One Man Army: Ultimate Warfighters and Interchangeable Tough Guys

Curator's Note

Discovery Channel’s One Man Army promises viewers testosterone-laden, masculinity-challenging tests of strength, speed, and intelligence performed by elite warfighters, military contractors, law enforcement, and extreme sportsmen – and it delivers. The challenges seem drawn from action films as much as real military scenarios: Breach a series of reinforced barriers to reach hostages! While hanging upside down, break into locked safes, assemble a handgun, and shoot your way out!

Surprisingly – especially when compared with others in the reality TV universe (I’m looking at you, Real Housewives) – there is a tone of respectful collegiality infusing the otherwise very intense all-male competition. Action matters here, not personality or gossip. Contestants congratulate each other on wins, encouraging their “brothers.” They battle circumstances and time rather than each other. They push themselves to physical and mental limits at the whim of the producers/controllers, and can be eliminated by uncontrollable variables. Non-winners are neither banished nor voted out; they’re picked up by an “extraction van,” as any mission would end, regardless of success or failure. Host Mykel Hawke’s farewell is often: “You are a tough competitor, but today was not your day.”

One Man Army groups these elite warfighters on a pedestal for their skills and determination, to be isolated and admired by audiences separated from their struggles. They have trained broadly and incessantly, and willingly take on extreme challenges, demonstrating mastery over bodies and technology. They do things the audience wants to watch but can’t imagine doing – all for $10,000. These guys are not celebrities, and this show will not make them famous. Anonymity and interchangeability of contestants is reinforced; identified only by first name, initial, and job title, this week’s Navy Seal will be replaced by next week’s Green Beret, and the challenges all repeat as variations on a theme. Four new contestants arrive each week, so viewers can’t (and don’t) get attached. 

Indeed, One Man Army replicates the distance between warfighters in the idealized "leaner, faster, smarter" modern military and wider American society.  As in real battles faced by non-televised warriors, contestants drop out of wars unpredictably, changing the composition of the force but not the challenges ahead. There is recognition of the temporary sacrifices of extreme challenges without an acknowledgement of the aftereffects of challenges. In effect, the collective interchangeability of the impressive individual contestants positions the viewer to celebrate the idea of anonymous elite warfighting rather than celebrating any individual warfighter.


Excellent post!  Your observations reflect the concept of the real military: soldiers fighting without specific identity (unless you happen to personally know him or her.)  This anonymity of life (and death) is what makes people more accepting of wars in the name of patrioism and why drafts are dangerous politically.  

The anonymity also makes this show watchable (if it is.)  The "task" featured in the video seems ridiculously dangerous.  If we cared about the person, it might lead to a loss of viewers.  In turning them into real-life G.I. Joe dolls, the risk seems less significant than it is.

Ultimately, this is sad but timeless.  A modern case of being fed to lions at the Colosseum.

Thanks Jeremy! The video shows one of the "intelligence" challenges, and it is admittedly one of the more ridiculously dangerous segments that I've seen in the series. The additional touch of calling the apparatus in this challenge the "waterboard" adds a complicating layer.  I haven't decided whether it reclaims the term waterboard in a slightly trivializing manner, changing it from an instrument of torture (sorry, "enhanced interrogation") into a mere instrument in a game show, or whether it just reminds viewers that special forces training includes exposure to methods of torture to help toughen up the warfighters.

I think the volunteer vs. draft aspect is another important factor in the watchability and acceptabilty.  These contestants volunteered for the competition, and they can tap out at any time, so the ridiculously dangerous challenge is framed as a choice freely-made rather than an imperative placed-upon. (Several contestants do tap out mid-challenge across the series for reasons like exhaustion and claustrophobia; they are treated with the same respect as other non-winners, and just as quickly forgotten in the next challenge.) 

In extrapolating that attitude to real wars, the idea that warfighters freely volunteer for war instead of being drafted or forced into war also seems to make the ridiculously dangerous situations they're placed in more acceptable.  This of course ignores all of the promises of class mobility, career opportunities, and the many other factors involved in the "free choice" of volunteering for military service, but it does allow for a passive civilian acceptance of anonymous life and death in the name of patriotism. Especially when combined with your insights about GI Joe dolls and gladiators, these comparisons highlight the comfort with manipulating and controlling bodies and lives that is demonstrated both in the show and generally in war. 

What a fascinating reality series--I'll definitely have to make a point to catch it.  What I'm wondering from reading your description is whether this show has any legitimate connection to the actual army.  Do you know if it's received any funding or promotion from the US military?  It seems in line with other marketing ventures in video games and ad space that try to hook regular consumers on a military ethos as encourgement for enlisting, and it would be interesting to see if military recruiters have maybe now moved into the space of reality TV.

Along those lines, I'm also curious what the boundaries of inclusiveness are on this show, considering they've been somewhat limited in the real life military.  It sounds like there's not much of a change to get to know these soldier-contestants on screen, or identify them by sexual orientation, religion, etc.  But have you gotten any sense for how a contestant out of the mainstream in terms of identity would be treated by his fellow "brothers"?

Thanks Shawna. I'm not really sure whether there is a direct connection between One Man Army and any funding or promotion from the US military.  You're absolutely right - it's definitely in line with the promotion of action films, video games, and advertising within recruitment strategies. While the contestants and host praise the training, prestige, and toughness of the military contestants (especially members of the Special Forces), I don't remember seeing any direct links to military sponsorship in the credits or during the content of the show.  (Full disclaimer: I watched the shows on my DVR and fast-forwarded through most of the commercials; there may well have been military commercials involved, but the ones that I remember were commercials for other reality shows on the Discovery Channel.) There's also an emphasis on including law enforcement officers, private military contractors, and civilians in the contestants that broadens the prestige of elite warfighter beyond current military members. 

As for inclusiveness, thank you for asking!  Most of the trash-talk involves competition between branches or between military experience and civilians, and other than a theme of fatherhood, there's very little discussion of personal identities.  I couldn't fit this in the original post, but (spoiler alert) the winner in the first episode of the series was a civilian weapons instructor who came out as gay at the end of the episode.  In the contestant introductions, Jeff is framed as young, quick-witted, and just one of the guys; he's admonished by a fellow contest for his apparent lack of seriousness, but nothing identity-related.  His fellow contestants are members of SWAT, Delta Force, and a private military contractor - no small competition - and he beats them roundly.  According to an interview with Jeff in AfterElton, his coming out was spontaneous in conversation with Hawke, not part of his participation in the contests.  The discussion board for One Man Army has a few displays of homophobia and accusations of a gay agenda in response to Jeff's win, but more positive comments (either supportive of gays serving or voicing a "who cares if you're gay as long as you can fight" attitude) than negative ones. Surprisingly, it's a more civil conversation about gays in the military than most CNN comment boards... 



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