In between football games this weekend I was flipping channels and I happened on a network I’d never seen before: The Esquire Channel. They were running an all day marathon of a reality show called Bomb Patrol Afghanistan. (You can guess what it was about.) Of course I had to take a look.
The show was as advertised: five heroic marines rumbling through dangerous Afghanistan, defusing bombs and ducking Taliban bullets. I don’t say that to belittle the men involved at all — that seems like the job from hell. But it wasn’t the men or the tension of disarming IEDs that caught my attention. When I watch reality shows (and that is rarely, I admit) I watch them not for the characters, but for the little details their surroundings tell you about the world.
All movies and scripted TV shows are art directed. A production designer comes in and dresses the sets or locations to augment the mood or story, or to make those locations look more like what audiences would expect them to look like. Movies and scripted TV shows rarely just leave a location as is, without primping it some way, shape or form. But reality shows are more “as is.” That’s not to say that they are accurate reflections of real life — everyone knows they are not. But sometimes the real sneaks into the picture.
And so it was with Bomb Patrol Afghanistan. And here’s what I noticed. While these marines were cruising around Afghanistan, looking for bombs, shooting at Taliban and just trying to survive, they were driving on absolutely perfect roads. And I mean brand spanking new blacktop, gorgeously paved, no bumps or potholes, sweet yellow lines down the middle. These roads were smooth and straight, nicely contoured, like you just do not see in the United States. And they went on for miles. They cut through crumbling villages and by burned out tanks, past giant blast craters and ragged outposts of Afghani policemen. But they never faltered. They were perfect.
I realized that this is what we have been paying for all these years in Afghanistan. Perfect roads. All those billions of dollars — and thousands of American lives — and what will be our lasting imprint on the country? Roads the likes of which we can no longer afford in the US.
I don’t even know to feel about this. Angry, I guess, and cynical as well. I suppose the whole thing could be viewed with detached irony. But then I look at the rutted streets around my house and I think — Christ, why don’t we spend a couple of billion dollars and repave Seattle? Or New York? Or most of Kansas? It is of course the core contradiction of American nation-building: money spent to build other countries is money we don’t get to spend here. And when you watch Bomb Patrol Afghanistan, you see that the only people driving on those roads are Americans in their Humvees and tanks. Most Afghans are too poor to be driving around their own country.
I suppose the producers of the show wanted me to sympathize with the characters. I did, to a degree. But they could not mask the strange reality that snaked its way onto my TV screen. Had the roads been set-dressed to look ragged and blown apart, I might have kept watching. But they weren’t; they were real. And that made me too angry, so I changed the channel.