REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA
2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Looking back on Iraq:
winning American hearts and minds
by Patricia Ventura
The last of the combat troops was pulled out of Iraq in December 2011, marking the end of a nearly nine-year war with little fanfare or sentiment or even press coverage. But rather than forgetting Iraq and moving on as U.S. political leaders and media have done, this is precisely the time to look back on the Iraq War, especially as neoconservatives and other hawks try to drum up a case for war with Iraq’s neighbor, Iran. This paper aims to put contemporary U.S. war in a larger context to understand how the Iraq War was promoted in the United States. For the war in Iraq actually stands as an object lesson for how to win support for U.S. combat operations in our era of neoliberal capitalism, which integrates war into a prosaic corporate Americana.
I analyze the practicalities of contemporary U.S. war, including how troops are trained, supported by contractors, and represented in dominant culture. These practicalities are aimed as much toward producing fighters who win wars as insuring U.S. support of foreign and economic policy as well as the military-industrial complex.
Before beginning this exploration, it is important to recognize the Iraq War as a tragic debacle. Well over 100,000 Iraqis died, and some estimates actually put the death toll over 500,000. U.S. military fatalities reached almost 4500. Contractors are not included in that count and the number of their fatalities is not accurately known. Uncertainties about the monetary costs are even harder to break through, but noted economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate that the war’s cost to the United States, including long-term expenses and losses, will total $3 trillion—which, it goes without saying, is substantially higher than the $50-60 billion the Bush Administration estimated. The cost of the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure cannot be definitively determined. The lasting impact is also hard to determine; for the United States, what remains structurally is a U.S. Embassy that is the world’s largest building complex of its kind. Tellingly, at war’s end it was guarded by 200 service personnel, who were themselves supported by an army of thousands of contractors all holed up in what is basically a fortress. Barely recognized in the U.S. media, the situation in the embassy embodies the war itself—a massively expensive operation enabled by contractors whose engagement reduces U.S. troop involvement, thereby skirting public scrutiny and media coverage. Thus, the war that started as a spectacular twenty-four-hour news event ended as a back-page story of a backwater conflict.
The Iraq War had in its last years become widely known as a quagmire, a common description used to connect it to Vietnam—the U.S. conflict that has become synonymous with the term “quagmire.” Indeed the Vietnam War shaped U.S. understanding of war until Operation Iraqi Freedom. Responding to Vietnam, dominant culture has fetishized the fighters as a band of brothers, an image that works to gain support for the constant militarism required to maintain U.S. neoliberal capitalism. However, this fetishization is only possible through two strategies, both characteristic of the contemporary era:
- privatization (that brings private industry into areas previously dominated by the public sector) and
- governing through freedom (redefining and reinscribing individual freedom so that it becomes a means by which people’s choices are controlled).
These strategies work to distract the public and stifle debate about the human costs of war while significantly increasing the financial costs. I will show that U.S. war today depends on diverting attention away from the reasons for the war and redirecting attention to the U.S. troops who fight it.
Cinematically, the war has been represented by U.S.-based filmmakers through dramatic fiction films such as In the Valley of Elah, Green Zone, and The Hurt Locker as well as documentaries covering a variety of aspects of the war including the troops in combat (such as Occupation: Dreamland, The War Tapes), the impact on the people of Iraq (Iraq in Fragments, My Country, My Country), and U.S. political implications (No End in Sight, Iraq for Sale) to take some key examples. But here I will use Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace (2004), the first theatrically released documentary about U.S. troops in combat in Iraq, as a touchstone for the larger exploration of how war is promoted in the United States and how dominant U.S. culture positions war and service personnel.
The film encapsulates the posture toward the troops and the Iraqi people that enabled neoconservatives to launch the war in the first place—not because the film is a right-wing propaganda piece but precisely because it is not. The film aims to present the troops objectively without comment about the legitimacy or reasons for the war itself. But, as I show, presenting the troops outside of that context actually works to reinforce a pro-war message. I will contrast the film with two other early Iraq War documentaries Control Room (2004) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), but Gunner Palace is central to this analysis because it best reflects the ideology and rationality by which war is sold to the U.S. people.
Gunner Palace follows the men and women of the U.S. Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery (the gunners of the film’s title) who take up residence in one of Uday Hussein’s now-bombed-out palaces (the palace part of the title). As a veteran himself, filmmaker and voiceover narrator Michael Tucker was in a different position than many people in media industries who covered the war at the time. This position made his film’s neutrality on the war—whatever that means in relation to combat coverage—a privilege not generally allowed the diverse media covering the war in its earliest years. Indeed, given the barrage of pro-war propaganda coming from the mainstream U.S. media at the time the film was released, this soldier’s-eye view came across as quite an achievement in the eyes of many reviewers, even anti-war progressives such as Frank Rich of the New York Times who called the film “a true tribute to the American troops in Iraq” and scholar Cynthia Fuchs who judged it “remarkable” in a review for PopMatters. These reviewers saw the film’s capturing of the troops’ words and feelings as an achievement and even as a critique of the war itself. A real achievement, of course, would have been to make an unequivocal critique by taking an unambiguous stand against the war.
What stands out about Gunner Palace, beyond its timely release as the first documentary following the troops in combat in Iraq, is that visually and thematically it feels like an episode of the long-running Fox reality TV show, Cops. This similarity between the two texts is deeply telling. Gunner Palace draws from the same selection of representational techniques that are essential to creating the reality effect in Cops including
- ride-alongs in which civilians are given apparent insider access,
- hand-held camera,
- night-time recording,
- low-resolution footage,
- close-ups on arrestees being pinned,
- some type of car crash,
- the irrelevance of establishing shots,
- alarming diegetic sounds such as the barking of commands to “get down” or “shut up,” and
- the clear disparities between the arrested and the arresters in weaponry, clothing, and level of preparedness.
These features function in Gunner Palace as they do in Cops. In both cases, what the filmed spectacle lacks in complexity, it overcompensates for in “law-and-order ideology”—the idea that “society is seen to be in decline or crisis because of spiraling crime, specifically violent street crime of the underclasses” (Doyle 96). The solution this ideology offers to the alleged problem of the underclasses is tougher law enforcement. We don’t need civil rights; we just need more cops! “Due process and civil rights are part of the problem, because all right-thinking people know [the arrested] are guilty” (Doyle 97). The ideology has no room for consideration of structural causes of crime such as unemployment or poverty, although it does mobilize “systems of meaning that construct people as us and them” (Doyle 97).
