Reading the Flypapers (April 8, 2003)

So the last units of American troops have finally pulled out of Iraq (leaving thousands of trigger-happy mercenaries to protect U.S. citizens still in the country). Hard to believe this absurd nightmare of a miliary adventure has lasted for more than eight years. The cost in Iraqi lives (over 100,000, according to almost all estimates) has been appalling, to say nothing of American and allied troop casualties. I thought I’d dust off and re-publish an essay I originally posted to my Geocities site shortly after the invasion, reflecting the frustration I think many of us felt about the unreliability of the information we were getting. It was obvious to anyone with half a brain at the time that the official justifications for the invasion were completely made up, which made the disinclination of mainstream journalists to question anything coming out of the Pentagon all the more maddening.

Most of the links in the original essay were of course dead now, so I’ve removed them, but hopefully you can still get the drift.

As a professional geographer with over ten years of field research in Honduras, my brother Mark was understandably ticked off by an AP reporter’s description of Honduras’s Mosquito coast — recognized as a World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity and indigenous cultures — as “a deserted, bug-infested swamp.” “Nothing like well-researched journalism,” Mark adds sarcastically.

But the sloppy reporting starts right with the headline, “Honduran Riot Displays Gangs’ Brutality.” If 61 out of the 69 people killed were gang members — most of them herded & locked into a cell, then killed by hand grenades or burnt alive, according to another report I saw — doesn’t this actually suggest the brutality of the NON-gang-affiliated prisoners? True, one does have to wonder at the depth of hatred demonstrated by such brutality. And if these articles are correct in saying that the Mara 18 gang members initiated the battle by trying to seize control, it’s possible to interpret the horrific outcome as a rather extreme form of self-defense, partially excused by the perpetrators’ own desperate condition.

But then, that’s just what the sleep-deprived, under-nourished, sun-struck British and American soldiers in Iraq are claiming as justification for their targeting of apparent non-combatants. Gotta get them before they get us, and the sooner the job’s done, the sooner we can all go home!

In any case, I can’t help thinking that, in Iraq especially, it’s not so much that “truth is the first casualty of war.” Rather, truth seems never to have been considered as an option. What’s important is to select events and interpretations that happen to conform to a pre-selected story line (in the Honduran story, internecine gang violence in a hellhole of a prison located in a hellhole of a country). The fact that these pieces are sometimes a poor fit with the overall story line probably reflects a combination of rudimentary writing skills and the sort of casual contempt for their audience so common among working reporters, especially those of the embedded variety.

Meanwhile, those journalists stalwart enough to remain in Baghdad and rash enough to refuse the suffocating embrace of the Pentagon were targeted by our increasingly impatient troops yesterday in three separate “accidents.” In the most serious incident, the Palestine Hotel, where over 100 foreign journalists are based, was hit by a mortar at close range, supposedly in response to sniping from the roof. None of the reporters gathered on the roof were able to see this sniper in their midst; they must’ve all been looking in the wrong direction. Casualties included a Reuters correspondent and a Spanish cameraman; several more were injured. U.S. bombs also took out two different command centers for Arab TV stations yesterday, one a station from Abu Dhabi (no casualty reports so far) and the other the infamous Al-Jezeera (one cameraman killed).

It’s not like the unembedded reporters hadn’t been warned. And besides, three such “accidents” in one day may reflect nothing more than the overall intensity of bombing and strafing in day two (or was it day three?) of the Battle of Baghdad. Besides, what’s a couple dead bodies more or less, in the grand scheme of things? Don’t get so hung up on accuracy, the generals told Daily Mirror reporter Bob Roberts.

Let’s not even mention the pillorying of Peter Arnett for telling the truth to the wrong audience, or the repeated, deliberate bombing of the “propagandistic” Iraqi TV — a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. And let’s especially not mention those journalists like Robert Fisk, who so irresponsibly insist on covering the shockingly unaesthetic and potentially demoralizing consequences of war. Let’s stay focused, if you please, on the clinical precision of “smart bombs,” on our leaders’ repeated insistence that they seek to minimize “collateral damage” and “friendly fire incidents,” and especially on whether the Great Satan — uh, Saddam — is alive or dead. Only such a tight and resolute focus, the neo-con pundits proclaim, can provide us with the requisite “moral clarity” of vision necessary to triumph over Evil.

One other thought: it seems dishonest to speak, as so many do these days, of “the fog of war.” As if all the confusion were just a fact of nature, an unavoidable occurrence. The Pentagon has in fact been rather forthright about its use of disinformation and innuendo as a part of psychological operations. Therefore, it seems to me, it’s not just fog that obscures the vision, but smoke and mirrors. Like the clouds of smoke from Baghdad’s ring of fire, a kind of massive smudge pot designed to keep all manner of biting insects at bay.

And if all else fails, crack out the poison gas… whoops, I mean the insecticide. Hit ’em with clouds of “calmatives“! How else to subdue “a deserted, bug-infested swamp”?

Supporting our troops

I’m re-posting a few of the things I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I like to think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from March 23, 2003. The invasion of Iraq had begun three days before.

cardboard Dubya
Cardboard effigy of a chicken hawk
Exhortations to Support Our Troops have always made me a bit queasy. How come? Sure, I’m anti-war, but that shouldn’t matter, should it? Because if I value human life so highly as to oppose war on principle, surely I must join in empathizing with the men and women on the front lines?

Well, of course. And if that’s all this little slogan means, can we also agree to support their troops? But that sounds so… disloyal. Which leads me to think that if support our troops means anything at all, we ought to be honest and admit that one of its primary meanings is go team! And I feel bad about saying this, especially to anyone with family members or lovers on the front lines, but I’m not in the cheering section. Not for either team.

