One of the most enduring images coming out of Iraq in the early days of the Anglo-American invasion occurred in Southern Iraq, as the British forces pushed their way into Um Qsre. A British tank having positioned itself some few hundred yards across from a hut, opened fire and a rocket took off like a fiery agent of doom. At the same time, a scrawny, stray dog ran across the field for its miserable worthless dog life.
That image lasted only a fraction of a second but it was seared into my memory irrevocably. I wondered what that dog was feeling, so helpless, so unaware of the madness around it, unable to rationalize the mayhem. Unlike the bloody aftermath of cluster bombs and sliced off bodies of Iraqi children, this bit of theater of horror, right of Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali, slipped past the network censors.
The war as presented to the American audiences was, as in the first Gulf war, yet again bloodless, gore free and sanitized. The coverage, segmented into parts complete with opening and segue graphics, replete with constant commentary whenever the dull parts were on all in the manner of a sports show, was the biggest reality show one could stage. (1) Watching it on TV passively like Sunday morning football was exhilarating, breathtaking and invigorating, in the words of cheerleading reporters like Walter Rodgers of the CNN.
And then there was the case of one Private Jessica Lynch. White, young and female, Private Lynch became the poster girl of the American “liberating” forces and her subsequent rescue the stuff of People magazine cover patriotic legend. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld went on TV and warned Americans of nasty things the nasty Iraqis might be doing to Ms. Lynch; torture certainly, rape possibly. Could you imagine their nasty, swarthy hands crawling up Jessica Lynch's delicate white skin?
Saving Private Lynch, as it was dubbed, became symbolic of everything that was good and descend about American military: their motto leave no one behind, their daring a sign of the efficiency and superiority of their personnel. The instant legend had it that American commandos, tipped off by some brave sympathetic locals, identified the hospital where Private Lynch was kept under draconian conditions, and after staging a daring air landing, went room to room, kicking doors and offing nasty Fedayeen (2), until they found their comrade.
Picture Bruce Willis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, heavy machine gun in muscular hands, bullet bands wrapped around muscle bound torso, yelling and shooting. If I use the overtly movie cliché language there is a reason. Weeks after the “liberation” of Iraq was pronounced officially complete, after the movie deals had been signed, preliminary drafts of Jessica Lynch story penned, and exploratory talks with Meg Ryan or Kate Hudson's agent initiated, an alternate story began to emerge.
It turns out Private Lynch was never in any real danger, and that after his unit came under fire, she was taken to an Iraqi hospital and was cared for even better that the score of Iraqi civilian causalities. And that by the time the daring rescue operation was staged, no Fedayeen were left in the hospital. It turns out the hospital staff practically handed over the said Private on a stretcher to her comrades.(3) It seems that when the truth didn't quite fit the drama that was to be dubbed Saving Private Lynch, the storytellers in the Army public relations office decided to ignore the bits that deviated from their plotline and stick to their own three act structure.
Someone once said that we live in the age of entertainment. Melodrama seems to be the dominant mode in all aspects of life. This is nowhere more evident that North America, where movies have left such a profound impact on our so-called collective memory and imagination. Politics, commerce and sports all utilize great doses of melodrama. Drama in its traditional sense is primarily about plot and character. Plot is a series of events that are related through cause and effect. It starts with a premise, a question so to speak, which is set up in the first act, tackled through a series of conflicts and crisis in the second act and is resolved in the third act.
As any good script writing book can tell you, all bits that do not advance the story or do not contribute to the plot have to be eliminated. Reality however is more complex and messier that fiction. Fiction has to make sense, reality doesn't. Once the storytellers in the Pentagon had decided a priori how Private Lynch's story was to be told, all irrelevant stuff was ignored. After all note how economically and elegantly just the title of this little yarn works. By tagging the story, Saving Private Lynch, a complex web of images and correspondences have been transmitted to the American audience.
Most people, having seen Spielberg's film a few years ago, would imagine Tom Hanks (Tom the good) and his “band of brothers” putting their own lives in danger looking for the all American boy Matt Damon, fighting in the good war, the World War II. Insert private Lynch for Mat Damon, invasion of Iraq for World War II, Saddam Hussein for Hitler, the people of Iraq for the German people and concentration camp Jews. The efficiency of this set of correspondences is simply too powerful to ignore.
Americans are not naturally the only ones who understand the value of political theater. The so-called enemies of America have also employed the primeval power of popular images and stories. Who can forget the image of the infamous second plane slicing through the second Twin Tower? Is it far fetched to think that the perpetrators had watched some bootleg version of Independence Day and had visualized their mission as a cinematic spectacle?
Reality transformed into instant drama; no Hollywood production team, no fancy scripting necessary. With every citizen armed with a video camera any event of significance is bound to be reproduced from multiple angles. Remember the notorious Rodney King beating tape? When the first all-white jury acquitted the LAPD officers, Armond White, the film critic for Film Comment, in an interesting article on the case hypothesized that differing perception of the jury members from the overwhelming majority of American Blacks suggested a disconnect from reality.
It was as if the jury had watched a different movie. In fact the defense team had scripted and narrated a kind of movie, with King cast as an out of control villain, in the vain of all the crazed villains of Death Wish movies, dark, ethnic and wacko, and the jury had bought it. All the defense team needed was to invoke certain images, not extrapolated from reality but plucked from second and third rate movies and TV shows, and the jury members' paranoid imagination did the rest.
All states regardless of their ideological incline attempt to control the flow of information. War is the ultimate in information control because there is so much at stake. The difference between living under a dictatorship where the control of the media is open and naked and under a parliamentary democracy is that in the former the citizenry knows they're being “screwed”. Under a dictatorship every citizen has developed an instinctual suspicion of the state information apparatus and is in constant search for alternate sources of information. In parliamentary democracies, the people have a tendency to take the media's word at face value. They become complacent and lazy.
The Bush administration's inability so far to discover the legendary Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, seems to have been yet another case of a scripted drama played out in the manner of a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton novel, where the clear and present danger is represented by the imminent threat of Iraq's rush to build the bomb parallel edited with America's last minute invasion. My guess is that George Bush has nothing to worry about. The Democrats won't push the issue that hard and the American public won't care. Right now Bush can do anything he pleases. The Americans, scared and worried sick about their security have by and large abdicated their commitment to truth, what with its complexities and messiness. Why bother, just wait for the movie.
1. Right out of Ripley's believe it or not, the following piece as printed in the Harper's magazine (“The dead kid stays in the picture”, June 2003) is a tribute to die-hard American spirit of entrepreneurship:
The following email was sent in March by Taylor Donahue, a vice president of production at Timely Studios to Anita Lavine, senior vice president of production.
[…] Assuming the current situation with Iraq leads to combat activity by US troops, I suggest we get a small film crew credentialed as press to shoot over there. This will solve some of the budget vs. production value problems we've discussed. In the best case scenario we can also get one or two of our leads over there in costume to do a scene with the mayhem of real war as back drop. Failing this, we can have the war as a back plate to use with blue screen of our actors. We'll be the only movie with a multibillion-dollar effects budget.
2. “”, The Guardian, May 15, 2003.
3. In an amusing case of cultural misunderstanding, the American media in the early stages of the invasion kept referring to Baath party loyalist fighters as “Fedayeen Saddam”. Realizing the heroic implications of the word fedayee, they soon switched to the more familiar “terrorist”. Interestingly they continued referring to Kurdish elite fighters as Pesh Marga (Peesh Margaan), which is a Persian compound word for Fedayeen (itself a Persian word I believe).