“On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realises for the first time in how many places a man can get hit.”
The passage is from Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Paul Bäumer, the hero, also reflects about death: “We have almost grown accustomed to it; war is a cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery. The deaths are merely more frequent, more varied and terrible.”
In the United States, the dead and wounded of the Iraq war haven’t been so fortunate as to be grown accustomed to. They’ve been ignored. Chalked up to an abstraction indistinguishable from the kind of “dead” Americans see on their nightly television shows and in Shwartzenegger movies.
“In any given period during prime time viewing hours,” the Boston Globe once reported, “there are at least 50 people killed, shot, maimed, or raped across the spectrum of broadcast and cable television channels”.
The dead and wounded of the Iraq war are barely visible because they can’t compete with the numbers in prime time - neither in factual numbers nor in dramatic effect. Prime time’s dead are more interesting. They’re simple. They usually have no names, make no emotional demands, and they’re excellent props for plots that use them as means to obvious ends: within 48 minutes - if it’s an hour-long drama and the ads for vagina lubricants and other orificial commodities are excluded - “justice” has been done, the dead have been avenged, usually by killing those who killed them, and wisecracks have been exchanged all around.
The credits, as they roll, are as meaningless as the names on a war memorial. The 11 o’clock news, local as it is, won’t even mention the real dead in those real war zones far, far away.
When an American soldier dies his story is written up in his hometown paper, powerfully enough usually, but the story’s effect is limited to that newspaper’s readership zone. There is no totality in the reporting of war casualties, no sense that one soldier’s death, no matter where from, affects the whole nation.
A town in Montana will ache for a lost son by itself, as if it alone is experiencing loss. What mourning and suffering does take place is solitary because it is inherently isolated.
It is existentialism at its bitterest, though don’t expect our information society ever to touch on the subject more than gingerly. It’s an aspect of that sickness of compulsive “localism” in American journalism: if it’s not local, it’s not relevant. If 12 Americans from other states are killed in a single day, your state, should it have been spared, will not care.
Newsy attention will rather be focused on Nancy Grace and Larry King, who’ll be busy exploring the depths and breadth of the latest mystery disappearance of the white model with 38-C breasts and a million-dollar estate. So news of the dead is forcibly diffused, its impact lessened to the point of irrelevance beyond that daily listing printed in a few newspapers.
The disconnect is a huge benefit to the government, to this government in particular, to whom hiding the dead is official policy, and to this president in particular, who has never showed up at a single soldier’s funeral, and who doesn’t know the difference between a casualty and a cliché.
Brit Hume of the Fox-Bush Network once asked him this question: “When things go badly, as many people would feel they have been in Iraq with the continuing casualties and struggles and difficulties, do you ever doubt?”