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February 4, 2005

'Good' Military Families vs. 'Bad' Military Families


Why did The New York Times
run this story?

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

"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 events.

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 regrets."

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 and friends.

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 war.

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."

Spinning Grief

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 potential tattlers).

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 hand?

"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.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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