Thursday, May 26, 2005

War as Porn

Last winter, I was riding an exercise bike and the TV remote was broken, so I had to pick a channel and stick with it. Somehow, I ended up on the Outdoors channel, watching two hunters shoot a deer, and then track it through the deepening darkness.

The hunters were mic'd and as they followed the blood trail you could hear the shooter's respiration quicken — from excitement, not exertion. At first, he sounded like a giddy kid seeing his first Santa, but as he closed on the wounded buck, the hunter turned teenager panting toward orgasm. Once the killer reached his prey, he could only babble a few phrases over and over. Kneeling beside it, he wrenched the buck's head toward the camera. At that moment, the buck was not a once-living creature, not a trophy, not even meat. It was simply what tipped him over into a brief moment of primitive ecstacy.

I'm not anti-hunter, but I learned long ago that killing any living thing is not for me. Death should be a sacred moment, and browsing through a meadow, then taking a 30.06 slug through the lungs, hardly qualifies. Watching this reminded me that killing is exciting. But if you are not very careful, it distances you from life. It becomes pornographic. And you become Johnny Wadd, holding back while hammering away at whatever's in front of you.

I felt unclean for watching this.

At the time, I accumulated some notes, including an article about torture by bombing cities in Iraq, but never finished a post. The linked article, written from the point of view of Iraqis on the ground, shows that collateral damage is not simply physical. My recent post on war brought this back to mind, and a Village Voice article on the face of war prompted me to resurrect the notes.

Deer Hunter troops breathless with fear and stress and power.

War as corrupter of all participants, of course, is the point of view of Chris Hedges, and my notes compiled excerpts from his book review of Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright and The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson. It has since gone to pay-per-view, so instead of link, I will offer a few quotes. I don't think Hedges will mind.

Rereading the Hedges quotes, I was struck how he seemed to describe the roots of the culture of abuse that had developed in prisons where Afghans were interrogated by US troops, who carried it to Abu Grhaib.

Physical courage is common on a battlefield. Moral courage is not. Those who defy the machine usually become its victim.

Those who make war betray those who fight it. This is something most enlisted combat veterans soon understand. They have little love for officers, tolerating the good ones and hoping the bad ones are replaced or injured before they get them killed. Those on the bottom rung of the military pay the price for their commanders' vanity, ego, and thirst for recognition. These motives are hardly exclusive to the neocons and the ambitious generals in the Bush administration. They are a staple of war. Homer wrote about all of them in The Iliad as did Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead. Stupidity and callousness cause senseless death and wanton destruction. That being a good human being—that possessing not only physical courage but moral courage—is detrimental in a commander says much about the industrial slaughter that is war.

Combat has an undeniable attraction. It is seductive and exciting, and it is ultimately addictive. The young soldiers, trained well enough to be disciplined but encouraged to maintain their naive adolescent belief in invulnerability, have in wartime more power at their fingertips than they will ever have again. From being minimum-wage employees at places like Burger King, looking forward to a life of dead-end jobs, they catapult to being part of, in the words of the Marines, "the greatest fighting force on the face of the earth." The disparity between what they were and what they have become is breathtaking, intoxicating. Their intoxication is only heightened in wartime when all taboos are broken. Murder goes unpunished and is often rewarded. The thrill of destruction fills their days with wild adrenaline highs strange grotesque landscapes that are almost hallucinogenic, and a sense of purpose and belonging that overpowers the feeling of alienation many left behind. They become accustomed to killing, carrying out acts of slaughter with no more forethought than they take to relieve themselves.

This mythic narrative of war is what most at home desire to see and hear. The reality of war is so revolting and horrifying that if we did see war it would be hard for us to wage it.

Thucydides wrote of Athens' expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others it finally imposed on itself. If we do not confront our hubris and the lies told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, we will not so much defeat dictators like Saddam Hussein as become them.

Wartime comradeship is about the suppression of self-awareness, self-possession, and self-understanding.



(Hedges has had to go from working off the readymade content of his war zone assignments to recycling his experiences in as many forums as possible. This is familiar territoory to anyone who has freelanced, and I don't begrudge him at all. He's doing valuable work. But some of this may be familiar if you've read a lot of him.)

You can also find a Hedges introduction to a book of photographs by Laurie Grinker, called AFTERWAR: Veterans from a World in Conflict. Thanks to Runaway Sun for the tip.

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