Sustaining Perpetual War: The Bloodless Narrative

No, war is not bloodless, and its wounds are often hidden

No, war is not bloodless, and its wounds are often hidden

Peter Van Buren

Editor’s Note: TCP is especially proud to offer an original article by Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, a compelling account of U.S.-led rebuilding efforts in post-invasion Iraq.  Van Buren, who worked closely with American troops in Iraq, knows the bloody nature of war, which makes him doubly aware of the curiously bloodless coverage of war by the American media.  His article plumbs the meaning of this bloodless narrative.  His conclusions, like the wars themselves, are not pretty.  W.J. Astore

The Bloodless Narrative of America’s Wars Ensures their Perpetuation

Peter Van Buren

Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of careful policy, deliberate falsehoods, and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.

How can the American government sustain its perpetual wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.

The Invisible Dead

The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.

Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 that the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.

The ban at Dover lasted 18 years, past George Bush 2.0 and Iraq War 2.0, overturned only in 2009, well after the casualty counts dropped off. Even then, allowing cameras at Dover was left at the discretion of the families, except of course when the president needed a flag-draped and blood-stirring photo op. (Obama took one just before ordering the surge in Afghanistan.)

Death, when it is reluctantly acknowledged, must still follow the bloodless narrative as closely as possible. Death must be for a good cause, freedom if possible, “for his buddies” later when public opinion weakens.

There is no better example in recent times than the death of Pat Tillman, America’s once-walking propaganda dream. Tillman was a professional football player making a $3.6 million salary. Following 9/11, he gave that all up and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, the Army told his family he’d been killed by enemy fire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow soldiers.  They awarded him a Silver Star (posthumously) and celebrated him as a hero.

It was the right thing to say and do to support the bloodless narrative, but it was a lie.  A big one.

A month later, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire. The month delay placed the bloody reality of his death safely after his memorial service and in the fog of faded media interest. Later investigations revealed the Army knew within days that his death was by friendly fire.

The Physically Mutilated

For all the trouble the dead cause to the bloodless narrative, the wounded are even messier. They still walk around, sometimes speak to journalists, and, well, do not always look bloodless.

The Honolulu side of Waikiki beach is anchored by a hotel run by the Department of Defense as a low-cost vacation destination for service people. While some of the grounds are public by Hawaiian law, the hotel itself is off limits.

I used to have a government ID that let me in. Inside, who is a soldier? The buff bodies of troops stand out against the beached whale look popular among tourists. The odd-patterned tans – browned faces with pale white limbs – betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

But sometimes it is a missing limb on a 20-year-old, or a face that looks like raw bacon. Could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, but I doubt it. The burns sketched precisely where the helmet had, and had not, offered protection.  A grim map of pain.

That’s what you see when you’re on the inside – and when you’re willing to look. When we as outsiders see images of the wounded, they instead follow the bloodless narrative. Brave troopers, with their state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs, are shown skiing, surfing or working out. Some featured amputees even demand to return to active duty. They show off their new limbs, some decorated with decals from their favorite sports teams.  They are brave and they are strong – and indeed they are.

But that’s not the full story. A recent book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, fills in what the bloodless narrative elides. As a summation, Jones offers the haiku of one military trauma nurse: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”

The Mentally Mutilated

Military suicides have made it through the screen of the bloodless narrative, but just barely, thanks to the Hollywood-ization of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Where we need clarity, we get tropes, such as the freaked-out-at-home scenes in Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Not to say those things don’t happen (they do) but to say those scenes are incomplete.  They arouse sympathy without being too alarming.  They suggest a possibility of control, of recovery, perhaps with drugs, perhaps with family and professional help.  As Ann Jones points out, the idea of treatment for PTSD is “useful in raising citizen sympathy for soldiers, defusing opposition to Washington’s wars, and generally medicalizing problems that might raise inconvenient political and moral issues.”

At the same time, another non-Hollywood narrative bubbles just below the surface: the idea that some veterans might be faking it. PTSD inherits our stigmas and ignorance toward mental illness, serving to dilute grim realities.

Still, with the attention PTSD and soldier suicides garner, one would think the military would, at minimum, have some ready statistics to help frame the problem. There are numbers, but not ones that endanger the bloodless narrative.

The Department of Defense keeps statistics on suicides which occur while soldiers are deployed. The Veterans Administration (VA) tracks them at home. But since big suicide numbers run counter to the narrative, it is little surprise that it was only in 2011 that the VA announced a joint suicide database with the Pentagon, so the two bureaucracies might arrive at an accurate count. Predictably, an Inspector General’s report stated this year that the database is still a work in progress.

Consider that fact: We’ve been at war for fourteen years, and we still lack a reliable way to count the suicides of our troops and veterans.  We still don’t even know the scale of the problem.