Translating law-and-order ideology onto the small screen dictates that audiences only see the officers’ perspective; the camera only follows them. But surprisingly these cops are not really differentiated. The identities of the officers are as irrelevant to the action as the identities of the presumed criminals. So too, the location of the officers and even the year in which an episode was filmed turn out to be fairly irrelevant. Part of the success of the Cops formula is that reruns are just not a problem since there is no significant historical or narrative development. The names and locations change to lend a sense of variety, but the stories and characters are the same:. The officers are undifferentiated heroes and the arrested are faceless criminals who deserve to be carted off to jail.
The Iraq War shows that this law-and-order ideology lends itself as easily to a suspension of the Geneva Conventions as to a suspension of Constitutional rights. Representations such as Cops and Gunner Palace help promote this ideology because in them we only see the viewpoint of the cops and U.S. soldiers on the “front lines.” We do not really get to know these figures in any substantive way. We understand their opposition even less. In Gunner Palace, with the exception of one Gunner named Wilf, who gets more screen time than the others because he provides comic relief and diegetic rock-and-roll guitar playing, the soldiers are interchangeable. We just learn in vague terms that they are brave and professional.
These vague presentations relate as much to the film’s style as content. Using Bill Nichols’ schema for analyzing documentary form, we can say Gunner Palace utilizes a great number of modes. Tucker’s voiceover might seem to make the film expository, a mode characterized by reliance on authoritative narration to make an argument that the images serve to illustrate. But Gunner Palace’s voice-over is in no way a voice-of-God commentary, unless God is also very confused about the events around him. The centrality of the profilmic events resembles the style of observational documentaries in that the filmmakers are recording experiences as they occur without controlling what is happening. But observational documentaries try to hide the presence of the filmmakers, while Tucker’s presence is all over the film. He narrates it in first person, and his voice is even audible asking questions, even though he does not appear on camera. The film is not in the participatory mode of, say, a Michael Moore documentary, but like Moore’s work, Gunner Palace does rely on interviews that highlight the centrality of individual experience. Some of the interview segments are even cropped and placed inside a small frame on screen so as to set the interview apart from the action. In a way, this stylistic device is reminiscent of the confessionals on MTV’s Real World where the housemates take time out from the action to go to a private space to comment on their lives and the events around them. In Gunner Palace, the interviews challenge the audience to feel for the soldiers while the soldiers themselves explicitly challenge the audience to remember them.
Ultimately, this combination of modes hints at something more than the film’s style. For Fuchs, “Gunner Palace thematizes the hopelessness of locating a single truth, in its form and respect for its subjects.” I would argue that this theme of confusion and hopelessness about “the truth” dehistoricizes and depoliticizes the war itself and thus reflects the politics that dominate representations of war in the mainstream media and in most Hollywood fiction films. In this way, Gunner Palace contrasts with the best-known documentary about the Iraq War, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Theunabashedly oppositional stance of Moore’s film comes across through his own commentary as well as other approaches such as dedicating significant screen time to discussions with a mom from his hometown, who tearfully expresses misgivings about the war after losing her son in combat.
For his part, Tucker can be said to be representing Operation Iraqi Freedom “objectively” because he does not make any such pronouncement on it at all. But his objectivity works both to present the possibility of critique and to undercut it. So while depicting the soldiers’ stories, including their hardships, feelings of loneliness, and struggles with insufficient equipment, would seem to make this an anti-war film, by not specifically commenting on what the troops were doing and why they were there, this objectivity actually reads as support for the war because it reinforces the message that the troops are brave and selfless and that the war is all about them, which is precisely what the Pentagon counts on to win and maintain support for all contemporary military operations. As Tony Grajeda’s insightful analysis of combat documentaries in Jump Cut 49 shows, the films’ “concession[s] to ‘realism’” that are meant to reflect the soldiers’ perspective ultimately decontextualize and dehistoricize the reality they aim to convey.
One of the most glaringly decontextualized aspects of Gunner Palace is the limited representation of Iraqis. As with its TV predecessor, Cops, if the heroes are decontextualized, the ostensible bad guys—in this case the Iraqis—are even more vaguely presented and tend to serve in the film as occasions for action by the soldiers. In Gunner Palace, we hear very little from the Iraqis on what it feels like to be at war, especially a war ostensibly for their freedom and their future. The exception here is the Iraqis who work within the coalition who are given a few minutes of screen time. A typical such voice is Shamil, an interpreter, who appears in one of the cropped-image “confessional” segments. He tells the camera
“They call us the ‘betraitors.’ They believe we betrayed our country because we are with the Army. They are the ‘betraitors,’ and we are the good guys. We know we are the good guys because we want to make the new Iraq a good country, and they don’t want this to happen because there will be no more war. And these people can’t live without war….It’s hard for them to change like that and see everyone happy.”
When the only Iraqis given voice also happen to work for the occupiers, it is hard to oppose the occupation out of concern for Iraqi lives. But even these characters are basically decontextualized. And as for the forces who oppose the occupation, they have no real opportunity to articulate their perspectives at all. All we learn of them is that they are the “bad guys” who do not want to see “everyone happy.”
Reinforcing this perspective, the Iraqis who do not work with the Gunners appear in the film generally as suspects or prisoners taken in nighttime raids of their homes. Even the random person on the street has to be suspect because the Gunners can never assume an Iraqi is not going to throw a rock or fire a weapon at them. Exemplifying this sense of mistrust, the soldiers find that even one of their translators, a man they call “Mike Tyson,” began to work with the insurgency.
He is identified by two other Iraqis who work with the Army, “Roy” and “Super Cop,” whom we learn “have captured over 300 insurgents.” In contrast to the invasiveness of the shadowy nighttime raids when soldiers burst violently into the homes of frightened Iraqis in various states of dress, here the Iraqi man is sitting in a brightly lit office next to an Army officer. He winces in pain as U.S. soldiers examine his tight plastic handcuffs. The soldiers offer to loosen the cuffs for him and ask if he’d like to be their prisoner or their guest. He opts for “guest” and his handcuffs are removed. He is scared, but he is treated decently. This is the only post-arrest or interrogation scene in the film. We never see the torture or imprisonment indelibly linked to Abu Ghraib, the prison to which the suspected insurgents are sent. Roy summarizes the situation:
“Whatever you give it to him, he will never respect anything. That’s why Mohammed Tyson is detained, and he’s going to be sentenced to Abu Ghraib for thirty years. That’s it. It’s easy. One plus one is two.”
