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The Mental Limits of War

Morning Consult poll winks at me from my inbox: 57 percent of Americans support more airstrikes in Syria.

My eyeballs roll. Hopelessness permeates me, especially because I’m hardly surprised, but still . . . come on. This is nuts. The poll could be about the next move in a Call of Duty video game: 57 percent of Americans say destroy the zombies.

This is American exceptionalism in action. We have the right to be perpetual spectators. We have the right to “have an opinion” about whom the military should bomb next. It means nothing, except to those on the far end of the Great American Video Game, where the results are real.

But painful reality is only news when the media says it’s news. And that means it’s only news when the bad guys perpetrate it. This is because the Orwellian context in which we live is the context of perpetual war — not the old-fashioned kind of war, which required sacrifice and the occasional glorious death of loved ones (not to mention eventual victory or defeat), but modern, abstract war, with smart bombs and spectacular video footage and not much else, except opinion polls. And Trump’s ratings go up when he tosses 59 Tomahawk missiles — about a hundred million dollars’ worth — at a Syrian airfield. Money well spent!

Just that name: Tomahawk missiles. We stole it from the “enemy” we defeated when we conquered the continent.

And even the term “perpetual war” isn’t quite accurate. It’s simply what we do: the answer to all problems. It’s where our thinking stops, at least on cable news. For instance, during MSNBC’s post-bombing coverage last week, Chris Matthews began holding forth about the 2013 poison gas attack in Syria that killed hundreds of people. At one point he mentioned “the red line that Obama talked about in terms of Assad using chemical weapons, and he crossed that line and Obama didn`t do anything. . . . Is this president willing to do something that Obama wouldn`t do?”

Matthews’ words gave me a moment’s pause, not because I felt in any way defensive of Obama, whose presidency was a continuation of the Bush wars, but because, in the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons horror, Obama chose to let Russia talk Syrian President Assad into surrendering his chemical weapons stockpile to the U.S. military. The U.S. wound up destroying 600 metric tons of Syria’s chemical weapons over a six-week period, as the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity point out.

This is not the same as “doing nothing,” unless everything except a spasm of violent action falls into that category, which of course was the implication Matthews tossed to the American public with his comment. Such words, delivered in passing with a shrug, often have more power and resonance than deliberately articulated viewpoints, because they create an assumed, default reality. They don’t open the mind — certainly not to argument and debate — but, instead, quietly set our collective mental limits. Either you bomb something or you do nothing. What do you not understand about that?

This is just one such media moment out of gazillions. As media watchdog Will Bunch wrote about the post-bombing coverage:

“. . . the military brass made sure all of the TV networks were rapidly supplied with video of the Xbox-perfect launches from Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The reddish streaks of combustible fuel gave instant light and clarity to the muddled darkness of an Arabian night, and so they played over and over again on cable TV networks thirsty for pictures to illuminate the drama and importance of President Trump’s most high-profile military adventure since taking office. . . .

“The pundit class . . . had found their comfort zone, and the relief was palpable. Everybody knew their marks. Finally, unexpectedly but happily, they were putting on the show that they know how to produce.”

And so war consciousness, in all its simplistic glory, rules. Any uncertainty — did Assad really unleash the poison gas attack, when he had nothing to gain from doing so? — is dismissed without mention, no matter that the Syrian civil war is wickedly complex. This is just like it was in 2003, during the buildup to W’s invasion of Iraq to save the world from Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The media’s military-sated groupthink has survived intact.

Bunch also noted: “Suddenly, cable TV’s well-paid squadron of retired generals appeared out of nowhere to bestow their blessing. (Has any network ever hired a retired peace activist as an analyst?)”

His parenthetical question is asked sardonically, of course, but the more I think about it the more my anger and frustration smolder. Our 24-7 news cycle has the plot of a B movie, with the good guy endlessly riding to the rescue with guns blazing.

Yet: “War and preparations for war accomplish nothing.” So reads a statement from Pax Christi USA. “The President’s decision to violate international law by this act of aggression, along with a lack of consultation from Congress, to launch missile attacks on Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, adds to the years of crushing hardship experienced by the Syrian people. The solution to war is not more war. Retaliation will not bring justice or peace but only perpetuates death and injustice.”

Such an idea is not so hard to understand, but its national and geopolitical implications are overwhelmingly complex, and thus it is beyond the mental limits of the mainstream media, to the disservice of the public it serves and to the reckless endangerment of everyone’s future. In compensation, here’s another clip of the Tomahawk missile launching.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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