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November 16, 2004

I’ll See Your Marlboro Man, And I’ll Raise You One

Here’s an update on the LA Times pr campaign to turn an unwilling Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller into a poster boy (see previous post).

In a defensive action this past weekend, the NYTimes responded by offering up their own cigarette smoking GI (Lance Cpl. Michael Pristavec, below). Aware of the advanced hype for Miller, however, it appears the NYT was more likely trying to “flood the zone,” actually casting multiple smoking GI’s into the mix (perhaps hoping to dilute the impact of the original LATimes picture).

The following shots ran on the cover of the NYTimes on Saturday. (The part of the photo showing the silhouetted smoker only appeared on the NYT web site.)

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(identified as) Lance Cpl. Michael Pristavec

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Lance Cpl. Michael Oliver Ray

On the network front, in another attempt to bootstrap off the Miller picture (this is why I avoid the network news), Dan Rather interviewed the soldier’s mother last Monday night. (She was also on the CBS Morning Show today.) The title of their web story is classic. It reads: “Mom Wants Icon Son To Return Safe.” (When was the last time an icon needed to be so labeled?)

I have to reproduce Dan Rather’s comments for you. I offer them not just because they are so sacchrine, but because they demonstrate how Rather (in the name of the network) has laid personal claim to James Blake. Remember, this is a kid who is clearly feeling exploited by the attention. Says Rather:

“For me, this one’s personal. The picture. Did you see it? The best war photograph of recent years is in many newspapers today. Front page in some. Taken by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times, it is this close-up of a U.S. Marine on the front lines of Fallujah.

He is tired, dirty and bloodied, dragging on that cigarette, eyes narrowed and alert. Not with the thousand-yard stare of a dazed infantryman so familiar to all who have seen combat, first hand, up close. No. This is a warrior with his eyes on the far horizon, scanning for danger.

See it. Study it. Absorb it. Think about it. Then take a deep breath of pride.

And if your eyes don’t dampen, you’re a better man or woman than I. Where such men come from and what will happen to our country when they cease to come, we can wonder with worry. But for now, we have them, and they are there in that brown hell known as Iraq.”

The Morality Issue

Besides the clear example of a news organization attempting to exploit a combat soldier (the media’s form of war profiteering), I was also interested in the impression of these photos in light of the current discussion about “moral values.”

Beyond the manipulation of James Miller, these pictures could easily be seen to suggest other issues, for example, the impact of battle stress, the hazards of smoking, or even the romanticization of war. (Isn’t it weird we get these “dreamy” shots of our boys in place of more realistic images of what they’re doing in and to Fallouja when they aren’t puffing away?)

In light of the election, there has been a good deal of discussion about the right wing and it’s clever appropriation of the “morality” theme. One of the organizations looking at how the right wing has integrated the concept is the Rockridge Institute (website). Besides decoding and deconstructing right wing talking points, Rockridge is also looking at what they call the new “right wing permissiveness.” The basic idea is that the conservative’s reliance on a “higher authority” actually overrides the need for moral judgment.

What is interesting (to me, at least) is how easy it is to take these images at face value. In the terms of a conservative mindset (which, many argue, has become the underlying framework for cultural thinking), America’s involvement in Iraq has become accepted without question as serving a “higher authority” (or, translated into secular terms, the “greater good”). Writing for Rockridge, Fred Block explains that, in seeking this “higher” goal, however, we have been conditioned to overlook or excuse any morally questionable behavior that happens along the way. (That’s why the conservatives were able to dismiss Abu Ghraib, for example.)

Given this mentality, one can look at these images and barely see them at all. You don’t see the fear. You don’t see the exhaustion. You don’t see the addiction. You just see how cool these guys are, taking a welcome break before resuming the march to democracy.

(photos: Ashley Gilbertson — New York Times)

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