Monday, February 26, 2007

But Silence, Is A Dangerous Sound

The last time I posted an excerpt from one of McClatchy's Iraqi bloggers, I was accused by one of my American Footprints co-bloggers of cynically exploiting the pain and suffering of the Iraqi author in question just to score cheap political points. All this because I actually linked the effects of the war to its instigators (the Bush administration). According to this critique, we shouldn't blame the war-makers for what has followed because...who could have predicted that the war would turn out like this? It's not like history is any indicator - at least if you read Victor Davis Hanson. Or something.

While I found the accusation to be as spurious as it was insulting, it is understandable that a war supporter would be made uncomfortable by the gruesome details in that Iraqi blogger's story. War is much more palatable in the sanitized abstraction of euphemism and meta-narrative. When citizens who are otherwise at a safe distance geographically speaking are forced to contend with unvarnished depictions of the sights, smells and sounds attendant to war's relentless carnage, there is a resonant impact.

While there is more than one reason that the Pentagon is preoccupied with controlling the media's access to the battlefield - one of the primary concerns has to do with "protecting" the public from the sheer horror of war, and the impact such exposure can have on support levels. The Vietnam War was instructive in this regard.

Generally speaking, when the American people get a glimpse of what war really looks like with all the bunting and pomp peeled away, the enthusiasm tends to die down a little. There's something about the image of a child's lifeless, bloodied corpse, or the wailing of a newly bereaved mother, that kind of kills the mood. Or at least it should.

Yet, despite the military's valid concerns, it is vital that we acknowledge the actual effects of war on the people that we have so targeted - on both a moral and strategic level. Attaining this level of understanding can be of strategic value in terms of informing our interactions with the external world. Whether or not our military, aided by a largely complicit media, has been able to hide the gory details from the American public, this is not necessarily the case outside of our borders.

Large swathes of the world's population - especially in the war zones themselves - are privy to depictions of war's unmitigated barbarity, including images of the dead and survivors alike whose ravaged bodies expose the internal organs, muscle, tendon and bone that have breached their rightful boundaries. While much of the world is witness to this degree of grisly detail, our tightly controlled coverage offers little more than the detached and digitized cockpit-eye view, or the neutral scenes of planes departing from the decks of aircraft carriers.

This disparate exposure to information creates a disconnect between our perception and experience of these conflicts, with that of those inhabiting the particular conflict zone and beyond. Suffice it to say, perpetrating such violence doesn't cast us in an overly sympathetic light. Further compounding the issue, we are mostly unaware of the true causes for this divergence.

We can scratch our heads and pretend that America's tarnished image as evidenced by plummeting poll numbers and other indicia of burgeoning anti-American sentiment stems from our decadent, progressive agenda, jealousy on the part of the have-nots, or that its roots can be found in some intractable ethno-religiously motivated hatred for our way of life. There are, however, more plausible - if mundane - explanations. It comes down to this: people tend not to react well to bombardment, and outsiders tend to empathize with the victims. We are no different, and it's nothing personal, or anti-American per se. That's why in the days following 9/11, so much of the world was overtly sympathetic to our plight.

These factors should be considered when weighing the costs and benefits of military confrontation. Not only does combat and occupation have an inevitable negative impact on the target population, but these harsh methods and their gruesome human toll, also influence populations not directly affected by the violence.

As both a blessing and a curse, the Internet has allowed stories and images from Iraq to escape the war zone to reach observers in America. In some instances, media organizations such as McClatchy have aided that process. It is better this way - better that we gain a more vivid understanding of the ordeal of the Iraqi people; better that we learn how the rest of the world will come to know us through the results of our actions; better that we assess the next ostensible "casus belli" with the full knowledge of the stakes:

For the last three years we had to read, listen and report daily news. The problem lies in this news because it is sad and full with grief. One of the days that I can not forget was when a car bomb exploded near New Baghdad and I had to go. More than 30 children were killed. I had to talk to the families and look to the limbs of angels all over the place hanged on the power lines, blood covering the place, their shoes and that smell.

A father tears can easily tear your heart and a mother sobbing sound will never and ever leave your ears. The echo of that kid who came to his father crying and a river of tears was covering his face … his words still torturing me. Here I am alone at dawn in Baghdad, and here is he in front of me saying to his father “I want my brother back”… he couldn’t understand that his brother is not coming back again.

The other kid that i can not forget was in Fallujah, he is laying down suffering bullets injuries and his father, mother and aunt were killed in the car behind him and he can not see them… he refused to let the ambulance take him to the hospital only if I swear to him that his family are alive… he pulled my shirt and said “don’t lie to me”...I was looking at them all killed in front of me and he is laying down, an American sobbing soldier beside him was treating him till the ambulance arrived, and I had to swear to him that they were alive and he will find them in the hospital if he allowed the ambulance to take him, he and his one year old sister who were covered with her mother’s blood all over her body…

I am sorry but I had to write this down...

No need to apologize to us - that would only add injustice to injury. Because we have to read this. It is imperative now more than ever, as influential voices in pundit and political circles are urging us to expand the war and widen the range of suffering. With salesmanship and obfuscation in full swing, we are told to embrace our knack for "creative destruction," that there is something to be gained by encouraging a region-wide sectarian civil war and that we need to further "cauldronize" the region - always "faster, please." These are the meaningless phrases that bounce around the halls of reputable think tanks, while on the ground the clinician's impersonal lexicon is translated into the less elegant reality of severed limbs hanging from power lines.

Yet, oddly enough, in the grand debate about whether or not "the Left" was prescient with sufficient specificity in its opposition to the Iraq war, rarely is it mentioned that wars inevitably lead to such butchery. As if the death and anguish alone were not good enough reasons to oppose the war - that, rather, the burden was somehow on those that counseled against war to lay out in exacting detail how the corpses would pile up this time, and which actors would be playing which parts in this rendition. Because that's the important thing.

This is not to say that war is never necessary. That is what tragedy is all about, and as of yet, the human race doesn't appear to have tired of that particular plot device. But it does suggest that the burden is on the war-makers to convince us that war is the only option in each and every instance; that somehow turning some foreign hospital morgue into a human spare parts sorting bin for terrorized widows and mothers to sift through is going to serve our long term moral and strategic interests. And in so doing, we must be ever wary of cheap emotionalism, jingoistic propaganda, fabricated evidence and other artifice used by the war boosters.

Even if the scales tilt in favor of war at some point in the future, we must not delude ourselves such that the eventual deadly results are later decried as unforeseeable, unexpected and not our responsibility. We must strive to react with maturity when our idyllic world is rudely interrupted by some foreigner with the bad taste to complain about the real world effects of operation [insert noble sounding euphemism here].

Nor should we accuse those trying to prevent the next war of exploiting the situation by pointing out the obvious.

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