Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The banality of warfare in American discourse

Glenn Greenwald has been providing me with quite a few writing prompts as of late. Something that caught my attention:
...I will just note that in the course of all the reading I did for my book of the pre-Iraq War "debates" this country had both on television and in print, what is most striking in retrospect is the casual and breezy tone which America collectively now discusses and thinks about war as a foreign policy option, standing inconspicuously next to all of the other options. There is really no strong resistance to it, no sense that it is a supremely horrible and tragic thing in all cases to undertake -- and particularly to start. Gone almost completely from our mainstream political discourse is horror over war. The most one hears is some cursory and transparently insincere -- almost bored -- lip service to its being a "last resort."

There are probably numerous reasons for this. Many claim that the senseless Vietnam disaster instilled in Americans an exaggerated resistance to war, a refusal to recognize it as necessary even when it really was. Whether that is true or not, I think the "wars" the U.S. fought in the 1980s and 1990s led Americans to the opposite extreme. The wars fought by the Reagan administration were covert (in Central America) or absurdly easy and bloodless (in Grenada). But the most consequential force pushing Americans to lose their instinctive resistance to war was probably the First Persian Gulf War -- everyone's favorite. It was the first fully televised war, and it made war seem like nothing more significant than killing bad people by zapping them from the sky with super high-tech, precision weaponry that risked nothing -- war as video game, cheered on safely and clinically from a distance.

We started getting to feel the power and strength that comes from triumph with none of the costs (the fact that "war" is the word we use for almost everything - on terrorism, drugs, etc. has cetainly helped to desensitize us to its invocation; if we wage wars on everything, how bad can they be?). The things that make war tragic and vile were all whitewashed away. That is why the American media never shows truly graphic photos of carnage in Iraq, why the Bush administration bars photographs of American war coffins, and why the few truly brutal though commonplace events that were captured partially on film or video -- Abu Grahib or the Saddam hanging -- resonated so strongly. We are able to forget or pretend that those things are the consequences of the wars we cheer except when we are forced to see them.

In our political discourse, there just no longer is a strong presumption against war. In fact, it's almost as though there is a reverse presumption -- that we should proceed to wage wars on whatever countries we dislike or which are defying our orders in some way unless someone can find compelling reasons not to. The burden is now on those who would like not to engage in a series of endless wars to demonstrate why we should not.
The reason for highlighting the above is that it dovetails fairly well with my observations over the past couple decades. When we examine the American Zeitgeist, we find that warfare has an air of banality to it. Part of that has to do with the militarization of our language over the course of several decades. In discourse over public policy, since the Johnson administration in the 1960s we've had a "war on poverty," a "war on drugs," a "war on terrorism" and so on. The term "war" is used so loosely as to detach it from the raw brutality that previous generations would have associated with the concept. In addition, we've witnessed a change in the way war is presented via public mass media: it has become sanitized considerably. Like Greenwald, I can certainly recall being struck by how much the Gulf War footage from 1991 resembled a videogame. One was left with the notion of warfare as a series of "dots" to be zapped. The American public has also been shielded from the human consequences of war: they typically don't see the body bags or the flag-draped coffins, let alone the carnage caused by cluster bombs, air raids, and such. Furthermore, the impression that Americans get of those who reside in the lands that are invaded and occupied by US forces is little more than a caricature - the Iraqis are lazy and hapless, or are savage Islamofascists hell-bent on destroying the great beacon of democracy, ad nauseum. In the process, the ability to empathize with those most likely to be targeted by the American war machine has been grossly diminished.

What we are left with is an American public that conceives of and discusses warfare in much the same way that one might discuss The World Series. I can't help but think of death as a messy enough ordeal under the most ideal of circumstances (seen enough of it after four decades of existence), and from what one can gather both from alternative media and from discussion with those who have "been there" one can get a clear picture that war-inflicted death is far more of an ordeal. Americans have seemingly lost the ability or the gumption to understand that.

No comments:

Post a Comment