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Ice Road Truckers, Afghanistan: COIN is Boring Pt. 2

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

My dad is a history teacher. More than a few times, I’ve heard a stranger tell him, “Oh, you teach history? I love history! Hated it in high school, but I love it now, especially the History Channel.”

Let me state unequivocally: just because you love the History Channel (now just “History”) doesn’t mean you love history. The History Channel is to history as Cliff Notes are to literature. Even that comparison doesn’t work, because at least you learn something when you read Cliff Notes. (If the hypothetical stranger had said, “I love PBS’ American Experience or History Detectives.”, I’d give them props.)

Which isn’t to say that the History Channel (again, now just History, but man that would make the rest of this post confusing) isn’t entertaining, it just has nothing to do with history. Between reality shows like Top Gear (really?) and Top Shot (Double really?) and fictional mini-series (The Bible and Vikings), the History Channel stopped covering the past. Though I like Pawn Stars (Chumlee, you’re such a goof.) and American Pickers, I don’t learn anything about actual history...or learn much of anything. I haven’t even mentioned Ice Road Truckers, but I doubt future college classes will discuss transportation in arctic biomes.

In a way, though, no history is better than bad history. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the History Channel solely dedicated its line-up to covering history...if “history” meant UFOs, Hitler and World War II. Or combining two of the subjects...if possible. (For example, “Hitler and the Occult”.)

What would the History Channel be without World War II? World War II start, stop and finish. When Band of Brothers came to cable, they snapped it up like nobody’s business. As Cracked notes, “the abundance of WWII film footage made it easy for them to fill out their lineup with documentaries on dogfights, D-Day, and legendary officers like George Patton and Tom Hanks.”

The Military Channel isn’t much better. Along with a hyper focus on World War II--often spending entire days only broadcasting shows on that war---the channel focuses on technology and weapons...and special operations. Writing this post, I looked up The Military Channel’s schedule. It included shows like “Weaponology: Sniper Rifles”, “Weaponology: Navy SEALs”, “Secrets of Navy SEALs” and “Secrets of SEAL Team 6”. (Quiet professionals: how secret are your secrets if a cable channel found them?)

Which brings me to the crux of this post, the point of the whole thing: what about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Fifty years on, will there be a channel dedicated to documentaries about the War on Terror?


Today’s wars make for terrible cable television. Imagine the narrator, “And then they constructed a bridge in Pashad”. Snore. Or another narrator, “After weeks of preparation, the young lieutenant set out on a Medical Civil Action Patrol.” Or, “On the 19th, the squad again encountered an IED. On the 20th, the same thing happened again.”

We’ve already seen this happen. Despite being the most televised war of all time--probably more than Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly--the History Channel seems to have forgotten about the Vietnam war. Same with the Military Channel, National Geographic or any psuedo-science/history channel allegedly working to educate the public (other than PBS).

If you hope that cable channels in the future will be filled with documentaries of the nation’s current wars, educating future generations about the perils and lessons of insurgencies, they won’t.

Why? Because COIN is boring.

five comments

You missed the joke about the History Channel being the Hitler Channel. History dismissed most of its World-War-II content to Military History, even worse than the Military Channel, to avoid that joke.

I watch all three, the Military Channel and Military History most often, and noticed several errors in your post. History stopped airing most of its content that almost resurrected Adolph Hitler. I saw ‘Hitler and the Occult’ on Military History, not History. The Military Channel includes material on the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and sometimes the Vietnam War; I remember a special about the Battle of Huế. Most such material, like shows based on World-War-II, recreates firefights against al-Qaeda in Iraq (accurate usage), the Taliban, or the Việt Cộng.

Excluding boring content is inclusive to all television and wars. The United-States Armed Forces built bridges not only ‘in Pashad’ during Afghanistan but also during World War II. Despite Military History’s extensive coverage, I have seen nothing about bridge building in any war. War in general, not counterinsurgency alone, is boring. Nothing beyond shooting ‘those damned Japs in the face’ is exciting to viewers.

Tell me whether you would like a list of the Military Channel’s shows featuring Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam.

@ Austin – I stand by my statement about the Military channel focusing its coverage on WWII. To test my theory, I went to their schedule for today. Here’s tomorrow morning’s schedule:

6:00 AM – Color of War: Adolf Hitler
7:00 AM – Color of War: D-Day
8:00 AM – Color of War: Victory in Europe
9:00 AM – Secrets of World War II: Adolf Hitler’s Last Days
10:00 AM – Secrets of World War II: The Nazi Plundering of Europe
11:00 AM – Secrets of World War II: The Minehunters
12:00 PM – Secrets of World War II: Merrill’s Marauders
1:00 PM – Secrets of World War II: Japan’s Last Secret Weapon
2:00 PM – World at War: Japan
3:00 PM – World at War: The Pacific
4:00 PM – World at War: The Bomb

So yeah, do they show some documentaries on Vietnam every now and then? Sure. But it’s mostly WWII. And why is WWII more popular than counterinsurgencies? For the same reason the popular imagination loves battles but not the reconstruction of Europe.

COIN has way more reconstruction. (Or should.)

I completely agree. I love the line about how secret are the secret warriors is their secrets are on the military channel.

I think television has dumbed down everything including history. Comparing the History Channel to cliff notes is demeaning to cliff notes.

Eric, you picked the least-watched timeslots. It would interest me more to see what the Military Channel plays 16:00–23:00. It is less ‘every now and then’ than at primetime. You may be right though.

I feel comfortable challenging your claim, ‘COIN has way more reconstruction.’ Conventional wars have larger (not more) explosions, why civilians enjoy watching them. Unconventional wars have car bombs and suicide attacks. Unconventional wars require rebuilding a café, hotel, or school—one building. Conventional war requires every café, hotel, and school in Berlin. Baghdad suffered most during the Battle of Baghdad, conventional. Afghanistan and Iraq had large explosions, but they came during the conventional parts of unconventional wars.

Austin – I agree that both wars have reconstruction, but the bulk of reconstruction in conventional wars—a la WWI and WWII—happens after the war, not during.