Jun
22
2005

Picture-Perfect Killers

Military weapons are often technological marvels but always instruments of death

In his memoir of Vietnam, former war correspondent Jacques Leslie recalls visiting an American aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, when suddenly "I was engulfed in technology, released to a vast metallic universe where nothing grew, where doubt had no place."

The young reporter for the Los Angeles Times found that "the press officers who took turns accompanying me could tell me all about the astonishing mechanics of jet takeoffs and landings, of how the pilots got graded on their bombing accuracy, but they couldn't say if the pilots thought of people below as they dropped their bombs or ever felt regret. Most of the pilots couldn't tell me either, preferring to dwell on the marvels of their flying machines."

American media coverage has long glorified such marvels, and the hype about military technology remains profuse. What happens to people on the other side of the awesome firepower is downplayed or ignored, while the awesome weaponry is often presented as implicit further evidence of America's greatness. It's hardly objective reporting. Nor is it in any way good, old- fashioned skeptical reporting. Nor does it tell the whole story. It's mostly mindless cheerleading that avoids asking readers or viewers to think about the terrible carnage and horribly ruined lives the use of such weapons causes.

In January 1991, when the Gulf War's overwhelming bombardment began, a CNN correspondent remarked on the "sweet beautiful sight" of U.S. bombers leaving runways in Saudi Arabia. CBS correspondent Jim Stewart told viewers about "two days of almost picture-perfect assaults." (Meanwhile, an enemy armament became anthropomorphically sinister. On NBC, reporter Arthur Kent termed the Iraqi Scud missile "an evil weapon," while CNN's Richard Blystone called it "a quarter-ton of concentrated hatred.") After three weeks of the air war, Newsweek put the U.S. Stealth bomber on the cover. Under the headline, "The New Science of War," was a reassuring subhead, "High-Tech Hardware: How Many Lives Can It Save?"

Seven years later, with anticipation running high for a missile attack on Iraq during the first weeks of 1998, news reports again touted America's air power as new and improved. "The smart bombs of the Gulf War have gotten smarter, and there will be more of them," USA Today reported happily. The news was filled with footage and upbeat descriptions of cruise missiles, F-117 Stealth bombers, F-16CJ jets and other modern aircraft, with their technical prowess highlighted in detail. Under the circumstances, Iraqi victims would be blips on screens for American TV viewers and military personnel alike.

In a "Morning Edition" broadcast that aired on NPR close to Thanksgiving in 2001, while U.S. bombing of Afghanistan was in its second month, the program's host Bob Edwards interviewed a 12-year-old boy about a new line of trading cards marketed "to teach children about the war on terrorism" by "featuring photographs and information about the war effort." The elder male was enthusiastic as he compared cards. "I've got an Air Force F-16," Edwards said. "The picture's taken from the bottom so you can see the whole payload there, all the bombs lined up." After the boy replied with a bland "yeah," the news anchor went on: "That's pretty cool."

A year later, with another war on the near horizon, a USA Today feature article described the B-2 as "a technological marvel." Not only could the bomber "drop 16 of the one-ton satellite-guided bombs in a single mission," it could also "carry eight 5,000-pound 'bunker buster' bombs." The massive warhead was "known in Air Force lingo as 'the crowd pleaser.' "

Days before the launch of the Iraq invasion in March 2003, journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote that "the Defense Department has evolved highly selective and accurate munitions that can sharply reduce the need to take or receive casualties. The predictions of widespread mayhem turned out to be false last time -- when the weapons (in the Gulf War) were nothing like so accurate." Hitchens went on to proclaim, "It can now be proposed as a practical matter that one is able to fight against a regime and not a people or a nation." However, as a practical matter, such words ended up providing zero comfort to people killed or maimed by ultramodern bombs, cruise missiles, cluster warheads and more pedestrian weapons.

On the media home front, most U.S. outlets paid tribute to the nation's high-tech weaponry. It was routine when the Washington Post printed a large color diagram under the headline "A Rugged Bird." Unrelated to ornithology, the diagram annotated key features of the AH-64 Apache -- a helicopter excelling as a killing machine. Overall, presumably, readers were supposed to admire the advanced technology; the deadlier the better. In the capital of the world's only superpower, the Post was cheering.

