How to Sustain Perpetual War? Easy:
Hide the Bodies
By Peter Van Buren
July 17, 2017 "Information
- Sustaining America’s state of
post-9/11 perpetual war requires
skillful manipulation of the public
at home. The key tool used for this
purpose is the bloodless narrative,
a combination of policy, falsehoods
and media manipulation that creates
the impression that America’s wars
have few consequences, at least for
How can the American
government sustain its wars in the
face of dead soldiers coming home?
Why is there no outcry among the
American people over these losses?
The answer is the narrative of
The bloodless war narrative’s
solution to the dead is a policy of
don’t look, don’t tell.
Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense
for George H. W. Bush, helped decide
in 1991 the first Iraq War would
play better if Americans did not see
their fallen return home. He
recalled the images of coffins from
the 1989 invasion of Panama on
television, transposed against the
president speaking of victory, and
banned media from Dover Air Force
Base, where deceased American
personnel would arrive from the
at Dover lasted 18 years, past
George Bush 2.0 and Iraq War 2.0,
overturned only in 2009, well after
the casualty counts dropped off.
Even then, allowing cameras at Dover
was left at the discretion of the
families, except of course when the
president needed a blood-stirring
photo op. Obama took one just before
Death, when it is reluctantly
acknowledged, must still follow the
bloodless narrative as closely as
possible. Death must be for a good
cause, freedom if possible, “for his
buddies” later when public opinion
There is no better example in recent
times than the death of Pat Tillman,
America’s once-walking propaganda
dream. Tillman was a professional
football player making a $3.6
million salary. Following 9/11, he
gave that all up, and volunteered
for combat. When he died in
Afghanistan, the Army told his
family he’d been killed by enemy
fire after courageously charging up
a hill to protect his fellow
It was of course the right thing to
say to support the narrative, but it
was a lie.
later, the Pentagon notified
Tillman’s family he had actually
died as a result of friendly fire.
The month placed the non-narrative
news safely after Tillman’s memorial
service and in the fog of faded
media interest. Later
revealed the Army likely knew the
death was by friendly fire within
For all the trouble the dead cause
to the bloodless narrative, the
wounded are even messier. They still
walk around, sometimes speak to
journalists, and, well, do not
always look bloodless.
The Honolulu side of Waikiki beach
is anchored by a hotel run by the
Department of Defense as a low-cost
vacation destination for
servicepeople. While some of the
grounds are public by Hawaiian law,
the hotel itself is off limits.
I used to have a government ID that
let me in. Inside, who is a soldier?
The buff bodies stand out against
the beached whale look more popular
among regular tourists. The
odd-patterned tans – browned faces
with pale white limbs – betray a
recent trip to the Middle East.
But sometimes it is a missing
limb on a 20-year-old, or a face
that looks like raw bacon.
Could’ve been a car wreck or a
factory fire, but I doubt it.
The burns sketched precisely
where the helmet had, and had
not, been, a map of pain.
That’s on the inside. When we as
outsiders see images of the wounded,
they instead follow the narrative.
Brave troopers, with their
state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs,
are shown skiing, surfing or working
out. Some featured amputees even
demand to return to active duty.
They show off their new limbs, some
decorated with decals from their
favorite sports teams. They are
brave and they are strong.
inside story is again very
different. A recent book by Ann
They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded
Return from America’s Wars,
fills in what the narrative omits.
As a summation, Jones offers the
haiku of one military trauma nurse:
“Amputees up to the waist. No arms.
No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22.
The Mentally Wounded
Military suicides have made it
through the screen of bloodless
narrative, but just barely, thanks
to the Hollywood-ization of Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Where we need clarity, we get
tropes, such as the
freaked-out-at-home scenes in Hurt
Locker and American Sniper. Not to
say those things don’t happen (they
do) but to say those types of scenes
are incomplete, giving enough info
to arouse sympathy without actually
being too alarming. As Ann Jones
points out, such treatment of PTSD
is “useful in raising citizen
sympathy for soldiers, defusing
opposition to Washington’s wars, and
generally medicalizing problems that
might raise inconvenient political
and moral issues.”
At the same time, another
non-Hollywood narrative bubbles just
below the surface, that some vets
are exaggerating or outright faking
it. PTSD inherits all of our stigmas
toward mental illness, and that
dilutes the bad news.
One way of not knowing is not to
look for the answers at all. The
narrative says we should be like
Mafia bosses’ kids, who never ask
what Daddy does for a living despite
our big house and fancy cars.
When the Narrative Fails
During the year I spent in Iraq, the
only deaths experienced by the Army
units I was embedded with were
The death I was most familiar with
was a young Private, who put his
assault rifle into his mouth. No one
back home saw what I saw, because
they were not supposed to see: the
fan spray of blood and brain on the
wall, already being washed off as I
arrived to look.
These things are not unspeakable, we
just don’t want to talk about them,
and the bloodless narrative says we
don’t have to. That keeps it alive.
Because when the narrative fails,
the wars tend to end.
example, in 1969, Life magazine
published a famous
consisting entirely of portraits of
the Americans who died in Vietnam
that week. Many subscribers
canceled, but many more looked for
the first time outside the
narrative. The war found its end.
another conflict, President Bill
Clinton pulled American troops out
of Somalia after a
showed crowds cheering a dead
American soldier dragged through the
streets of Mogadishu. That image
dogged American war mongering until
it could be cleaned up by the
bloodless narrative of Gulf War 1.0.
We are no longer likely to see those
nasty pictures. The military has
become more skillful at manipulating
the media, even as the media has
become more compliant. In the
X-rated world of war, most of the
media refuses to budge from family
The military-media symbiosis is just
one more tool that feeds the
narrative. As long as Americans are
convinced of the bloodlessness of
perpetual war, the wars will go on.
This article was first
© 2015 Peter Van Buren