Smiling Under the Names of the Dead



Contrasting Images


Someone really needs to wipe that stupid shit-eating grin off the president’s face.  Just look at him in the oval office, smiling in a photograph on page eight of Wednesday’s New York Times.  George W. Bush looks confident and relaxed in a posh pinstripe suit.  He and his good friend Aleksander Kwasniewski, the president of Poland, are sharing a jocular moment between good old boys.  Bush II is trading jokes and telling tales: “Alek my boy, if you’ve never landed on an aircraft carrier…” He looks happy and secure, comfortable and warm.  


Good for him.  The picture of the smiling presidents is curiously juxtaposed with two very different photographs on the same news page.  The first contrasting image shows a dark plume of smoke in an area where three vehicles burned after an attack on a United States convoy in Khaldiya, Iraq.  Three U.S. soldiers died in the assault, comprising half of Tuesday’s U.S. body count. The second photo shows two grim Shiite women waiting to go through a security check before being permitted to enter a mosque in Baghdad.  “As attacks against occupation forces and Iraqis continue,” the photo caption reads, “security has tightened throughout the country.” 


Just two inches above Bush’s smiling face is a little rectangular box containing the title “Names of the Dead.”  “The Department of Defense,” the box tells us, “has identified 512 American service members who have died since the start of the Iraq war.  It confirmed the death of the following Americans yesterday: CHAPPEL, Keith, 22, Hemet, Calif; HENDRICKSON, Kenneth, 41, Bismarck, N.D.; ROSENBURG, Randy S., 23, Berlin, N.H.; SMETTE, Keith L., 25, Fargo, N.D.; STUGES, William R. Jr., 24, Spring Church, Pa.”


The Times has been running these tragic little boxes on a regular basis since the beginning of the invasion or thereabouts.  Note the youthful ages of all but one of Tuesday’s latest U.S. troop fatalities.


More than 300 of these American solider deaths have occurred, it is worth remembering, after Bush II made his May 1st aircraft carrier landing to proclaim America’s “mission accomplished” in what the Times called a “triumphant  Reaganesque finale.” 



Funerals versus Fundraisers: “While Young Peoples’ Blood…”


Here’s a short project for an energetic researcher. First, find out how many United States soldier funerals George W. Bush has attended since he ordered his invasion.  Second, find out how many big money campaign fundraisers the president has attended since the occupation began.  Third, make the relevant elementary comparisons and assess the meaning of the difference. 


For background music and historical context, students can listen to Bob Dylan’s haunting dirge-like folk rant “Masters of War,” recorded 40 years prior to last year’s invasion of Iraq and including the following among numerous relevant stanzas:


You fasten the triggers

For the others to fire

Then you sit back and watch

While the death count gets higher

You hide in your mansions

While young peoples’ blood

Flows out of their bodies

And gets buried in the mud


Let me ask you one question

Is your money that good?

Will it bring you forgiveness?

Do you think that it could?

I think you will find

When your death takes it toll

All the money you made

Will never buy back your soul 



A Public Relations Preference for Death Over injury


Five hundred and twelve is a small number compared to the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died because of the latest one-sided “Iraq war,” pitting world history’s most powerful military state against a weak and dying regime that posed only minimal risk to even its own neighbors. Five hundred and twelve is slight relative also to the many thousands of U.S. troops that have been injured in Iraq, “keeping the orthopedic surgeons busy” at Walter Reed Hospital since the invasion began.  Flown back to the imperial homeland in C-17 transport planes, many among the U.S. wounded have lost one or more limbs after terrible encounters with rocket-propelled grenades, remote-controlled mines, and what the Pentagon calls “improvised explosive devices” (for a chilling account from last fall, see Vernon Loeb, “Iraq’s Unspoken Toll: Wounded Troops,” available online at drhttp://www.detnews.com/2003/ nation/0309/21/a01-276738.htm). 


The Pentagon does not release the numbers of injured except upon request, only the dead. For propagandistic public relations reasons, it prefers to emphasize noble soldier deaths and flag-draped coffins over the lifelong crippling that has become the fate of thousands of U.S. troops ordered into Iraq.  These injured soldiers’ fate is further endangered by the Bush administration’s moves to cut veterans’ benefits and undercut social-security and health-care safety nets for non-affluent Americans. 