One way of not knowing is not to look for answers. The bloodless narrative says we should be like Mafia bosses’ kids, who never ask what Tony Soprano does for a living despite the mansion and money and guns.

When the Bloodless Narrative Fails

During the year I spent in Iraq, the only deaths experienced by the Army units I was embedded with were suicides.

The death I was most familiar with was a young Private, who put his assault rifle into his mouth. No one back home saw what I saw, because they were not supposed to see: the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off as I arrived to look.

These things are not unspeakable, we just don’t want to speak of them, and the bloodless narrative says we don’t have to. That keeps war alive. Because when the narrative fails, the wars tend to end.

For example, in 1969, Life magazine published a famous edition consisting entirely of portraits of the Americans who died in Vietnam that week. Many subscribers canceled, but many more looked for the first time outside the bloodless narrative. A light finally appeared at the end of the long tunnel that was Vietnam.

In another era, President Bill Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia after a photo showed crowds cheering a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That image dogged American war mongering until it could be sanitized by the bloodless narrative of Gulf War 1.0.

We are no longer likely to see those nasty pictures. The military has become highly skilled at manipulating the media, even as the corporate media has become compliant. In the X-rated world of war, the corporate media refuses to budge from PG-rated family fare.

The military-media symbiosis is just one more tool that feeds the bloodless narrative. As long as Americans are convinced of the bloodlessness of war, the bloody wars will endure.

Peter Van Buren is a retired 24-year veteran of the U.S. Department of State, including service in Iraq. He is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

Copyright 2015 Peter Van Buren and The Contrary Perspective.

16 thoughts on “Sustaining Perpetual War: The Bloodless Narrative

  1. Pingback: Sustaining Perpetual War: The Bloodless Narrative | philastore

  2. Of course, US policy in recent decades has been to launch wars only against designated “enemy” states they are guaranteed to be able to overwhelm with firepower. Reagan the Magnificent conquers tiny Granada! But then, of course, there was the nasty business of a barracks full of dead Marines in Lebanon. Oops, can’t win ’em all. G.H.W. Bush swatted down Saddam Hussein’s Army That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (having first demolished Iraq’s ability to defend itself from air assault by taking out all radar installations) and Noriega’s Panama. Bill Clinton’s intervention in ex-Yugoslavia was entirely an assault from the air. By the time little George Bush declared war on Iraq, on entirely trumped-up “charges,” Saddam’s military hadn’t become any more proficient. “Like shooting fish in a barrel” I believe is the relevant expression. “Mission Accomplished”? Well, in terms of a state to state conflict, the claim was reasonable. It’s the messy, still ongoing aftermath that the Pentagon seems to have somehow failed to predict. The theme of these recent military escapades has been an increasing Kill Ratio: you lose the occasional pilot or tank driver, but your total casualties as a percentage of the forces you’ve deployed keep shrinking. That’s good for the homefront, right? You want “bloodless war”? The killing-machine drone is a war-maker’s wet dream! Some 21-year-old kid who grew up addicted to playing video games, sitting in an airconditioned facility on US soil, guides his machine in for the kill half a world away. Not a speck of blood, in the literal sense, on his hands, no sir. Heck, soon the military will be able to do away with Physical Training–“More PT, Drill Sergeant!” Oh, the nostalgia! A roomful of flabby tech geeks, gorging on their favorite snack foods, will conquer any enemy by remote control! Try not to leave too many crumbs on the control console, fellas and gals! Well, killing civilian bystanders is all well and good (being facetious there), but reality is proving a little bit tricky for the 21st Century War Machine. Those pesky “terrorists” keep multiplying, like the heads of the mythical Hydra. I don’t think US ineptitude in its proclaimed War On Terror is solely a plot to ensure the perpetuity of the profitable “defense” industry. I think we’re simply seeing a new permutation of the reality of Vietnam: overwhelming firepower and superior technology could not defeat a people determined to rid themselves of US domination.

    • greglaxer, I love your commentary! I lack the irony with which you write. I was brought up by classicists that killed my ironic creativity. Once in a class in Cambridge when I was 15 years old, I was asked to describe Hamlet with one word, and my answer was bloody! I thought that the old Professor was going to faint and I would end up in jail accused of killing him! Of course this happened in the Middle Ages, a long, long time ago.

      • Graciela–I sincerely appreciate the compliment. I have had some pretty good instructors! When Mark Twain took to writing social criticism, he proclaimed “I write with a pen warmed up in Hell.” I take the liberty of updating that: “I write with a word processor warmed up in Hell.” I simply convey my passionate feelings about what is right and what is wrong in the world today. You want irony? Twain’s essay “In Defense of General Funston” was a brutally frank expose of that “gentleman”‘s role in savagely suppressing the hopes for independence of the people of the Philippines in the wake of The War of 1898. I consider V.I. Lenin the ultimate maestro of political polemics. People who have never read a word he wrote–while excoriating him as the original Dr. Evil, of course–can only scratch their heads when I say the man’s wit was positively crackling. What a delightful event would be a debate between Lenin and any of the intellectual midgets now maneuvering for the Presidency of the United States in 2016!