It is unclear exactly what was given to him, so the audience is left to believe that perhaps what Tyson does not appreciate is the presence of the troops themselves. But unlike Tyson and his arresting officer who appear in a medium shot, the camera captures Roy’s analysis from an off angle that puts Roy in close-up, a shot that certainly can be read in contradictory ways. Is the close-up meant to show intimacy and Roy’s trustworthiness, or is it meant to make Roy seem suspicious? Tucker’s voiceover, with its tone and cadence reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s Willard in Apocalypse Now, reinforces the sense of confusion.
“Until a few weeks ago, Mohammed Tyson was a trusted member of Charlie Battery. Now he’s been accused of identifying and photographing targets for the insurgents. If it’s true he’s responsible for at least three murders, and he’ll be sent to Abu Ghraib prison. Nothing is black and white here.”
If Gunner Palace acknowledges the uncertainty of conclusions—“nothing is black and white here”—the ultimate effect is to see the Iraqis as dangerous to the troops and therefore dangerous to us. Tucker’s “if it’s true” qualifier in the quotation barely registers, in great measure because it functions just like the disclaimer at the beginning of Cops announcing that “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” The statement lends the show a hint of fairness, but none of the profilmic events suggest there is any reason to doubt that the arrested are guilty. Cops’ lack of follow-up on the cases of the arrested lends to the certainty of their guilt. The Iraqis function in Gunner Palace in a similar way. They look guilty, and so they are taken away, and we never hear from them again. Tyson becomes just another busted insurgent.
All these aspects—barely differentiated Iraqi people, slightly more differentiated U.S. soldiers, and Gunner Palace’s resemblance to Cops—embody the rationality behind U.S. war today. A documentary about U.S. troops in the Iraq War looks a lot like an iconic reality show about U.S. police officers because it reflects the key change marked by the War on Terror. The new way of war contrasts with military actions of previous years. Then, as cultural theorist Leerom Medovoi puts it,
“every military confrontation was a police action….[N]ow we might say every police action, every response to the ‘crime’ of terror, has become an act of war” (73).
How did the United States get the opportunity to wage the Iraq War as part of the War on Terror when Iraq committed no terrorist act against the United States? Part of the answer is that many U.S. people blindly accepted the idea that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was a terrorist. But this is just one aspect of the answer. A fuller response takes some backtracking because dominant opinion in the United States post-Vietnam but pre-War on Terror saw military actions in very particular ways.
Militarily intervening in states whose politics were problematic to ostensible U.S. interests had been common practice during the Cold War but was considered too costly after Vietnam unless two conditions obtained: there were economic and humanitarian benefits to be had, and the conflict promised a low casualty count. For example, the 1991 Persian Gulf War showed that support for full-scale conflict was obtainable if the leadership followed the Powell Doctrine requirements of using overwhelming decisive force, asserting well-defined objectives, maintaining international support, and having a clear exit strategy.
The war in Iraq promised to be different. To promote his desired war, President George W. Bush offered ever-changing justifications for the U.S. invasion, including the allegation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Saddam tried to have the previous President Bush assassinated (or as the younger Bush put it, “This is the guy who tried to kill my dad!”), and the uncorrected misperception that Saddam Hussain was behind the September 11 attacks. But eventually Bush’s claims all morphed into a globalized variation of law-and-order ideology—“we” have to kill “them” over there before “they” come over here.[open endnotes in new window]
This ideology runs cover for a larger rationality behind many of today’s wars. Theorist Achille Mbembe calls this rationality necropolitics. Necropolitics can be seen as a subset of Michel Foucault’s biopower that characterizes contemporary sovereignty. Biopower consists of the power of “making live and letting die” as opposed to the older tradition of disciplinary sovereign power, say of a king who exercises the prerogative to “take life or let live” (249). If disciplinary power ultimately rests in the sovereign right to kill, biopower ultimately rests in governing through life processes such as mandating regimes to promote good health, for instance. But Mbembe and Foucault argue that the biopolitics that govern through life rely on a necropolitics in which the death of some is used to ensure the well-being of a population.
Racism stands at the heart of biopower as a way of dividing people by giving a biological-seeming justification for fragmentation and necropolitics. War becomes
“not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that [sort] of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (Foucault 255, 257).
And when the people we identify with go to war, it is to “regenerate” the race.
This rationality came to life in the Bush Doctrine. The Doctrine calls for preventive war, for invasion of sovereign territories based on a belief that the invaded people might become a threat. It is so radical because it instantiates the necropolitical relation that Mbembe says characterizes the West’s relations to colonized territories—where all the standards of legal or just war created by Western modernity do not apply and should be defied. Thus, when Bush stated in his first major post-9/11 address, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” and when in his 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States he claimed, “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends,” he unapologetically announced his version of law-and-order ideology promoted and enforced by necropower.
Bush’s simplistic Manichean policy called for intervention not only when a nation launches an attack against the United States or even threatens to attack, but when any state or non-state actor (hence the fuzzy term “terrorist”) may be considering nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs (“before they are able to threaten” to use such weapons). Indeed, even being friendly with such an entity can justify invasion. And as with law-and-order ideology, the fundamental problem lies not just with the criminal, or in the globalized version, the rogue state or terrorist. The problem is also caused by those who stand up for due process—that is, liberals, civil libertarians, opponents of war, and other ostensibly soft personalities—who are said to be hampering the police or the military effort. Just as law-and-order ideology overlooks structural causes of crime and instead uses racist, us-versus-them logics to explain social and legal problems, neoliberal war marshals racism to caricature an “enemy” that is only interested in the United States’ destruction and therefore must be stopped—even before it poses an actual threat to the United States. Indeed, the National Security Strategy also stated a critical point—the United States would act unilaterally in any way it thought necessary to protect or promote the United States and would never again allow its military preeminence to be challenged as it had been during the Cold War.
The National Security Strategy would thus represent a challenge and a change for the post-Cold War United States. It formally committed the United States to constant nation-building war and is thus an expensive proposition, in terms of both lives and treasure. The U.S. people’s support would have to be won and maintained in order for such a goal to be accomplished. From the Administration’s perspective, living out the implications of the National Security Strategy required not careful consideration of the conduct of war but careful consideration of how to sell war to the U.S. people.
