Monday, March 5, 2007

A model propaganda story

Photo illustrating the Air Force Link article discussed in this post; the Air Force caption reads, "The boots and photos of [the sargeant being memorialized] serve as a reminder of his dedication to duty and of his sacrifice while doing what he believed in." (U.S. Army photo/Spc. Ryan Stroud)

In a book I read not long ago about the famous Christmas Truce of 1914-15 on the western front during the First World War, Der kleine Frieden im Grossen Krieg (The Little Peace in the Big War) (2003), the author, Michael Jürgs talks about the kind of stories that British censors would allow to be published in newspapers at home.

For instance, the generals certainly didn't want to hear any stories about what was happening during the Christmas Truce, when Brits and Germans and French and Germans made local ceasefires, fraternized with each other and celebrated Christmas together. On the other hand, Jürgs wrote that the British censors didn't at all mind stories about a bereaved wife and her children left without a husband and father because he was killed in the war.

He didn't speculate about why. I assume it's because the generals figured that it was a way to give people an acceptable way to grieve about the cost of war but still channel the effect of that grief toward keeping the war going and killing more of the enemy, with more losses of course on their own side and more of those stories of grieving mothers and children to read in the paper.

But it seems to be a professional limitation of generals that they place an enormous faith in the power of censorship and propaganda. Still, even with very efficient censorship, not everyone who loses a loved one in war adopts a "survivor's mission" that is necessarily compatable with the generals' agenda.

And the generals often forget that truth can make the best propaganda.

Before I look at the particular Air Force Web site story that inspired this particular post, I want to point out that I'mlooking at the particular story as a generic type of propaganda. And even though "propaganda" often haves a negative, pejorative implication, it doesn't have to be a pejorative, and I'm not using it that way here.

Also, I'm assuming that this particular story is true. It concerns a real person who died in the Iraq War, Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Morris of Tennessee and Texas, and his death is reported in other news articles. I'm happy to see the services recognizing lost soldiers on their Web site. I would even say that more stories giving basic facts about those lost in war should be featured prominently there. One of the separate news articles linked at the end of this post says that he aspired to become a Christian minister. He had a 10-year-old daughter.

In the following comments, I'm going to substitute "the sargeant" for Sgt. Morris' name, just to keep it clear that I'm talking primarily about the form of the published story itself, although I make some reference to other biographical data about the real Sgt. Morris available in the links at the end of this post.

The article to which I'm referring is
Living your life the way you want can impact others Commentary by Whitney Rogers, Arnold Engineering Development Center Public Affairs, Air Force Link (official US Air Force Web site) 03/02/07.

The fact that the author is identified as being with a public affairs office at Arnold Air Force base kind of stands out. But he identifies himself as the sargeant's cousin.

So, what does this tribute say? Here's one thing:

[The sargeant] was a loving person. He was a son, a father and a Christian. But most importantly, he was a Soldier. When he was just a kid, Daniel had dreamed of joining the Army.
Let's be clear about what this says. In this case it's being said about one person. But since it's featured on the Air Force Web site (in a section that features mostly feel-good stories) and the lost soldier was in the Army, not the Air Force, I think we're on safe ground in assuming this is meant to be an acceptable tribute to a soldier killed in action, even a model tribute.

And he says in that paragraph just quoted: Being a Soldier (capital "S") is more important than being a father. Being a Soldier is more important than being a Christian. Being a Soldier is more important than being a loving person.

Did this father of a 10-year-old really believe that being a soldier was more important than being a father to his daughter? Did this apparently devoted Christian believer who aspired to be a minister believe his role as a soldier was more important than being a Christian, i.e., more important than being right in spirit with the God in whom he believed?

When I think of the devout Christians I know and Christian ministers in particular, I would guess that most of them would formulate their view something like this: that they consider their devotion to God as their first duty. And as part of their Christian "calling" in life, they see their roles as parents, as soldiers, as ministers, as other professions as part of their way of serving God in this world.

But, "most importantly, he was a Soldier" (capital "S")? Did this person or other in similar situations really view their lives this way?

I certainly have my doubts. And it's not something I particularly like to see held up by the Air Force as an ideal notion, that being a soldier (or, more particularly, a capital-s "Soldier") is the most important thing that there is. Even in the next paragraph, Rogers writes of his cousin, "Everything he did, he did for the glory of God."

It's one thing to say that in times of national peril, that being a soldier may be the highest priority for those who are called either as volunteers or inductees at that moment in their lives. It's quite a different thing in my mind to say that being "a Soldier" is the most important thing about a person.

Directly following that statement that the late sargeant did everything "for the glory of God", Rogers continues:

There is one story in particular I will never forget. Reverend Matthew Reed, the minister at the church [the sargeant] attended near Fort Hood, keeps a map with pushpins in it to show where all the soldiers he knows are deployed. Before [the sargeant] left for his second tour of duty in Iraq, he gave Reverend Reed a Purple Heart pushpin.

