Thursday, July 28, 2005

"Over There" met with some hostility

Like Blackfive, I missed the premiere of FX's new show "Over There" last night. However, he's opened the comments section of the post up to readers who had seen it and want to comment on the program, and comment they have.

Not many people are very pleased with the pilot episode, which, they say, relies on worn-out military stereotypes, including an NCO who yells to make up for unprofessionalism and a clueless but eager lieutenant.

Naturally, comparisons to "Over There" and "every negative cliche-filled Vietnam film between The Green Berets and We Were Soldiers" were drawn.

The dialogue is trite, the readers say, and some monologues could have been lifted straight out of M*A*S*H.

Well, I guess I'm not completely surprised, by the content of the show or by the reaction of the MilBlogosphere. [N.B.: Wouldn't it be more fun to call it the Blog-O-Sphere? Or the Blog O'Sphere?]

Anything less than a glowing account of professional soldiers going into a tough situation and consistently doing the right thing was going to draw fire from military supporters around the world, and that's understandable. But it seems a lot of people are upset with the depiction of soldiers falling into hackneyed archetypes. I think I know why this might have happened.

In the movie M*A*S*H, and basically any other movie about wars set in Vietnam or before, one of the boons given to writers was the fact that the draft was in place. You could include a definitively non-military character like Donald Sutherland's Capt. Hawkeye Pierce and explain his presence away by saying, "Oh, he was drafted."

Now, however, times are different, and we've got an all-volunteer force (which, by the way, I don't think is going to change, recruiting shortfalls notwithstanding).

This forces the writers to answer an important question for each character - Why is this person in the military?

Based solely on the comments in Matt's post, it looks like the "Over There" writers went about it in the wrong way -- at least, sort of. The soldiers joined out of economic desperation, money for college, and in one case, a "rash decision."

I think the reason they've wound up with the cast of characters they have is that they aren't asking the question the right way. Instead of "why did this person join the Army," they're really working off the question "whose fault is it that this person is in the Army?"

Being completely honest here, I'll say that pure, unfettered patriotism is not a leading cause for enlistment. But senses of patriotism and duty are not completely divorced from any decision to join the military, either. You need at least a little of both just to walk into a recruiter's office.

That said, I've met my fair share of rotten soldiers -- but this is a garrison, and the sense of connection to the war -- and sometimes, to the rest of the Army -- can be strained, at best. I walk to work past an elementary school, rows of red brick officer housing, a huge green parade field, and come in to work on the sports section of a weekly newspaper. It can be hard for me to identify with the guys clearing buildings in places called Najaf and Fallujah, at least on a down-to-earth, day-to-day basis.

And yes, in an environment like this, there are soldiers who fall prey to the temptation to "get lazy," and I'll be the first to admit that I've done it, too. I may know cerebrally that when I fire my weapon to qualify, I'm doing it so that I'll be able to hit whatever I'm aiming at in a combat zone. But viscerally, the connection is strained and weak.

I've gotten a bit far afield here. My point is that while a certain amount of stereotyping and archetyping is understandable in a one-hour show, it isn't fair to the multitude of individuals who make up the Army (and spare me the "Army of One" garbage -- that was maybe the worst idea to come out of USAREC, ever) to boil everyone down to retreads of characters from "Hamburger Hill."

It's worth noting, as well, that sergeants do yell in many cases, and that there's a cadence that includes the phrase, "You can't spell 'lost' without LT." Lieutenants, in some cases I've seen, are somewhat reviled for their rather unique mixture of authority and inexperience. But you certainly can't make that a character-defining attribute, since the same lieutenants who insist on laminating maps are usually also consummate professionals and are willing to learn from the experience represented in their Non-coms.

Ack, I'm getting bogged down into specifics again. Here's my final point.

Don't forget that "apolitical" or not, pro- or anti-war or not, "Over There," at its core, is exploitation. Yes, this is a "war is hell" show about the horrors of armed conflict, but it exists solely for entertainment. It uses the still-raging war in Iraq as a means to guarantee solid ratings, and whether it's out to "make a point" is immaterial. It's sheer exploitation, pure and simple, for the sake of American audiences who are interested in the war without really wanting to commit anything to it.


UPDATE: John at TheDonovan reports with "'Over There' Report, by Ry. " Citizen Smash has an Open Post.