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Almost 8,000 Wounded American Soldiers have become the newly disappeared

Bill Berkowitz - Aug 28 2003 - 

Bill Berkowitz is a long time political observer and columnist.

The nation reached a sad milestone in late August. With the death of an American soldier in a roadside bombing on August 29, the number of soldiers killed in Iraq after the official end of the war reached 139, exceeding the "postwar" casualty count. Nightline aired a feature; the Associated Press posted a story on the war dead -- but most media outlets continue to ignore an equally dreary reality.

In a summer dominated by the Bryant sex case, Arnold's debut in California's recall election and the killing of Saddam Hussein's sons, no hordes of television cameras await the planeloads of wounded soldiers being airlifted back to the states, unloaded at Andrews Air Force Base, and stuffed into wards at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other facilities. We see few photos of them undergoing painful and protracted physical rehabilitation, few visuals of worried families waiting for news of their sons or daughters.

The men and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan have become the new disappeared. 

Liz Swasey of the conservative media watchdog Media Research Center (MRC) confirms this perception. "There have been no feature news stories on television focusing on the wounded," she says. "While there have been numerous reports of soldiers getting wounded, there have been no interviews from hospital bedsides."

The numbers of soldiers wounded in action are hard to come by. Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Pentagon has put the figure at 827. But Lieutenant-Colonel Allen DeLane, the man in charge of airlifting the wounded into Andrews Air Force Base, recently mentioned much higher numbers in an interview with National Public Radio.

"Since the war has started, I can't give you an exact number because that's classified information, but I can say to you over 4,000 have stayed here at Andrews," he said. "And that number doubles when you count the people that come here to Andrews, and then we send them to other places like Walter Reed and Bethesda..." 

Some journalists also dispute the Pentagon's official count. Julian Borger of The Guardian claims "unofficial figures are in the thousands." Central Command in Qatar talked of 926 wounded, but "that too is understated," Borger maintains. And in fact, a mid-August report in The Salt Lake City Tribune claims that Central Command has acknowledged 1,007 U.S. wounded. (The Pentagon did not respond to inquiries.)

Whatever the actual numbers of wounded, military hospitals are being overwhelmed. "Staff are working 70- or 80-hour weeks," Borger reports. "[T]he Walter Reed army hospital in Washington is so full that it has taken over beds normally reserved for cancer patients to handle the influx, according to a report on CBS television." Some of the outpatient wounded are even being placed at nearby hotels because of the overflow, according to The Washington Times.Inside these hospitals, there's no shortage of compelling narratives for the interested TV reporter. For example, an accident in western Iraq threw Sgt. Robert Garrison of Ithaca, N.Y., from his Humvee, according to a June story by the Associated Press. He landed on his head, fractured his skull and slipped into unconsciousness. Garrison "can't speak at more than a faint whisper and breathes with the help of a tube jutting from his neck. A scar runs across the back of the head, and the left side of his face droops where he has lost some control over his muscles." Sgt. Kenneth Dixon, of Cheraw, S.C., was in a Bradley fighting vehicle when it plunged into a ravine. He "broke his back, leaving him unable to use his legs." These days he's at a veteran's hospital in Richmond, Va., "focusing on his four hours of daily physical therapy."

What is it about the wounded that makes us uncomfortable? Why have they been left out of the coverage of the war by the broadcast media?

Marine Sgt. Phillip Rugg, 26, recently had his left leg amputated below the knee, caused by a grenade "that penetrated his tank-recovery vehicle March 22 outside Umm Qasr, nearly shearing his foot off."

The stories of these injured soldiers obviously straddle party lines and should sadden Americans from all walks. So what is it about the wounded that makes us uncomfortable? Why have they been left out of the coverage of the war by the broadcast media?

The consensus seems to be that the wounded are too depressing a topic -- and also that they might threaten Bush's popularity. "The wounded are much too real; telling their stories would be too much of a bummer for television's news programmers," says Norman Solomon, media critic and co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You. "Dead people don't linger like wounded people do. Dead people's names can be posted on a television honor role, but the networks and cable news channels won't clog up their air time with the names and pictures of hundreds and hundreds of wounded soldiers."

Former L.A. Times television critic Howard Rosenberg reflects this sentiment, and adds that giving the wounded air time could be perceived as too controversial. "Since 9/11, there is a general feeling among many media outlets that they need to stay away from anything that could be interpreted as disloyal to the country," he says.

John Stauber, author of the recently released book The Weapons of Mass Deception, says the war was sold on television as a sanitized war with minimal U.S. casualties -- which was exactly what the Bush administration tried to engineer. "Showing wounded soldiers and interviewing their families could be disastrous PR for Bush's war," he says. "I suspect the administration is doing all it can to prevent such stories unless they are stage managed feel-good events like Saving Private [Jessica] Lynch."
Tod Ensign directs Citizen Soldier, a GI rights advocacy organization. He thinks the failure to cover the wounded indicates an implicit loyalty to the White House, and a reluctance to address a failed Iraq policy. "The American media is by and large controlled and dominated by corporations that line up politically with the Bush administration," Ensign says. "They appear to be increasingly incapable of grappling with such a highly charged issue as the wounded." 

The consensus seems to be that the wounded are too depressing a topic -- and also that they might threaten Bush's popularity.

President Bush landed on the U.S.S. Lincoln on May 1 and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. Since that overhyped media event, the president has repeatedly visited with troops that have returned intact, and he has issued statements honoring the dead. But the president has not shown up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to shake hands with the recovering Robert Garrisons or Kenneth Dixons. Journalists should pay these visits for him, to tell us the stories of these men and women, whose problems will stretch into the coming years. And they should ask the president why he is so reluctant to see these troops he sent so confidently into battle.

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