Still, five hundred and twelve is more than the number of Americans killed in Vietnam at the same time point in the U.S. invasion of that country.  And for every single American solider killed, there’s an incalculable toll for those left behind: spouses and children who have lost husbands, wives; mothers and fathers who have lost sons and daughters; brothers and sisters who have lost sisters and brothers; friends who have lost friends; and communities who have lost workers, citizens, and taxpayers.   



“A Working-Class Military Required to Fight and Die for an Affluent America


Who are the dead American troops?  Beyond the simple moral truism that they are individuals upon whom others counted and who deserved full lives of their own, it is worth noting that they come overwhelmingly from a specific, disadvantaged part of America‘s socioeconomic landscape. According to the Times, in a report released early in the Iraq invasion, “a survey of the American military’s endlessly compiled and analyzed demographics paints a picture of a fighting force that is anything but a cross section of America.”  The military, the Times found, “mirrors Working-Class America,” resembling “the make up of a two-year commuter or trade school” outside Birmingham or Biloxi far more than that of a ghetto or barrio or four-year university in Boston.” It is, “in essence, a working-class military,” one that is “require[d] to fight and die for an affluent America.”


Even among the officer ranks, noted Northwestern University sociologist Charles C. Moskos, affluent Americans are essentially missing. “The officer corps today,” Moskos told the Times, “does not represent nobility. These are not people who are going to be future congressmen or senators. The number of veterans in the Senate and the House,” he added, “is dropping every year. It shows you that our upper class no longer serves.”


There is no draft, to be sure, but the “volunteer” military is full of people who enter because they lack, by accident of birth, middle- and upper-class pathways to career economic security and more. A key motive is the opportunity to learn a skill and to receive college tuition assistance, something the military offers as a bribe to lure recruits. Just call it the socioeconomic draft, and remember that the United States is by far and away the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society in the industrialized world. 


“It’s not fair,” noted one young Army private quoted by the Times, “that some poor kids don’t have much of a choice but to join if they want to be productive because they didn’t go to a good school, or they had family problems that prevented them from doing well, so they join up and they’re the ones that die for our country while the rich kids can avoid it.” (David M. Halbfinger and Steven A. Holmes, “Military Mirrors Working-Class America,” New York Times, March 30, 2003).



Treetops and Grassroots: Ever-Shifting Lies for the Masses


And why exactly have they been dying and losing limbs in Iraq? At the invasion’s outset, the primary reason loudly and clearly propounded by George the Second was to save America and the world from the “grave and growing threat” of attack by Saddam Hussein’s monstrous Weapons of Mass Destruction. That’s a tough claim these days. David Kay, who recently resigned as the Bush administration’s chief weapons inspector, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday that he had found no such weapons and that none will be discovered. As the Times editorial board acknowledged today, “Iraq destroyed its weapons and weapons programs long ago under the pressure of the same United Nations inspectors that Mr. Bush and his aides vilified in the months leading up to the war.”


Colin Powell, sent to the United Nations with a doctored dossier of Iraqi doom one year ago, is reduced to shrugging that it is now “an open question” whether Iraq ever had any stockpiles of WMD (see “Powell Casts Doubt on Iraq WMD,” BBC News, available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ middle_east/3426703.stm). Yet Kay’s findings are pretty much what Powell himself told Egyptian dignitaries on an official state visit to Cairo in February 2001. Saddam “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction,” Powell informed his hosts (see John Pilger’s documentary film Breaking the Silence, linked at http://www.thememoryhole.org/war/powell-no-wmd.htm), never imagining his cringing Orwellian mission of February 2003.


Now that the terrible weapons have been found non-existent, consistent with the early claims of marginalized war opponents like former leading US weapons inspector Scott Ritter (denounced as a lunatic by White House flaks), the White House simply revises history to suit a new party line.  It claims that it operated as best it could on the basis of inherently flawed but best available intelligence on the Iraqi threat. At the same it claims that the real aim behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq was different anyway.  The real goal was to liberate the people of that country and to spread “democracy.”   


Most Iraqis are certainly happy to be rid of Saddam, a longtime U.S.-sponsored butcher whose bloody rein was likely extended by murderous U.S.-led economic sanctions after the first American invasion. But democracy is hardly a serious U.S. objective in Iraq, since US policymakers know quite well that the majority of Iraqis do not wish (imagine) to hand control of their material resources and society to America‘s money- and power-mad invaders. And while the White House was careful to include liberation and democracy as declared objectives early on (see my “Down The Memory Hole with Weapons of Mass Destruction,” ZNet Magazine, April 11, 2003, available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/ showarticle.cfm? Section ID=15&ItemID=3444), those high-minded aims played a distinctly secondary role in the White House’s pre-war propaganda campaign, which focused on the supposed imminent threat posed by Saddam’s WMD and on false alleged links between Iraq and Islamic terrorism, including absurd implied connections between 9/11 and Saddam’s Iraq. 


