A Scene in an Obscene War
CNN ran an elegaic piece April 5th called "The Road to Baghdad." Among other stories it included one of US soldiers in an Iraqi town surrounded by a crowd yelling angrily at them. The soldiers watched uneasily and uncomprehendingly as people gestured and called out at them. The voiceover said the soldiers had been invited by a religious leader, but the crowd hadn’t known this and just vented anger or anguish at their presence. The soldiers’ response was to kneel down and to turn their weapons upside down. This quelled and calmed everyone. It took my breath away and made me cry.
The line from Isaiah that we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks is inscribed on the wall of the United Nations. The text goes on to predict that man can come to not learn war any more.
Can war make peace as St. Augustine’s "the purpose of war is peace" suggests? I presume the saint isn’t cynical and just spinning or rationalizing. How could it be that fighting for peace isn’t like fucking for virginity-i.e. the wrong tactic as the Vietnam protesters chanted? Is war the required method to destroy a war-maker? Or is war the required pain that precedes the relief which comes when you stop banging your head against the wall? Or is it a mystery which can invoke its opposite-soldiers kneeling down and lowering their weapons? Christ and Ghandi and King preached peace and got assassinated as dangerous people. Everybody dies.
I search the news for bits of worry and self-consciousness-loving the soldier who fears his wife will think of him as a killer, applauding the officer who told the Marine to take down the American flag as we’re not in Iraq to conquer but to liberate. In our wars pictures show soldiers fighting, suffering, and handing out candy to kids or sharing a smoke with a wounded enemy or carrying a wounded child. What you have to buy in a war scenario is that destruction is the necessary tool-like surgery. In this war we boast that we’re even more surgical and precise in our targeting than in the 1991 Gulf War. We are destroying a regime of bad people not the good people they oppress.
We see fireworks more than rubble and body parts. We see 24/7 coverage but we don’t see much human damage or the dark side of destruction. "Iraqi Freedom" may seem less sanitized than the wars where no photo of wounded or dead was permitted but it is really even more sanitized because it claims to show more. The generals warn us that war isn’t pretty, that war is cruel, that we regret all casualties. But they and the networks are anxious to protect us from the real scene. The Greek dramatists too insisted violence occur ‘off-scene’-which is the literal meaning of ‘obscene.’ Ted Koppel quoted a Jack Nicholson movie general who sneered ‘you can’t stand to see it’ and Ted opined we could and promised he would show us.
Nobody admits to feasting on the drama-to loving the blood and guts and thrill of vicarious danger. Our media priests and political leaders perform rituals pretending objectivity, detachment, humanity, national piety. That beautiful moment on the road to Baghdad is not war but peace, packaged into the story of war.
Human history is a tragedy of ego and cruelty and lies. Only art approaches it.
TV news is a soap-neither the real thing nor art, just entertainment.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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