What if the war was news? (Bodies of War part 2)

When certain types of bodies are deemed as ‘Other’ or less worthy, or, as Judith Butler would term it, “as lives not worth living,” they become subject to treatment that denies not only their bodily materiality, but also their very humanity. Currently many such bodies become war fodder – ‘collateral damage’ that is not ‘worth’ worrying about. Certain bodies have become subject to torture, imprisonment, starvation, and various other forms of violent onslaught. However, in order for the public to accept this visceral attack on humanity, a culture of dehumanization is necessary.

One of the ways this disembodying of war is achieved is via current war practices in which those doing the killing are often far removed from those being killed. Aerial bombing, so called ‘smart bombs,’ implanting of landmines, daisy cutter bombs, dropping of white phosphorous – all of these war practices allow those being killed to be put under erasure (especially because so much of these antics are done not only from high in the sky but also under the cover of night, when the bodies on the ground are shrouded by darkness and/or the walls of their homes). Various rhetoric also allows for bodies to be abstracted into ‘targets’ to more readily justify and/or hide their killing while the media simultaneously dehumanizes death by couching it in metaphor, statistics, or euphemism. Ironically, as scholar Philip Neisser notes, “many in the United States who have adamantly refused to objectify the deaths caused by the World Trade Center attack (one person said, ‘five thousand people didn’t die here; five thousand individuals died’) have nonetheless helped to objectify the lives of others”.[1]

This disembodying war coverage is also apparent amongst various military intellectuals and ‘think tanks’ – the groups that are involved in designing weapons and orchestrating war ‘strategy.’ Mainstream ‘news’ often draws on the professional language of such defense analysts, as feminist scholar Carol Cohn discusses in her article “Wars, Wimps, and Women.” As Cohn’s article attests, in order to make war decisions palatable, when you are calculating the death toll of certain actions “you do not discuss the bloody reality behind the calculations.”[2]

As Cohn further notes, “most defense intellectuals believe that emotion and description of human reality distort the process required to think well about nuclear weapons and warfare.”[3] Thus, the tried and true practice of ‘war games’ is put into effect, wherein war is conveniently abstracted into a competition with dehumanised winners and losers. Within this disembodied war rhetoric, a number of things remain unspoken. For example, “any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction” must not be uttered.[4] Second, the ‘outcome’ of using certain weapons “may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with his skin hanging down in strips.”[5] In other words, human lives and human bodies need to be kept out of the picture, both literally and figuratively.

Hiding the bodily costs of the war, the MSM is currently carrying on another American wartime tradition: ignoring civilian casualties. As with Gulf War I, when the US killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqi citizens and then held an embargo that led to over a million deaths and the MSM didn’t bat an eyelash, American military action and the wider practices of American corporate global imperialism are now killing, starving, deforming, torturing and raping Middle Eastern citizens by the thousands, yet, what the MSM keeps reminding us of is the ‘small’ military death toll of, at this writing, 4,116.
What the MSM does not deign to remind the American public of is people such as the 16-year-old ice cream vendor who, accoding to Mark Herold, “lost his leg and two fingers in a Cruise missile strike on an airfield near his home” on the first day of US invasion. Nor does the MSM emphasize civilian casualties in imagery or coverage. As Herold argues, “A growing disconnect exists between the daily reality of war experienced by the common Afghan and how this war is represented to the American general public by the corporate media.”

A further problem in this erasure of the bodily costs of war is the fact that the U.S. media is very selective about what casualty reports it considers valid. As Herold reminds us, “the only casualty reports considered ‘real’ by the mainstream U.S. press are those either issued by a western enterprise or organization, or ‘independently verified’ by western individuals and/or organizations. In other words, the high levels of civilian casualties reported elsewhere…are simply written off as ‘enemy propaganda’ and ignored.”

Another problem is the relative ‘worth’ delegated to certain types of bodies – to put it bluntly, an American soldier’s life is construed as ‘worth’ far more than an Iraqi child’s according to US military policy. As Herold notes, “From the point of view of U.S. policy makers and their mainstream media lackeys, the ‘cost’ of a dead Afghan civilian is zero (as long as these civilian deaths are hidden from the public) but the ‘benefits’ of preserving U.S. military lives is enormous, given the U.S. public’s aversion to returning body bags in this post-Vietnam era. The absolute need to avoid U.S. military casualties requires flying high up in the sky, greatly increasing the probability of killing civilians.”

Here, Herold reveals two key issues – civilian deaths are not only hidden and ‘written off,’ they are also caused by an us/them ideology in which ‘our’ lives are worth protecting, and ‘theirs’ are not. In fact, the MSM goes so far as to only report American deaths. The Chicago Sun Times, for example, reported the first deaths of the war two weeks after our invasion of Afghanistan- of course these ‘first’ deaths were only the first American deaths – many, many apparently irrelevant Afghan lives had been lost at this point – the majority of them civilians.[6] As Herold notes, “For the most part, the major U.S. corporate media appear to have obeyed the Pentagon directives and given sparse coverage to the topic of civilian casualties.” This ‘sparse coverage’ continues – in fact, while casualties and other atrocities are escalating, general war coverage is shrinking.

We must consider, what would happen if we had a free and independent, investigative media that delivered thorough war coverage? If we did, we just might see what has been termed “the Vietnam syndrome” return with a vengeance. Instead, the media lulls us into apathy with stories of celebrities, athletes, and the latest diet trends.

Next time you (are forced to) watch or read the MSM (if you do or have to because those you live with do) remind yourself that we are at war. Then, click off the CNN or FOX, put down the local paper, and find yourself some real, non-corporate media just about the only place you can-on the internet or in the pages of the few remaining independent magazines/papers.


[1] Neisser, Philip T. “Targets.” Collaterol Language. Ed. John Collins and Ross Glover. New York: NY UP, 2002. 152

[2] Cohn, Carol. “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War.” In Men’s Lives, edited by Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner. Boston, Pearson, 2007. 593.

[3] Cohn, 593.

[4] Cohn, 594.

[5] Cohn, 594.

[6] Neisser, 144

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2 thoughts on “What if the war was news? (Bodies of War part 2)”

  1. Thanks! And thanks for the links! I am very familiar with the last two, but will check out the others some more…

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