What if the USA was a democracy? (Bodies of War part 1)

(Note to readers: I will be traveling from July 16 to August 5. During that time, I will be posting three five-part posts in staggered order- one on reality tv and beauty norms (entitled Beauty Imperatives), another on the Iraq war and militarization (entitled Bodies of War), and another on advertising and white privilege (entitled Consuming Whiteness). Hopefully, some or all of these will speak to your various interests. If I can get my laptop working and wired during my travels, I may post more. I will attempt to respond to comments when possible, but please forgive me in advance for being semi-unwired for the next three weeks. Thank you for reading!)

One of the hallmarks of a democracy is a free media. The USA does not have one of these. Moreover, it has all the warning signs of being a fascist state, as evidenced here.

Sometime ago, I wrote a paper entitled “Administering Media to the American Public: Selling War, Hiding Bodies, and Championing Militarized Masculinity” for a proposed collection called Iraq War Culture. As that collection never came to be, I have decided to reformat this paper into blog sized bits and post it over the next few weeks. Better that than leave it loitering in my hard-drive …

In this first chunk, I will consider how the media normalizes and glorifies war. This media celebration of wartime violence, power, domination and its accompanying ruling ideology, hypermasculinity, helps to explain the apathy and indifference so many US citizens seem to take towards the current Iraq War, an apathy that is currently so entrenched that many find Christie Brinkley’s divorce or the JonBenet Ramsey case more newsworthy than what is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gitmo.

While the US has been at war with one nation or another for over half a century, one major shift is the way war is no longer covered by the media. Yes, the US media briefly covers death counts and ‘major happenings,’ but it offers no in depth coverage or analysis. Images, likewise, are not hard-hitting and show little of actual war carnage. Instead, we see sand and tanks, buildings and uniforms. This paltry type of war coverage was not always the case. It came about due to what Noam Chomsky and others refer to as “the Vietnam Syndrome” or the “sickly inhibitions against war.”

Now, not only the news media, but also the US entertainment media and the celebrity culture that surrounds it, decline to respond to or consider the ramifications of infinite war. As a case in point, when Charlie Sheen insisted on CNN a few years back that we need to reconsider the ruling narratives of 9/11, the story was quickly buried and, instead, we got coverage of Sheen’s split from Denise Richards. Currently, instead of coverage of rising casualties, both military and civilian, we have news coverage of athlete scandals and celebrity divorces.

This massive lack of coverage of the war allows for (and even promotes) our attention to be diverted elsewhere, allows for us to pretend we aren’t really at war after all. In particular, the lack of actual ‘war bodies’ – the lack of images of wounded or dead soldiers, of civilian casualties, of war refugees, of prisoners, of rape survivors, of bodies deformed by uranium depletion, of the tortured, mutilated, and/or murdered bodies resulting from the sharp rise in ‘honor crimes,’ promotes people to disengage from the war.

While war coverage can no doubt be found if one digs (especially if you dig in that last bastion of free media–the internet), the mainstream news veers all to close to entertainment fluff. The MSM displays only endless sand, tanks, and, once in awhile, a neatly clad soldier in uniform who is usually smiling (and almost always white and male). This lack of coverage, especially given increasing reports of gang rapes, torture, deformities caused by uranium depletion, injuries brought on via ‘magical’ weapons such as daisy cutter bombs, let alone of rising soldier and civilian casualties, allows for a simultaneous forgetting of the war. By hiding the carnage, the war remains ‘over there.’

This out of sight, out of mind Iraq War Culture, along with the lack of media coverage of cultural resistance against the Iraq War, is distinctive in the way in which it has consistently put the ‘bodies of war’ under erasure. For example, the Pentagon’s well-documented outrage when papers showed pictures of soldiers coffins ready to be shipped home to the US reveals an administration that is intent on ‘hiding bodies’ and a media that is complicit in this cover-up. With such orchestrated refusals to show the bodily toll of war, the government and the MSM are effectively ‘disembodying’ the war, and, in so doing, allowing the American public to ignore the very real bodily costs of war.

In regards to the claim that our purportedly free media, what many have noted is one of the hallmarks of democracy, is not so free, let’s first consider the overwhelming lack of alternatives to the main narratives of 9/11 and war, let alone the inclusion of any voices of dissent. As feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe notes, criticisms of militarization in any form are viewed (and dismissed) as unpatriotic.[1] As a case in point, Bill Maher lost his contract for Politically Incorrect due to his suggestion that it was more cowardly to launch missiles from a safe distance than to fly a plane into a building. Or, take the case of Senator Barbara Lee, who was severely criticized for casting the ONLY vote again giving Bush absolute discretion in the military response to so-called terrorism

Not only does the MSM offer a false narrative via their incessant use of inflammatory and facile us/them rhetoric, but they also fail to cover the mass based war resistance movement. Cindy Sheehan is only ‘news’ when she gets arrested at the State of the Union Speech, not when she runs for Congress on an anti-war platform. And, as for the many CodePink marches in D.C. and elsewhere, they barely garner a mention. In so doing, as Noam Chomsky argues, the media is intricately involved in manufacturing our consent. Or, as reporter and founder of the website If Americans Knew, Alison Weir, insists, what we do not hear and see allows our imperialist wars to continue unabated.

Worryingly, the Associated Press, which provides (and thus determines) the news to a billion or more people each day, has been found to be very selective in the news it does and does not cover (see here for more). Moreover, reporters and media organizations that cover ‘off limit’ topics are likely to be rudimentarily punished and forcibly either brought into line or silenced. The bombing of al-Jazeera is only one case of the forcibly delivered message to media organizations and journalists: shut up or we will shut you up. As Iraqi journalists report, the “prize that comes with the U.S. occupation” is that “there is no guarantee that you won’t get killed for what you say or write.”[2] Corroborating this claim, the independent group Reporters Without Borders related that at least 93 media workers have been killed since the war began. In May ’06 alone, 4 Iraqi journalists were murdered.[3] As Amy Goodman reveals in her documentary Independent Media in a Time of War, for those who wish to cover the war and its fallout, these are dangerous times indeed. However, this danger is certainly not covered by mainstream US media.

Arundhati Roy, in her book War Talk, laments this worrying collusion of the media with the administration, noting the mainstream media’s “blatant performance as the U.S. governments mouthpiece, its display of vengeful patriotism, its willingness to publish Pentagon press handouts as news, and its explicit censorship of dissenting opinion.”[4] As revealed by various witty news compilations on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, the media speaksa in one voice with multiple channels and networks using the same terminology, phrasing, and even word for word verbiage to report stories. As the Daily Show clips suggest, news is no longer about investigative reporting, detailed coverage, let alone accurate information – rather, it is one big revolving PR campaign for the administration and corporate interests – who are, of course, increasingly one and the same.

This media control (a mark of fascism, for those of you who don’t know) should be extremely worrying to all of us who like the idea of true democracy. We are no longer, in case you hadn’t noticed, a democratic nation with a free media.

[1] Enloe, Cynthia. The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire. Berkeley: U of Calif P, 2004.
[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/11/AR2006051101184_pf.html
[4] Arundhati Roy. War Talk. Cambridge: South End Press, 2003. 79.

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