Social Death and War: US Media Representations of Sacrifice in the Iraq War
Issue #63, April 2003
Surely the most prominent aspect of war is the phenomenon of death and its potential in arousing intense emotions. There is the simple but often painful fact that war entails a horror of demise, the realization that the power of death is replete with anguish of finite existence and the threat of destruction. Emotional reaction to death at times of war can, however, vary according to how the loss of life is represented through various media of communication. Ritualized action, like rites of commemoration or funeral ceremonies, have traditionally represented death in ways in which emotions are coordinated, sentiments are shaped, and, although not entirely beyond one's ability of empathy, attitudes towards individual death are sustained in stabilizing manner.
Although emotions and beliefs vary in content according to cultural context and historical situation, representations of death are essentially enforced by subtle collective experiences which one may refer to as the process of social death. In broad terms, by social death we mean how individuals experience a transformation of the biological process of death, as a process of birth, maturing, aging and dying. Death appears to be no longer a matter of individual extinction, but a collective renewal, a social regeneration and a communal creative power. In other words, death, in its collective representation, is no longer a matter of annihilation, but rather regeneration, a form of renewal that ultimately affirms belief in immortality.
With the start of the second Persian Gulf War, televised media have become a pivotal communicative medium for a collective shared experience of death. From the constant broadcasting of American and British soldiers armed with weapons of destruction to reports about the annihilation of Iraqi Republican army, from scenes of Iraqi civilian causalities to the news of American soldiers wounded at the battlefield, from the display of a decomposing corpse of an Iraqi soldier on the road as dogs gnaw on his limp arm, to reports of fedayeen suicide bombers, the coverage of war has played a central role in the number of ways death has been depicted on television. Whether considering the Al-Jazerah news channel, where images of both civilian and military causalities and fatalities are displayed on screen, or the near silent reports about the human costs of the US-led war on Fox cable news, the diverse programs use contrasting ways to put on view the various representations of death by targeting the particular viewers that they aim to entertain. While a study of the audiences, their cultural and social interests, personal sentiments, values and tastes remains a significant element to better understand the media, it is crucial, however, to identify the cultural dynamics behind the representation of death on television.
Considering for the moment American television channels, one can acknowledge a peculiar depiction of attitudes surrounding death in context of the ongoing war in Iraq. In broad terms, the manner in which the Iraq war has been presented by the news is the use of cinematographic techniques to reduce the horror of war to a consumable and entertaining phenomenon. The focus of CNN, MSNBC, ABC or Fox News, for example, is on the real and graphic animation of US military technology, the three-dimensional imagery of the battlefields. The constant parade of retired army personnel commenting on the war brings to mind an image of an ongoing game that is played, fought and, ultimately won and displayed on television. An extensive flow of information about the high-tech use of weaponry, and in particular its precision, discursively frames their effectiveness and power by bracketing out their destructive force and their function to cause the loss of human life. Relentless emphasis on high-tech weapons overlooks their living human targets, hence remaining silent about the weapons' potential to cause death under the disguise of being technologically "smart." While passive audiences watch them run alongside the troops, reporters televise images of armed soldiers shooting at a hidden, faceless "enemy." Emotions of sympathy and pride grow as the sense of fear and horror of death diminishes with the reassuring experience of watching the war from the safety of one's home. In fact, the television screen itself becomes a medium that unites the audiences with the coalition soldiers attacking the faceless "enemy" in the battlefield without feeling fear for the loss of life caused by fighting.
What is more important, though, is the depiction of the "enemy forces" as objects of conquest by death. Social death is about reversing the biological process of death into something transcendental, something permanent. But that relates only to a member of one's community; in the case of others from an invading or invaded community, matters change. The death of the other is no longer a matter of renewal after a biological death, say after being killed in action by US forces, but an object to be brought to view only as a statistical report, almost as something that can be reported with detailed numerical information about the number of missiles launched. "Coalition forces have killed 254 enemy soldiers today," Paula Zahn reports on CNN. Here there is little or no talk about the Iraqi soldiers killed in action. There is no report about how and where they were killed, and certainly no show of their bodies. Iraqi soldiers, for the most part, remain faceless, nameless, placeless and, therefore, unknown to the audiences. This can be partly explained due to a strict pattern of self-censorship in the US media against showing dead bodies. Although the practice of self-censorship requires a separate study altogether, for the most part this deliberate technique in representing the annihilated faceless "enemy" requires the basic assumption about the polluting effect it may have on the audiences. By pollution we mean that since the "enemy" stands somewhere outside of the community of television viewers, the show of its corpse remains a threat to the stability of the viewing public as a living collective body. A report of a dead "enemy" can only be a brief one since it endangers viewer attitudes towards life that are devoid of degeneration and annihilation, even if that involves an outsider's death. In this sense, the absence of detailed reports about a dead Iraqi soldier not only denies the death of the other in terms of loss of human life, but in fact denies the existence of the soldier's life as human subject.
