When I was a boy we used to see, typically a few weeks after events, footage of WWII action on newsreels before watching a film noir at the local cinema. Then came what was called the “living room war,” Vietnam, with napalmed kids, or summarily executed Viet Cong tucked in between bites from our TV dinners. Now we have Iraq, where soldiers seem to have more computers and digi-cams than body armor. The Military Channel , which might be called the Pentagon and Defense Contractor Channel now has features called “War Dairies,” where soldiers takes us and their families right along with them through the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah. (“Watch, Chrissy and Bobby, daddy is going to kill some naughty Iraqis.”) We can get first-hand(held) almost real time views of our troops out on patrol, or eating, or playing video games. This time we are “there”; we are, live, we are interactive. Daddy can call you on a cell phone and let you in on his interrogation of some hapless Iraqi who can’t understand a word he is saying about where those damned WMDs are hidden.
The Military Channel actually solicits these videos, encouraging soldiers to become a perverse amalgam of producer/commentator/talent. Who knows what they would pay for one in which some star-struck Marine says “I love you, baby,” to the wife back home just before his digital camera records his leg being blown off by an IED. Gives a whole different meaning to “podcast.”
This is only part of the war voyeurism we have become accustomed to in America. The Iraq war has not only produced the reports of “imbedded” journalists, but dramatic re-creation progrms, documentaries about the thousands of private security firms working there and the field hospitals and mash units, and feature films. There was also a series on a cable channel that had all the look and feel of the real thing, a further blurring of the line between fact and fiction,
For as restricted and intimidated the media have been in covering this war, stuff sneaks through. In a documentary in which a camera crew for the New York Times/Discovery Channelone soldier complains to the camera that the platoon leader always begins their patrol with a prayer session. Another, after giving some candy to a young boy, says something like “the (bleeping) little bastard would probably like to blow me up.” It fits with what another soldier remarks: “We’re just targets here.” The documentary about the medical treatment the wounded get is hyping how good the care is. But the wounds are horrific, and one surgeon, a volunteer from private practice, offers that “there are twice as many amputations in the Iraq war as there were in Vietnam.” Of course, the majority of injuries are “blast injuries”; it’s a good war for the prosthetics industry.
One wonders whether the popularity of this war voyeurism owes to the same morbid and gory curiosity that fuels NASCAR races, those reality COPS shows, bull riding, dare devil programming, The Ultimate fighting Championships, and other such “entertainment”—the crash, the wipeout, the crippling blow, and always the prospect that we might actually see somebody getting killed. Our “civilization” might grab the moral high ground from those Romans and their gladiatorial games, but we are not that much higher. We get salsa spilled on us rather that splashed with blood, but that momentary thrill of seeing life and death change places before our very eyes, and perhaps even in real time, of seeing Saddam’s neck snap at the end of his noose, gives that little frisson, that thrill of the forbidden that is an opiate that paradoxically “enlivens” our otherwise dull and uneventful existence. Will it eventually de-sensitize us to the horrors of war when we see the security men pulled from their car, burned and strung up, when we see beheadings, when we see the body parts and the blown apart bodies of the “targets” we call troops?
Drama is Entertainment/Conflict is Drama/War is Conflict. It’s a solid, money-making syllogism that spawns endless books, movies, television programs, and now we have reached the level of YouTube. We can be there, in the digi-cam, not just watching some slut undress, or the antics of some collegians in their dorm rooms, but our own fighting men and women in action, in real time.
Beyond the “entertainment,” is there a chance that “war is hell” will finally reach beyond the cliché when daddy or boyfriend is sniped or fragmented right there on your lap top. Or, what are the prospects for justice when the “entertainment might be when an Iraqi kid is ripped apart by a clip of M-16 slugs, or his father, or brother is pulled out into the night and executed. How much of the dirty, dark side should we see, should we be made to see? Would those antics at Abu Ghraib been more entertaining has they been on video?
The worry is that no matter how realistic we make war, or if we just present its reality, it has become so much a part of our entertainment, so conflated with our diversions, that it will never be too excessive for our morbid curiosity. Its addictive properties have inured us to its thrills such that we can never get enough of it, it can never become “extreme” enough, for revulsion. Or is it that the very horrific reality of war has been stripped of its veracity by its conflation with the entertainment programming it engenders (“Gee, Alice, didn’t that soldier that was blown up look a lot like Justin Timberlake?”).
Such are the epistemic confusions of a society in which anything, and seemingly everything, even the reality of war, is entertainment.
©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.23.2007)