On “Army Wives,” War Isn’t Hellish Enough

Lifetime has started showing reruns of Army Wives Season 4, and despite myself I’m sucked in again. I shouldn’t be surprised; I never watch smart TV. While my friends are discussing Lost and Mad Men, I am flipping back and forth between Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. It’s a consequence of doing abuse prevention and survivor healing work by day: When I have down time in front of the tube at night I want to see everything turn out all right.

This is fine when the “everything” is someone’s love life or a factory in a small town that doesn’t have to close after all, but it becomes a problem when sappy, formulaic TV blunts my ability to think critically about war and the way the United States wages it.

At a time when the anti-war activism that was central to Obama’s 2008 victory is largely gone from the public discourse and it’s too easy for those not intimately connected to the military to forget the physical and emotional costs of war. Lifetime’s Army Wives makes that forgetting even easier. The show gives us an emotional roller-coaster of morally perfect men and noble unscarred women, and like a roller coaster the episodes are scary for a short time but the landing is always smooth.

Army Wives gave us a lot of feminist nods this past season: We saw Claudia Joy’s Post Commander husband support her decision to go back to law school even when she was recruited to sue the army by an anti-military professor. We saw their daughter overcome a knee injury and excel at the gender-bending sport of ice hockey. We saw Pamela get divorced, go back to her career as a police officer, work with another woman detective to solve a murder case and ultimately get her ex-husband back when he has a change of heart and ditches the younger woman. I find myself lulled into a visceral, gut-level love of the characters, and as a result I catch their enthusiasm about the U.S. military as if it were a contagious rash.

That’s the most dangerous thing about Army Wives: It resolves the costs of war too easily. While the real military refuses to pay for brain injury care that their own experts agree offers veterans the best chance of recovery, the wounded characters on Army Wives get all the medical attention they need. The wives even organize for extensive reconstructive surgery for the daughter of an Iraqi translator. While women in the real military are more likely to be raped than their civilian counterparts, every high-ranking man on the show condemns violence against women.

Joan Burton, the show’s only high-ranking woman officer and also its only leading woman of color, completely recovers from a traumatic brain injury in about five episodes. A soldier who witnessed mass murder is cured of post-traumatic stress disorder by a therapy dog in two. A suicidal soldier is completely healed after a few nights in a psych ward, and spends the whole rest of the season going to therapy and looking forward to the birth of his younger sister. A military man who abuses his wife gets reprimanded by the show’s highest ranking men, is thrown in jail and is gone by the next episode. The show’s creators don’t let us get attached to anybody who perpetrates violence, dies or fails to completely heal from trauma.

I have a lot of respect for the real military spouses who post on Lifetime’s discussion boards. For many, seeing themselves reflected on television is much-needed source of validation, even if some find the portrayals of enduring friendship across military rank unrealistic. But for people like me who are sacrificing almost nothing for these wars, Army Wives makes military life romantic, sentimental and way too easy.

DVD cover via Lifetime.


Meg Stone is the executive director of IMPACT Boston, an abuse prevention and self-defense training program. She also leads IMPACT:Ability, a program that empowers people with disabilities and communities to prevent abuse. Her writing has been published in The Patriot Ledger, The Huffington Post and Cognoscenti, the opinion page of the Boston NPR station.