Wednesday, November 26, 2008

WAR AS THEATER

On Alternet, Lindsey Beyerstein reports on the remarkable work being done by photographer Nina Berman (‘Theater of War’, here).

Berman has been going around the country since 9-11 taking photos depicting “the evolution of the American security state”.

She’s especially concerned with the disturbing weirdnesses that have resulted from people’s fearful imaginations being given license to – essentially – go into freefall. With government fomenting the fear (as Harry Truman was told he had to in order to get the postwar American citizenry to tolerate the budding new National Security State), stimulation and sensation and emotion-happy media amplifying all that is telegenically worst in the public’s agitations, and all sorts of business and local government agencies fearful of not appearing ‘concerned’ and ‘serious’ enough, it is a profoundly sad and fear-inducing scenario itself.

Specific unhappy examples need not detain Us here: the blending of ‘patriotism’ and frustration and the chance for grandiose, often violent fantasies – played out ‘in public’ the way kids can never do; the calculating tailoring of funding requests to obtain for utterly improbable contingencies weaponry and equipment that will no doubt remain gathering dust while local folk or relatives are paid to ‘administer’ it; SWAT teams more excited about performing as front-line military troops in battle than as public peace and law enforcement officers.

The military itself, trying to prepare its troops for ‘Iraq’ duty, has set up huge Stateside mock-Iraq preserves where troops are sent to ‘familiarize’ themselves with “the real Iraq”. Of course, given the politicization of the whole sorry mess over there, and the hierarchical nature of the military itself, just whose version of ‘real’ is another question altogether. Military ‘reality’ gives ‘social constructionism’ a whole new level of meaning. And it’s closer to self-induced hallucination than it is to acute-perception.

Most painfully of alll, she interviews troops who thought that it would all be “fun” over there.

It’s confounding: on the one hand a government committed to raising the ‘fear’ in Us (and after decades of women’s fear of male violence and victimism’s unending fears, what’s left to counter that ‘fear’ with anything more ‘courageous’ or ‘mature’?) and on the other hand the military – abetted by certain well-intentioned but besotted ‘civilians’ and ‘patriots’ – insinuating to the young that war is kinda ‘fun’. Or that it’s more about skills than about shooting – as if the skills weren’t all focused on better ‘shooting’, and in a 4th Generation War about shooting up-close-and-personal, and getting shot-at, and getting shot-back-at, and … getting shot.

The gimlet-eyed youth of the Civil War didn’t seem to delude themselves that their service would be ‘fun’. Nor did their generals imply that it would be (Sherman said it was “hell” and that was that; deal with it). Indeed, the nobility of their soldiering derived precisely from the fact that it was not at all ‘fun’, and that one’s character and ‘legacy’ stemmed directly from the soul-shaping effort to sustain one’s commitment in the face of the ‘hell’, in the teeth of it. In its face, kids might say today.

‘In your face, hell!’ That may seem like a pretty brassy sentiment, telling Hell or Ares Ferox et Atrox just what they could go and do. To back that spunky sentiment up with several years of your very own personal life in the field under fire – there’s something soul-making about that. Although it is not at all without its costs, life-changing costs. They’re all toll-roads in this vale of tolls.

On what basis can We today honestly encourage Our young as they go off to war? (And to this misbegotten hash of wars currently underway?) Our culture – the one We have raised them in – has no longer any working competence in ‘soul’ or ‘hell’ or ‘beyond’ of ‘character’ or ‘commitment’. Indeed, the very categories have been ‘decommissioned’. Truly, as Mussolini did to his sailors, We send them out onto the awefull deep in a ‘cardboard fleet’; brightly painted and of ultramodern style and design, but hugely too fragile for the tasks and operating environment awaiting it once the easy ordinariness of ‘land’ sinks astern beyond the horizon.

FDR, whose New Deal many claim to further these days, said famously that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Yet both the National Security State and the National Nanny State and all its Identity Advocacies traffic in exactly that: fear. As previously noted, it was precisely ‘fear’ that Harry Truman was advised to engender in the American citizenry in 1948, a bare 16 years after FDR unfurled his standard of anti-fear from the steps of the Capitol.

And in consequence We are a fearful folk. And huddle now like sheep, looking to the very government that has stampeded Us for consolation and safety. While We shop. Or increasingly: sit around recall those days when We could afford to. Even now folks haunt malls like wraiths, like revenants coming back to scenes of a life in which they no longer can participate. Our societal life is becoming like a horror-flick, which is about the only holiday diversion We can afford now. At least among the wealthy, if you’re thrown out of ‘the club’ you’re not allowed back onto the grounds , to scare the still-beautiful with your hollow-eyed, gaunt shuffle and pleading for recognition, a Memento Mori, a harbinger of the Gray Death at a declining party whose celebrants would prefer to keep up appearances.

Make what fun of John Wayne’s iconic characters you will – and far too many learned to mimic him without learning the truth beyond the characters – but allowing oneself to be paralyzed by fear (“like a duck that’s been hit on the head” in Lincoln’s pithy, vivid phrase) was not in the repertoire. I think my favorite scenario is his soon-to-retire cavalry officer who averts a frontier massacre by having his young troopers sneak up on a warrior encampment in the middle of the night and then suddenly, bugles blaring and guidons snapping … stampede the braves’ horses. “No horses, no war”, as he grunts in satisfaction.

I’m not making a comment on the integrity of the wars against the Indian here. I’m pointing out that there was a lesson about character and wiliness (Odysseus was ‘wily’, We recall) and even perhaps the highest competence of military art (Sun-Tzu would not disagree).

All of which went out with the bathwater not so long ago. Including Odysseus, that Dead White European Male (What Greek would even consider himself/herself ‘white’? Surely few Greeks at Ellis Island were welcomed as ‘white’.)

Ah well. Expecting much of Odysseus or Sun-Tzu from a military whose only significant victory of late has been the appointment of a female general in striped-pants and sensible-shoes is equivalent to expecting Obama to ‘change’ everything on January 22nd next.

Those young We sent off to war will be returning, with their shields or on them. Having failed to protect them from their own unknowing enthusiasms, what now will We offer them, We failed-adults and failed-citizens who let them scamper into the abyss on the authority – to which We have legitimate if now nominal claim – of Washington and Lincoln and all the gimlet-eyed dead of far better wars?

Increasingly they will return as Wehrmacht troops did on leave from the Russian Front after ’42, their relief at being away from the catastrophic blear and smear now assaulted by the smoked shadows of a country and a civilization they once knew, that is no more.

There is much to do this holiday season. Let Us begin.

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