June 30, 2017 – Calvin Pollak
One of the keys to maintaining a militarized society is managing the people’s political common sense, or ideology: the stories, values, and concepts we take for granted. In the US, ideology conditions us to view our government’s military interventions as necessary, useful, and just. Even when we do not directly state our support, our reactions to events often reveal this ideology.
Consider the video broadcast of Trump’s first address to Congress in February, when cameras focused on the widow of slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, Carryn Owens, for nearly four minutes. Ryan Owens died in January in a night raid in rural Yemen that went horribly awry; in addition to Owens, three US service members were injured and nine Yemeni children were killed. During Trump’s address to Congress, after he praised Owens and the great boons to national security resulting from the raid, the images of Carryn Owens sobbing and wiping away tears emphasized her pain and grief. They also revealed her devout Christian faith; she repeatedly looked upwards, appealing to God for comfort. Trump said nothing about the pain and suffering of the civilians in Yemen. Afterwards, CNN commentator Van Jones proclaimed: “he became President of the United States in that moment.”
In April, Trump approved the bombing of a Syrian military airstrip, purportedly in response to a sarin gas attack that Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, had conducted against Syrian civilians. The US bombing killed and wounded Syrian civilians while doing little to diminish the capacities of Assad’s forces. Commentator Fareed Zarakia reacted – again on CNN: “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States.”
In May, Trump visited US ally Saudi Arabia, whose ruling regime regularly abuses the human rights of dissidents, foreign workers, and LGBTQ people, among others. The country’s military has been bombing Yemen indiscriminately since 2015 with US weaponry and tactical support. Moreover, the regime regularly looks the other way as wealthy oligarchs in their jurisdiction send cash and weapons to terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. During his visit, Trump approved an arms deal with the regime worth $350 billion. He also gave a speech ostensibly directed toward the “Muslim world,” despite the fact that this one nation can hardly represent a religion with 1.3 billion adherents worldwide. CBS’s longtime anchor Bob Schieffer called it a “dignified speech,” asserting that Trump “actually sounded presidential.”
Why do our media figures praise Trump as “presidential” at the very moments when he is reveling in instability and civilian death? That’s simple — it’s ideology. In the US, it is common sense that maintaining and even accelerating military conflict is the primary role of the president.
In countless other ways, too, our media coverage bespeaks a pro-war ideology. As Adam Johnson of FAIR.org notes, US reporting regularly omits context for foreign policy decisions, noting the “security” benefits of arms agreements with Saudi Arabia but failing to mention the country’s ongoing destabilization of Yemen or its support for terror groups. In a separate piece, Johnson points out that US reporting often removes agency from the US government or military, referring to it as “stumbling into” or “getting sucked into” war, e.g. with Syria. More accurate would be to say the US has actively fomented war in Syria through years of overt and covert intervention. When protests against President Assad began in 2011, the US eagerly gave arms to opposition groups, giving Assad a readymade justification for increasing the brutality of his repression, ushering in a bona fide civil war. And the presence of ISIS in Syria, another justification for US intervention, is a direct, traceable result of the catastrophic and failed occupation of Iraq — not to mention outside funding for the group from the US and its allies.
In reporting on US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, ideology colors the narratives presented to readers, viewers, and listeners. The vast majority of sources quoted in such stories are either US, Pakistani, or Yemeni officials; at other times, reporters leave significant assertions unsourced. Consider this standard headline: “US Drone Strike in Pakistan Kills Five Suspected Militants” (Reuters, 11/26/2014). There, the adjective “suspected” conceals that this is actually an assertion: somebody (we aren’t told who) suspects that the five people killed were militants. As readers, we’re asked not to question this assertion, or even who asserted it or their motivations. But we ought to. For instance, how do we know that those five dead weren’t children — like the nine innocent kids killed by the SEALS in Yemen, utterly ignored while Trump exploited Carryn Owens’ grief for media praise?
If we want a less militaristic society, we must reflect on how we write, read, and think about war. We should question our leaders’ decisions, claims, and motivations. In addition, we should support, demand, and create independent media that doesn’t equate violence with nobility and power with credibility.
Calvin Pollak is a PhD student in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University. He teaches first-year writing and professional writing.