What a heart-warming Christmas coup for Washington. Images of Saddam bearded, bedraggled, bloodshot and being screened for lice plastered on televisions worldwide in a PR orgy that no Thanksgiving turkey for the troops could have cooked up. But skeptics can't avoid the obvious: this media frenzy occurs just as the body bags (or rather transfer tubes, as they're now called) are streaming out of Iraq at an alarming rate. November was the bloodiest month so far for American troops (81 died), and many observers are drawing a direct line from those deaths to Bush's first tumble below the 50 per cent approval mark.
Now the question is, will the easily distracted U.S. media be able to shift focus to the explosive body count issue and allow Bush's critics to capitalize on the public's dawning awareness? Or will the Pentagon's little-known ban on images of military coffins coming home from battle continue to head them off?
Oddly, the gag order, in effect since the eve of war in March, has not been challenged by media outlets. It's perhaps not surprising that the American press has shown little interest in the approximately 8,000 Iraqis NGOs say were killed in the war, and have ignored America's 2,600 wounded. But the U.S. media's complicit silence surrounding American dead has been puzzling. November's casualty spike did push a few reporters to start questioning the ban, but Bush's Thanksgiving turkey stunt succeeded in changing the subject.
"The media have a responsibility to challenge that muzzling, and they haven't," says Megan Boler, associate professor of theory and policy studies at U of T, referring to problems of self-censorship thanks to patriotic pressures to toe the line and zip up.
Surely, editors must realize those regs have huge political functions. Says Christine Masters of York's Centre for International Studies, "The American military is supposed to be the most powerful on earth, and (the death of their troops) obviously undermines that. If people aren't seeing dead bodies coming home, it creates the illusion that there aren't any dead soldiers" - an illusion that Bush has been reinforcing, it seems, by refusing to attend military funerals.
And the strategy seems to be working. New York-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has noted a general absence of casualty stories beyond the rip-and-read variety. "Without that image (of coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware), the administration understands that it would be harder for news outlets to do that kind of reporting every night," says Peter Hart, a media analyst with FAIR. "By cutting off an image that is key to the story, they affect the way the media approach this story, and whether or not they do it at all."
A dangerous prospect, says Hart, considering that without those images the public is less likely to mourn and less likely to question the decision to go to war in the first place. "It's a key part of the discussion our society has to have," he adds.
But getting to exactly how the major outlets feel about this curtailing of compelling visuals is not so easy. Despite the hot issue of press restrictions, neither CNN, FOX nor the New York Times would speak to NOW on the subject of the coffin reporting ban.
If the press is keeping quiet, it's no secret that American politicos are deeply fearful of "the Dover factor" - the public's distaste for the sight of mounting military coffins. Vietnam was the original case in point.
In 1989, some networks showed split-screen images of caskets arriving at Dover fresh from the Panama invasion alongside images of Bush Sr. goofing around at a press conference.
Soon enough, the frazzled president issued an order to ban all images of the flag-draped boxes returning to the U.S. The edict was largely ignored over the years, until the current Bush admin decided to enforce it right before sounding the war drums.
But Dover's chief of public affairs, Lieutenant Colonel Jon Anderson, insists there's nothing political behind the move. It was all about the families, he says. "What we have found is, if you bring media on the base you won't just have a simple offloading," says Anderson. "You're then bound to make a visual presentation, which would involve some type of a ceremony that would add to the time we will have to take to get the remains prepared and sent to the loved ones. Even a couple of hours that keeps us from returning the remains to the families is unconscionable when you don't have to do it."
It's intriguing that the Canadian government has no such policy about this kind of reportage. In fact, Major Mike Audette, a spokesperson for the Canadian Ministry of Defence, feels media coverage of returning military coffins is key "to provid(ing) insight to the public into the sacrifices our soldiers are making."
The lack of recognition for these sacrifices infuriates Charley Richardson, co-founder of the U.S.'s Military Families Speak Out. The group is part of growing faction of military voices, including retired generals, vets and defectors, who have tired of the ongoing occupation and the spin machine that helps propel it. "(The ban is) not about taking care of (military families). It's about taking care of the image of the president and the image of war."
That image got a serious boost when Bush's "Ace of Spades" was yanked out of a hole in the ground and given a thorough tongue checking for all the world to see. But while it seemed to improve the American president's standing in the polls, Hart says the capture is a less potent distraction than most U.S. pundits had predicted.
"I think people are still concerned about other issues that may not be tied directly to this capture, like the violence and the strength of the insurgency and the attacks against American troops,"says Hart.
But Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert and senior fellow with U.S. think tank the Brookings Institute, says casualties are still well below his own predicted targets and argues that perhaps our hypersensitivity to death is only hampering things. "All Western countries have an extreme sensitivity to military casualties. It also means that as a great power you can be paralyzed by quite limited losses. That winds up preventing you, in the Bush administration's eyes, from taking strong steps toward preventing the next 9/11.
"If you put it in those terms, there is a strategic argument for trying to avoid the constant moaning and protracted national anguish over each and every battlefield loss," adds O'Hanlon.
The American press certainly hasn't been exacerbating the moaning. Although last month a CNN international broadcast admitted the dead have disappeared from TV screens thanks to the Dover ban, back in April newscaster Aaron Brown acknowledged having a distaste for indulging the "pornography" of casualties. And up until the fall, when debate about the ongoing occupation became more acceptable, the media toed the Pentagon line on splintering body counts into smaller combat-versus-non-combat and pre-May-1-versus-post-May-1 figures.
Now that the U.S.-installed Iraqi government has also opted to hide its dead, the costs of this war seem more likely to remain out of the public consciousness. Last week, Iraq's health ministry allegedly announced the end of its civilian body count and ordered its stats department not to release any numbers to date.
But coffins or no coffins, the Bush administration is well aware that even with the Dover ban securely in place and Hussein in the proverbial bag, it's riding the frailest of public support crests.
Yes, PR pros are trying to wrap a bow around Hussein and tell us Christmas has come early, but wouldn't you know it, two car bombs went off in Iraq on Sunday, followed by two more the next day. Guess Santa works in strange ways.