War, Military Women, and the Media that Love Them
By Mary Vavrus | September 19, 2018
“This has to be Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” crowed CNN’s Catherine Callaway — her way of praising the U.S. military women piloting F-14 Tomcats in attack missions over Afghanistan in late 2001. Her comment is typical of television news coverage of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, 2001: it simultaneously acclaims military women for their martial competence, affirms the legitimacy of U.S. war and foreign policy, and serves as war matériel product placement.
By casting these women pilots as representatives of a military based on gender equality and contrasting them with bin Laden (and, by extension, the Afghan population), this narrative invokes a gendered “us” (we’re superior because we have modern views on women) vs. “them” (they’re in need of U.S. military intervention to bring them into the modern world) trope that has long justified U.S. military interventions.
As an early signal of a 15-year trend in news coverage to validate these wars and shape public opinion by, in part, celebrating military women, Callaway’s words also point to an absence of media policy to govern war communication. Today, the Trump administration’s deregulation push has forced many into re-thinking media policy (as Stine Eckert’s Gender Policy Report attests) and considering whether we should discourage “sales pitches” for war and establish spaces for journalism freed from pressure exerted by the Department of Defense, White House, parent corporations, and any other actors who stand to gain from warfare. My research on this post-9/11 era of media coverage shows, in particular, how the converging desires of corporate media outlets and government groups have recast military women: news, documentary, and hybrid media alike depict military women as heroic and martially adept as they downplay persistent misogyny and sexual violence within the ranks of the armed forces—the latter so pervasive that it has required the creation of the term Military Sexual Trauma to capture its effects.
Such a pattern of selective emphasis suggests that purportedly neutral U.S. media outlets function more as recruiters than watchdogs over either the military or its executive branch leaders. Not coincidentally, this coverage aired at a historical moment in which military recruiting was drying up. Women’s martial labor was much needed; this exigency, I argue, was one of the factors that pushed the U.S. media system to incorporate overwhelmingly positive stories about military women into its propaganda campaign to secure public support for the invasion of Iraq and beyond. While media workers at every level have acknowledged pressure from the Bush White House, DoD, and, in some cases, their bosses, to produce pro-Iraq war news stories, favorable stories also emerged organically when the interests of media parent corporations and news division management aligned with those pushing for war. Between 9/11 and early 2017, most mainstream TV (and print) news stories avoided alienating military advertisers, showcased retired military officers as on-air consultants (often with undisclosed conflicts of interest), and maintained interlocked directorates and other ownership relationships with corporations that manufacture weapons (e.g., defense contractor General Electric was NBC’s parent corporation until 2011). As a result, TV news audiences since 9/11 have been subjected to a full-throated propaganda campaign to promote U.S. military and foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. At times, this has even meant silencing war critics.
But it was not until 2012, when the documentary The Invisible War was released and the combat exclusion policy for female soldiers was eliminated, that TV news outlets began to substantively attend to the rampant sexual violence in the military.
Catherine Callaway’s comment is just one among the hundreds I culled from the 15-year period of post-9/11 coverage praising military women for their work as pilots, MPs, convoy truck drivers, and so forth. On these newscasts, we see women of all races skillfully operating military equipment and weapons as voiceovers and correspondents laud their professionalism and patriotism. Martially credentialed veterans-turned-legislators Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) appear as commentators celebrating military women; Duckworth, for example, tells ABC News in 2013 that “America’s daughters are just as capable of defending liberty and freedom as her sons are.” The dangers those daughters will face not on the battlefield but in their own ranks are rarely acknowledged, skewing media toward recruitment over realistic portrayals of military women’s employment conditions.
These patterns suggest a need for media policies around war coverage, especially gender in war communication.
For example, a content policy could require, at the very least, that news organizations provide sufficient opportunities for critics of both military rules affecting women and of war to be heard (a 21st century rehabilitation of the Fairness Doctrine). A policy governing political economy could minimize or eliminate conflicts of interest by requiring media corporations to disclose investments in defense industries. Better yet, media might be required to divest from such industries, whose conflicts of interest have so frequently, as my research shows, led news organizations to turn recruiter. Ideally, such policies would free news professionals to do their jobs, interrogating official rationales for war and military policies without fear of commercial or government reprisal.
I realize this is rather quixotic amid the waves of de-regulation emanating from Trump administration agencies. However, widespread outcry over the FCC’s elimination of net neutrality indicates that the public is aware of the myriad effects of at least one media policy. If this once-arcane rule can energize people around media governance, surely policies that might govern war news coverage, with its life-and-death outcomes, could motivate change led by media consumers. A public invigorated by the ideals of unfettered media coverage might not be Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare, but it could haunt the bellicose dreams of America’s leaders.