Published on Saturday, November 8, 2003 by the New York Press
Heroes or Lepers?
Americas Dress-up President Wont Go Near the Wounded. But Cher Will.
by Michelangelo Signorile
Have you seen all of that graphic media coverage of the 2000-plus wounded servicemen and -women who served in Iraq, laying in military hospitals with missing limbs? Me neither. I was made more aware of them last week by… Cher. You heard me right. And don’t you dare laugh: With the corporate media so hush-hush on the topic and the Bush administration trying to hide images of the dead and wounded, let’s be thankful there are still some divas with big mouths left.
A transcript made its way around the web last week of the glitzy entertainer’s call in to C-Span’s morning show Washington Journal. It was a call that would soon incur the wrath of the right-wing radio hit mob and a tacky gossip columnist or two.
"I would like to say I had the occasion the other day to slend the entire day with troops that had come back from Iraq and had been wounded, and I also visited troops during the Vietnam era," the unidentified caller from Miami Beach told the C-Span moderator Peter Slen, discussing her visit to the Walter Reed Army Hospital.
"But the thing that I was most shocked by as I walked into the hospital, the first person I ran into was a boy about 19 or 20 years old who’d lost both of his arms. And when I walked into the hospital and visited all these boys all day long, everyone had lost either one arm, one limb or two limbs or had lost one limb and there were, there were a lot of legs that seemed to be missing."
Slen: What were you doing at Walter Reed? Are you a volunteer?
Caller: No, I was just asked to come and slend the day. I was working that day in Washington, DC, and...
Slen: What kind of work do you do?
Caller: Um, I’m an entertainer.
Slen: Oh, what kind of entertaining? Are you USO?
Caller: No, I actually was called by the USO but I’m...I’m...I’m just...I’m an entertainer. And I really don’t want to go much past that but...um...
Slen: Is this Cher?
Cher then went on to ask a pertinent question regarding the men she visited in the hospital: "Why are none of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bremer, the president, why aren’t they taking pictures with all these guys? Because I don’t understand why these guys are so hidden… Don’t hide them. Let’s have some news coverage where people are sitting and talking to these guys and seeing their spirit."
Photos of the wounded aren’t the only photos of soldiers we’re not seeing. As was reported by only a few media organizations in the past few weeks–buried on page A23 of the Washington Post–the Bush administration is not allowing the coffins of dead service people to be photographed either, putting up curtains at bases, keeping away the media that doesn’t seem all that interested anyway.
"Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the remains of US soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped coffins," wrote the Post’s White House reporter Dana Milbank. "To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution: It has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers’ homecomings on all military bases."
Apparently, just before the fighting in Iraq began, the Pentagon sent out a directive: "There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [DE] base, to include interim stops." Since then, George W. Bush has posed in military drag himself, but hasn’t been to one memorial service or funeral for the more than 350 dead soldiers.
While we don’t see much coverage of the wounded and dead American soldiers, we’re still seeing lots of footage of pre-war Iraqi civilians suffering under Saddam Hussein. Last week CNN and Fox went big with a videotape it said American soldiers had uncovered last April, a tape it described as "a gruesome videotape found…by U.S. troops in Iraq." It depicted the "brutal punishment administered by the Fedayeen Saddam to enforce discipline under the regime of Saddam Hussein."
The tape, which CNN aired repeatedly, showed men being whipped, thrown off of buildings and having body parts amputated. A breathless Paula Zahn assured us that what they were showing was only the most tepid parts of the tape, which is much more grotesque in its totality.
Funny how the tape suddenly surfaced on news programs–having been seized by soldiers way back in April–just when George W. Bush’s numbers are falling and more people are losing faith in the American occupation of Iraq. Zahn insisted the tape was "not released by the Pentagon, but was obtained by CNN from independent sources." But there was Donald Rumsfeld openly talking about it, attesting to how "typical" the treatment on the tape was.
"There are a lot of [these kinds of tapes] around," Rumsfeld bellowed, "and they portray a regime that was about as vicious as any regime could conceivably be."
No one’s denying that Hussein was brutal, but with Iraqi civilians and American soldiers dying every day, you’d think there’d be a bit more sympathy for those killed last week, as opposed to last year. Even while discussing the killing of 16 U.S. service people last weekend–an event Rumsfeld termed "tragic" but "necessary" in a "war that’s difficult and complicated"–the defense secretary couldn’t help but talk about that suddenly surfaced tape chronicling past Saddam brutality.
At a press briefing, he’d said, "You learn something about a group of people and how they lived their lives and how they treated their people."
Right he is. So what does it say about a group of people and how they live their lives and treat their people when they send young men and women off to war and then won’t honor the dead among them and their families with so much as a photo-op?
And what does it say about the American media that it took a celebrity on down time during her "Farewell Tour" in Miami to call in to a public affairs show and point this out? Not in a million years would I have thought I’d ask this: Can we please replace Paula Zahn with Cher?
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