Abandoning the messy truth
When facts didn't quite fit the drama
June 24, 2003
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
hypothesized that differing perception of the jury members
from the overwhelming majority of American Blacks suggested a disconnect
It was as if the jury had watched a different
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
the crazed villains of Death Wish movies, dark, ethnic and
wacko, and the jury had bought it. All the defense team needed
invoke certain images, not extrapolated from reality but
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
because there is so much at stake. The difference between
living under a dictatorship where the control of the media
and naked and under a parliamentary democracy is that in the
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
of a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton novel, where the clear
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
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
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:
following email was sent in March by Taylor Donahue,
a vice president of production at Timely Studios
to Anita Lavine,
vice president of production.
[...] Assuming the current situation with Iraq
leads to combat activity by US troops, I suggest
we get a small film
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
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
with a multibillion-dollar
truth about Jessica", The Guardian, May 15,
3. In an amusing case of cultural misunderstanding, the
American media in the early stages of the invasion kept
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
Margaan), which is a Persian compound word for Fedayeen
(itself a Persian word I believe).
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