Adulation for the Pentagon's arsenal has become a permanent aspect of the war story. Several months into the occupation of Iraq, for instance, at the top of the front page of the New York Times, a color photo showed a gunner aiming his formidable weapon downward from a Black Hawk helicopter, airborne over Baghdad. Underneath the picture was a story lamenting the recent setbacks in Iraq for such U.S. military aircraft: "In two weeks," the article said, "the Black Hawks and Chinooks and Apaches that once zoomed overhead with such grace and panache have suddenly become vulnerable." Referring to machinery of death in a reportorial voice, the words "grace" and "panache" were attributed to no one; they hovered as objective characterizations by a newspaper widely seen as epitomizing the highest journalistic standards.

During the U.S. military's 14th month in Iraq, a New York Times news story -- under the headline "A Full Range of Technology Is Applied to Bomb Fallujah" -- began by reporting that "the air strikes in Fallujah in the past three days by American warplanes and helicopter gunships have been the most intense aerial bombardment in Iraq since major combat ended nearly a year ago."

What followed were a score of paragraphs stuffed with numbing terminology: "Air Force F-15E and F-16 warplanes, and carrier-based F-14 and F-18 fighter- bombers, have dropped about three dozen 500-pound laser-guided bombs ... AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters have hovered over the city, launching Hellfire missiles ... lumbering AC-130 gunships have pounded trucks and cars ferrying fighters with the distinctive thump-thump of 105-millimeter howitzers. British Tornado ground-attack planes are also flying missions ... and remotely piloted Predator reconnaissance aircraft prowl the skies ... the air campaign's weapons of choice -- 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bombs ... the Air Force has also dropped 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, and Maverick missiles ... a Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft is to arrive next week ..."

For the reader, such verbiage affirmed that the "full range of technology" mentioned in the headline was always at the ready to get things under control, whether for the current war or the next one. The piece's closing paragraph quoted an unnamed pilot, reducing it all to a with-us-or- against-us global perspective writ small: "The good guys were closing in one side, and suddenly we saw Iraqis shooting their own guys in the back, trying to push them forward. So we left those soldiers in front alone and I said, 'Let's get the really bad guys.' We trained our firepower on them. We could see all that from above, and could separate the bad guys from the really bad guys." This article, as it happened, had a Washington dateline.

Official interest in calibrating the lethal accomplishments has varied according to the PR strategy. Three years ago, with military operations settling into a routine in Afghanistan while an invasion of Iraq was on the White House drawing boards, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a CBS interview: "I don't do body counts. This country tried that in Vietnam and it didn't work." But more recently, eager to indicate progress in the U.S. war effort, the Pentagon has taken to releasing numbers on how many anti-U.S. fighters have died from the latest clashes in Iraq.

Yet the war victims who commanders are least interested in talking about -- civilians -- are the most prevalent casualties. Journalist Chris Hedges wrote in his 2003 book "What Every Person Should Know About War" that in the wars of the previous decade, "civilian deaths constituted between 75 and 90 percent of all war deaths." Such figures reflect a century-long trend that has turned warriors into a steadily dwindling proportion of war's dead.

Official U.S. spin combines with the tendencies of mainstream American journalism to preclude sustained media attention to human suffering that results from Uncle Sam's military ventures. Pentagon technology becomes part of media narratives that reduce carnage to simple-minded storylines. Even in ostensibly sophisticated media venues, the discourse is apt to be black hat/white hat. In the midst of an occupation that's commonly spun as an effort to help ordinary Iraqis, a view akin to "either-with-us-or-against-us" has been routine.

More than a year ago, while deaths were mounting in Fallujah, the U.S. Marine Corps' retired Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor -- a repeat wartime guest on the PBS "NewsHour" -- told national TV viewers that the Marines were facing difficult challenges. "They're fighting an irregular organization that does not wear uniforms, that does not subscribe to the laws of war and are mixed in with the population," he said. "And this makes it rather difficult in distinguishing good people from bad people."

While U.S. forces try to sort out who deserves death, it's easy enough for news watchers to puff up with pride over the latest advances in American military technology. Glorification of the Pentagon's new weaponry encourages us to feel better about what is being done in our names. But no amount of hype can change the fact that all the weapons are instruments of death.

Norman Solomon is the author of the new book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, from which this article is excerpted.