The End of the War of Images on the American Public

The Defense Department has reversed the Bush administration’s ban on photographs of returning coffins of US military personnel killed in war abroad.

Apparently a lot of the families of fallen warriors liked the ban. Future such families will be able to keep it in place for their loved ones if they so choose.

But everyone should be clear that the Bush administration did not impose the ban for the sake of the families. It was a cynical move intended to disguise from the American people the cost of the Bush elective war in Iraq. And, despite the administration’s occasional inability to control the visual record, it largely worked.

The American public saw a sanitized Iraq war, certainly compared to what was visible on Arab satellite television. We seldom saw the wounded or dead in Iraq (typically if US televison showed us the aftermath of a market bombing, it would just be the crater and some burning cars; it doesn’t look like that). We almost never see an injured veteran on television, even though nearly 40,000 GIs were wounded badly enough to go to hospital.

The Bush administration set some of the rules, the US corporate media set others. The effect was to mask for many years from the US public the sheer horror of what happened there. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly stood before the camera and told baldfaced lies. There was no looting. There was no guerrilla war. There was no civil war. Some people read Orwell’s 1984 in high school and take it as a horrific warning of what could happen. Some apparently rather like what they see and take it as their how-to manual. Even to this day, unrealistically low figures are quoted for those Iraqis who died as a direct or indirect result of the 2003 US invasion, and more realistic projections by public health specialists are routinely rejected by the press.

The war dead belong in the first instance to their families, and it is right that their wishes will be respected. But they also do belong to the Republic, and we need to be able both to commemorate their sacrifice for the nation and also to gauge the degree of sacrifice the nation is making for an enterprise. The sleazy liars and propagandists of the previous administration wanted us to remain ignorant of those costs, wanted us to remain child-like and ignorant.

Indeed, the artificial separation of the war costs from the regular budget replicated in the arena of public finance the hiding of the bodies of the dead from the photographers. It even often fooled seasoned journalists, who gave budget deficit figures in the Bush years that ignored the expenditure of treasure on Iraq!

Now the wars will go in the regular budget, as they should have all along, so that the lazy are not so easily fooled. The whole Bush administration was a massive Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, made possible only because no one bothered to audit the books.

The new administration will need to be audited, too, of course. That is what a Republic is. But at least they are signaling that they won’t stand in the way of the audit, and, indeed, will work toward transparency to help the public carry it out. Now that is a revolution.

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