On December 15th many Americans (and many more Iraqis) will celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Iraq war. Because of the courage and dedication of war photographers and journalists, and their commitment to the truth, we have thousands of images to remind us of the terrible violence, brutality, and costs of war. And yet when I recall that conflict, only (and perhaps thankfully) a few images come to mind, including the charred bodies of four American security contractors hanging from a bridge above the Euphrates; an Iraqi child wailing and squatting at the feet of soldiers, covered in her slain parents’ blood; and the rows of coffins containing American troops, dozens of them, war’s dark cargo tightly wrapped in American flags.
By now far too many Americans—beset by a continuous stream of content from every corner of the world, and still somehow largely ignorant of recent wars and the toll of waging them—have likely become inured to images such as these. But this steady stream of information, particularly information that might actually be useful when deciding the best course of action, has not always flowed so freely into the minds and hearts of the American populace. Take, for instance, the images of the flagged-draped coffins of American troops killed in the Iraq war.
In early 2004, not quite a year after the Iraq war began, the website The Memory Hole posted hundreds of previously unpublished images of America’s war dead returning from Iraq. Understandably, the American public was upset, not that the images had been released, but that our men and women in uniform were being killed, often in horrifying ways. In response, and under the Bush administration’s direction, the Pentagon imposed what one writer described as “a strict blackout on media coverage of the coffins returning to Dover [Air Force Base].” According the White House spokesperson at the time, the Bush administration was concerned that the “images of the returning coffins may be hurtful to grieving families.”
Perhaps the best answer to the question of how Bush and company could have possibly believed (and expected other people to believe) that grieving military families would, after suffering the catastrophic loss of a family member, care about (let alone be hurt by) the publication of anonymous coffins is that they probably didn’t. But after those images were released and Americans got a preview of all the bloodwork that surely lay ahead, Bush had to do something lest the public’s support of his ill begotten war continue to erode. So in a moment of demagoguery he did what all demagogues do when threatened with the loss of power: deflect by offering an alternative interpretation of events—an alternative story, however false or half-baked—and hope people buy it. Fortunately the truth won out and the Pentagon reversed course, but had people not challenged the Bush administration’s position on the release of the images, who knows what other information—what other truths—would have been kept from the public.
I suppose I should be thankful for this tug of war over the truth about war in all its messy complexity. Too many other troubling human behaviors do not get nearly as much scrutiny or attention, particularly those involving our perverse and destructive treatment of the nonhuman world. Lately, human caused climate change is an exception, and rightly so. And although the subject cannot be given nearly enough attention, compared to, say, the suffering of animals raised for human consumption, and the extent to which we have accepted that suffering as a staple part of everyday life, climate change is the ordre du jour. How this deeply troubling behavior has escaped the attention of so many is nothing short of astonishing.
What do you suppose would happen if, in addition to covering what we know about the rich inner lives of domestic animals—cows, pigs, and chickens—mainstream media (and our cultural narrative more generally) gave industrial meat production even a fraction of the consideration and attention that war, climate change, or social justice so deservedly get? What would we see? And how would that information affect our willingness to perpetuate the suffering of other animals, and then turn their lives into shit for a few seconds of oral pleasure?
In a way, we already have the answers to these questions. Just watch an hour of primetime (dinner time) network television and count the fast food commercials that feature meat of one kind or another. Hamburger, pork, chicken (usually pieces, rarely whole): Animals that, by design, are so processed and divorced from their original forms that we scarcely make the connection. And that is a problem. Especially since, pound for pound, industrial meat production is one of the single most destructive phenomenon on the planet. If we are going to support it, then we should know as much as possible about the true, and not just the market cost of our actions.
Deep down and despite all our rationalizations, I think we already know that our treatment of other animals is indefensible and immoral on every level. How else to explain the visceral reaction many of us still have when seeing cows or pigs hanging from the butcher’s hooks, or the lengths to which we go to conceal the horrific conditions suffered by factory farmed animals? Rarely does the prevailing cultural narrative even hint that raising, killing, and consuming other animals might be a problem, both for us and for them.
But there are unwitting exceptions, such as Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” advertising campaign featuring two cows holding signs that read “Eat Mor Chikin.” Although the commercial is intended to be silly, the conceit—that the cows want us to eat chicken instead of eating them—reveals a darker and surely unintended message, which is that cows and, by extension, other animals, also value their lives. If people really thought about this, my guess is that they would, at the very least, be alarmed by their own indifference to the lives of other animals and to the shocking ease with which our society destroys them.
Compared to other, more overt treatments of how meat consumption figures in popular culture, the implications of the Chick-fil-A commercial are subtle and, therefore, easy for a complacent, meat dependent public to miss. Just the opposite is true for one insurance commercial featuring the parts of a cow—hefty chunks of bone, fat, and blood, almost identical to our own in appearance—piled high on the butcher’s scale: For in that instant of recognition, we are disabused of the disconnect between the meat and the living, breathing animal that produced it. When that happens, the entire conversation changes. And the conversation needs to change because right now we are not even having it.