on the contrary

Memorial Day Mush

It’s time for the networks to get real about the war
July 10, 2007

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.”

Further seeking to showcase its patriotism, CNN touted its own “Warrior One” Hummer. Used by a CNN crew in Iraq, the vehicle had been damaged in an attack, then brought to the U.S. and refurbished. It was being sent around the United States on “a new mission” to raise money for wounded vets. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Warrior One was in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for a Jaycee festival. On hand to greet the locals was CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. Among those inspecting the vehicle was Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman. It “doesn’t much resemble the ones that I have driven in Iraq,” he observed. Yes, Schneider replied, those in Iraq “are special underneath for mine resistance.” No, Bateman informed her, the Humvees in Iraq have no special protection; they’re not strong enough to carry any extra weight underneath. Schneider paid no heed and moved on. “It has been a wonderful experience in Chagrin Falls,” she chirped, “because we have seen a lot of people that are involved with the military that happen to live here or were from here and have stopped by and shared their experiences with us here in front of the CNN Warrior One.” The network seemed determined to put the best face on a wounding and wrenching war.

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There were exceptions, though. Anderson Cooper 360°, for instance, offered a harrowing report on Matthew Vargas, a young soldier who had become so depressed after being shot in the chest in Iraq that he deserted his unit. Barricading himself in the garage of his mother’s house, he threatened to kill himself, surrendering only after the house was tear-gassed by the police. Vargas, said his father, “had told me once that he had nothing left to live for anymore, that his country gave up on him, and he felt maybe his family gave up on him, too.” As Anderson Cooper noted, this was an extreme case, but the segment offered a reminder that not every soldier is a smiling hero, that not every parent or spouse can find comfort in comedy or in sending care packages to the troops.

In their defense, TV news producers would no doubt argue that Memorial Day is one day in the year that should be kept free of politics and partisanship—that, as at a funeral, it’s an occasion to celebrate the virtues of the deceased rather than to dwell on darker memories. Yet the Memorial Day coverage was thoroughly political in its own way. The calls to duty, the pleas for healing, the salutes to the mission and the cause—all implicitly sought to cast Iraq as another in a long line of noble wars fought to protect our freedoms and way of life. Mix in the clips of George Bush awarding medals at Arlington Cemetery, of Dick Cheney addressing the graduating class at West Point, of General Peter Pace declaring (on Good Morning America) that “freedom is not free” and that “this is an important fight to take to the enemy,” and you have what amounts to a three-day-long commercial for the war.

The great question in all this is, Why? Why would the networks serve up such mush? One factor, I think, is the general increase in sentimentalism on TV. One need only think of the soppy outpourings at the funerals of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, of NBC’s periodic tributes to the power of faith, of ABC’s lachrymose “Person of the Week” awards to appreciate how thoroughly network news has come to resemble a Hallmark card. Even more significant, though, I believe, is the fear that continues to grip TV newsrooms in the wake of September 11—the fear of being seen as un-American, of being accused of lacking patriotism, of being charged with showing disrespect for the military if one happens to linger too long on the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. intervention in Iraq.

As the situation in Iraq has unraveled, and as George Bush’s poll numbers have plunged, the networks (like news organizations in general) have grown bolder in their coverage. Thanks in part to the efforts of ABC’s Bob Woodruff and CBS’s Kimberly Dozier (who was nearly killed while doing a Memorial Day report in Iraq last year) and of intrepid reporting by correspondents like Jane Arraf (NBC), Richard Engel (NBC), and Lara Logan (CBS), the networks have provided much graphic insight into the war’s destructive force and its physical toll on the troops. But there remain too many areas the networks won’t touch. The war on TV remains a largely sanitized affair, untroubled by images of too many fallen GIs, of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded by U.S. troops, of soldiers driven to desperation by the nature of the mission, of families torn apart by grief.

Memorial Day provides an opportunity not only to honor the dead but also to educate the living—about the true cost of war and how it tends to dehumanize conquerors and conquered alike. It’s a message many Americans don’t want to hear. And, sadly, the networks seem all too willing to go along. 

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.