From this perspective, I want to consider the United States’ opening gambit in the Iraq War: the strategy of Shock and Awe. Associated with Harlan Ullman and James Wade, coauthors of 1996’s Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, the strategy was adopted as part of the larger effort at “Force Transformation” (also known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs”), a Pentagon initiative that became Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s pet project. Transformation under Rumsfeld was an attempt to make the U.S. military as lean, high-tech, non-bureaucratic, and as much like a neoliberal corporation as possible. This effort would have many consequences including maximizing U.S. military dominance while minimizing the number of troops in combat and consequently minimizing the likelihood of U.S. public interference in the execution of war. According to Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe delivers
“instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives even with relatively few numbers or systems. The employment of this capability against society and its values… is massively destructive, strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist.” (23)
Overwhelming the enemy is not a new strategy, but what makes it new is Ullman and Wade’s combination of Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki levels of violent spectacle with the precision, surveillance, and communications abilities of the highest high technology. Indeed, they call for “brilliance in execution” as a requirement for success of their strategy. The goal of Shock and Awe is stated in their book’s subtitle, “Achieving Rapid Dominance.” That is the marker of success and the goal of the strategy. After all, “many challenges or crises in the future are likely to be marginal to U.S. interests and therefore may not be resolvable before American political staying power is exhausted” (37-38). Thus, Rapid Dominance is meant to demoralize the public being attacked while encouraging the U.S. public before it loses patience with a war it did not particularly want.
The promise of high-tech warfare is that it would ostensibly limit U.S. force commitment and losses by reducing the number of troops needed in the field. Indeed in the first heady days of the Iraq War, Ullman suggested there would be no need for ground warfare as was required in the Gulf War and thus almost no loss of U.S. life. That this sunny prediction turned out to be the very opposite of reality is not necessarily proof that Ullman and Wade’s approach did not finally serve the Pentagon’s purposes, however. It may in fact demonstrate that the intended target for Shock and Awe may not have only been the Saddam government—which did in fact fall quickly and with low U.S. casualties—but also the American people who also “fell” quickly believing that opposition to the war was just out of touch. That is to say, Shock and Awe may not only have helped erode the Iraqi military’s will to fight, it also helped erode many Americans’ will to oppose war by making any domestic opposition look hopelessly ineffectual and just plain out-of-touch in the face of the United States’ inevitable and glorious victory.
Shock and Awe is not a strategy for dealing with a protracted counterinsurgency, as the Iraq War became, since it is intended primarily to reduce the need for U.S. troops to physically enter battle at all. Rapid Dominance is a strategy not only for protecting U.S. life but also for protecting American lifestyle. Wars for lifestyle are wars “without a threat or compelling reason” to adopt Ullman and Wade’s phrase (38). These conflicts are not needed in terms of security but to protect the position of U.S. capital. Thus, the authors reason that war needs to be kept short and with as few risks to troops as possible, which leads to a key question, if the strategy is meant to keep troops out of battle, how does it enable protracted war?
September 11 changed the conditions that would ensure the U.S. people’s support for war. It created a foundation that Shock and Awe, and Force Transformation in general, could build upon. For even if Shock and Awe was meant to be used in an environment in which casualty figures had to be kept exceedingly low in order to keep U.S. popular support, as it turned out, the strategy worked not by scaring the opponent’s troops as much as changing the people back home, helping reorient the American population to support a prolonged “war on terror” because it made sure that militarism looks good to audiences watching on TV.
From this perspective, Shock and Awe worked to bridge the gap between previous U.S. war policy, which was largely a reaction to Vietnam, and a new period. In the United States, people were shocked and awed into blind support and one aspect of U.S. life that would begin to be “transformed” was the willingness to stay in a protracted war in order to regenerate the “American race.”
If 9/11 was the immediate source of the changed attitude toward war, 9/11 itself did not lead to the Iraq War. Indeed, the initial U.S. response was to launch war in Afghanistan. Though utterly avoidable and rightfully avoided, the Afghanistan War was an easily predictable response that would not necessarily have marked the beginning of a different approach to war or a new era of U.S. relations with the world. Indeed, international support was relatively plentiful in Afghanistan, and the United States’ initial bunker-busting attacks were deadly effective and could have led to a very different outcome for al Qaeda and Afghanistan if the war had been fought with very specific goals, as was the Gulf War. But launching an internationally condemned and nearly unilateral war with Iraq, a nation well known not to be a threat, signaled a change in the United States’ relations with the world. The United States would depart from its post-Cold War Washington Consensus posture of using neoliberal market reforms to promote U.S-defined interests.
According to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine one goal of the Iraq War was to build a nation governed by neoliberal principles. Whether her analysis is correct or not, it is certain that the Iraq War would continue to be fought long after most Americans understood there was no “threat or compelling reason” for U.S. involvement and long after the death toll reached previously unacceptable numbers; clearly there had been a significant change. The continued war was a sign of the success of techniques adopted by U.S. power to enable U.S. militarism.
Fetishizing the fighter
To remain a superpower and exercise superpower colonial prerogatives requires more than support for any particular war; it requires the maintenance of a military-industrial complex. This is a larger and longer-term historical, political, and ideological project than the execution of any single war. Central to that effort was a decades-long battle to put the members of the military at the center of the American national imaginary, and it is to them that I now turn.
It has been well established that once the U.S. goes to war, the American people will support the effort—regardless of their pre-war convictions. This apolitical stance is suited to imperialist war and it promotes a moral stance by which good citizenship depends not on supporting a necessary war but supporting war regardless of a conflict’s rightness or its political goals (Lucas and McCarthy). But just as Gunner Palace (and Cops before it) gives its audience no particular warrior hero to identify with, the Iraq War offered mostly a vague idea of supporting the troops as seen in the ubiquitous “Support Our Troops” phrases that were plastered on the mundane surfaces of commercial life—everything from yellow-ribbon bumper magnets to pizza boxes. In this societal push to blindly support the troops, the United States underwent a depoliticization of war: supporting the troops has become an end in itself.
This depoliticization and unthinking loyalty fetishizes the soldier and is a key part of the way the population is mobilized. This fetishized view of the soldier has its roots in the Cold War when the Pentagon embarked on a PR effort to link the U.S. military with the institutions of civil society such as churches and schools. If the U.S. were to maintain a large standing army, it would have to reassure a population traditionally mistrustful of a strong central government that the enemy abroad was much worse than the potential threat from the nation’s own executive branch or from the “unwholesome influence” of life away from home (see Loveland). But if a draft were a key element in making the United States a global power, so too the draft was key in making the military a power within the United States.
That is, in the Cold War’s early years the draft helped make the military and militarism itself all-American. Key to that acceptance was a combination of the presence of an enemy easily caricatured as Godless, and the military’s inclusion of special religious-based instruction as an element in basic military training instated in order to reassure small-town United States of the morality of the world outside. With these Cold War changes the foundation was set for the military to become as American as apple pie. By the early 1960s, public opinion had become generally very favorable toward the military and conscription (Loveland 805). However, with the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, this favorable opinion would change. By the next decade, the draft had become as much an albatross as a lifeline for the war effort; it provided fighters but inspired tremendous resistance.
