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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Epitaph from the Imperial Graveyard

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One November's Dead
The American War Dead Disappear into the Darkness

By Tom Engelhardt

America's heroes?  Not so much.  Not anymore.  Not when they're dead, anyway. 

Remember as the invasion of Iraq was about to begin, when the Bush administration decided to seriously enforce a Pentagon ban, in existence since the first Gulf War, on media coverage and images of the American dead arriving home at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware?  In fact, the Bush-era ban did more than that.  As the Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote then, it "ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases." 

For those whose lives were formed in the crucible of the Vietnam years, including the civilian and military leadership of the Bush era, the dead, whether ours or the enemy's, were seen as a potential minefield when it came to antiwar opposition or simply the loss of public support in the opinion polls.  Admittedly, many of the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were often based on half-truths or pure mythology, but they were no less powerful or influential for that. 

In the Vietnam years, the Pentagon had, for instance, been stung by the thought that images of the American dead coming home in body bags had spurred on that era's huge antiwar movement (though, in reality, those images were rare).  Nor were they likely to forget the effect of the "body count," offered by U.S. military spokesmen in late afternoon press briefings in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.  Among disillusioned reporters, these became known as "the Five O'clock Follies."  They were supposedly accurate counts of enemy dead, but everyone knew otherwise.  

In a guerrilla war in which the taking of territory made next to no difference, the body count was meant as a promissory note against future success.  As it became apparent that there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, however, that count began to look ever more barbaric to growing numbers of Americans.

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Body Bags and Body Counts 

At the time of the first Gulf War, as part of a larger effort to apply the "lessons" of Vietnam, the Pentagon attempted to prevent any images of the American dead from reaching the home front.  More than a decade later, top officials of George W. Bush's administration, focused on ensuring that the invasion of Iraq would be a "cakewalk" and a triumph, consciously played an opposites game with their version of Vietnam.  That included, for instance, secretly counting the enemy dead, but keeping mum about them for fear of recreating the dreaded "body count."  General Tommy Franks, who directed the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, bluntly insisted, "We don't do body counts."  But it wasn't true, and in the end, President Bush couldn't help himself: his frustration with disaster in Iraq led him to start complaining about being unable to mention how successful U.S. forces were in killing the enemy; finally, compulsively, he began to offer his own presidential body counts. 

But an irony should be noted here.  There was another lesson from Vietnam which didn't quite fit with those drawn from body bags and the body count.  American troops had been treated terribly by the American public -- so went the postwar tale -- and particularly by the antiwar movement which reviled them as "baby killers" when they came home and regularly spat upon them.  Often ignored in this mythic version of the antiwar movement is the fact that, as the 1970s began, it was being energized by significant numbers of Vietnam vets and active duty GI's.  Nonetheless, all this was deeply believed, even by many who had been in that movement, and everyone, whatever their politics, vowed that it would never happen again.  Hence, the troops, and especially the dead, were to be treated across the board and in a blanket way as "American heroes," and elevated to almost god-like status. 

So, while President Bush carefully avoided making public appearances at Dover Air Force Base as the coffins were being unloaded (lest someone confuse him with Vietnam-era President Lyndon Johnson), much publicity was given to the way he met privately and emotionally -- theoretically beyond the view of the media -- with the families of the dead. 

In a sense, whatever proscriptions were placed on imagery of the dead, the American dead were all over.  For one thing, no sooner did the Bush administration shut down those images than war critics, following their own Vietnam "lessons," began complaining about his doing so.  And even if they hadn't, every newspaper seemed to have its own "wall of heroes," those spreads filled with tiny images of the faces of the American dead, while their names were repeatedly read in somber tones on television.  Similarly, antiwar activists toured the country with displays of empty combat boots or set up little cemeteries honoring the war dead, even while making the point that they should never have died. 

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No less significantly, dying Americans were actually news.  I mean front-page news.  If American troops died in a firefight or thanks to a suicide bomber or went down in a helicopter, it was often in the headlines.  Whatever else you knew, you did know that Americans were dying in the wars Washington was fighting in distant lands. 

One November's Dead

Well, that was Iraq, this is Afghanistan.  That was the Bush era, these are the Obama years.  So, with rare exceptions, the dead rarely make much news anymore. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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