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.