Drone art / Photo by thierry ehrmann
Geoff Gilbert,  February 9, 2015

Media Misdeeds and Blind Spots

Drone art / Photo by thierry ehrmann


The “war on terror” is only the most recent threat used to rationalize our military’s extensive global footprint. The military and intelligence establishment possesses hundreds of military bases worldwide, making us the only country with permanently forward deployed troops, while it fights wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, along with a growing yet unknowable roster of countries in Africa. And yet, the amount of existing threats remains, at the very least, constant. Without even taking into consideration the very real moral failings of our war policies, the return on our investment is not looking so good.

The mainstream media is complicit in our country’s permanent war footing, through (at least) three editorial choices that frequently misrepresent our government’s role in the world: analysis of U.S. foreign policy absent consideration of international law; criticism of the U.S. military and its enemies according to different standards; and consideration of current U.S. actions without taking into account its actions in the past. These blind spots highlight the violence of our enemies while failing to account for the role of our own violent acts in the perpetuation of war and terror abroad.

Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey at the national security blog Just Security analyzed a New York Times article last year about U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, noting the absence of qualification for terms like “Qaeda fighters,” even though the only information cited regarding the identity of the militants is attributed to unnamed government officials. The absence of qualification lends credence to the officials’ otherwise unsubstantiated claim.

The passage also asserts the alleged militants were planning on attacking “civilian and military facilities” in “southern Yemen,” raising questions about whether the militants were directly threatening U.S. persons—a condition of the new terms announced by President Obama in May 2013 for using lethal force outside declared areas of hostility. And a Reuters report on the attack asserts the targets were in al-Bayda province, where the U.S. does not possess civilian or military facilities.

The mainstream press’s decision to overlook the potential conflicts between policy and practice misrepresents the ongoing legal questions surrounding the compliance of U.S. drone policy with international law, one of the issues that prompted Obama’s statement on the official rules of engagement.

Nor does the drone program conform to the government’s preferred narrative of precision warfare, another myth the popular press frequently circulates. A recent report from the British human rights organization Reprieve found that, on average, U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan kill twenty-eight unidentified individuals for every target they hit. The press apparently does not find it appropriate to provide the American public with an intimate look at the destructive violence of these drone strikes. Compare the outrage over the “horrifying violence” of ISIS beheadings with the relative silence regarding the U.S. drone attack on a Yemeni marriage procession, which killed twelve, and likely (according to Human Rights Watch) violated international law protecting civilians in non-declared war zones (PDF).

This refusal to show us the violence of the drone program continues a tradition that has kept many Americans ignorant of the horrifying effects of cruise missiles on rural villages, cluster bombs on cities, and of depleted uranium ordinance that continues, years after deployment, to cause birth defects.

By denying us access to our own violence while flaunting that of our enemies, the mainstream press demonizes our enemies while tacitly promoting our own innocence. It also helps maintain the post-9/11 fear that has allowed Congress to fund the military well above historical levels, without explanation or challenge from the mainstream press. Recent coverage of Secretary Hagel’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget emphasized its reduction of troop levels to pre-WWII levels, and generally described the plan as dangerous.

But, according to “Military Balance 2013,” a report on global military capabilities prepared by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), U.S. military spending exceeded that of the next twelve largest defense budgets, ten of which belong to allies. And as the first postwar budget, it reflects a 36.4 percent increase in spending over 2001’s pre-9/11 budget of $290.5 billion. It’s difficult to see how such an increase amounts to a significant “cut.”

This budgetary status quo represents the most recent iteration of the ancient tension between military and social spending. The class component of this equation is too often overlooked. The non-affluent benefit most from social spending—primarily through investments in public infrastructure, and programs and subsidies for basic necessities like food, housing, health care, and education. Defense spending, as it is currently organized (contractors receive nearly half of the DoD budget) amounts to permanent corporate welfare.

The mainstream press’s continuation of a climate of fear not only simplifies the debate; it also disguises a brazen transfer of wealth from the country at large to an elite corporate and political minority.

Geoff Gilbert is a reporter and writer based in New York. He focuses on social justice activism, the low-wage economy, and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. His work has also been published by Salon, TruthOut, Waging Nonviolence, the Brooklyn Rail, and the Indypendent. Follow him on Twitter @geoff_gilbert1.

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