Saturday, December 31, 2005

War and Peace: Blurring the Lines

Wretchard over at the Belmont Club has written often about the ongoing blurring of lines between soldier, diplomat and the news media in modern warfare and specifically in Iraq. His most recent commentary on the subject:

Implicit in the model of Western warfare is that the warrior should never seek to persuade. That job has been assigned to the diplomats and civilians -- including the press. The most subversive thing imaginable is a military as good with words as it is with guns. That division of labor has been coextensive with the origins of uniformed armies. As old as the distinction between men in uniform and franc tireurs. Men under discipline might be allowed the occasional inarticulate "hoo-ah" but politics was to be left to civilians. But in the second half of the 20th century a strange thing happened. The neat division between uniformed and un-uniformed combatants collapsed; and the firewall between man-at-arms and man of letters disappeared. For example, the man who conceived the screenplay of the Battle of Algiers was Saadi Yacef, himself was a combatant in the Algerian War. The Village Voice has this interview with him.

"It's been almost 50 years since Saadi Yacef, revolutionary hero of the Algerian war of independence, leapt across the terraces of the Casbah in Algiers, fleeing from French forces. (Later, he'd play a character very close to himself in the legendary film he co-produced, 'The Battle of Algiers,' which was based upon his memoirs.)"

He got to star in his own play. The Western warrior was only allowed to die upon his shield. There was in the enemy camp no distinction between the uniformed combatant and civilian, no line between the word and the deed; and they considered this a natural state of affairs. For the journalist at the [Louisville] Courier Journal there was the conviction, sincerely held, that a hard wall should separate the men who kill and the men who convince; between the profession of journalism and that of arms. And so [New York Times reporter] Dexter Filkins had no problem with the unnamed American military commander until that commander had the temerity to stray into territory that was Filkins' and Filkins' alone. "We have a position on that," the commander said. And the problem of course, was that the commander should have no position on that, whatever the cost in lives, whatever the consequences.

The problem was less acute when as in the past Hollywood and the newspapers could be relied upon to fight the information war. Bugs Bunny made fun of Hitler. Humphrey Bogart outwitted Major Strasser. Gary Cooper played Cloak and Dagger. But when journalism decided that convincing the enemy was not their department; that their function was more akin to providing check and balance they left a huge hole in the US military's capabilities, which all of a sudden found the enemy had abilities (think Al Jazeera) in an information-critical world it could not match; and whose members, since they wanted to live, keenly felt the need to redress. For example, they wanted to counter the idea that it was a holy thing to blow up women and children; wanted to promote the notion that democracy was a good in and of itself. They wanted to 'influence a target audience' not simply in Iraq, but throughout the world. In a world where the military was not allowed to use its full force they sought to compensate with the power of words. And that proved the most forbidden act of all.

If there is any evil greater than war itself it must surely be to make war without meaning it; to recruit allies without intending to stand by them; to send men into battle without purposing victory; to embark on campaign of arms that we ourselves do not believe in; and to kill in preference to persuasion. But maybe there's a greater. One writer at Slate argued that a worse danger is the conceit that any message is worth persuading others to believe: "The notion of evil has become profoundly maladaptive. Today, saying our enemy is 'evil' is like saying a preventable tragedy is 'God's will': It's a way of letting ourselves off the hook for crimes committed in our name. Not incidentally, it's also a way for our enemies to let
themselves off the hook."

They don't need to be let off the hook; they were never on it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did not read the post, but the soldier in the picture is handling his weapon very poorly. Pointing off to god knows where. Finger in the triger guard when he clearly is not looking at a target. A bad example, probably just a person dressed as a soldier who has not been trained.