The Corner

Soldiers’ Voices

Two years ago today, my brother Bruno was killed while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Before going to Afghanistan, he’d done two other tours, including Iraq. I think just about every family member of a deployed soldier surveys the news with trepidation, worrying that it could be their loved one who’s the latest casualty or, worse, fatality.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my brother and, naturally, there’s a poignancy around certain dates like holidays, birthdays, and today. But last Friday, as I was watching the PBS NewsHour, I was completely unprepared for the footage of soldiers in Afghanistan. Viewers were warned that the segment would contain graphic images and graphic language. That warning didn’t begin to describe the content.

Footage included a soldier getting shot in the head; fortunately his helmet slowed down the bullet. Another soldier lost part of his arm. It was as if this were just a segment from an action film or a so-called reality show. But this is real life. The wounds are not special effects. They won’t go away when the cameras are turned off. The families of these soldiers could see them in danger and being wounded. And somehow, it’s all right to expose audiences, including families, to this very real brutality being done to U.S. soldiers; but the same audiences are too fragile to hear the f-bombs that, in such circumstances, are very understandable. Real life amputations and wounds, but no profanities.

Most soldiers are far more comfortable with people hearing them use profanity than they are with having their families caused any additional worry about their safety.

The journalists who prepared the segment would argue that they’re just reporting the facts. Ah, but these are selective facts. Did they show footage asking the soldiers whether they have any positive interactions with the Afghans? Did they ask the soldiers what they think of their mission? No, and they didn’t even allow them the expression of an f-bomb. So much for hearing the soldiers in their own voices. Instead, they were exploited by the graphic images of their activities. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. But if an audience is too fragile to hear certain words, surely it’s too fragile to see real life casualties.

Segments like this convey nothing but fear and futility. They give no context to the situation. To me it seems that they undermine the concerns of our soldiers insofar as they create greater fear and anxiety for families, precisely what the soldiers don’t want, all in the name of journalism so slanted that it looks more like propaganda aiding the enemy.

Yes, I am emotionally vested. But I’ve seen very little news coverage that represents the experiences of the soldiers I’ve known, including my brother. (Our hometown newspaper was one of the few exceptions I’ve seen. They even published a letter from Bruno, written just a few days before he died, explaining why he was serving in the Army.) I have an aunt who has organized an impressive local network of volunteers to send care packages to numerous troops. Frequently, she forwards their e-mails with their stories, which are so very different from most of what the media presents.*

Regardless of what one thinks of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, most people agree that those who serve in the military deserve our support. They’re already risking, even giving up, their lives for our country. If certain commentators and media outlets don’t agree with this, they only have that right because we have a long tradition of military men and women who have fought and died to protect that right for them. All I’m asking is that the soldiers themselves not be exploited, whether in the broadcasting of their injuries or by causing additional anxiety and suffering to their families.

* I recently learned of a new documentary, Shepherds of Helmand, interviewing the members of my brother’s team. The trailer looks like it actually does have the soldiers speaking in their own voices, but I haven’t seen the entire film.

Pia de Solenni is an ethicist and cultural analyst. She writes from Seattle.

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