Im sitting in a room with a half-dozen soldiers. And were watching animated carrier pigeons on TV.Ive got this amazing navigation system, one of the birds says to the other. I just cant find Sgt. Kowalski.No change of address form, hunh? the second pigeon answers. Off-camera, an announcer reminds for G.I.s to notify the post office when they change bases. The soldiers in the room groan. Its shit like this that makes me embarrassed to be in the Army, a sergeant to my left spits, as the television returns to its regular Fox News broadcast.All of the major networks donate programming to the Defense Department, which re-broadcasts it to military outposts around the globe, commercial-free. But that doesnt mean the shows run uninterrupted. Instead of slickly-produced come-ons for cars or energy drinks or Tom Cruises latest opus, troops are bombarded with amateurish, half-baked ads that sit in the space somewhere between public relations and public nagging. Cross-breed your local Chevy dealerships TV spot with the company newsletter, and you have the commercials of the Armed Forces Network.Baby safe instruction manuals. Websites that let you apply for jobs at the PX. The Air Forces traveling, Las Vegas-style review. The best softballers in Europe. No item is too picayune or too inconsequential to be hyped on AFN. And at no point do the commercial-makers ever assume that their uniformed audience has any more than a few dozen points of IQ. Diversification is a big word, a talking chicken tells us.But that doesnt mean that AFN wants their Neanderthals to leave the armed services. Hell, no. Every branch of the military advertises on the network to get troops to re-enlist, to lure them from one service to the other, or to convince their children presumably watching from military-provided houses to sign on up.Its a tension that Ive heard ever since I got to Baghdad. Officers keep telling me that the counterinsurgency here is a thinking mans war that requires even the most junior personnel to make quick, smart decisions. And, they assure me, that Americas troops are well prepared for that mission. But, minutes later, those same officers will also tell me that were not too smart or that Im not the brightest guy, or that theres a reason most of our soldiers didnt go to college.So which is it? Has the Pentagon sent a bunch of warrior-geniuses to Iraq -- or a pack of grunts, dumb as rocks? Maybe its a self-selecting process, covering defense technology. But most of the troops Ive met over the past four years have been pretty damn bright even the ones (often, especially the ones) that never made it past the 11th grade.AFN, on the other hand, seems to have come to entirely different conclusion. One with simple words, short sentences, and cartoons. Lots and lots of cartoons. Dont get wrapped up with these high interest credit cards, an announcer says, while the television shows us a crudely-drawn mummy. Quitting cold turkey can be tough, coos another, as an animated man jumps off of a cliff, and splats on the ground. Nicotine replacement products can soften your landing.Later, an airman shows off the skills he learned in survival school by wearing green camouflage makeup in a snowstorm. A man dressed up like a human heart does jumping jacks and runs up stairs, to prove a point about exercise. And a doe-eyed young soldier in a gym keeps rocking his head back and forth, left-to-right, left-to-right. A buddy asks what hes doing. Training, he replies. For an Army tennis championship, to be held in Germany soon. Im not training to compete. Im training to watch.
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