It’s near Veterans Day and I’ve been studying the art of war—not the ancient Sun-Tzu treatise. I’ve been studying images and stories about war, from front-page photographs, to how war is portrayed on Monday Night Football, to stories and images generated by combatants themselves.
Last week, I ran across an article about David Shields’ pictorial essay, “War is Beautiful.” The book is subtitled, “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict” and was termed by one reviewer “a twisted little coffee table book.”
It’s on my Christmas list.
David Shields collected front-page pictures of the past 14 years of war from the supposedly left-leaning New York Times partly as a response to the media’s war porn addiction. In a November 1 Salon interview, he says the pictures basically convey, “[W]ar’s really cool, really glamorous, really bloodless. They feel to me kind of scarily like military recruitment posters. So, so beautiful.”
Last week a veteran friend shared his concerns about speaking to school children about his military career during a school event for Veterans Day. He’s proud of his service and wants some of the students to choose military careers. Even so, he expressed a frustration about another part of our media diet that turns war into an exciting escape from the boredom of doing your homework: “What I really want to say to these kids is, stop it. Stop playing those games. War is not a visually attractive video game.”
Furthermore, he said, “Thank you for your service? You want to honor veterans? Stop playing those games. Stop making them. Those virtual games don’t honor real veterans at all. They trivialize war, trivialize both good and bad aspects of military service.”
All that visual razzle-dazzle in virtual reality isn’t the way war works? And doesn’t honor veterans? Trivialize sacrifice? But how will we recruit drone pilots? We can’t leave important work, like military recruiting, to New York Times photographers.
That’s probably why senators McCain and Flake found the Pentagon has at least 72 contracts paying out millions of dollars since 2012 for the kind of recruiting efforts we see at almost all major professional sporting events. In a College Road traffic jam on the way to the opening reception of the “Invisible Wounds of War” project at UNCW, I heard the breaking news of “Paid Patriotism” investigation. When you see men and women in uniform rapelling into the stadium, parachute-dropping the first pitch, or powerful (and really cool) fighter jets buzzing the stadium before kick-off, it’s not a spontaneous show of appreciation. It’s marketing.
We don’t call it propaganda because after a generation of compulsory patriotism, “Thank you for your service” handshakes, and “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers we are blind to what propaganda looks like. For a culture of highly trained consumers, it’s all advertising to us, even when the product is war.
An NPR interviewer attempted to at least partially defend the practice by suggesting that embedding our military in our major sports wasn’t really a bad thing, it was state-of-the-art marketing, product placement, “like the judges on ‘The Voice’ drinking Coke.”
Republican Senator Flake was taken aback. To my recollection he commented on the inappropriateness of the practice at any level.
I was taken aback when I finally strolled into Randall Library to attend the “Invisible Wounds of War” exhibit spearheaded by local health-care providers Jen Johnson and Kyle Horton. I initially wondered about placing something as important as this project at the library. Libraries are generally lousy marketing. But the openness and solemnity of the venue struck me right away. The stark contrast of the quiet library—with the loud glitz and glamour of war marketed as a glossy graphic novel—hit me in the gut. In our culture, “Invisible Wounds of War,” are too often bandaged with glossy photographs and slick storytelling.
From November 5 through December 15 UNCW provides an opportunity for some veterans to remove bandages, air out wounds and create space for healing. Their courageous stories are far from propaganda and war porn. At least in my view, to learn about the experience of war, support our troops and thank them for their sacrifice, go to the library. Libraries aren’t marketing or propaganda—they are places to learn.