  3. There is nothing new on the face of the earth. This method goes back to the beginning of our civilization with different application tools according to the time period being discussed.

    After giving it a little thought one thing is clear to me, we have only two parties in the politics of the world. The have and the have not. All the rest is a delicate embroidery to cover up the truth. Even those who claim to support the have not, are using them to get near the have.

    We, humans, just another animal species in nature, live in the here and now. The past and its lessons is part of the rumbling, typically adjudicated to the old people.

    We have taken all along minute steps ahead in our progress towards a better society. Everything is against us, the education agenda, the infiltration of religious beliefs in schools and government, the industrial military complex that goes beyond the USA (more properly said that also came to), the corporative profit, the consumer society and so on. We are constantly manipulated by these forces. I trash most of my emails. The Internet is another extraordinary tool we have designed, mainly used nowadays for the instantaneous brain washing. It employs one of the strongest tools in teaching, the visual art. It fascinates me to watch the same message, sent on different days, but always with the same objective.

    I do not have the least idea where our civilization is going. My only worry is that “the have” could always use war before to stop the exponential growth of population. Now people does not want to go to war. What will the solution they use be? Divisive tactics, “terrorists” (1) attacks to generate fear, hunger, world monetary system failure? I do not know. But I still care.

    In all the old native cultures that have not been contaminated with the new religious tenets, or that to survive they followed them for a time and then carefully put them aside and went back to their original beliefs, they have a government by the elders. They respect and protect nature, and many of them have nature as one of their leading forces. They mostly live in small communities, near mountains or hills where there are old caves. Maybe they will be the only ones left to start again.

    (1). I put terrorists between commas because I believe terrorists were and still are all over the world, with a different origin, ideas and purposes. And with only one common goal, to create terror, and sometimes even without weapons.

  4. Until efforts to establish United Nations reform making it mandatory for member nations to agree on joining the International Criminal Court, effectively deterring potential war criminals from committing planned crimes and ending conducting of war as humanity has experienced it through history – intense focus on the real consequences of large-scale violence as this writing does so courageously must continue relentlessly and with as much power as humanly possible. … Until war as the world has known it is over, the page turns, and a new peaceful chapter of human history begins.

  5. I agree and disagree, Jerry Peacemaker. It is a contradictory statement but it all depends on who are you and if you understand the human condition. Man is a contradiction in itself. Every other species has a survival rout embedded in its genes and knows by instinct what to do. Humans do not.

    Humans start their lives and each one of us has a particular series of experiences that end up making an individual adult. My question is, what are we missing, misunderstanding, forgetting in our genetic memory that we fail “to live” as humans should. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic Apostolic. As soon as I started to question my belief – 12 years old? – I found out that it was based on the Hebrew tradition which in turn was based on the history of twelve tribes with different basic cultural roots. That at one time some of their people were enough intelligent to start recording their oral history. Reading Flavious Josephus books, the oldest compiled recordings that are available on this subject, I see a human being very similar to the current one. Making the same errors we still do, with the same dislikes for others without really knowing why, being easily manipulated by one or more among his contemporaries, with the same love for luxury – being luxury for me, anything that is not essential for survival but that satisfies the senses – with an uncontrollable envy and so on.

    I try to put my ideas in perspective but although I have lived a long life, the lapse of time I am looking at leaves my own personal experience reduced to a second in twenty four hours. And still I know nothing regardless that I am surrounded by the books I read. Yes, that is the crude reality. Even if you try there is no answer.

    Then in desperation, I go to my own backyard, my very personal paradise, where birds are waiting for their seeds and their water fountain to be filled with fresh water. And it is a very short time after that I am happy. They come to eat from my hand and all the new babies are fighting for a little room in the fountain, and I need to fill the fountain several times because in their enthusiasm they spray water all over included myself.

    It is an hour in my own life. In that same hour in many places, whole families are killed just for being in their homes or yards, animals are being abused and mistreated for profit, the dreams of many are being destroyed by the greed of banks, children are being abused even by their own parents, rivers are being polluted, the oceans are being acidify to a point that whole beautiful ecosystems go extinct, children are enslaved working in some plantation instead to be at school, women are raped, abortions are happening in allies in every city without the proper asepsis and knowledge from the practitioner. Am I in part guilty because I am enjoying my paradise? What am I missing in the picture?