The above point reflects a deep tendency in Western societies to deny the reality of life as a biological reality. Historically, as Philippe Aries has argued, contemporary French and English people have been deprived of bereavement of their own demise and the death of others since the development of modern medical sciences. In the Middle Ages people celebrated the imminence of their death through diverse forms of ritual activities, in which the dying person played a central role in the life of families and the community at large. These rituals provided a cathartic release of an individual's emotions towards the deceased, as the ritual participants would return to normal life after the ceremonies. With the advent of modernity in Europe and the rise of medical sciences, the doctor came to preside over the deathbed. Medical practices have replaced religion in comforting the grieved. As death has been shoved out of the house and moved to the hospital, emotions have been kept to the minimum, and those who might mourn in public are avoided and viewed negatively. In contemporary America such processes in the denial of death have taken a somewhat unique form. In sharp contrast to the medieval attitude towards death and its representation in daily life, the deathbed scene has all but been removed. Death is usually a moment that occurs at hospitals; it has left the home where it once identified the close relationship between individuals in the household from the time of their birth to their demise in the natural process of life.
It is in this respect that the event of war can be viewed as an alternative source of attitudes towards death as displayed on television. Since war is mainly about conquest, the fear and the denial of the fragility of life is replaced with the ethos of fortitude and triumph, the promise of sacrifice as victory over death. The death of an American soldier at the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, for instance, is not usually an event that occurs at the hospital, where life is protected from demise, but rather on the battlefield where life is voluntarily exposed to the threat of annihilation. War creates a dramatic collective experience of death not as an act of annihilation in the natural process of birth, growth, maturing, aging and dying, but as an event that can indeed suspend such processes. The televised representations of death with the display of funeral marches or a subtle oration by an emotional newscaster in reference to soldiers killed in action, phrased as "our brave fighters," reintegrate the deceased back into the community through poetic words, slow songs and oratory praises. The magic of the television screen is the power to broadcast the corpse of a soldier concealed under the US flag without exposing the mutilated body. It is by zooming on the flag that the lifeless body of a soldier becomes an immortal entity. This occurs while the decomposed body is recomposed back to the deathless body of the nation in the colorful imagery of the flag as CNN, MSNBC or Fox provides 'live' coverage of the ceremonies. It is, in fact, in the 'live' aspect of the coverage that transforms the horror of death and bereavement into a triumphantly joyful event for the collective body, the nation. Death is conquered when rebirth of the deceased occurs in death rites displayed on television. But, more importantly, regeneration is brought about by reports on "sacrifice" that occurs at the battlefields and is reproduced through the television screen.
A statement that the killed soldier has given up his or her life as an "ultimate sacrifice for our freedom" implies the notion of death as a form of endowment. Death in the form of sacrifice becomes a gift to 'us,' to Americans, as a collective body of individuals that transcends the transience of life. It becomes a special form of ritual enactment that allows the deceased soldier to participate in the immortality of a transcendent entity, namely, the nation. But, more importantly, the sacrifice of a killed soldier is something that can be identified, shared and, as some anthropologists would term, "internalized" by audiences watching the program on television. This is crucial since it is at this moment, the moment in which the audiences identify themselves with the glorified act of sacrifice, that death becomes a matter of victory for the nation in the form of a collective body of individuals as Americans. What remains significant in this victory is the element of memory. "We shall not forget!" CNN, CBS or ABC display the phrase in a colorfully designed and glorifying show of words following pictures of killed soldiers, regardless of the loss suffered at the hands of friendly forces. Thus, once again, a moment of rebirth occurs, a new shining nativity of a new soul, not as a physical entity vulnerable to decomposition, but a living memory to the immortal and indestructible nation. The sacrificed solider is not eliminated but resurrected in form of memorial on the television screen.
It risks obviousness, therefore, to suggest that television segments covering the war with Iraq are hardly about 'educating' audiences with 'unbiased information.' There is something more complicated in the making here. Representations of life and death of oneself and the other, of 'hero' and 'enemy,' of US and Iraqi soldiers, are a matter of inventing truths rather than reporting facts. In the realm of television reality shows — here mainly referring to the war — facts become fiction as images represent a reality that is intertwined with the collective experiences of an imagined nation in contrast to an enemy world. It is through the decaying body of an Iraqi soldier that the dead body of an American soldier achieves life, allowing the dead American soldier to participate in the transcendental reality of the nation; it is in the violent conquest of the enemy through death that the conquering forces attain immortality.
Babak Rahimi is a doctoral student at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy, where he is currently working on historical anthropology of the Iranian public sphere.
Bomb Me I Bleed by Melissa Usher.