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March 20, 2005 - The Culture of War

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Topic: Americans get the vapors at images of the violence they voted for, and are paying for, and then get on the internet, searching for more.


Last Monday morning in Los Angeles, dark before dawn, with a thick marine layer too high for fog and too low for clouds, and bleary-eyed, sipping coffee and reading the Los Angeles Times, I come across this.


Extreme Cinema Verite

GIs shoot Iraq battle footage and edit it into music videos filled with death and destruction. And they display their work as entertainment.

Louise Roug, Los Angeles Times, Monday, March 14, 2005, Page A1


Great.  It’s about our guys in Iraq making videos, quite sophisticated ones in the style of MTV with rock sound tracks and all.  Dead folks.  Make the stiff corpse wave his hand at the camera.  In one video, made by members of the Florida National Guard, our guys are shown kicking a wounded prisoner in the face and making the arm of a corpse appear to wave.  Ah, isn’t technology wonderful?


What it’s about?


When Pfc. Chase McCollough went home on leave in November, he brought a movie made by fellow soldiers in Iraq. On his first night back at his parents' house in Texas, he showed the video to his fiancee, family and friends.

This is what they saw: a handful of American soldiers filmed through the green haze of night-vision goggles. Radio communication between two soldiers crackles in the background before it's drowned out by a heavy-metal soundtrack.

"Don't need your forgiveness," the song by the band Dope begins as images unfurl: armed soldiers posing in front of Bradley fighting vehicles, two women covered in black abayas walking along a dusty road, a blue-domed mosque, a poster of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. Then, to the fast, hard beat of the music — "Die, don't need your resistance. Die, don't need your prayers" — charred, decapitated and bloody corpses fill the screen.

"It's like a trophy, something to keep," McCullough, 20, said back at his cramped living quarters at Camp Warhorse near Baqubah. "I was there. I did this."


I guess.  It’s war.  What you’d expect.


And this –


"I have a lot of pictures of dead Iraqis — everybody does," said Spc. Jack Benson, 22, also stationed near Baqubah. He has collected five videos by other soldiers and is working on his own.


Jeanne over at Body and Soul has a few things to say about this.  First, she’s struck by the guys not understanding that playing the videos for mom and dad and the girlfriend when you get home doesn’t make them happy at all.


McCullough was surprised that his favorite video was disturbing to his loved ones back in Texas.

"You find out just how weird it is when you take it home," said McCullough, whose screensaver is far more benign, showing him on his wedding day.

Brandi McCullough, then his fiancée and now his wife, said she had walked in as he was showing the videos to friends who were "whooping and hollering."

The 18-year-old was shocked by images of "body parts missing, bombs going off and people getting shot."

"They're terrifying," she said by phone from Texas. "Chase never talked about anything over there, and I watch the news, but not all the time. I didn't realize there was that much violence.


His girl didn’t realize there was so much violence all the time?  She says she sometimes watches the news, so that explains it.  CNN isn’t Al Jazeera, after all.  Our news is cleaned up.  Well, it is hard to sell advertising spots if you offend your viewers with gore, and the idea we might do some awful things in this business is, of course, something we don’t allow.  We’re the good guys.  Ask those folks at Fox News.  They’ll tell you.


That’s one disconnect.  Try this one –


Thomas Doherty, chairman of the film studies program at Brandeis University and author of "Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture and World War II," called the videos an authentic diary of the war.

"There's always the disconnect between the front-line soldier and the sheltered home front," he said. "It's a World War II ethos: You don't bring it home."

After watching the video, Doherty said, "Of course you're struck by the gruesomeness of the carnage, but it's a wide range of images."

He went on to praise "the contra-punctual editing — the beat of the tune and the flash of the images," calling it "a very slick piece of work."

"The MTV generation goes to war," he said. "They should enter it at Sundance."


Divorce the message from the medium – concentrate on the presentation, the technique – and these are pretty fine.


And there is this third disconnect


"Militants fight in the streets of Baghdad, looting, lawlessness," is how clips are advertised on efootage.com. A Las Vegas-based company, Gotfootage.com, offers $50 and $100 clips that include older footage of Saddam Hussein, Jessica Lynch, aerial bombardment and "sooooo many bombs." The site also advertises video showing an Iraqi fuel truck being destroyed by U.S. bombs during the invasion in March 2003.

Another website advertises, "GrouchyMedia.com is the place to find those pump-you-up-to-kill-the-bad-guys videos everyone has been talking about."


Hey, this stuff is marketable!


Well, Jeanne’s view is that this all is “at first glance seems to be no more than the latest piece of evidence that the war in Iraq is warping young men and women, who can only cope with its horror by turning into moral monsters.” 