But that’s not the only reason this slogan makes me so queasy. How come you never hear “Support our soldiers“? Is it because we’re all maybe a little anxious about what it is they do?

But of course in modern warfare soldiers do all kinds of things besides simply killing. Some of the stateside soldiers, according to web sources, are joining in street demonstrations when they go off duty. I can support that! And a few soldiers — several dozen, so far — have demonstrated another kind of bravery: they’ve become conscientious objectors. Can we agree that these soldiers, at least, who have chosen to risk their futures and even their freedom for a moral scruple almost no one understands, are very much in need of tangible support?

“Support our troops.” What is a troop? It’s still a plurality, even without the s. Does this notion of troops have anything to do with actual human beings? What is it we’re supporting here? It reminds me very much of the old communist slogans about the masses — another plural of pluralities. When we deploy this phrase support our troops, aren’t we in some way supporting the dissolution of individual men and women into a nameless, faceless machine?

O.K., Mr. Intellectual. But what about all those masked demonstrators? They are, literally, effacing themselves too, aren’t they? Not to mention the tens of thousands of marchers chanting and cheering in unison. Go team!

That argument sounds a little too facile to me. Donning a mask to protect one’s identity — or project a new one — is actually an assertion of individuality, and a freedom that the authorities often seek to deny. Further, the voluntary solidarity of diverse interest groups with differing agendas is a far cry from unquestioning uniformity imposed by leaders.

But the demonstrators — masked and otherwise — are indeed soldiers of a sort. Their actions may not always inspire much sympathy, but as far as I’m concerned, they are truly standing in the gap for all of us. For one thing, they are probably doing a lot more to protect our freedom than anyone in uniform, given that in reality no one is threatening the existence of the United States, and the supposed WMD are as transparent a fabrication as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. No, it’s the demonstrators who are safeguarding our freedom, because freedoms are like limbs: fail to exercise them regularly, and they tend to atrophy.

A more overlooked possibility, however, is that these anti-war soldiers may be helping to protect Americans from terrorist retaliation. A senior cleric, described as a leader of ultra-orthodox Islamists in Saudi Arabia, told an interviewer on NPR that he and his fellow clerics would try and take all extenuating circumstances into consideration before any declaration of jihad against the United States. Such a jihad, he explained, would of course enjoin the targeting of any and all U.S. civilians as knowing accomplices in crime. So it seems reasonable to hope that enough TV images of large masses of Americans demonstrating and getting arrested for their passionate opposition to this war might make a big difference to those who would help legitimize another 9/11.

You don’t have to accept that the US-led invasion of Iraq is a crime to recognize that the majority of Muslims, fundamentalist or otherwise, believe it to be so. Further, whether or not you agree with senior American intelligence officials that Gulf War II will lead to an escalation of attacks against domestic targets in the US, it is an undeniable fact that funds and personnel have been diverted from the War on Terror to this new War on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

So collectively, as troops, the soldiers in uniform may actually be endangering us, while the soldiers on the streets may be helping to protect us. Makes one a little queasy just to think about it, eh? Support our troops!

The practice of human sacrifice

the holes were made in a living person
whose prosthetic left leg was hidden
wounded men who returned to Iraq

women in elaborate headdress
weapons at their side
crush skulls flat as pancakes

a more grisly interpretation
driven into their heads
to help achieve psychological closure

they all walked under their own power
bodies were arranged neatly
five amputees and one blinded soldier

their night terrors stopped after they went
by blunt-force trauma
the amount of developmental growth and closure was phenomenal

two round holes in the soldier’s cranium
as if they were old friends
it was a trade-off

elite burials
where they were maimed
to honor fallen comrades

soldiers have often returned to old battlefields
treated with a compound of mercury
brittle bones of a person long dead would shatter like glass

some victims had been heated, baked not burned
clapped on their backs and welcomed
to exorcise persistent demons

Ur is protected within the perimeter of an air base
places many of them left while unconscious or in agony
the biggest thing in the world is the silence

we’re getting ready to turn off the lights
wear your wounds like badges
not dosed with poison

a war is still in progress
it’s almost like mass murder and hard for us to understand
the overburden of earth


All lines above, including the title, were taken verbatim from the following two news stories:

Feel free to suggest alternate arrangements of lines in the comments.

The Sycamore

The young veteran — a double
amputee — is still learning how
to pilot a wheelchair. He stops
a few feet from the concrete lip
of the pond, gazing across at
a sycamore shining in the sun.
His eyes travel down the trunk
& into the water, the shadow
going one way, the reflection
another. A carp slides under
the flesh-toned bark. Meanwhile,
his flannel shirt has turned into
a screen for reflected sunlight,
dazzling the mallards crowding
around his chair. He glances
down at the dancing shadows
on his chest, then reaches behind
for a bag of breadcrumbs,
which he sets there where a lap
used to be, in that abyss.

From a distance

This is a rough, first draft . . .

God knows how many times
I have stood frozen in the hot street
with rifles pointing at my crotch

& watched myself – small
& impossibly thin – in the oil-black
mirrors of their sunglasses.

They never take them off, not even
to enter a mosque. God knows
they are easy to hate.

But after the explosion when
I ran with the others to look, suddenly
I felt shame for all the things

I had thought. One howled, the other
bled in silence, eyes naked
to the sun. I bent down.

Above the smooth cheeks
such a clear, pale blue! I felt as if
I were looking down from heaven:

Here is our sky, soldier,
here is yours. Hold on.
Help will come.