If Bush Junior’s overwrought panic-mongering over Saddam’s alleged WMD were based on “bad intelligence,” moreover, why did all of the intelligence “mistakes” point to invasion? Probably because, as the Times’ editorial page further acknowledged today, Bush’s neo-imperial aides “had been plotting a war against Iraq practically since Inauguration Day.”  And as Noam Chomsky pointed out more than thirty years ago in a book dissecting the delusional mindset of the people who planned the Vietnam War (For Reasons of State, 1970), “mere ignorance or foolishness on the part of U.S. policymakers ” – i.e. “bad intelligence” – “would lead to random error, not to a regular and systematic distortion” that always points to the supposed necessity of murderous imperial-state aggression.  To give one example, the invasion-selective pattern of “systematic distortion” followed by the White House last year mandated that former US Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson 4th be ignored when he informed the CIA after a careful investigation that there was no evidence to support Bush II’s claim that Saddam had tried to purchase Nigerian uranium ore as part of an attempt to manufacture nuclear weapons


The real American foreign policy goals beneath the official pretexts given for invading Iraq were to secure and deepen U.S. control of globally strategic raw materials, expand preponderant US military power, and demonstrate America‘s ability to rule the world on the basis of that power. These core objectives can be readily gleaned from key policy documents, part of a “treetops” discourse wherein the privileged and powerful few speak candidly to one another about the world as they see it and how to increase and sustain the concentration of wealth and power at home and abroad. The “grassroots” discourse spun for the rest of us by these masters of war and policy and their obedient public relations flak agents is very different.  It is loaded with fairly tales about America’s special mission, duty and concern to “rescue and liberate” the people of the world from the forces of “tyranny” and “oppression,” to use Bush II’s language in an unusually ambitious neo-Wilsonian speech he gave last November to the misnamed and reactionary National Endowment for Democracy.  The most relevant policy documents in this case are the White House’s National Security Strategy, unveiled in September 2002  (available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html) and the Project for a New American Century’s Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources For a New Century, issued in September 2000 (available online at www.newamericancentury.Rebuilding AmericasDefenses.pdf).



Fortunate Son: War Amputations Aren’t For Rich Kids


Of course, while lying is nearly a way of life for most politicians and statesmen, Bush II has taken it to new levels, inspiring a burgeoning literature dedicated to examining his multiple and many-sided deceptions.  One among his many fabrications is especially relevant to this discussion: his claim to have served honorably and dutifully in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.  David Corn rips this claim to shreds on pages 24 to 27 of his useful book The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (New York, NY: Crown, 2003), where we learn that Dubya used aristocratic family connections to attain a Guard slot meant to keep him out of an overseas bloodbath he preferred to leave to poorer and browner Americans. When he filled out his National Guard application, he checked a box specifically disowning any interest in “overseas duty.” Given the opportunity to express his supposed rugged, West-Texas cowboy and capitalist sentiments against “Communist” enemies of American “freedom” in Southeast Asia, he chose the personal homeland security of a quasi-military sinecure. He recoiled in horror at the supposedly elitist anti-war movement but was pleased to egg America‘s predominantly poor and working-class soldiers on to murder and death from the sheltered sidelines of aristocratic advantage.  To make matters worse, Bush went AWOL even from this prized Guard assignment. 


Maybe this is part of why Bush II can’t bring himself to attend funerals for his predominantly working-class soldiers, whose families lack the big money campaign clout of the pampered Fat Cats who attend his opulent and record-setting presidential fundraisers.


Thirty years later he told the Boston Globe that “I did the duty necessary…any allegations other than that simply are not true.” He’s been lying out this and just about everything else he can think of ever since.





If the American people retain a basic, self-respecting capacity to feel and act upon popular outrage at aristocratic mendacity, then Bush II’s expulsion from the corridors of high state power in 2004 should be a foregone conclusion.  If the people no longer possess these critical qualities, essential for a democracy worthy of its name, then we are in dangerous historical waters indeed.  “When regard for truth has broken down or even slightly weakened,” St. Augustine once noted, “all things will remain doubtful.” 



Paul Street writes and speaks against imperialism, racism, economic injustice and thought control. He can be reached at [email protected]


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