March 23, 2003

What can one say? The war's on tv. Even journalists in Baghdad who know the basic plan, have heard the hype about precision bombing, have forewarning from their networks when bombing sorties take off, and know the US would prefer viewers not hear them being blown to bits...don't feel safe. The ABC guy could hardly get a sentence out, he was hyperventilating and freaking while studio commentators discussed the gigantic bomb blasts like they were especially excellent special effects. Imagine how Baghdad's residents feel. They are being *told* on their tv that civilians are the targets.

Laugh-out-loud moment: Blow-dried weather guys following the day's local forecast with Iraq's weather. In exactly the same style. I was like, wait, that map looks weird, as the guy gestured and pointed to temperatures.

Cognitive dissonance:

The administration is gleeful that a small town is captured without a fight and embedded journalists can get footage of liberated Iraqis hugging soldiers and dancing. Slight intimations to the contrary popped up in the NYT's Dexter Filkins' report which also mentioned a guy in a pickup truck riding around with two badly burnt men in the back, looking for help. The army was moving so fast its medical supplies were far behind, and nothing could be done for the people. I read that yesterday and thought, hmm, that's not good, they should have the mediacal and humanitarian aid absolutely on the heels of their arrival. Well, despite bluster about unprecedented amounts of aid, the port it's all supposed to come in on hasn't yet been secured (remember how they announced the very first day if had "fallen"?). There are no supplies even on their way in the country yet.

So today, the follow-up story is that the happily liberated town is having looting, civil unrest (the Baath loyalists still live there, after all), and was shouting at journalists that the US was coming in to steal their oil and take over their country. Was Israel coming next, they asked? And, by the way, where was all the humanitarian aid that had been promised? And yes, they are very angry about the civilian casualties (3, not sure if that includes the 2 wounded men). Journalists had to ask British troops to come get them when it looked like angry civilians were set to take them hostage.

You really have to read between the lines to get any sense of the gestalt, the chaos and smell of war. Reports from the field are curiously technical, bloodless, sanitized. It was only BBC World that had images of a corpse-strewn road into that port city, and the guy said yes, there are definitely women and children among them. Those are the only bodies I've seen, although the amount of "softening" advance shelling into the outskirts of cities would seem too generalized to not be hitting a lot of people. On reporter slipped and talked about "unforgettable stench" of passing a shelled tank division.

The first night, when I saw the neat, orderly rows of tanks riding out over a barren desert, I thought, oh wow, was this what I was protesting? It's going to be the Yule Log war, just a boring, monotonous, reassuringly predictable affair of men in heavy moving equipment. It's very hard not to be sucked in, feel as though everything is inevitible and thus somehow sanctioned by a grand design. In fact, even as dissenters, what can we hope for but a fantastic bloodless liberation followed by elections in two weeks?

But if Rumsfeld yesterday and Tommy Franks today didn't somehow creep you out, make you feel as manipulated as the Iraqis with their state TV, if watching the video war doesn't make you feel somehow complicit in that seductive "logic of war," (We'll just take Basra, No problem. Let's roll!) then I'd just have to accept that humans living on the same planet at the same time in the same culture can actually not inhabit the same world.

When I pull back and think about it, I am more worried than ever that the repercussions of this will last longer and be more destructive than we could know. The catholic church had an empire once. It was the way people thought, its riches were boundless. That is over. We do a bit more of this and maybe fundamentalist Islam will have a crusade or two. Bye Bye secular humanism and democracy.

I noticed this after 9/11 as well: crisis flattens texture. "The protesters" become this one soundbite and a few images, nothing to do with the lived experience of my afternoon. "The Kurds" are one shot of piles of gassed bodies, a refugee shot, and some guys with rifles. Plus, you say "suffering" with "Kurds." "The Arab Street" is a few mullahs in mosques and "death to America" demonstrations. "Security" is a snippet from Bloomberg, shots of Grand Central, a couple of passersby averring they "feel more safe" with the (last shot) heavily armored police.

I start looking at the future of the world that way, at my own life that way. In fact, lives are composed of mundane and human moments of eating and talking with friends and doing errands...for everyone. Crisis news makes everything adrenalized, oppositional, and harbinger-of-apocalypse-esque. Before I start freaking about the jihad rallys, maybe I should remember how the media covers the peace protests. One second on the march, five minutes on a few jerks getting arrested. Maybe I should remember thay gave equal time to a pro-war rally that had just a few people standing around singing patriotic songs.

Maybe the media's creating huge schicsms in perception of cultural gulfs just as surely as John Ashcroft sees a terrorist in every manic-depressive, or the Bush team sees weapons of mass destruction in every truck.

Could it be that post-9/11 we are our own worst enemy? This war is starting to look like serious overkill in terms of national security threat, and not much of a trade-up in human suffering, either. The security is laughable here, also in its overkill, but also in its misdirection. We neded to take some profound steps to make ourselves more secure, but that involved being a better team player in the world, and getting a clue about anti-American anger and addressing it long-term. This was such to exact wrong response. Can't you feel it? Look at the sirens and the armed guards, it's like martial law here in NY.

Finally, I can't imagine how the Iraqis are going to interpret all of this. Imagine growing up without a free press, without information about the outside world. All of our rhetoric, our leaders to us, and to the UN, takes place within an entirely different universe. Beyond what it must feel like to live through the uncertainty of an invasion, without a governement giving you any clue what to expect, or reassure you you are safe; what will they experience, emotionally, intellectually, with such a sudden, yes, shocking change of discourse and life-rules? I think it must all be very scary. You know how people hate change, even desired change. I wonder if the overall military experience (surrender, with pockets of resistence) mirrors the internal landscape of the population.