Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Over There

I haven’t seen it. I probably won’t. It’s a new show on F/X, a fictionalized version of the Iraqi war. From what I hear, the brutality approaches the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan, which triggered an unpleasant hysterical episode for yours truly. So I doubt it would be in my or my family’s best interest for me to watch it.

At the same time, it has struck me recently that we don’t see war footage on the news at all these days. (Yeah, I know, it takes me a while.) After coverage of the Vietnam war had such a profound effect on American public opinion, the Pentagon began to rethink their policies on the media. You might assume that would include censorship and manipulation – and you’d be right.

This isn’t new, and it’s not the point of this post to go into the history, although thanks to the
Dark Wraith, I have taken the opportunity to read up a bit on the Espionage and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act (which – I think – was actually an amendment to the Espionage Act in the first place) was repealed in 1921, but the Espionage Act is still alive and kicking. It was passed by Congress shortly after America became actively involved in WWI. A certain amount of censorship during a time of war does make sense (if you’re the one running the war, that is.) You don’t want your enemies getting information that they can use against you. Yeah, I get it. I don’t approve of it, because I don’t approve of war in any case, but I get it.

But I see a difference between saving lives in the midst of a conflict, and deliberately restricting or manipulating information so that public opinion (especially public support) does not waver. The
Australian Parliamentary library had an interesting brief on the subject of the media versus the military. (Yes, I have to share.) They note that “a basic tenet of democracy” is that “the press must be free to provide information so that people know, understand, and can make informed judgments of the actions undertaken by the government on their behalf. In times of conflict, a free media ensures that the public are not dependent on the military or political view of the campaign, but receive an independent description of events in order to make an informed choice as to whether or not to support the conflict.”

Ha. HA. Freaking HA HA HA. What world are you living in? Oh – right. You’re in Australia.

They continue, “The problem is that the media's claim to right of access to information on the basis of the public's right to know conflicts with the military's desire to win a war and to do so with minimum casualties. 'Bad' press, especially of bloody engagements and body bags, may cost the military valuable public support. A common explanation in the United States military for its disastrous loss in Vietnam in 1975 is that the war was lost at home before it was lost in the field.

The consequences of losing public support for any war can be severe and long-term for both a government and the military. Thus, in wartime, a new battle emerges on the home front-that for public opinion. Information is an essential weapon in this battle and whoever can control what 'facts' the public receives has a distinct advantage. It is here that the clash between the military and the media becomes apparent: it is, essentially, a battle between the right to win-and win with the support of the people 'back home'-and the right to know.”

Fascinating. Obvious, but still fascinating, and worth reading in its entirety. I can’t imagine a brief like this ever being included in the American congressional library. Open communication is not, nor has it ever been, a strong point in American government. If you can find something as plainly and clearly written as this, let me know. I’ll throw a party.

Here’s a great article from Stirling University in New Zealand, written shortly before the second Allied invasion of Iraq. Mr. Miller touches on how the embedding process works, and how it disguises censorship (scroll down to the "Pool" section.)

Remember all that excitement when reporters got themselves embedded into platoons? Yeah, we got some good explosions then. These days, there’s not so much of that happening. Maybe the conflict has gotten boring. (What conflict, we won the war, right?
“Mission Accomplished!” What – it’s not a war anymore? Crap, I am so confused.)

No matter. We can watch it on F/X now. And better – there will be commercial breaks for drink refills (watching all that sweat and blood makes a girl thirsty, y’know) and a decent script that promises to tear your heart out instead of boring you to tears with static pictures of yet another burned-out mosque. Probably most of the actors will be attractive even when they’re covered with the aforementioned sweat and blood. And even better – this show probably won’t even make a judgement call on whether or not we should even be over there. Great! Pure entertainment.

On a scale of insanity, with “1” being a Buddha-like acceptance of the world’s absurdity and a “10” being a drooling Thorazine psychosis that even Dracula’s Renfield would shy away from in horror, this is right up there at 9 or so.

We can’t get real coverage of the war from the mainstream media. So we’ll manufacture and participate in a gruesome depiction of it and pacify ourselves with the soothing background knowledge that IT’S NOT REAL.

Guess what. It IS real. Watching a TV show about it only enforces the distance between you and the real conflict, the one the show is based on. How else could you watch something like Over There and not go completely out of your head with outrage, revulsion and sorrow? When our kids are watching something awful on TV – someone getting shot, incinerated, mutilated, or raped – and it’s too late to pull them away, we say, “It’s not real, sweetie. It’s just TV.”

Which always begs the question, in my mind, anyway, of why the hell we're watching it to begin with.

TV isn’t real – not to us, anyway. Even when you watch a so-called “reality show” you know they’re bogus – you know they cooked the scripts and the situations, then edited all the boring stuff out so you’d stay interested enough to make it to the next commercial. And if you don’t, you need to wake the fuck up.

What happens in that black box usually doesn’t reach out and touch us in a real, meaningful way. Even when someone dies and you get upset, you say, “It’s OK. It’s not real. It’s not like my mother just died or something.”

My guess is the administration supports this show. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on the air. My guess is the administration doesn’t mind the Iraq war being fictionalized, and the more blood and angst the better. ‘Cause you know, there’s this fallacy out there that something has to be either fact or fiction, true or false, real or not real, and most folks don’t see through it. If you watch a TV show and dismiss it as fiction, you can file the whole subject under the Fiction – Entertainment folder in your mind and not think about it once the television is turned off. So if people are watching Over There, you can be pretty sure they’re not thinking about things like the
Downing Street Memo, the lies the Army told about Pat Tillman, or what the US might do about WMDs in Iran.

It's disinformation on a frighteningly genius level, brilliant crossover propaganda. It might not even be intentional. A violent war disguising itself as a violent TV show – a twisted little purloined letter grenade hidden in plain sight. I hope it blows up in BushCo’s face. Figuratively, of course – I do aspire to pacifism, after all.

Over There is a representation of something happening right now. The script may not be one hundred per cent real, the stages may be constructed, the blood may be fake, but what you see on the TV screen is echoing a reality played out in Iraq every day. Remember that when you shrink back from the carnage – or worse, when you revel in it, gleefully shouting “EEEEEW!” when those dismembered legs keep on walking – and when the madness stops for 120 seconds to sell you something off the imaginary blood of others.

I’m not telling you to boycott this show. But if you watch it, be subversive about it. Watch it with the mindful, painful knowledge that the deaths you witness mean the loss of someone’s father, brother, friend – whether they’re American or Iraqi. The names might change, but it doesn’t change the reality of that fact. And think about what you might say if your kid comes into the room and asks, “Mom, Dad… is this real?”

1 comment:

oldwhitelady said...

I won't be watching it.