Rumsfeld: Dead Soldiers Count for Nothing





If the U.S. were a healthy parliamentary democracy, Donald Rumsfeld's remarks of January 7 would have brought down George Bush's government, necessitating new elections. Instead, the man with the demonic grin continues as the drum major for new foreign wars, even as he belittles a previous war's dead.

Conscript soldiers of years past added "no value, no advantage, really..." to the armed forces, the Secretary of Defense told reporters at his Pentagon briefing.

Draftees filled 30 percent of the body bags in Vietnam - but that's of little "value" to Rumsfeld, or to the chicken hawk media that cover the Pentagon. Apparently, the people who decide what is news in America share Rumsfeld's nonchalance on the subject of 17,725 American corpses.

There is something profoundly out of synch about a society in which the Secretary of Defense can violate with impunity the most sacred taboos concerning those who have died on the battlefield, while simultaneously fomenting war hysteria. The fact that Rumsfeld still has a job is shocking evidence of the near total disconnect between the ranks of the U.S. military and the classes that shape American policy and public opinion.

It is as if Rumsfeld were talking about dead men from a different country.

Just as with Trent Lott's birthday praise for Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat legacy, the corporate press initially treated Rumsfeld's statement as a minor event, hardly worth mentioning. Not until January 21 - two weeks after reporters from virtually every national corporate news outfit heard Rumsfeld cavalierly diminish the value of the dead - did Rumsfeld issue a bland apology. The defense chief was compelled to respond to complaints from Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Illinois Representative Lane Evans, who did not rouse themselves until long after Jan 7.

Media make the news. The corporate press are self-starting, self-generating news engines, fully capable of creating controversy out of whole cloth. Yet they played little part in forcing Rumsfeld to reconsider his insult to the dead, bereaved and wounded. Instead, it fell to veterans groups, both pro- and anti-war, to denounce Rumsfeld's outrage - cries that eventually moved a few prominent politicians.

Hundreds of media eyes and ears were focused on Rumsfeld's January 7 briefing, from reporters and producers on the scene to editors watching the live feed back at their bases. Their collective job is to await the newsworthy quote, package it and, if one of their reporters is present, direct him to pursue the story. Top editors scan the submissions of their teams in the field, looking for the standout items, "news" that is fit to hype. At most print and electronic outlets, Rumsfeld's verbal assault against draftees failed to make the cut. The Washington Post devoted five sentences to the story, in its page 5, Washington in Brief column, a potpourri of federal agency blurbs.

This is a commentary about class. Rumsfeld escaped media-driven censure for two weeks because the class that populates the media machinery have little or no connection to actual soldiers, sailors or Marines. The vaunted U.S. military that is inexorably garrisoning the world is made up of men and women that editors, producers and talking faces have never met, except on assignment. The U.S. military is drawn from five percent of U.S. families - not much of a Nielson rating and, more importantly, far too narrow a spectrum to intrude on the consciousnesses of the more influential sectors of society. They are abstractions.

Rumsfeld's callous remarks failed to register as such among the social cohort that was his immediate audience: media professionals. And they are no different than their counterparts in the upper middle classes from which the professions are drawn. For 30 years, military service has been neither a threat nor an option for most of the U.S. population. The social distance between those who serve and those who do not has grown vast. How else to explain the collective, cold disregard for 17,725 not-so-long ago dead?

The reality is colder still: the failure of Rumsfeld's remarks to ignite a human response among his media audience indicates a general lack of empathy with soldiers as people like themselves. It is not just draftees that pass unmourned, but the rest of the fallen 58,000, as well.

In that sense, Rumsfeld was indeed denigrating dead men from another country, whom he could - quite literally - devalue with impunity.

Today's soldiers can expect no more empathy than that accorded the disrespected dead. If soldiers were truly valued as fellow citizens, could Rumsfeld remain Secretary of Defense?

South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings has joined Black Congressmen Charles Rangel and John Conyers in calling for a return to some form of compulsory national service.

"It's not the Army going to war. It's the country going to war," said Hollings. But 95 percent of the country would never consider going to war. Other people do that for them.

Rumsfeld loves his perfect weapon, the volunteer military. They may die in the nation's imperial enterprise but, among the people whose opinions count, they will not be personally missed.

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Issue Number 27
January 30, 2003
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Other commentaries in this issue:

Commentary 1
The Mother Of All War Shows

Condoleezza: Traitor, or not?... Letters from the anti-war front... Rev. Dr. Greedygut redux

The Issues
Desegregating U.S. African policy... Haitian poor ignore capital "strike"... A more colorful anti-war movement

Commentaries in Issue 26 January 23, 2003:

Condoleezza Rice: The Devil's Handmaiden

The Issues
Bush honors Jefferson Davis... World welcomes death commutations... An anti-racist peace movement

Armstrong William's coup de grits... Deep South demographic disturbances... Piratical political plots

Guest Commentary
Bush's Ugly America
by John Stanton

Institutional Racism and the Censorship of Kohl Fallin
by Wythe Holt

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.