Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cherry Picking in Iraq

George Packer writes a long and thoughtful piece about Iraq the Place vs. Iraq the Abstraction. His thesis: The Americans - on all sides - are furiously disagreeing about an abstraction, "the war in Iraq", which has little connection to the reality, because what they care about is the political discussion at home, not the reality over there.

Referring to two depictions in the American media of the situation in Iraq in summer 2007, one mildly negative, the other mildly positive:

Readers who believed the first story refused to believe the second. Readers who believed the second refused to believe the first. In a sense, they believed or refused to believe each story before it was published, even before it occurred. There wasn’t a moment’s pause to digest information, much less to weigh facts dispassionately; objectivity wasn’t even an aspiration. What mattered was whether the facts supported the theory or not. Throughout the opinion classes, the impulse to keep a little part of the brain open to inconvenient facts seemed to have been extinguished. In magazine offices, bloggers’ bedrooms, Hollywood studios, and the White House, a fantasy war was underway, a demonstration of American virtue or a series of crimes against humanity—both of them self-serving fictions.


Two of these films do have merits—In the Valley of Elah features an affecting performance by Tommy Lee Jones, and The Situation, written by Wendell Steavenson, a British writer who spent over a year in occupied Iraq, contains two more or less recognizable Iraqi characters. But the films also present the war as incomprehensible mayhem, and they depict American soldiers as psychopaths who may as well be wearing SS uniforms. The G.I.s rape, burn, and mutilate corpses, torture detainees, accelerate a vehicle to run over a boy playing soccer, wantonly kill civilians and journalists in firefights, humiliate one another, and coolly record their own atrocities for entertainment. Have these things happened in Iraq? Many have. But in the cinematic version of the war, these are the only things that happen in Iraq. At a screening of The Situation, I was asked to discuss the film with its director, Philip Haas. Why had he portrayed the soldiers in cartoon fashion, I wondered. Why had he missed their humor, their fear, their tenderness for one another and even, every now and then, for Iraqis? Because, Haas said, he wanted to concentrate on humanizing his Iraqi characters instead.

Except, of course, that in order to humanize the Iraqis, one would need to know something about them. Learn their language, perhaps. Live among them. Even merely listen to them intently - ah, for that you need language, don't you.

In the name of fairness, by the way, I should add that at least the American media offers two stereotypical versions of the events. Most of the rest of the world only gets one version. By now, this is largely true even for the Israeli media, which started out warily supporting the invasion, but has long since joined the ranks of the scoffers, in spite of being much closer to the events on almost all levels.

Anyway, this post should be read as a direct continuation of the previous one.

No comments: