Surely we have reached some hideous moral low—if only a temporary one—when a TV “reality” show like NBC’s “Stars Earn Stripes” can reduce the blood-soaked, brain-spattered canvas of war to a feel-good athletic competition between washed-up actors, ex-jocks, and Todd Palin.
The show–which features skier Picabo Street actor Dean Cain, and a host of other musclebound nonentities—premiered last night. Before it even aired, it was reviled by Desmond Tutu and other bishops, which actually got me curious enough to tune in: I mean, what other cheesy reality show has been slammed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner?
It was hosted by Wesley Clark—to his eternal shame. After this debacle, I would imagine that he is no longer Michael Moore’s choice for President.
War’s had a grip on me recently, for two reasons. For one, I’m amazed by liberals’ silence about the ongoing slaughter conducted by their own favorite Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama. For another, this month marks the 150th anniversary of the first Battle of Richmond, in which my great-grandfather and namesake was grievously wounded and left for dead.
My full name is John Temple Eskow, and my forebear–Indiana farmer John Temple–was just one of 4,000 Union casualties in the battle, which is considered one of the biggest Confederate routs of the war. As it happens, I still possess my great-grandfather’s Union Army dogtags, his discharge papers, even the misshapen bullet that a battlefield medic dug out of his side. I keep these heirlooms of pain in a wooden cabinet near the TV, so that each time I looked up to watch Nick Lachey or Laila Ali pretending to be real-deal American soldiers–look at us jump from a helicopter! look at us wriggle in mud!–the tokens of my ancestor’s suffering were also in view.
John Temple, a young Indiana farmer, was so badly wounded that his regiment-mates were sure he’d die. In flight from the Confederates, they were forced to leave him alone in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, delerious and hemmoraging. After a full day, he was overheard moaning by some other retreating troops; they carried him to a tributary of the Ohio River and hid him among bales of hay on a small barge floating north.
Several weeks later, when he finally staggered back to the farmhouse door in Crawfordsville, he’d become so gaunt, and looked so much older, that his wife had no idea who he was.
But gee, Laila Ali looks cute blowing up an empty guardhouse!
John Temple’s first-born son–my grandfather, also named John–was a doughboy in World War I, and his lungs were by scarred by mustard gas, so that every single breath he took, for eighty more years, tasted of death.
When World War II came, his firstborn son, also named John Temple–the one who taught my mother about art and poetry–wanted to defy family tradition by becoming a conscientious objector, volunteering instead to drive an ambulance on the battlefield. But he relented under my grandfather’s pressure, and became an Army pilot. His plane was sabotaged in an airfield in the Phillipines, and crashed in the ocean shortly after takeoff. His body was never recovered; my mother’s heart never recovered, either. His personal effects were not returned by the Army until 1964. When they arrived, my mother couldn’t bear to open the trunk; she asked me to do it instead. Inside the weatherbeaten trunk was his diary, and I followed the entries for 1944 as he wrote about his growing infatuation with a young Filipino girl on the base…and how he was tentatively, longingly, hoping to make love to her. Reading further, I realized that he was still a virgin. I kept turning pages, all of them filled with the ache of young romance, but then suddenly there were only empty blue pages…I had read right up to the morning of his death.
But look! Dean Cain is shooting at a slowly-moving target!
Still, my mother had one brother left–the second-born son, James–who also became a pilot, and a highly-decorated one, who received medals and national acclaim for safely landing a bomber full of explosives with his landing-gear locked. He was a prototype of the war hero that Stars Earns Stripes so cynically exploits.
One of the “technical advisors” on the show tries to fake aw-shucks modesty as he describes himself as “the sniper with the most confirmed kills” in US military history. Someone should tell him that one day he may yearn to surrender that title. Because even my uncle James–who’d thrown out his medals many years ago–spent his old age tormented by constant nightmares. “I see the Japanese soldiers–and just regular people–running on the hills under my plane…I drop the napalm on them…I see them burn..I keep hearing their screams.”
John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
COMING IN SEPTEMBER
A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch
Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …