13 April 2008

The War Americans Want Desperately to Forget

I want to pick up on the theme of the last post by asking what it means for a war to be "distant." That sounds like a spatial descriptor, or perhaps a temporal one; you know "Long Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away." But how about a war, being fought right now, if not by us, then by those nominally considered our "fellow Americans." How about a war which is being brought to a theater near you in different ways on a regular basis. Take your pick. Some might think this is simply due to the "documentary" genre. In his column in The New York Times today Frank Rich offers another, more plausible, take. He talks firsts about the dissonance occasioned by watching Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris's new documentary, at MoMA. Here are some of the good bits:
Mr. Morris’s movie starts fanning out to theaters on April 25. We don’t have to wait until then to know its fate. Sympathetic critics will tell us it’s our civic duty to see it. The usual suspects will try to besmirch Mr. Morris’s patriotism. But none of that will much matter. “Standard Operating Procedure” will reach the director’s avid core audience, but it is likely to be avoided by most everyone else no matter what praise or controversy it whips up.

It would take another column to list all the movies and TV shows about Iraq that have gone belly up at the box office or in Nielsen ratings in the nearly four years since the war’s only breakout commercial success, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They die regardless of their quality or stand on the war, whether they star Tommy Lee Jones (“In the Valley of Elah”) or Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”) or are produced by Steven Bochco (the FX series “Over There”) or are marketed like Abercrombie & Fitch apparel to the MTV young (“Stop-Loss”).

[. . .] Iraq is to moviegoers what garlic is to vampires.

This is not merely a showbiz phenomenon but a leading indicator of where our entire culture is right now. It’s not just torture we want to avoid. Most Americans don’t want to hear, see or feel anything about Iraq, whether they support the war or oppose it. They want to look away, period, and have been doing so for some time.

The simple explanation for why we shun the war is that it has gone so badly. But another answer was provided in the hearings by Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, one of the growing number of Republican lawmakers who no longer bothers to hide his exasperation. He put his finger on the collective sense of shame (not to be confused with collective guilt) that has attended America’s Iraq project. “The truth of the matter,” Mr. Voinovich said, is that “we haven’t sacrificed one darn bit in this war, not one. Never been asked to pay for a dime, except for the people that we lost.”

This is how the war planners wanted it, of course. No new taxes, no draft, no photos of coffins, no inconveniences that might compel voters to ask tough questions. This strategy would have worked if the war had been the promised cakewalk. But now it has backfired. A home front that has not been asked to invest directly in a war, that has subcontracted it to a relatively small group of volunteers, can hardly be expected to feel it has a stake in the outcome five stalemated years on."
There is malaise here or just the sort Rousseau identified long ago [*], caused by the propensity to outsource our war to mercenaries and, in our case, nearly anyone else. No cost, at least directly. Only shame and vague impatience with those who cannot quite figure out how to get the damned thing over with.

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