Blood and Motherly Advice

The American Forces Network offers homilies, sports events, and surprisingly graphic depictions of war.

WEAR a hat when it's cold. Balance your tires. Print clearly when addressing letters. Make reservations well before your travel date. If you find lost valuables and return them, you'll feel good about yourself. Respect other people's privacy. Read that lease before you sign it. Organize your files. If you're having trouble coping with something, it's okay to ask for help. When invited to dinner in someone's home, dress neatly and bring a small gift. It's okay if you need to be by yourself now and then, just to think or whatever. Watch out for pickpockets. Renew early. And did you know that kitchen grease fires are a leading cause of death? Don't become a statistic!

While the television you watch blares out demands that you buy $145 sneakers and individually wrapped mesquite-flavored cheese curls, the television I watch employs the spaces between shows to impart pearls of wisdom like these. And it has no commercials. It's not public television; it airs popular shows like NYPD Blue and Star Trek Voyager, and major sporting events. What I watch is the American Forces Network -- military television.

I'm watching military television because my family has moved temporarily to Brussels, where my wife, a U.S. diplomat, is doing refugee work in conjunction with the European Union. NATO headquarters is in Brussels, and as a result a transmitter for AFN sits near the Brussels airport. Generally, special equipment is required to pick up the AFN signal. Many soldiers are quite knowledgeable about antennas, so I hired one to install AFN reception in the house my family now occupies. Immediately I became a convert to the military approach to television.

The American Forces Network began in 1943, and it or another military broadcast affiliate is now received almost everywhere in the world that U.S. soldiers and their families are stationed -- at the moment, some 156 countries. In the early years the network was focused mainly on American encampments in Germany and Belgium. But, using satellites, AFN now makes itself available to almost every U.S. detachment in Europe, even during field operations such as the deployments to Bosnia and Hungary. When the initial C-130 of the U.S.-led peacekeeping force landed at Tuzla airfield, in December of 1995, CNN correspondents waiting there recorded with great bemusement that the first Humvee to roll off the transport held not high-tech weapons but AFN downlink hardware. By January enough equipment was in place that most U.S. soldiers in Bosnia could watch the Super Bowl live (albeit the kickoff was at 1:00 A.M. local time).

AFN television currently airs most of the top American shows, professional and college football and basketball, the Olympics and other special events, all three network evening newscasts (shown in succession, making for easy case studies in the programs' news choices), and Nightline. The AFN radio system, also commercial-free, supplies live sports, AP network news, Rush Limbaugh (say what you will about his fat-idiot status, what other country is secure enough about free speech to beam to its troops a commentator who regularly denounces the Commander in Chief?), and National Public Radio's excellent Morning Edition. Offerings change as the popularity of shows changes in the United States. Essentially the programming is a compendium of the highlights of the American electronic media.

Best is AFN's own little world of wonderfully corny public-interest spots in the spaces where commercials normally would be. During a time-out in an NBA game, for example, the screen may dissolve to two actors standing by a car, discussing in deadly earnest the proper inflation of tires. Or a wife may be reminding a husband departing for work about that statistic on heat loss from the head: soldiers spend a lot of time outdoors. Or a spot on nutrition may show cartoon drawings of bad stuff -- a tub labeled "bacon fat," one labeled "lard," a stick of butter -- followed by a cartoon duck describing the virtues of olive oil. The stick of butter alone makes the spot more daring than the purposely vague public-service announcements that are seen on commercial TV, because none of the networks would risk provoking the wrath of the dairy lobby -- or of any other advertiser's lobby, for that matter. AFN is television with your mother in charge.

One recent AFN spot begins with a delightfully amateurish staging of a soldier's abandoning an old junker car in the woods. Do you think he's going to get away with that? MPs arrive and inspect the auto as seriously as if it were the DNA evidence in the O. J. Simpson trial. The MPs knock on the door of the culprit's barracks, and he is hugely embarrassed in front of his friends as a voice-over discusses taking responsibility for one's actions. There is nothing remotely slick about this interlude -- a charming change from the relentless electronic legerdemain of American network TV.

These spots and the civics lessons and various snippets that AFN puts in place of commercials have the throwback appeal of things you saw in junior high. Actors dressed as Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, and others give little spiels on American history. "Guess That State" is a recurrent favorite -- an announcer starts with hard clues and moves to easy ones as scenes from a state are shown. Various spots meander over such subjects as the invention of neon lighting, the culture of the bayou, how potato chips are manufactured, how the Great Lakes were named, the many reasons to visit Hungary. One recent AFN noncommercial simply showed old snapshots of Portland, Oregon, from 1917, while period music played. Another offered artsy photography (provided by the Sierra Club) of forests in the rain, accompanied by classical music.

Presented by

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

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