May 5 2004 12:00 AM

They Can't get upAs body bags mount, the ‘fallen' more and more will be ‘dead'

    According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, soldiers aren't killed in Iraq, they are "fallen," which makes it sound like the dead soldiers slipped in the bathtub.

    In all likelihood, the paper's editors probably believe they are making the dead soldiers appear more heroic by calling them "fallen," implying they were taken by the Lord as they charged up the hill fighting the righteous fight. "Fallen" invokes much better images than, say, "killed in action."

    In reality, the U-T is simply pandering to the new semantics of war, which, at all costs, attempts to avoid use of the word "dead." Under the new doctrine, soldiers were not blown up by a teenage Jihadist with a bad chemistry set; they simply "made the ultimate sacrifice."

    This is no small passing issue of language in San Diego, where more and more families are holding funerals for the "fallen." To the paper they may be "fallen," but to their friends and families, all that really matters is that they are "dead."

    Their death is a very real angle to this story of the war in Iraq, and it's an angle President Bush and his fabled neo-cons don't think should be covered. They haven't exactly tried to hide their finely tuned public relations strategy, vis-à-vis "all those dead soldiers."

    The President is seen handing out turkeys and yams to the hearty troops, but he can't fit any of those boring funerals into his busy schedule. No, it wouldn't be right to attend funeral ceremonies, which would simply remind voters of, well, dead people. When a photo leaked of a room filled with flag draped coffins, the security apparatus leapt into action to track down the spy.

    They're not messing around in this war of images, which is serious business in this White House and to the legions of loyal Republicans who carry around worn copies of Ronald Reagan's "Politics for Dummies."

    All this talk about soldiers unlucky enough not to survive "the struggle for Iraqi freedom" can only hurt the war effort, the Limbaugh-ites say, and with Ann Coulter-honed logic, they proclaim all such discussion as "treason." Amid all the cultural and sociological implications of launching a pre-emptive war, their outrage is directed at the Doonesbury comic strip for showing B.D. getting his leg blown off.

    In one sense, it's kind of fun to watch the fevered-pitch effort by the right wing to win the image war. Nothing on TV is more entertaining than watching a cabinet official attempt to answer a question about all those parades the administration expected for the conquering liberators of Baghdad.

    But the buzz kill comes when you sit back and realize that, wait a minute, the neo-cons are, in fact, kicking butt in the image game. They blast the media as liberal subversives that "get young boys killed," and the crack news organizations bend over like circus chimps to make it clear that, gosh, no, they love the troops, too.

    So the dead are "fallen" and the local TV stations are eager to cover tearful homecomings, but they'll pass on the video of body bags getting loaded off the plane.

    None of the stations want Roger Hedgecock rousing his dedicated band of daytime-radio-listening shut-ins to flood their switchboards with nasty accusations of coddling the enemy. Every day there is evidence of the industry-wide effort to get on board, to counter all those charges about pansy anti-war liberals in the media.

    Executives at ABC, owned by those loony left-wing hedonists at Disney, must have been shocked when their decision to devote an episode of Nightline to reading the names of the dead soldiers created a whirlwind three-day news cycle of controversy. They thought they were doing a "tribute" to the "fallen."

    But since it was that foaming-at-the-mouth liberal wacko Ted Koppel trying to honor the dead soldiers, it suddenly became a media stunt designed to ruin the morale of our brave young men and women. Sinclair Broadcast Group decided the only righteous thing to do was to ban the broadcast from its stations, in order to protect their viewers from such depressing images.

    The reaction to Sinclair's boycott was a bit of a surprise. Veterans and soldiers and their families were outraged at the effort to stop the tribute to their relatives and comrades.

    Republican Senator and former P.O.W. John McCain summed up their anger, declaring the Sinclair PR move "a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces." And then, for the real zinger, the highly decorated veteran said, "it is, in short, sir, unpatriotic."

    That's a slap down, in the image game. And it suggests the worm is about to turn.

    Keep up the body count, and it will be more and more difficult to keep a lid on the whole death story. And, at that point, maybe the local TV stations will opt to spend a bit more time covering the families of the fallen, those folks who may not appreciate the attempts to move on to more positive news stories.

    Who knows, maybe the Union-Tribune editors will decide to keep a running total of the local "fallen" in a large box on Page 1, each day displaying the body count with a large red number. That would be a powerful image, the ultimate pro-troop statement.

    Write to and editor@SD city

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