A CNN clip of U.S. soldiers coming under insurgent sniper fire was preceded by a Le Monde report on a UN cable indicating the Iraqi government was suppressing casualty reports which was preceded by the Johns Hopkins study on Iraq War fatalities-these back-to-back developments have spotlighted how a polarized America regards media coverage of the human cost of the Iraq War.
To put it bluntly, corpses have long been either hidden or emphasized in ideological contests between pro- and anti-war contingencies. Surely, attempts by government officials to hide the dead (or media coverage of the dead) appear unseemly to many Americans. But there is also a widespread sense that drawing attention to the dead and wounded (ours and theirs) is demagogic-intended to appeal to emotions and potentially detracting from a dispassionate, measured evaluation of the war.
The controversy regarding the aforementioned developments played out under those parameters, with one side drawing attention to the human cost of war, while the other both rejected the scale of the cost and derided the judgment of media executives for graphic coverage.
So there are lingering questions: how is the dead or wounded legitimately covered by the media? What do mounting corpses say about a war? Indeed, those are important questions and are addressed below, but the debate about the coverage of corpses and battle raises another: What do we Americans think war looks like?
Europeans often remind us that America has not endured war on its own soil. And certainly, before Iraq, our perception of conflict had been shaped by the modern, mostly aerial wars of the Balkans and the first Gulf War-which resulted in low death tolls for U.S. soldiers. Much of the Iraqi dead were "neatly" buried in the sand somewhere (nothing to see here). And though we have been cinematically bombarded with graphic images of the flesh-to-flesh, asymmetrical warfare of Vietnam, we may have relegated that conflict to a bygone era, pre-"immaculate" warfare (immaculate for us, if not them).
The Iraq War has been portrayed (given the absence of WMD) in such principled terms-bringing democracy to the Iraqi people-that it has taken an abstract quality and, indeed, is often discussed in abstract terms.
But there is nothing abstract about a corpse. And the war dead do much damage to a war justification nominally based on principle. A war-for-their-own-good pretext doesn't stand up very well to accounts of mounting fatalities, particularly when estimated fatalities outnumber the tally of Saddam atrocities. Even anecdotal and graphic accounts of individual agony hurt the rationale. It is said a picture tells a thousand words, but the pictures of the war dead and wounded (particularly those of children) don't communicate any sort of the language, the message is telecast straight to the psyche.
The principle of democracy is dwarfed by the principle of protection of life and limb. And even if democracy is upheld as the higher principle, would that still be the case if a war waged in its name was not initiated by its supposed beneficiaries? Which is the higher principle, democracy or self-determination?
Such questions can only be rightly weighed if Americans are aware of what war looks like. Indeed, those that have seen combat are often the most reticent to wage wars of choice-reflected in the broad opposition among the Joint Chiefs to war in Iraq. Would the coverage of casualty studies or battle footage be considered so damaging if the war was deemed vital to national security, rather than some foreign-philanthropy-through-AK-47s campaign? Indeed, the national security rationale has also been given, but it is a convoluted one. Many of those that justify and claim to support the war on philanthropic grounds are quite aware that straight, factual war reporting is ruinous to the argument-particularly since many Americans appear to not have fully reconciled their support for the war with the human cost it reaps, suggesting, again, the potential for that support to disappear if fully confronted with such realities.
Reporting on war-the entirety of it-is not demagoguery, it is information-vital information. Few would argue that the media not cover the fiscal cost of the war. Is the death toll not one aspect of the cost of war?
And much of the rest of the world sees the images of the war. The American media is not protecting the U.S. image by declining to show footage or report on the human cost of war. Foreign media is already doing so. So U.S. citizens gain certain strategic knowledge in being aware of what the rest of the world is seeing of the war its country is waging in Iraq.
But these philosophical questions are probably moot. Ultimately, media executives will focus on what kind of news Americans want to see splayed out across the paper in the morning, as they drink their coffee, or on the evening news, after dinner.
Ximena Ortiz is the editor of National Interest online.