nthposition online magazine

An unnatural history of the dead

by Michael Standaert

[ opinion - november 03 ]

"Until the dead are buried they change somewhat in appearance each day" - A natural history of the dead by Ernest Hemingway

As of November 2, 376 American soldiers have died in the Iraq War. Yet the appearance of our dead soldiers arriving at Ramstein airbase in Germany, Dover airbase in Delaware and all other US military bases has officially been hidden from the American media since last March.

"There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or [Del.] base, to include interim stops," the Defense Department said, according to the Washington Post [1] article of October 21.

It has taken the US media six months to report this ban. Actually, the military-wide ban goes back to 2000 under the Clinton administration, and back 12 years further for Dover, the main return destination for our dead. That's back to 1991 and the Gulf War, back when media coverage of our wars became even more restricted than it had been during Vietnam. But then media technology has changed greatly since Vietnam.

It's no great leap to see why the Pentagon would order this directive. A procession of coffins returning our dead young men and women who have served this country in Iraq, Afghanistan and points further a field are not a pleasant image to serve up on the evening news. Nor do caskets covered in the stars-n-bars play well on the instant news of the 24-hour cable networks. It wouldn't pass the 'Dover Test' as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen Henry H Shelton, cynically called the effect coverage of returning coffins had on public opinion in 1999.

Yet early this year much of the US media had no problem riding the war-wagon straight into Iraq, embedding themselves with the troops, covering their arrival in-country, their departure from the US, covering the soldiers daily banal activities as they waited to go into Iraq, as well as flag waving ceremonies and President George W Bush's arrival aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May.

With this type of orchestration, the media and the Pentagon tell soldiers they can be used for imagery portraying victory.

The Seatle Post-Intelligencer reported on May 3: "15,000 pounds of cameras, tripods, cables, microphones and other media gear were spread across an area the size of a small apartment." [2] That was the media response the day the President landed on the carrier.

What does the non-coverage of their ultimate sacrifice tell soldiers? Where are the thousands of pounds of media gear then?

In war, as in everyday life, people die. But from the Pentagon's point of view, they'd rather these grizzly facts remained far from the eyes of 'Joe Postman' in Des Moines. The now infamous story of Iraqi dead and still living being buried by plow-enhanced Abrams battle tanks [3] in an effort to keep the media away from showing this slaughter to the folks back home is just one example of this reality-wash. And those weren't even our boys. They were enemy boys.

One of our boys, my 29-year old peer, Marine Staff Sgt Kendall Waters-Bey, killed after his helicopter crashed in Southern Iraq, didn't slip past the spinsters so easily. His father, Michael Waters-Bey, got hold of a photograph of his dead son and openly challenged President Bush to get "a real good look" of the picture on national television. [4]

After this aired, Michael Waters-Bey was shouted down by certain television commentators for being unpatriotic. Dissecting the scene into simple reality - a man has just lost his only son to a war he doesn't believe in. It is just as fair to show this reality as much as it is to show the manufactured news conferences far from the battlefield. All are part of the larger reality. Only when they are disseminated and trimmed to conform to a certain view of reality are they dangerous. It should be the job of the media to report all the news, good and bad. Unfortunately, the media doesn't think the American people have the stomach. Unsurprisingly, the Bush Administration thinks the media is focusing too much on the bad news coming out of Iraq.

Early in the war I recall seeing the coffins of six British troops being rolled onto the tarmac in the UK. It didn't occur to me at the time that we wouldn't be seeing our own dead return, until about two months ago. I'd not seen a single arrival ceremony like the ones I remembered in my youth from places like Beirut, Grenada, San Salvador, and the failed US Embassy hostage rescue mission in Iran. After the 9/11 disaster there was little reluctance from the media to cover the grief of families who had lost loved ones. Why is there such a reluctance to cover the grief from the latest chapter of what the Bush Administration calls continuing battles in the War on Terror?

It is important to debate whether public support would wither or remain with this constant trickle of bodies. What is not debatable is the right of the public to witness the return of our war dead. It is not for the media to decide if support for the war sustains or fails, or if the images of the reality of war they broadcast sway public opinion. Withholding coverage, or not trying to cover something this important and central to the lives of the families losing sons and daughters, is a conscious decision to tweak coverage of the war in a way that doesn't conform to reality. If the Pentagon denies journalists the coverage in Dover and Ramstein, they should go directly to the families of the dead for permission.

But should and do often do not go hand in hand.

In April, the think tank Foreign Policy in Focus issued a paper [5] on their view of media double standards over showing the reality of war and stated: "Amid advice that not being patriotic enough will be bad for business, US media outlets seem to be competing for a place among the most patriotic news sources."

A journalist friend of mine working in Baghdad told me his network felt pressure to conform to the policy of not showing anything too gruesome, that they had to compete against the unabashed patriotism of Fox News and that many of the 'best' images, the most striking and awful realities of war, were shelved and archived. Hidden, basically. In a few years they won't have as much 'heat' on them and some will likely show up on a history program, time removing the closeness to reality. When he was stateside, I asked him about the coverage of return and he didn't think his network had a policy on this other than that the ratings probably wouldn't be good.

In an atmosphere of ratings based on what is perceived as patriotic or unpatriotic coverage, the media has become just as concerned about the 'Dover Effect' as the Pentagon. This is why it is so hard for the media and the Pentagon to face the reality of death.

Long ago, before cameras and mass transmission of images, cultures still found ways to remember that death is impartial as well as inevitable. In early 14th century Europe, the danse macabre, or the 'dance of death' developed as a literary and pictorial device representing a procession of the living and the dead, from emperor to child, from bishop to hermit, as a reflection on this impartiality and inevitability of death.

It's odd that we have reverted to denying death in war, to sanitizing the reality of war, in those centuries. Perhaps it is that many of the tools and technologies we have created to wage war on one another are themselves gruesomely removed from that reality of death. Bombing from miles away, or ordering attacks from continents away, respect for death and the dead in war is lost. Death is no longer impartial, and by hiding it from our view, it is no longer inevitable.

Notes

1 www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55816-2003Oct20.html [Back]
2 http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/120279_lincolnsub.html [Back]
3 www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=14633 [Back]
4 www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0304/sloyan.html [Back]
5 www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0304/sloyan.html [Back]