"Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war."
~ Donald Rumsfeld
In times of war, particularly when that war is
starting to look meaningless and futile, its promoters must keep one highly
influential group under control: the families and friends of fallen soldiers.
Whether by enemy or friendly fire, on the battlefield or off, military deaths
send shockwaves through families and friends, shockwaves that can lead to changes
of heart about the war.
The number of people affected by just one soldier's death is enormous. Even
those with small nuclear families have larger extended family networks. Added
to this group are the soldier's childhood pals, as well as a multitude of friends
and acquaintances from military and civilian life. News of one "anonymous" soldier's
death rapidly ripples out to scores of Americans who interact daily with members
of that large family/friend/acquaintance network. For all of us, "six degrees
of separation" from deceased soldiers is an understatement.
When our men and women in uniform die, mainstream (i.e., administration-pleasing)
newspaper writers and television anchors are obliged to refer to those deaths
as "noble," "heroic," and "necessary."
But even with all the spin in the world, the parents, children, siblings, grandparents,
friends, and coworkers who would gladly trade anything – including democracy
in this or that country – to have those dead kids alive again, are prone
to think and then speak the two most deadly phrases for any war: "died in vain"
and "died for nothing."
To keep the public content with a war even when it's going poorly and sending
kids home in boxes, these two phrases, above all others, must be silenced. They
have to be suppressed by whatever means necessary, for they are extremely contagious.
These six little words have the power to stop wars, impeach presidents, and
change the course of history. They make war promoters everywhere start to sweat,
particularly when they are spoken by people who've made the ultimate sacrifice
– losing the ones they love.
Grief can get out of hand. It can make the blinders fall off. It can sink even
your best propaganda. When you lose the military families, you've lost your
war – and your power.
Parental Passions Must Be Controlled…
Soldiers' parents are conflicted between supporting
their child (keeping him or her alive and well) and supporting the war. When
public opinion regarding the war tips even slightly from "noble mission" to
"meaningless loss," this inner conflict erupts, releasing pent-up feelings of
rage and fury in bereaved family members. These reactions then percolate into
the public psyche, where they open a Pandora's box of misgivings and doubts.
Without the fear of appearing unpatriotic, people begin to reevaluate those
"necessary" deaths. At this point, widespread protests against the war may occur.
War presidents and their advisers need to have an antidote on hand for this
kind of emergency, especially when parental passions threaten to become media
But this is a sensitive area. The Bush administration dares not assail the
antiwar parents of soldiers in Iraq, yet these parents
are becoming more vocal and organized in their outrage and pleas to "bring
them home now." How can this sympathetic group (families of "our fallen") be
discredited or at least "spun" so that Americans will sympathize with their
grief, but not with their opposition to the war?
The best solution – and I'm not claiming that the White House makes story suggestions,
lines up interviewees, or otherwise works behind the scenes to make this happen
– would be news or feature stories (not editorials, for these can be discounted
as partisan) that seem on the surface to present a "fair and balanced" view
of grieving families, while sending the message that the pro-war parents are
more patriotic, more admirable, etc.
When it comes to the potent danger of angry parents whose children have been
killed or maimed in war, subtlety works best: the safest route is to give the
impression that "good" parents of deceased soldiers speak in the language of
heroes and patriotism and don't oppose the war that may kill or has already
killed their child. Most importantly, these stories should emphasize that even
those who've lost children to Mr. Bush's War of Terror share his trademark
stance toward the consequences of that war: "no
Why This Story, Why This Plotline, and Why Now?
On Jan. 2, 2005, after three long years of President
Bush's wars on two countries and with over 1,300 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq
alone, the New York Times ran a rather belated piece about their grieving
parents. When I saw it I immediately asked myself, "Why this story, why this
plotline – and why now?"
The story, "G.I.