[The sargeant] may have felt he was not coming home, but he went anyway. He went and proudly served his country. And, like so many of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, he gave his life for his country and for the Iraqi people. It was who he was. He likely could have answered the song's question, "Are you who you want to be?" without giving it a second thought.
Yes, he gave his life for his country. Everyone respects that, at least everyone I know of. Today's war fans try mightily to claim that only those who cheer for the particular war - or those who have only the same criticism they do - genuinely respect the sacrifice of those who serve and those who give their lives. In the real world, every normal adult can easily make a distinction between the willingness of a person to serve and sacrifice, and the policies which create the conditions in which that sacrifice occurs.

But I want to be clear how those two paragraphs just quoted read to me, because it's an important aspect of the kind of war story that's acceptable to the most conservative generals. When Rogers writes of his cousin, "he gave his life for his country and for the Iraqi people. It was who he was. He likely could have answered the song's question, 'Are you who you want to be?' without giving it a second thought."

Does this describe any actual human being who ever lived? He's saying that the sargeant he's eulogizing wanted to be dead. Without a second thought.

Now, I'm sure that there have been people who joined the service with some more-or-less suicidal intent. But the service actually tries to screen out such people.

I doubt very much that any of the over 3,000 American servicepeople who have died in Iraq wanted to wind up dead. And "without giving it a second thought"? I remember the speech that George C. Scott portraying Gen. George Patton gives at the beginning of the movie for which he won an Oscar to rally his troops for battle. Quoting from memory here, he tells them that the point of war "is not to die for your country. The point is to make the other poor, dumb sonuvabitch die for his country." It's a rough way of saying the obvious.

My guess is that what this man wanted was to eventually come home alive and in good health, raise his 10-year-old daughter to adulthood and become a Christian minister and serve people in that way. It's important to recognize and appreciate the sacrifice of our soldiers. And it's also important to recognize that each of those deaths is a real tragedy. And that's what the approach Rogers takes removes from the picture.

Rogers continues:

The lessons I learned from [the sargeant] are amazing. I realize that I am not invincible. Along with the good, bad things can and will happen. What is important is how I choose to deal with whatever happens.

I have learned that making the most of my life should be a much higher priority on my "to do" list.

I cannot accomplish anything by sitting back, being complacent and letting the world move around me. Instead, I should, as they say, "Grab the bull by the horns" and take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.

[The sargeant] will always be my hero. He will always be an example of someone who unselfishly gave his life and lived every moment being exactly who he wanted to be.
Now, most people's first inclination in reading something like this is probably to think it's nice that the departed one lives on in positive way in the memory of others.

But this is boilerplate from ten thousand "motivational" speeches. "I cannot accomplish anything by sitting back, being complacent and letting the world move around me." Someone in his family had to die in battle for an adult man to learn that? And what does it mean anyway? "Along with the good, bad things can and will happen"? Surely people don't have to die in war for grown men and women to learn something like that.

I don't know, maybe boilerplate like that actually does mean something special to the lost soldier's family and friends and to the author of this article. I can certainly relate to Rogers' statement, "He will always be an example of someone who unselfishly gave his life"; that is something that the risk-taking of soldiers and other public servants who put themselves in dangerous situations to serve others can teach everyone. I have great doubts about how many people take such sacrifices seriously or even pay much attention. But everyone should.

But when that sentence concludes with, "and [he] lived every moment being exactly who he wanted to be", the writer loses me. I find that hard to believe. I think the sargeant would have wanted to be a parent to his daughter for another few decades. And that he wanted to be minister. I don't think he wanted to wind up as a KIA (killed in action) statistic in Iraq.

And that's what I found disturbing about this piece. It turns the life of a man and a father and a soldier and a Christian and a person who was other things as well into a string of "motivational speech" platitudes.

For me, this and the other losses in war are lives cut too short. Even when the cause is just, those deaths are tragedies. We can find material for motivational speeches without people having to suffer those kinds of losses. Everyone except for the few actual pacifists around would say that war is a "necessary evil" at times. But I think way too many Americans - in particular those in Congress and the Executive Branch - have forgotten that the emphasis belongs on the last word: war at times is a necessary evil.

We should never let soothing-sounding platitudes make us lose sight of that.

And when people from military public affairs office tell us that being "a Soldier" (capital "S") is the most important thing a person can be, we need to think carefully about what they are really trying to say.

Other articles about Sgt. Morris himself:

Daniel Marshall Morris Nashville Tennessean 11/29/06 (link is to "The Iraq Page" Web site)

Honoring a son's memory by Amanda Kim Stairrett Killeen Daily Herald 12/11/06

Dept. of Defense Press Release 11/28/06


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