Dead American soldiers became the objects of highly visible and ongoing contest this week – over the ways and means of grieving America’s fallen. In fact, the events discussed in this short post mark only the latest phase and an escalation in tensions between dominant and challenging bodies over the (in)visibility of suffering and dead American soldiers that have featured throughout the Global War on Terror (GWoT). Such tensions demonstrate not only the competing logics and agendas leading to the blacking out of American repatriations via the 2003 Dover Ban (a DoD Directive prohibiting the publication and broadcast of images and videos capturing any part of the repatriation process) but the value of soldier grief claims and speaking for the dead within contemporary American politics and international relations.
This latest round of contest began on Monday, when President Trump responded to criticism over the Administration’s two week wait to make contact with the families of four soldiers killed in action (KIA) in Niger by claiming that predecessors “didn’t make calls” at all. It then came to light that, in an eventual condolence call to Myeshia Johnson made just moments before the above photograph was taken, Trump explained the deceased Sgt. La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” Accused of insensitivity by Sgt. Johnson’s Mother, for widowed Myeshia the worst of it was however that “he [Trump] didn’t even know his [Sgt. Johnson’s] name.” To Myeshia and the ones who knew him in life, Sgt. Johnson was a uniquely grievable human being – the ‘Wheelie King‘ from South Florida, who married his high-school sweetheart. However, draped in the flag and conflated into the fallen, such characteristics – those comprising what Jenny Edkins describes as “personhood” – go unseen and uncounted by bodies reliant upon the continuation of conflict for their geo-political, financial, and ontological security. Such bodies (government and military in kind) “don’t do body counts” and regard American soldiers on mass as a “most precious resource” with which to fuel the GWoT.
Captured at Dover Air Force Base (AFB) as pregnant Myeshia wept over the flag-draped coffin carrying her dead husband’s body, the above, touching and moving image is one of a kind hotly contested throughout the GWoT. Indeed, in March 2003 (on the eve of Iraq’s invasion), the Bush Administration extended and enforced the Dover Ban which was originally issued in 1991 (during the Gulf War). However, as the GWoT went on (and I have discussed here and forthcoming) public contests over the (in)visibility of the KIA and the right to publicly count and account for the human cost of America’s ‘forever’ (and everywhere) war rose in the forms of challenges including a protest march against the Ban by Military Families Speak Out, works of art exaggerating the lack of dead American soldiers from the American visual landscape, and the publication of banned images by bodies including The Seattle Times and Associated Press ahead of the ban’s partial revoke in 2009 by then Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
As civilians with close military ties and bonds American military – Gold Star – families comprise a vital yet liminal part of the body politic and are subject to intense pressures from dominant bodies. For example, military families provide vital support to serving soldiers and veterans alike while their sensitivities are invoked by government and military bodies as justification for various (in)actions and policies. Military families are as such are elevated to a pivotal position: “the top one percent” according to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly – himself a Gold Star father – this week. Khizir Khan demonstrated this well with his protest speech against Trump on American patriotism and values at the DNC last year. Crucially, all this goes on while military families are exposed to the excessive violence of war via their soldier kin, and of course, when soldiers are injured and KIA it is military families who see and feel (let alone count) the human cost of war and as such become part of the toll themselves. However, as the events discussed here illustrate, when made visible military families may use their pivotal position to (re)define American values and move other, dominant bodies (as well as the public) towards counting and accounting for the human cost of even a forever war.