But I’m not sure about that.  The film studies guy walked away from “morality” as a part of his job – to assess film technique, no more, and no less.  The marketing guys walked away from it because that morality stuff has little to do with making a buck, as it is a whole different topic.  And the girl – the soldier’s bride to be?  Do you blame her for not seeing in the news that no one will show her?


It’s a great country.


Jeanne ends with this –


In the end, the soldiers' means of coping is both understandable -- when you have no way out of a nightmare, what is there to do but embrace it? -- and frightening. How many checkpoint killings stem from fear and how many from a pump-you-up-to-kill-the-bad-guys rush?


It's the at-home reaction that is monstrous, playing at innocence -- heavens to betsy, I didn't know people died in wars -- while enjoying, and profiting from, the horror.


It occurred to me, while reading this piece, that it captures the essence of what bothers me so much about warbloggers and warpundits, who move so effortlessly between professions of goodness -- our noble soldiers are saving the world, and anyone who accuses them of doing anything wrong is lying -- and savoring the violence.  "The American military would never target journalists" morphs instantly into "Kill the traitors."  Contempt for Iraqis mingles easily with claims to be their protectors.


And Americans get the vapors at images of the violence they voted for, and are paying for, and then get on the internet, searching for more.


That seems about right.


I suspect my nephew there now isn’t making such videos – he’s not in combat this time.  He’s in planning and resource allocation and chatting up the locals, given his language skills.  In the first Iraq war he commanded a platoon of tanks that drove around a lot and fired from a distance now and then, and then left.  Now?  I don’t know.


Well, it’s a war.  We’ll see.


Dick in Rochester, New York asks a question –


Is this a result of too many video games with Peckipah flying body parts or do you think these kids just want a cut of next MGM Saving Private Ryan?


Well, I don’t know.  My nephew took the kids' Game Boy with him.  All the guys have them - the hand-held ones and not the fancy "Grand Theft Auto" X-Box things.  In the first Gulf War all the guys just chewed tobacco and played with their Game Boys because most of the time is was just boring.  There's a picture for you - sitting in the shade of the massive Abrams tank with your chaw, thumbing your Game Boy, waiting for your MRE to heat up on the exhaust manifold. 


Now a war of occupation with the roadside bombs and checkpoints and incoming mortars in the middle of the night - last week at his housing compound - is a bit different.


I don't think this is video games and MTV corrupting our youth, so to speak.  It's the war itself.


And who wants to be a movie director?  I've lived out here in Hollywood for twenty-five years and haven't met anyone yet who has that ambition.  One just assumes that happens if you know the right people and have your film degree from USC or NYU and things fall just right.  There are limited openings. 


This is a hobby for these guys - and video production is so much easier now with all the new tools, including soundtracks using software from  SmartSound (another friend runs that company). You can produce slick stuff and not dream of making it big in the industry.  You do it because it's easy now.


But the war has its effect, and affect, on those, unlike my nephew, who are out on the streets patrolling, or dealing with the hapless folks we round up.


As in this...


U.S. Military Says 26 Inmate Deaths May Be Homicide

Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt - New York Times


WASHINGTON, March 15 - At least 26 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide, according to military officials.


The number of confirmed or suspected cases is much higher than any accounting the military has previously reported. A Pentagon report sent to Congress last week cited only six prisoner deaths caused by abuse, but that partial tally was limited to what the author, Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy, called "closed, substantiated abuse cases" as of last September.


The new figure of 26 was provided by the Army and Navy this week after repeated inquiries. In 18 cases reviewed by the Army and Navy, investigators have now closed their inquiries and have recommended them for prosecution or referred them to other agencies for action, Army and Navy officials said. Eight cases are still under investigation but are listed by the Army as confirmed or suspected criminal homicides, the officials said.


Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, officials said, showing how broadly the most violent abuses extended beyond those prison walls and contradicting early impressions that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of members of the military police on the prison's night shift. …


And our reader and commentator Vince replies to Dick –


It's too easy to lay it back on the video game routine.


I think all the elements are there - brought together over there.  What today's kids bring to the battlefield IS the pure MTV technique, alluded to in the quoted piece - the flash jump cuts and rhythmed editing - the visual environment of their youth - and yes in all those jump cuts the content includes violence and sex and rock and roll and drugs and Madonna's libido - so violence is in there, sure - but it's only one of many hard edged extremes, hard edged themes, one among many.  I certainly can't endorse Peckinpah as the responsible party!  Why he's… Hollywood (almost).


The other key piece our military kids bring is the technology itself - foolproof push button I'm a Hollywood producer technology - the enablers - from camera phones on up!


But you put both those elements into the stew of war - human horror and the social shock zone for survival in the daily face of war - and finally add the elements of un- and under-developed personalities - we are talking about the kids who are today's foot soldiers in the sand - and you get all the desperate elements of repressed rage - and Presto: music videos!  What else?


