in war, are they not to be included in its representation? And what of wars by which people are liberated from horrors other than the horror of war itself - tyranny, national oppression, genocide - and these brought to an end? If the reality of war may be a proper subject of art, as in fact it must be, then it will also be a subject of some genres of what we call entertainment, and, in whichever sphere, the different sides of war will be brought out willy-nilly, badly or well.
One final thought on this: Catch-22. About war; and entertaining.