    Then I read the daily batch of emails and my confusion grows. They are discussing with big words the problems we all know but it is the Congress, the Senate, the different Committies. They accuse each other of not caring, of other interests, they deny women the right to control their own bodies – mainly poor women because the ones who have enough do not have any problem to decide about their bodies – why do they waste so much time in useless conversation? There is nothing simpler than making a logical statement, like “no more dumping of dirty water in the rivers” or “the police force cannot kill whoever crosses in front of them” or “the poor women need access to full medical care” or ” you cannot build residences on wet lands that are letting the underground gases to be released” or “you cannot build an airport on wetlands above the only aquifer for most of the southern coastal area, you are going to break the natural tidal equilibrium, the salt water will infiltrate into the three rivers that make the aquifer” or “why do we need to invade a country thousands of miles away of our own which is not trying to invade ours” and …

    I need to visit my paradise, sorry.

    • Graciela–The pain you feel over the conduct of Humankind (human kind? all too often, human cruel) and your compassion for your fellow beings is palpable. And of course, laudable. I happen to be–FINALLY!–reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” His writing wowed me from page one. (I never watched any of those public TV shows based on his work.) Just last night I noted for my own future reference the following (page 121 of paperback edition, Princeton University Press, third printing 1973): “[E]very failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late….The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula [the ‘passage of the hero’ through trials and tribulations], and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres? Those are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.”

      Notwithstanding the fact that the USA was built over the bones of its indigenous peoples and by the labor of slaves, the Founding Fathers did enshrine certain endearing ideals. Endearing but, sadly, less and less enduring. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Great words. Abraham Lincoln said “As I would not be a slave, neither would I be a master.” Now we are ruled by a caste of masters with absolutely no scruples. Anything that increases their personal fortunes goes. Nothing stands in their way but blowback from hubris-induced blunderings like what we now see in the wreckage of the Middle East and…opposition to their sordid deeds by the very small minority of the population who cannot give our consent to their wrongdoing by silence. I firmly believe Humankind has crossed the Rubicon in terms of the destruction of the global ecosystem, but as an individual I am bound by my own conscience to continue to walk the Noble Eight-Fold Path (the Buddhist “Code of Conduct”). I am responsible for my own actions. I will never cede to the state the right to dictate what is the noble path. That is my “grasp of life.”

    • Thank you both for sharing your thoughts. Good intentions are easily warped. I joined the military because I believed it was necessary to defend the American way, a way represented by truth and justice (to quote Superman), a way illustrated by the words and deeds of people like Abraham Lincoln and MLK.

      MLK’s speech about the Vietnam War is a true classic. How did we become, and remain, the purveyors of violence around the world? This is not “defense” as I understand it. Whether because of fear or greed or delusion or a combination of the three (and more), we have lost our way as a country.

      Not that we were always noble; but we were not ignoble. Not to the extent we are now.

      We need to regain our ideals, including most especially humility and compassion, but our political scene is riddled by small people who only want to scare us. Who only want to divide people for their own selfish purposes

    • Graciela,
      It’s very interesting how rarely in media and government the word love is uttered. Especially when one considers what M.Scott Peck said “Ultimately love is everything”, what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said “The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well”, and that Tolstoy was an advocate for a universal Law of Love. Perhaps one’s paradise is that state of mind where all is perceived as sacred. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  6. Do you know that all of you are a water fall of crystalline water that sings a song that makes the perfect background to my birds chat? My small paradise is a fairy tale castle surrounded by tall trees that reduce the impact of the noise from LAX and the traffic in my back street. I am fortunately isolated of the damaging noise pollution in the area. And I needed the music from your water fall! Thank you for your gift!

  7. Pingback: Peter Van Buren: Sustaining Perpetual War — The Bloodless Narrative | Vox Populi

  8. wjastore you mention something that, from my point of view, is the secret for the current situation in our society. You say “who only want to divide people for their own selfish purpose” You are right we are divided and in the division we loose all our power.

    Today in some place I wrote something about the persistent division that has become the biggest and most productive tool to keep us busy while they manipulate our democracy and slowly transform it in a plutocracy.

    Definitely I see it as a war. Nothing is sacred in this war. We are the little people in this chess game. They sacrifice us, the average American also known as the tax payer, with total impunity. The only way to win this war is to forget all the names with which they call us, like, conservative, republican, democrat, socialist, communist and so on, and see ourselves as Americans. And as Americans we must have one objective only, to bring back our democracy. All the rest can be solved later.

    We live in America. Our Constitution clearly established a government by the people for the people. All the rest is garbage. We are the maximum authority. Let’s take action by voting – which is a right that carries a responsibility, to get informed – and then supervise the job of cleaning the disarray we are in. Not all at the same time, but one by one the issues that most affect us.

    I put an example, if you are a fisherman and your main tool, your net is in a big mess, you can only fix it if you undo one knot at a time. And each knot will tell you which one is the next that you need to fix.

    Time after time History has shown us, that to conquer we need to divide. Let’s become one for the sake of our democracy.

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