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.

AFN spots can be short courses in military history. Tactical use of terrain in the Mexican War was the subject of one recent spot, women's roles in manufacturing Second World War fighter aircraft of another. A spot may extol "forcing the confrontation" at Leyte Gulf, or demonstrate the ten-person crew that was required to fire the standard field piece in the Civil War. The exploits of recipients of important medals are often enacted, with an emphasis on minority medal winners. AFN's military-history segments make no apology for what an army is or what it does: the Vietcong or the Sandinistas are called "the enemy," and killing the other guy first is depicted as the mission. One mini-docudrama about a Medal of Honor winner from the Korean War shows a soldier throwing a grenade into a machine-gun emplacement and then rushing up to finish off the wounded Chinese soldiers. Though the cinematography of this spot is rudimentary (there's no fake blood, and the actors seem to have rehearsed only briefly), such a forthright depiction of the horribleness of war struck me as more chilling than most contemporary graphic gore.

Spots enthusiastic about combat are balanced to some extent by messages from the Army's corps of chaplains. The words "Love is never afraid of giving too much" may float on the screen for sixty seconds as a woman is shown petting a cat. And AFN is enthusiastic about social engineering. Its anti-smoking appeals are more forceful than anything on network television, often invoking the phrase "smoking kills." Spots against chewing tobacco show slash lines drawn through green tins that look almost exactly like those of the Copenhagen brand. Perhaps AFN is more strident than commercial networks because the Pentagon, unlike the networks, must pay for its viewers' health care. Enlightened behavior in the workplace is another AFN cause. One spot shows a ventriloquist scolding his dummy while an unseen woman intones, "If you ask a manipulative question, you will get a manipulated answer." The puppet then complains, "You make me feel like a dummy." The clear subtext is that officers who want to get promoted in today's Army don't want the word "manipulative" to appear in their performance reports.

IT is Pentagon policy not to run commercials. Sergeant James Williams, of the network's studio in Frankfurt, Germany, says, "If the government sold ad time, we would seem to be endorsing products. You wouldn't want President Clinton saying he'd drink only Pepsi in the White House, even if the fee was used against the deficit. Ads screaming 'Sony' or 'Wheaties' on a government channel would be weird." Most U.S. commercial networks allow AFN to air shows either free or for a token fee, in our "for the boys" tradition. If AFN were earning revenues, distributors would expect a cut, and having the Department of Defense pass out royalties would be touchy. Because many TV shows now make additional profits in overseas syndication, a few programs will send AFN only the previous year's episodes. Most programs, however, supply whatever is newest. In those rare weeks when there is a fresh episode of ER, it runs fresh on AFN too.

Most of the AFN spots are filmed in military studios or by firms on contract to the Pentagon. Some are shown only in specific areas. A series now running in Bosnia concerns land mines, with the theme "If you didn't drop it, don't pick it up." There's a distinct low-bidder look about the spots, as if first-year film students had been turned loose in a professional studio. For instance, one spot urges soldiers to familiarize themselves with the "status of forces" agreements that govern the presence of U.S. troops on other countries' soil. Actors in ridiculous Indiana Jones getups pretend to be stealing a sacred treaty from a plaster-of-paris temple. Dry-ice clouds waft as they are menaced by "natives" with spears, who are about as convincing as if a couple of guys you knew from high school had slapped on Kmart grass skirts. Its very awfulness is captivating.

AFN also shows movies, with its choices tending toward the middle of the road. At one point last year I was amazed to discover in its program listing the Kirk Douglas film Paths of Glory (1957). Despite the gung-ho name, Paths of Glory is one of the harshest antiwar movies ever made. Douglas plays a First World War French colonel ordered by depraved generals to lead his unit on an insane charge against an impregnable German "anthill." The horrors of trench warfare are shown -- bodies everywhere, men blubbering in shell shock, men crying for their mothers. The charge begins, and every soldier in the first wave is cut down (except Douglas, of course). Every soldier in the second wave is cut down. When the third wave refuses to leave the trench, a French general safely behind the lines orders his artillery to shell his own lines, to punish the unit for disobeying an order.

Later three of the survivors are picked to be shot, reflecting the French First World War practice of executing men from units that broke in combat, in order to maintain terror in the ranks. Douglas serves as defense counsel for the show trial that precedes the execution. He loses the case, though he clearly proves that the execution order is contrary to French law, to say nothing of the fact that one of the victims chosen is the unit's most-decorated man. The next morning the three are lined up and shot dead -- no movie-tradition last-minute reprieve -- after an unctuous priest tells the men that God does not want them to question authority. One of the men is so badly wounded that he must be lashed to a board in order to be stood before the firing squad; the general orders him pinched to ensure that he is conscious when he dies. Afterward an officer eats a sumptuous meal while discussing how entertaining it is to execute commoners. The movie ends as the remainder of Douglas's unit -- about to return to the front and certain obliteration -- sits in a tavern and grows teary-eyed listening to a German song of nostalgia, the final message being that nations' leaders, not peoples, are the ones who want war.

is such a telling condemnation of war that it completely overshadows a contemporary film like Platoon, and there it was being shown on Army television -- shortly after the onset of the U.S. deployment in Bosnia. I watched it thinking that no American commercial network would show this film in prime time, let alone air it in the original black-and-white, as AFN did. I was almost lulled into believing that I was sitting in some Cambridge art-cinema house -- until the movie ended and on came a spot admonishing viewers never to leave the tap running when they go out.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; Blood and Motherly Advice; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 34-37.