Ending the draft was the only way to stanch the considerable and widespread resentment that developed toward the military. The decades-long practice of conscription was no longer feasible in the U.S. context. As troops moved out of Vietnam and went about the more prosaic Cold War duties, the United States found new ways to attract the enlistees required to maintain its large standing army and its “empire of bases,” to borrow a term from Chalmers Johnson. Catchy slogans such as “Be all you can be!” encouraged enlistment, especially among working-class youth who saw little chance of being all they could be without military service.
Indeed, “Be All You Can Be” emerges directly from a biopolitical perspective. People join the military not because the law forces them to but because they choose to in order to acquire the skills to become “successful” members of society. If studies reveal a clear connection between economic circumstances and military enlistment—a 10 percent increase in unemployment usually leads to a 5 percent increase in military enlistment (Bender)—we can nevertheless say of enlistees that they chose to sign up. However, it is more accurate to say that they were governed through their freedom to sign up. For as Nikolas Rose explains,
“the present-day ethics of freedom itself, are not antithetical to power…but actually the resultants of specific configurations of power, certain technological inventions, certain more or less rationalized techniques of relating to ourselves” (54).
Furthermore, voluntary enlistment increases citizen support for the military and military action by making troops the best endorsement for the military itself. Their volunteer status suggests that they endorse the conflicts into which they are being deployed. As Christian Parenti writes, “Volunteering implicates [troops], effectively stripping them of the victim status that conscription allowed.” Removing their victim status creates support for militarism as much as for the military’s enlistees who can now be reframed as brave heroes as opposed to beleaguered victims of tragic political decisions, and since it is their lives on the line, opposition back home has a much tougher time resisting. (Note that tne opposition's lives do not count in these negotiations.)
Just as effective in attaining support for service, but operating on a different level of insidiousness, has been the decades-old desire to apologize for the treatment of soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam. Reports of returning vets besieged at the airport by angry anti-war protestors abusing them with charges of “baby killer!” and spitting on them have created the image of the tragically unappreciated veteran—unloved and unwanted, he embodied the humiliation of loss and the sense of betrayal that arose in the wake of an unpopular imperialist war.
The main problem with this story of misplaced U.S. dissent is that it is an urban legend. As Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke demonstrates convincingly in The Spitting Image, no one can corroborate these attacks on vets. There is no evidence that they happened. However, what is demonstrably true about the stories of alienated veterans coming home to be spat upon is that they have become key in deterring citizens from mobilizing against war in a fear of being perceived as not supporting the troops. It is this sympathy for unappreciated veterans that finally sealed the national ideological love for soldiers. Since Vietnam, Americans are expected to never question the goodness of the troops themselves. The troops’ motives are to be presumed pure and untroubled by politics. It thus becomes inappropriate for opponents of a war to inject politics into what is ostensibly the post-political reality of troops in harm’s way. Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser’s “Rewriting the Vietnam War” argues that this depoliticization is the starting point for a narrative of victimization on which so many Vietnam films are built. From right-wing fictions like Rambo to the ostensibly progressive perspective of Platoon, the films represent the Vietnam War as a story of the victimization of the soldier.
Building from Studlar and Desser, Tony Grajeda shows that this perspective has become the starting point for Iraq War documentaries such as Gunner Palace. These representations of soldiers at war do not argue that the war is right or wrong—just that the warriors must live. In these representations the political becomes nonsense, or to put it more precisely, the political message may be accessible in the fact that justifications for the war are not mentioned. But this depoliticization, which is also a dehistoricization and reification, reflects the way soldiers themselves fight and the way the U.S. population supports them.
Troops in combat
Troops fight not for causes such as freedom and the other catchwords that are thrown about in political speeches. Troops fight for each other, and that has been one of the essential aspects shaping their training at least since General S.L.A. Marshall’s hugely influential 1947 study Men Against Fire maintained that most soldiers did not actually fire their guns in combat. It was determined that the best way to increase troop kill rates was not to train them to fight for principles or even to follow orders, but to train them realistically and to encourage them to fight for each other and with a sense of cohesion. As Marshall argued,
“[The soldier’s] first duty is to join his force to others!” (127, Marshall’s emphasis).
Marshall’s study has since come under attack, but its impact has nevertheless been huge. In Iraq that impact was felt not only in training but also in the policy that soldiers would not generally leave combat individually but as whole companies (Parenti). Team that unit solidarity with the sense of obligation that arises from voluntary enlistment, and we see how loyalty and an unwillingness to break bonds with one’s fellows creates a tremendous sense of obligation and duty. Troops are motivated to fight by the fact that they joined the military of their own free will and because they are fighting for their band of brothers. Tellingly, at the height of the Iraq War as the Army was struggling to sign new recruits, the Army Reserve exceeded its targets of re-enlisting soldiers, even though Reservists had been called up in unprecedented numbers to serve in active duty in Iraq. Moreover, large numbers of Reservists opted to enlist in the active-duty Army rather than reenlisting in the Reserves (Vanden Brook).
Despite this wide willingness to reenlist and fight, the numbers of active duty personnel were not increasing sufficiently to staff two wars and maintain the empire of bases. Nevertheless, there was no draft. Conscription would have destroyed much of the support (or tolerance) the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars received. Instead the U.S. military relied increasingly on staffing through privatization; that is, by using military contractors. This allows the whole world in effect to be recruited for the U.S. military since contractors come from all parts of the globe. Though it is claimed that they lower costs by bringing competition and efficiency, in Iraq they were vehicles of unprecedented excess because there was almost no competition for contracts. Defense services corporation Halliburton-KBR (now just KBR) alone earned in the first years of the Iraq War three times what it cost the United States to fight the entire Gulf War (Singer, “Can’t Win” 2). In truth, these contractors’ most important role from the Pentagon perspective was to enable military policy to be conducted with little public input and thus to disable the opposition. So while their job was to increase manpower, it was also to make those troops deployed as comfortable as possible.
Like all military forces in combat, those deployed in Iraq were putting themselves in the gravest danger, but the reality of everyday life in combat was very different from any previous U.S. war experience. Private contractors provided services to make troops feel at home—as much as possible in the middle of a war in a foreign land. These troops often lived in permanent or semi-permanent operating bases, such as Gunner Palace, and they ate diets so rich that they gained an average of ten pounds on deployment (Kennedy). From a counterinsurgency rationale, these deployment conditions are irrational—they inspired tremendous resentment among the civilian population, required incalculable resources to maintain (incalculable because of the massive graft and corruption that accompanies this way of war), and necessitated dangerous supply runs in order to bring the provisions to the bases. But from the contractors’ perspective such services made perfect sense:
“the bigger the bases they build and operate, the more fast food franchises they open, the more salsa dance lessons they offer, the more money that the firm makes” (Singer, “Corporate Warriors” 5).