Families United in Grief, but Split by the War" would have made more sense
for New Year's had it been a tribute to the dead and their families, with photos,
names, and quotations of loved ones. Another understandable angle for the New
Year's story could have been somber reflection on the aftermath of 2004's military
deaths – that is, an examination of how these losses are affecting their families
But this story wasn't about any of that: It was about politics. Specifically,
it was about grieving pro-war/pro-Bush relatives and friends versus grieving
antiwar/anti-Bush relatives and friends, in yet another "us vs. them" story.
Still we must ask, "Why now?"
Consider events involving military families just prior to and concurrent with
this story. Trouble was brewing. Just a few days before this story ran, another
story had gotten a lot of exposure. It seems that grieving parents of slain
soldiers were planning a vigil for peace that was
banned at the last minute by Jordanian authorities on a technicality, for
reasons at which we
can only guess.
Consider this event in light of the fact that the
last few months have been the deadliest yet for US troops, with every indication
that this trend will continue. Consider also the fact that the presidential
inauguration was just days away: The last thing the Bush administration wanted
Americans to see were images of sorrowful families flying all the way to Jordan
to beg for peace and to provide humanitarian aid to Iraqis devastated by the
Even worse was the timing of this highly visible mission: Military families
across the US had grown desperately worried about their loved ones’ safety after
learning that soldiers have to scrounge around for "hillbilly
armor" because "that’s
the army they have."
The solution for the president and his administration
when it comes to delicate matters such as this isn't outright control
of the media. If you want to shape public opinion and suppress opposition, don't
even think about it: there's no better way to create unrest than to come right
out and say you're going to control the media.
The smart solution is to buy or induce ongoing influence that shapes public
opinion via the mainstream media. This can be bought with
cash or with other perks such as access
to the White House, powerful
friends in high places, and so forth. Influencing the media so that it will
return the favor by influencing your public is a good investment: you'll receive
tangible rewards such as supportive
spin on all news that would otherwise make you look bad and the loyal
refusal to accept paid advertisements that make you look bad.
The dirty job of sanitizing the consequences of your words and deeds must go
on, but when you use influence instead of control, your hands stay clean, and
so do theirs.
The beauty of subtle influence is that when
they scratch your back, nobody can prove they're doing it because of pressure
or incentives from you. (Tip: If perchance they do, simply order up some spin
to assassinate the whistleblower's character and to serve as a warning to other
Would-be dictators must understand this eternal truth: People can be forced
or led down the path you want them to take. Why bother with the blowback
and resistance that follow the former method, when you can get your public to
the same destination with the latter?
The mainstream media can lead readers to the conclusion that even here, in
the sacred realm of love and grief, one side is better than another. Through
artful journalism, a contrast can be made between "good" grieving military families
(with whom readers should sympathize and identify) and "bad" grieving military
families (with whom readers can sympathize, but shouldn't identify).
But how to accomplish this "with us or against us" effect without showing one's
"Us vs. Them" Stories Suppress Antiwar Sentiment
The answer is, through news or features (not
editorials, which are obviously opinion) featuring what I call "token balance":
a veneer of superficial indicators of "balance" (e.g., interviewing both opponents
or sides in a controversy) designed to make one side much less appealing to
readers than the other.
Us vs. Them stories cripple opposition by reflecting and reinforcing
Americans' divisiveness and distrust of one another. It's essential to subtly
craft "news" items to illustrate that our paranoia, antagonism, and divisions
are justified by the facts.
By framing a tragedy with which we could all have sympathized as a divisive
political issue instead, this story is but one example of opinion-shaping "news"
stories that aren't identified as editorials but serve the same purpose,
only more effectively: controlling public opinion by making one "side" look
better than the other.
The story has a strong us/them, good/bad flavor regarding support versus opposition
to this war, but one argument stands out because it's so counterintuitive: That
the dead kids would, were they alive today, "be disappointed" if their parents
didn't agree that Mr. Bush made the right decision to send them to fight – and
ultimately die – in this war.
No parent wants to feel that they're "disappointing" or "dishonoring" their
child, and readers will get the message and shy away from anything that would
make them guilty of such "disrespect" for fallen soldiers. After reading this
piece, readers of all political stripes are likely to feel more hesitant to
express – or even feel – antiwar sentiment.