Now - we have Peckinpah clones on our hands! Only they're documentarians (rhymes w/ Unitarians... Ooo don't go there!)


Bob Patterson, the World’s Laziest Journalist in the pages, weighs in –


"The American military would never target journalists" morphs instantly into "Kill the traitors."  Contempt for Iraqis mingles easily with claims to be their protectors.


You seem to have trouble reconciling these "disconnects."  Think like a conservative.  "Don't do as I do; do as I say."


Newt Gingrich was aghast at Clinton and Monica while getting ready to dump his wife.  No disconnect.  He meant what he told folks about Clinton.  Really.


Bush really, really doesn't want the troops to torture prisoners.  He just wants them to use any means possible to get the information.


Bush & Co. really, really wants to capture Osama the Muslim Zorro.  Bush sends troops into the middle of Afghanistan and leaves the borders open.


We are not going to war with Iran in June.  Unless we have to.


Don't get so upset over these "disconnects."


"A man can't be a man, unless he smokes the same cigarettes as me."


Chill out, dude.  It's all good.


Make a choice now.  Are you going to believe what they say or are you going to believe your own eyes?


What's a war compared to the moral calamity of gay marriage in California?


It's like these judges don't believe the "mandate."


Pay attention to the important stuff.


Ah!  Bob says,  "What's a war compared to the moral calamity of gay marriage in California?  It's like these judges don't believe the 'mandate.'"


This particular judge was a Catholic Republican appointed by a former Republican governor!  Someone got to him?


A note on all that from the conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan - 


"In this context, the existence of marriage-like rights without marriage actually cuts against the existence of a rational government interest for denying marriage to same-sex couples. California's enactment of rights for same-sex couples belies any argument that the State would have a legitimate interest in denying marriage in order to preclude same-sex couples from acquiring some marital right that might somehow be inappropriate for them to have. No party has argued the existence of such an inappropriate right, and the court cannot think of one. Thus, the state's position that California has granted marriage-like rights to same-sex couples points to the conclusion that there is no rational state interest in denying them the rites of marriage as well." - San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer, in a ruling yesterday.


I should reiterate that in principle, I'd like the courts to be more restrained. But in practice, the logic of equality is so over-powering, and the arguments against it so fragile, that judges have little choice but to state the obvious.

Like many other judges in these cases, Kramer is not a radical. He's a Catholic Republican appointed by a former Republican governor. But his intellectual honesty simply compels him to state that equality means equality. And when state constitutions insist upon it, you have to have a much stronger argument to keep a minority disenfranchised than the current anti-marriage forces have been able to marshal.


Tradition? So was the ban on inter-racial marriage.


Procreation? Non-procreative straight couples can get civil licenses.


The potential collapse of civilization? Impossible to prove or even argue convincingly.


Once you have accepted that there is no moral difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality, the arguments against same-sex marriage collapse. And since the only coherent moral difference is the likelihood of non-procreative sex, and that is now the norm in traditional heterosexual civil marriage, there is no moral case against allowing gay couples to have civil marriage.


The rest is fear and prejudice and religious conviction. None should have a place as a legal argument in the courts.


Fine.  So can we go back to talking about these video and video games and the culture around them?  No.  Bob continues –


Magicians have a thing called "misdirected attention."  It worked well for Bush & Co. in the Fall of 2004.  Folks got all riled up over gay marriage and didn't pay much (if any) attention to the "war in Iraq" or the possibility of a new one in Iran.


When push comes to shove, Bush doesn't care one fig about "gay marriage."  It has served its purpose, now (as they say in Texas "hold 'em") it's just a case of let the cards fall as they may.  Bush & Co. have bigger fish to fry.  Shock and Awe 2.0 comin' up.


Meanwhile the Democrats will be banging their heads against a "gay marriage" wall.


Isn't there something called "economy of effort"?


Let folks scramble after the "red herring."


Isn't there an old axiom about choosing your fights judiciously?


I was rereading passages in "Fear and Loathing on the (1972) Campaign Trail."  I was very surprised to read that the Democrats were stirred up about "gay marriage."


Just think of all the time (billable hours?) and effort that has gone into "gay marriage."


How much debate is there on Iran?  Bush already has the legal means so "bumping your gums" about it is a total waste of time.  Is approval or denial of "gay marriage" issue going to impinge on your life?  Will a war with Iran?


Misdirected attention.  Fools 'em every time.


So can we go back to talking about these video and video games and the culture around them? 


No.  We’ve been redirected.  Let’s think about that woman in Florida who may or may not have wanted to die without all this fuss.  Or how about Robert Blake being acquitted?  Or Scott Peterson being sentenced to death.  Or the hearings on the use of steroids by professional baseball players.  Or let’s think about gay marriage.


So let this go.



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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