It is worth contrasting the position of the contractors to that of the troops. While both contractors and members of the armed services can be said to be in service by choice, at least choice as made possible within the logic of capitalism, contractors can quit their jobs whenever they choose to. Members of the military cannot. And thus management of active duty personnel—and this category includes Reservists and National Guard troops—is different than managing contractors.
Private contractors remain in service in Iraq for any number of private reasons, but certainly one key factor is that their pay is quite high. At war’s start, the annual salary for an Army specialist or corporal with more than four years’ experience was $21,769; truck drivers working for private firms could take home $80,000-100,000 in one year (Kidwell 54). Enlisted people thus are governed, at least in part, by something other than the immediate need for a paycheck. Though pay is essential, these combatants are governed through other motivations including their sense of fraternal loyalty. To understand the implications of this loyalty, we must sidetrack back to Vietnam.
While this sense of fraternal loyalty generally achieves the military’s aims, the experience of Vietnam showed that if soldiers fight to protect each other, they might also resist fighting to protect each other. Indeed, the Vietnam War gave birth not just to a strong civilian anti-war movement but a strong GI anti-war movement. In short, the military may be playing a dangerous game in making the troops themselves the reasons soldiers fight.
Many speculate that Nixon shifted the ground war to the air in Vietnam because troops on the ground increasingly refused to fight. Fragging—that is, intentionally wounding or killing a fellow member, often a superior officer, of one’s own military—is the most excessive case of combat refusal. But it was a fact of life and death for soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, where in 1970, for instance, the Army reported 109 cases of fragging. Certainly, the likelihood of such extreme instances of combat refusal occurring increase in a protracted, directionless war when all that remains among personnel are their connections to each other.
If widespread insurrection is not a part of Vietnam War history that officials highlight or that schoolroom U.S. history texts even mention, the insurrectionists’ message is being contested in the anti-politics bias of most texts representing American war. If war is politics by another name, and if the politics leading to war make no sense, then war makes no sense. But the conclusion from that syllogism is not necessarily to avoid war. Very often the conclusion is to fight wars for reasons other than politics. And that apolitical orientation structures embedded-reporter narratives like Gunner Palace.
Thus in Gunner Palace, the conflicts the protagonists find themselves embroiled in are “deadly but vaguely ennobling” (80) as critic Tom Bissel puts it. I would argue that it is vaguely ennobling in showing the soldiers as they try to explain to the cameras that only people who have been in the war can really understand it. One of the more memorable lines from the film comes from Sergeant Robert Beatty who claims, “If you watch this, you’re going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I say. You’ll forget me by the end.” The claim from all these soldiers is that we cannot understand their experience and probably don’t really care unless we have actually been there. The soldiers thus present their experience as auratic and this representation reifies the war; it becomes an experience in itself, outside of context. To remove political and historical context can make war into a noble adventure or a tragic trauma but the effect either way is to depoliticize and dehistoricize the event as if the troops were the reason for the war.
Why we fight: the Vietnam syndrome
Just as troops are trained to support each other, so too the U.S. public has been trained to support the troops.
“For many Americans, a war ethics has given way to this warrior ethics—to a focus on bonds of fidelity experienced by fellow soldiers amid the inhumanity of war….Unlike the politics of American duty, the contemporary imperative of war is to stand by our soldiers regardless of political purposes” (Lucas and McCarthy 176-77).
This support connects us back to Vietnam and the national hand wringing over the treatment of returning soldiers. Indeed, most representations of the war in film and television argue that politics and principles do not really make any sense; all that matters is the band of brothers with whom one fights (Lucas and McCarthy).
So if soldiers fight mostly for reasons outside of the official national ideologies of spreading freedom, ensuring liberty, and protecting the rule of law, the U.S. people generally support them for reasons outside of those ideologies as well. And this sense of commitment to the soldiers’ unity has been translated to mean that support of the military is essential for the troops’ survival. The practice of training troops to fight for each other was now made manifest throughout the population; the United States would go to war to maintain bonds with the troops.
Here we must reconsider the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. It was not, as William Safire labeled it “that revulsion at the use of military power.” It was a reluctance to get into war for reasons that did not include the troops themselves. So too, the Cold War motives of the Vietnam War have largely been reframed so that the war is now often seen as a struggle over what kind of nation the United States was internally and how Americans victimized the troops.
And in answer to the pragmatic question that arose after the end of the Cold War—Why keep a huge military force if there is no huge military enemy?—the answer is provided in part by the mere existence of the force itself. This is not to deny that Americans value security and actual force strength, but it is to recognize that the reasons for militarization tend to be highly emotional. Regardless of the specific conditions of any military intervention post-Vietnam, the existence of the military helps provide its justification for its continued existence.
This circularity was fully realized in the Gulf War where a well-coordinated media campaign by the White House and Pentagon “conflated the objectives of war with those who had been sent to fight the war” (Lembcke 20). The initial goal as stated by George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James A. Baker of keeping Middle Eastern oil flowing uninterruptedly to the United States was apparently seen as too mercenary and was just not resonating. So a pathos-laden case was fabricated about Iraqi atrocities toward helpless Kuwaiti women and tiny Kuwaiti babies—and that helped move sympathy a bit. But what really created support for the war was the war itself. Certainly, the Powell Doctrine’s guarantees helped but ultimately it was putting the troops in “harm’s way,” as the cliché goes, that got the U.S. people behind the effort (See Lembcke and Kellner). Eventually, a desire to apologize to the troops for the national lack of gratitude about Vietnam became part of the war justification structure. Vietnam veterans were even invited to march in parades held to honor the US’s victory in the Gulf War.
So too the younger President Bush initiated his war in Iraq with a chaff-filled campaign of multiple ad hoc justifications for deploying U.S. troops, after which he just launched them into battle. But deposing Saddam Hussain and occupying Iraq as opposed to simply moving Saddam out of Kuwait as the United States did in the Gulf War would require more impetus than merely moving the troops into position; in the case of the Iraq War, 9/11 helped provide that, but it was the “Support the Troops” mantra that kept support steady for the war as it developed over the first few years. It was only when troops continued dying and the situation on the ground in Iraq did not significantly improve that support for the war broadly began to shift. But in supporting the war no less than in calling for its end, the justification is always the wellbeing of the troops (and, incidentally, not the Iraqi people!)
