Every dead soldier is a hero, according to news reporters. A helicopter crashes, a truck blows up, school bus careens over a cliff. “Heroic” and "tragic" are adjectives that have lost their meanings against the press of a deadline.
More disgraceful are the Army’s PR stunts, dressing up a Dad being rotated (alive) from Afghanistan to show up at his child’s (a) ballgame as the catcher (b) school play as a clown or (c) party as Santa Claus. The mask is ripped off, the child screams “Daddy” and rushes tearfully toward the hero parent.
These tricks have simultaneously reduced the meaning of heroism — acting willfully in disregard to personal danger—and masked the horror and tedium of military action. It's a tragedy.
My skin crawls at the manipulation these Army public relations practitioners resort to. It’s almost as bad as the Lassie movies I saw as a child. Invariably, the child says something like, “Lassie, I’ve fallen down the well and the water’s rising. Run and tell Dad to bring a rope.” These are two handkerchief moments.
Similarly, the news media — predictably — sees every drunken teenager who drives into a tree at 3:00 a.m. as a “tragedy. Isn’t it just possible that the youngster acted stupidly, as many young people do with great regularity? (I prefer to believe they should be given Darwin Awards for removing their DNA from the collective gene pool, thereby strengthening our future generations.) Sentimentality in the face of stupidity is lazy thinking.
In response to affected writing, cynicism grows like e. Coli on poultry left on a porch in Texas. It’s not easy to restate a situation to avoid triteness, to break through the platitudes of supermarket tabloid writing and reject the mundane, banal and trite responses to the world around us. The cynicism rises in our gorge because we all have a hardwired response to tragedy, nostalgia and sentimentality. That’s how scriptwriters made Lassie a star. They put the dog through tricks to pull our heartstrings, and the audience responded like puppets.
Stop the next time you see or hear bad writing — or change channels or put down the magazine or paper. Insist on inventing unexpected and serendipitous results as you go along. Take an independent direction, Robert Frost’s “road less taken.” It’s a chaotic and muddled process. A rocky road. But it leads to clearer thinking.