As is their custom, the national TV news programs spent the Memorial Day weekend offering tributes to U.S. soldiers and their families. CNN introduced us to Marine Lieutenant Andrew Kinard, “an officer in the true tradition of the Marines,” who, despite having lost all of his left leg and most of his right one, had not lost his sense of humor. CBS reported on Rolling Thunder, an annual throng of motorbikers who roar into Washington with “a nonpartisan message of honor and support for all who serve.” NBC told of a Texas program that allows soldiers in Iraq to view their children’s high school graduations via videoconferencing. And ABC profiled Jan Donahue, a military wife who, during the seventeen months of her husband’s deployment, had lost her job, exhausted her savings, undergone surgery for kidney stones, and worked to keep the bank from foreclosing on her home. When her husband’s tour was extended, she decided to fight “loneliness with laughter” by becoming a stand-up comic; through her performances, she has found “comfort in comedy.”
Watching all this, it was nearly impossible to tell that America had entered the fifth year of a calamitous war that has divided the nation, chewed up the armed forces, turned America into an international pariah, caused the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and been judged by some historians to be the most serious foreign-policy blunder in U.S. history. About two-thirds of Americans believe the war is no longer worth fighting. Yet on TV there was barely a trace of debate, hardly a whiff of dissent, virtually no hint of anger or discontent, outrage, or sense of betrayal. Everything was wrapped in the gauze of national unity, patriotic duty, and quiet courage.
Needless to say, Memorial Day does offer an occasion to honor the men and women who have fought in the nation’s wars, including the unpopular ones. The 3,477 soldiers who as of May had died in Iraq (plus the 25,783 who had been injured) have made the ultimate sacrifice, and they deserve all the respect and support America can muster. But I wonder if all the flag-waving, calls for healing, and appeals for unity aired on TV really served the interests of the troops. If the networks truly wanted to honor the men and women in uniform, wouldn’t they have taken a harder look at the realities of the mission they’ve been asked to perform? Wouldn’t they have provided a forum for soldiers to speak honestly about what it’s like to make life-and-death decisions in a distant land with an alien culture, a strange language, and an impenetrable web of tribal, clan, and ethnic ties? Wouldn’t they have more forthrightly explored the attitudes of military families toward the Army’s stop-loss policy, which has forced soldiers to serve far beyond what they’d signed up for?
Instead, we learned (on CBS) about the Georgia Marine moms who have compiled “memory books” for families of the fallen, examples of parents who “have put aside their grief and made something positive” of it. We heard (on ABC) about Dartmouth College’s president, Jim Wright, and his efforts to send all Dartmouth grads serving in Iraq care packages containing New Hampshire maple candy and a volume of Robert Frost poems. We were assured (on CBS) by a sergeant in Tikrit that, despite his unit’s tour being extended for up to fifteen months, “morale is still high” thanks to the prayers sent by the American people. We were treated (on both ABC and NBC) to the story of “Hero,” a puppy that a soldier in Iraq had adopted the day before the soldier died and whose family arranged to have brought to the United States as a living memorial to their son. “A big kiss to Hero,” NBC’s Ann Curry purred.
Most mawkish of all was CNN. Throughout the weekend it offered up neatly polished packages of inspiration and uplift, with all nicks and blemishes deftly airbrushed out. There was, for instance, Senior Airman Nicole O’Hara, who, CNN reported, had come under attack while traveling in a convoy checking for roadside bombs. Opening fire, she killed six insurgents in forty-five seconds—an act that was said to have saved thirty-nine American lives. O’Hara, we were briefly informed, was having trouble moving on. “The simple fact that I took someone’s life away is really hard to deal with,” she said. It was a rare acknowledgement that the act of killing someone—even a deadly adversary—can have profound psychological effects. The point seemed well worth pursuing, but doing so might have undercut the day’s theme of courage under fire, and so CNN did not. Instead, it hastened to reassure us that O’Hara is “proud she completed her mission successfully.”