Gunner Palace operates precisely on this terrain. It attempts to be a representation of soldiers at war outside of politics and outside of history, not commenting on whether the war is right—just that the warriors deserve to live. One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when one of the Gunners makes an ironic commentary about their inadequate armor. He is captured in a medium shot as he guides the camera operator on a “tour” of a vehicle that had just been through an improvised-explosive-device (IED) attack.
“Part of our $87 billion budget, provided for us to have some secondary armor put on top of our thin-skinned Humvees. This armor was made in Iraq. It’s high-quality metal, and it will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going clean through. And that’s about it.”
As he finishes, soldiers in his company literally fall to the ground laughing at the harsh reality of their life near death. A title is inserted over the image of a soldier overcome with laughter:
“With 18 Confirmed IED Attacks, Charlie Battery holds the Task Force record.”
It is in such moments that the film leans toward a much-needed critique of how the Defense Department failed the grunts on the ground. But the criticism is neither sustained nor substantiated, and the soldiers’ laughter, which lends the critique its poignancy, serves in the same minute to undercut it. We can write off their tragic vulnerability as another example of the soldiers’ bravery and honor. And because these soldiers joined of their own accord, their deep vulnerability makes them that much braver.
Failures of communication
From the soldiers’ perspective, their experience in Iraq is utterly incomprehensible to those who have not fought, and this claim serves to heighten the viewers’ attempted identification with them, even if audiences know they cannot fully comprehend the war from movie representations. The soldiers, however, do not acknowledge that their reality of war is not uncomplicatedly real and shaped by just being there; it too is shaped by war films and news coverage and by the fact that they are aware they are being filmed. Gunner Palace shows soldiers living their lives in a state of heightened self-awareness that is as essential for survival in war as it is for popularity in reality-TV or reality-TV-inspired cinema. As one palace poet, Specialist Richmond Shaw, explained it, “But when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit/ That’s when our hearts start racing and our stomach’s get woozy/Cuz for y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.”
What the audience rarely saw “living in the movie” were the Iraqi people themselves. Americans might imagine that there was great suffering but actually saw very little of it—not just in this film but also in U.S. coverage of the war in general. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, Control Room (2004) offers crucial insight here, even if the war she shows happens in the control room of the Arabic news network Al Jazeera and in the U.S. Army’s Central Command in Qatar—ground zero for media covering the pre-“mission accomplished” ground war before George W. Bush declared that the United States had won “the Battle of Iraq.” What Noujaim’s documentary does so well is show the constructedness of war while letting viewers see its Iraqi victims—even if our view of them is through Al Jazeera footage.
This documentary differs from Gunner Palace not only in showing the suffering of Iraqis but by individuating the subjects of the film and letting the audience know the people on the scene. These “characters” help the audience understand the war through somewhat different perspectives—especially by depicting Marine media manager Josh Rushing debate Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim. Of course, what is missing in both this film and Gunner Palace are any developed Iraqi “characters” on the ground. Control Room is about the media and especially Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war, not exactly about the war itself. But at least this approach to the conflict is very different from the Pentagon’s. I cannot say the same thing about Gunner Palace.
There the Iraqis are nebulous, undifferentiated, except in notable instances such as when the translator betrays the troops. This is a point Control Room makes: neither the U.S. media nor military establishment understands the significance of the war to the people of the Middle East—which is not to make some essentializing argument that all people of the Middle East are the same. Again this is a point Control Room covers well: it shows the diversity of the region, which we can see just in the Al Jazeera control room itself. But the war did its part to at once exacerbate long-standing divides while at the same time heightening a popular sense of Middle Eastern unity—at least when it comes to dealing with the United States. And this U.S. unwillingness to see the Iraqi people, or the people of the Middle East, in little other than in the most generalized perspective is an old dynamic that Edward Saïd discussed decades ago when he argued that media representations give us little more than
“a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression” (189).
Indeed, if Gunner Palace’s perspective mirrors the Pentagon’s view of the war ,then we could see from that early representation that the war was not going to be won. For if the film—like the Pentagon—is self aware, it is not at all aware of the people of Iraq, even if it was the Iraqis who, in the midst of civil conflict brought on by the invasion and the power vacuum it created, were being killed at the rate of one hundred per day by summer 2006.
Gunner Palace reflects the undifferentiated pose of traditional media representations of the Middle East. In the end this unwillingness to make distinctions reflects the Pentagon’s attitude toward the war. The ideas and images that have emerged from official discourse were vague: the soldiers are noble; the reasons for the war are irrelevant; and the Iraqis are a heaving mass, a roadblock to an unexpressed goal and their resistance is a deadly nuisance. Therefore, on some level Gunner Palace illustrates failures of communication. We see officers who try to manage populations to whom they cannot speak. We see Arabic interpreters who betray their U.S. employers. And we see soldiers who maintain that the audience cannot understand the experience of war. But we can also see the film as itself a case study in the failure of communication because it fails to communicate who fought in this war despite its claims to cover the reality of the life of the fighting forces.
But more importantly, the film fails to communicate the dimensions of human suffering that are at the root of war. For instance, the narrator tells us that one of the Gunners dies, but we never get to know him. We hear the filmmaker had a special affection for the dead soldier, but we never really see that relationship. Indeed, this tendency in the film reflects in its own way, the Bush Administration policy that did not allow the public to see the coffins of dead U.S soldiers. The most that was shown was a photo from before the soldier or Marine went to war, usually in a segment with a name like “Fallen Heroes” at the end of the evening news. Sometimes the picture was an official military photo, say of a serious-faced private in uniform, other times a guy sitting on the couch in a rec room in a suburban home; on occasion, it was a wide-smiling graduate in a cap and gown. These images were placed next to a name, rank, age, hometown. Occasionally, we might learn a little more personal information about the fallen like the number of children they left behind or their pre-war occupations or the sports teams they played on, but that was mostly it.
If the public felt any sorrow for the loss of thousands of U.S. service members in combat, it was a sorrow most people in the United States had to choose to feel. But there was little compelling most Americans to even notice any casualties at all since those were very deliberately placed in the background. That is the same choice Gunner Palace allows us as well. We can choose to care a little or not at all. And this too seems to be a failure of communication since the war is being fought in the U.S. people’s name, with U.S. tax dollars, and purportedly for U.S. safety.
