Abstract knowledge of war leads to easy acceptance

AJohn Tribbett As I watched the Marines help topple Saddam Hussein’s bronze image, I thought to myself, “Semper fie, do or die, by God, our boys have taken Iraq.” As the scenes of jubilation unfolded on the television, the bare-chested men marched in the street and the old women shrouded in black clapped their hands for the Kevlar-helmeted soldiers, I felt pride and honor welling up inside me for selflessness of my nation.

We’d done it. No more would a ruthless dictator cruelly rule the people of Iraq. Gone now would be the torture chambers; soon the creeping threat of weapons of mass destruction waiting to be secretly spilled into our American streets would vanish and finished would be the heartless squander of an innocent nation’s wealth. A few citizens of Baghdad even grabbed the satellite phones of lurking journalists and cried, “Kill Saddam, kill Saddam” to an anonymous audience eager to hear an authentic voice offering proof of a newly liberated Iraq.

And liberated they must be, for to utter such words aloud or to desecrate his image only a few days ago could have meant death. Here was the vindication for the awful necessity of war and for our willingness to sacrifice the youth of our nation. Ordinary Iraqis now drag Hussein’s statue’s decapitated head as an effigy through the dusty streets. Shoes were removed to strike the toppled statue, an insult of extreme disregard in the Arab world, and children and women spat openly on it. Yellow flowers, given by the thankful people of Baghdad, graced the lapels of the young defenders of freedom as they smiled nervously in this strange land.

The scenes bore witness to the fruition of the George W. Bush administration’s vision. Sure, we still had pockets of resistance left to deal with and Hussein was still an unknown variable, but for the most part it seemed like we had toppled the regime. For all the wavering and criticism about the small amount of troops dispatched or the dangerously exposed supply lines, Donald Rumsfeld’s war plan appeared to have worked. It appeared we had won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. It also appeared the hearts and minds of the American people had been won. A Gallup poll earlier this week put Bush’s approval rating at 70 percent. Support for the war effort steadily nudged up as the military successes continued to mount.

This fit with the narrative of war we had been sold. The narrative of war said we would invade to protect the world and the people of Iraq by removing the madman Hussein. This is a seductive narrative that compels us to applaud the efficiency of our military might as a necessary tool for the betterment of the world. Much of the evidence brought to us seems to validate this.

This is what disturbs me. I feel compelled to believe in this narrative without question. I am easily led to believe that because this is the dominant storyline fed to me, it is truth. The messy details, which brew dissonance within me, become annoyances. I want to believe we are only acting out of benevolent intentions and a desire to liberate and create the potentialities needed for the predication of a lasting freedom for these long-suffering people.

But I can’t stop thinking about the realities of war. Like many Americans, I have not experienced war directly. The cover of Time magazine has colored my vision, as have the 6 o’clock news and a Hemingway tale or two. I have been exposed to the cinema myth of the rock ‘n’ roll war via “Apocalypse Now” and war as visceral philosophical treatise courtesy of “Platoon.” As a child I played with plastic green soldiers and as a young adult listened with darkly eager ears as a Persian Gulf War I veteran friend told stories of charcoaled and eviscerated Iraqis littering the battlefield. I have read first-person accounts in Harpers of young and disillusioned soldiers. But I do not know war directly – I know it in the abstract.

I know it by the reality show storyline I am conditioned to. I know it by the common sense of the distilled parody that packages reality into 15-minute sections, “We give you the top war headlines every quarter hour.” I know it because it makes sense to me that life’s inconsistencies can be doled out and the resolved in tidy half-hour segments. It is what the television told me as I was raised. I have learned to expect the hidden camera, the rocket cam and the extreme angle lens as a natural partner to life’s most horrific and intimate moments. War as it is fed to us is the war of television. It is unreality given to us as reality.

So I have to ask myself about the dead and the dying. I have to remind myself that when I am marveling at the technological prowess of a laser-guided missile that can be launched within 12 minutes of an alleged citing of Hussein that I am marveling at an instrument of death. If I am not careful, the illusion of precision offered by video and commentary allows me to be removed from the horror of war. I have to remind myself that a man has lost a wife, the child an arm and the mother a son. I have to tell myself those are human beings suffering and that their value is equal to mine. I have to remember that the Iraqi dead are no less tragic than the American or British dead.

The narrative doesn’t want me to see this. The narrative asks that I mourn the one American battle death and casually accept an announcer’s speculation that “we killed 1,000, maybe 2,000 Iraqi’s” without challenge. The video montages of our fallen citizens exemplify their humanity. Their loss of life is seen as a necessary tragedy while the death of the other is to be applauded like a high-scored basketball victory. The narrative doesn’t want me to ask why in a city of five million people only a few thousand, at best, were dancing in the street in front of cameras. The narrative doesn’t want me ask about the one in three Americans that don’t approve of this war.

The narrative of war feeds on itself and demands sacrifice of our own humanity as payment for the destruction of the others’ humanity. Reality is messy; the narrative of war is not. We can turn off the TV; those living among the destruction – Iraqi and American alike – cannot.

John Tribbett’s biweekly column appears alternate Fridays Send letters to the editor to [email protected]