Another Memorial Day has come and gone, but instead of a sobering reminder that war is hell and requires the ultimate sacrifice, we are more disconnected from the war in Iraq than ever. Most Americans don’t know that May was one of the deadliest months, or that the surge has produced nothing but a surge in death.
Meanwhile, the only hope we have of staying connected to the reality of war is in full retreat. What few journalists remain in Iraq have been backed into fortified corners of the country and rarely see what soldiers are facing. The number of reporters embedded with active troop units is at one of its lowest levels since the war began, and the military keeps creating new rules that “protect” us from confronting the gruesome truth.
It’s all done out of respect for the families, of course, but this is how censorship works. It always comes dressed as a concern for decency.
If we got to see the flag-draped coffins bearing the remains of our soldiers being off-loaded at Dover Air Force Base in the dead of night while SUVs whiz by on their way to Wal-Mart, we might get queasy. Look away, they say, and keep on shopping.
Now we won’t be seeing photographs of wounded or killed soldiers, either ” out of respect for their families, of course. Even when there is an open casket and the press is invited, a family may attempt to sue a media outlet that publishes an image of the dead soldier, as happened in Oklahoma.
While there always have been rules about photographing the carnage of war, and respect must be paid to those whose loved ones are dying, the Pentagon has taken the decision out of the hands of journalists in a very effective way.
Paragraph 11(a) of IAW Change 3, DoD Directive 5122.5 reads: “Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member’s prior written consent.”
Don’t let the bureaucratic elegance of this passage fool you. It means that photos of dead soldiers will now be a thing of the past. This will be done out of concern for the families, of course. No soldier is going to give some reporter permission in advance to publish a photo of a death that never is going to happen! What’s more, the reporter, whose presence often is resented to begin with, isn’t going to feel like asking.
Blogging by soldiers has now been severely restricted, and the Iraqi Interior Ministry has just declared bombing sites off-limits for one hour after an “event” ” a law it recently enforced by firing shots over the heads of working press. It takes the better part of an hour to clean up most of the body parts. Welcome to the complete sanitation of war.
When the photograph was invented, there was great hope that it could show us a true portrait of reality. Without the photo of the My Lai massacre, Americans would not have known the true horror that was Vietnam. Without televised images of billy clubs and tear gas used against peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Ala., the conscience of a segregated nation would not have been stirred.
Perhaps now that we are not allowed to see images of dead soldiers, we can hide the true cost of war, and continue to live in a parallel universe populated by oblivious empathic amputees. The real amputees will remain hidden from our eyes, and our hearts will turn to stone.
We’ll do this to protect the families, of course.
Meyers is minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma CityUniversity. His latest book is “Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future.”