However, from the dominant Pentagon perspective, failure of communication means something quite different: it means failure to control communication. And this according to many U.S. war apologists is the purported failure that led to the United States’ loss in Vietnam. For it was ostensibly the media that eroded domestic support for that war by showing the horrors of the battlefield. George H.W. Bush’s Pentagon dealt with the “problem” of battlefield journalism in the Gulf War by strictly controlling media access, keeping the press in tight pools, and deciding when, where, and who would be interviewed. The memorable images from that war were not the frontline troops but the impact video shot from the nose cones of missiles as they headed with deadly precision toward their targets (and failing precision, viewers could at least see that something was blown to smithereens). As many scholars have commented at length, this approach gave the U.S. viewer the unfeeling and unthinking point of view of the weapon (see Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place).
George W. Bush’s Pentagon developed a whole other method for dealing with the media and the “failures” of communication they could cause. In the Iraq War, the media were managed not by limiting their access but by giving them full access to their subjects; that is, by embedding reporters with the troops. In pragmatic terms, because the reporters’ safety depended on these troops, the reporter would certainly be unlikely to relate anything controversial. Furthermore, that kind of constant monitoring of battle by reporters also meant that reporters were themselves subject to being closely monitored by troops. But that is not really the genius of embedding, for certainly a reporter could file any critical stories upon returning to the United States. The real genius from the Pentagon perspective is the same genius that goes into training today’s forces.
That is, both embedding and today’s training emphasize camaraderie. Like the military, the press is governed through its freedom and sense of loyalty to the troops. Indeed, the “success” of this approach was most evident in the emphasis of the media’s coverage: given the possibility of investigating the Pentagon’s claims about weapons of mass destruction or exposing the abuse and torture of prisoners, the embedded media chose to cover the human interest story of the troops in battle. As with WWII coverage, these media felt allied with troops. But unlike WWII, media had the legal possibility of disseminating critical or investigative stories but generally chose not to because of instructions from pro-war corporate ownership or fear of blowback from audiences and others charging them with demoralizing the troops.
Several points are important to note here. The first is that the idea for embedding as it was conducted in Iraq came from a short-lived program made by master ideologist Jerry Bruckheimer—the reactionary movie mogul behind Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and Top Gun—who teamed up with Bertram Van Munster—producer of Cops. The show Profiles from the Front Line, which got up-close and personal with troops deployed in Afghanistan, was such a success by the Pentagon’s reckoning that it authorized the process more widely resulting in embedding becoming the signature journalistic style of the war.
This approach would seem to contrast with the footage from missile nose cones that was the signature style of the Gulf War. But what needs to be understood is that the two types of coverage—U.S. troop perspective and U.S. missile perspective—actually have everything to do with each other. Both are products of a biopolitical approach to warfare whose goal is to kill the ostensible enemy while “regenerating the race” by conditioning the U.S. public to support militarism. The nose-cone camera, like Shock and Awe, was a key strategy to promote U.S. support for war. Both approaches are perfect for wars in a mass-mediated society. So too the embedded reporter is ultimately a PR stunt perfect for wars in the era of the twenty-four-hour news network. It lionizes the troops, and because of the appearance of openness, ultimately shapes the message far more effectively than actual regulation and censorship of the media.
That this potential for extensive coverage also opens the potential for release of footage detailing abuse and civilian casualties is a point that could hardly have been lost on strategists. As it turned out, this was not a problem. Thus, despite Constitutional protections guaranteed the U.S. press, it was the international press who aired the stories the U.S. military did not want released. Most significant was their willingness to provide the graphic visual evidence of reported events: for example, day-to-day violence in Iraq, extensive Abu Ghraib photos, and the “Downing Street memo” revealing George Bush’s very early intent to go to war in Iraq. Indeed, the only reporters the Pentagon directly impeded were those who were not willing or able to embed: foreign media who covered the war from non-coalition perspectives and reporters who stayed unattached to any unit. In the early days of the war, it was these un-embedded reporters who were in the most physical danger, and the danger came less from Iraqi fighters than from the U.S. military, as evidenced, for example, by the shelling of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, well known to be the lodgings of the international press and resulting in five casualties (Committee to Protect Journalists) or the missile strike that hit Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Baghdad that became a central event in Control Room.
In those early days of the war, such events, explained as accidents, were certainly made likely to happen because of Pentagon strategies like “Shock and Awe” that advocated unsparing levels of violence. And like embedding, Shock and Awe was born as much out of the Pentagon’s desire to avoid its “failures” of communication as to defeat an enemy. Indeed, to fully understand the Executive Branch’s attitude to war, we need simply note erstwhile White House Chief of Staff Andy Card’s explanation for the March start date of Operation Iraqi Freedom: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
All of these policies effectively work to contain opposition. But even representations that focus on opposition to war, such as the insufficiently recognized Sir! No Sir! (2005)—a documentary about the GI anti-Vietnam War movement—still operate along the support-the-troops logic. Indeed, Jane Fonda, the utter embodiment of troop hating for the militaristic set, makes a point of explaining in the film that she was working with GIs in opposition to the war. It is the service personnel who legitimize her opposition to the war, so yet again, the soldiers’ experience is privileged—not just because soldiers make up the focus of the film but as a justification in itself. Taking this perspective to its logical conclusion, the Iraq War should have ended when the soldiers said it was over. But of course, they are not really the reason the United States fights; they are the reason Americans support (and sometimes resist) the fighting. Thus, what we see is a kind of unit cohesion writ large upon the U.S. population that relates back to the earlier discussion of Cops. In that representational frame, the police are always the heroes. So too it is assumed that the people they arrest are always the bad guys. But really, their guilt or innocence does not matter: it is the showing up and arresting someone that is important. And that same representational frame was operating in the first years’ coverage of the war. If the troops were in a war, then the war was the right thing for the troops to be in and the right thing for the United States to be in. From Gunner Palace to Cops to the twenty-four-hour news, promises of showing everyday Americans the true stories of combat and crime ultimately erode political discourse and elevate the necropolitical perspectives that promote contemporary U.S. war law-and-order ideology. In Iraq, as soon as the war could no longer be easily seen in that framework, the war coverage began to fade and eventually so did the American people’s support.
1. George W. Bush offered many variations on this theme, but just to offer one typical quotation from an April 2007 speech to troops at Fort Irwin, California, “The strategy is to defeat the enemy overseas so we don’t have to face them here at home.” [return to text]
2. This policy changed in Barack Obama’s administration.
3. Note that by the standards of network television the show was apparently a failure as ABC neither renewed it nor allowed it to continue on to Baghdad, a front line from which Bruckheimer received Pentagon permission to film (Gillies).
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