February 01, 2006

The Mythic Reality of War: Denying the Pain, and the Death

It's eminently understandable that the injuries suffered by Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt in Iraq should receive the attention they have. Woodruff is a well-known television journalist, and this is unquestionably a legitimate story.

However, it is no disrespect to Woodruff, Vogt or their families to note some points of significance about the degree of coverage accorded to them in the overall context of the media's treatment of the devastation caused by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. That devastation is made immeasurably worse by the consequences of Bush's foreign policy: Iran is the primary victor in this conflict given its growing influence in Iraq, and our prolonged occupation has served to empower a worldwide jihadist movement.

In our media- and television-saturated culture, when many Americans spend several hours in front of their TVs every day, it is hardly surprising that a lot of people feel they "know" Woodruff -- in a way they probably don't know their next-door neighbors or the family down the street, even though those individuals may be suffering their own terrible hardships. Given their familiarity with Woodruff via television, of course they will want to know about his condition and his recovery. But there have been and continue to be many similar stories involving injuries that are just as bad, or even worse. See the last half of this entry, for example, about one soldier's slow and immensely painful recovery from grievous wounds. Such stories, about "ordinary" Americans, appear and then vanish from our consciousness -- and most people never know about them at all.

In an extensive list of dubious achievements, among the more notable ones we can credit to the Bush administration is the degree to which it has marginalized and diminished the importance of the Iraq war in our national life. Polls showing increasing public unhappiness with our Iraq policy do not alter the point: at present, there is no sufficiently powerful public movement to alter our course. For the overwhelming number of Americans, the war still only concerns "them" -- those Americans actually caught up in it. And many of us (including many hawks, to their shame) minimize their suffering even further by noting that they volunteered, after all -- disregarding the stop-loss orders and other devices by which soldiers' tours are extended beyond endurance, and as if their having volunteered somehow makes their pain less noteworthy. That's a particular calculus that has never made sense to me; perhaps someone will explain it to me satisfactorily someday.

And of course, we almost never talk about the Iraqis and what they have endured. We only supposedly went to "liberate" them -- so what does it matter how many of them are now dead or horribly wounded?

Meanwhile, stories like this one are barely noticed by anyone:
English teacher Gayle Smith could always count on Hugo Lopez to come around to see her, first as a student at her Fullerton high school and later as a faithful volunteer who showed up every Friday morning to help drive other teens to volunteer jobs at a nearby elementary school.

So when Lopez told her he wanted to join the Marines, and when he visited again after boot camp, she tried to fight off her worries about his safety with thoughts of the strength of his spirit.

"He was a bighearted guy, always responsible, always a leader," said the teacher from her classroom at La Vista High School, a campus of about 350.

"He was everyone's big brother, everyone's best friend," she said. "Whether it was a kid with special needs or a teen trying to stay out of gangs, Hugo was always there."

On Tuesday, Smith and other people that Lopez touched during his 20-year lifetime were mourning the loss of their friend. Lopez, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton and shipped out to Iraq last year, died Monday of burns and other injuries he sustained when an improvised bomb exploded during a patrol.

Lopez, who was born in La Habra, died at a military hospital in San Antonio, where he was being treated for burns from the explosion, which happened just before Thanksgiving, according to the Pentagon.

He was burned over 90 percent of his body, Smith said, adding that his injuries were so serious that "it was probably selfish of us to want him to live."


His death brings the number of locally based Marines killed in the war to 272. According to the Defense Department, 2,242 American service members, including six Pentagon workers, have been killed in the Iraq war.

At La Vista, Lopez was the first ---- and teachers hope the last ---- to die as a result of the war. Six other former students of Smith are in Iraq, she said.
None of what follows is intended in any way as criticism of Woodruff or Vogt, impliedly or otherwise. I wish them and their families only the best, and I deeply hope they make full recoveries -- just as I similarly wish that everyone injured in this senseless and unnecessary war could be made whole again. But there are many tens thousands of people who are beyond all help, because of a conflict that should never have begun. Here, I am concerned only with the general cultural forces involved.

In his immensely valuable book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes:
Lawrence LeShan in The Psychology of War differentiates between "mythic reality" and "sensory reality" in wartime. In sensory reality we see events for what they are. Most of those who are thrust into combat soon find it impossible to maintain the mythic perception of war. They would not survive if they did. Wars that lose their mythic stature for the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is--organized murder.

But in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses.


When we allow mythic reality to rule, as it almost always does in war, then there is only one solution--force. In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph, just as Islamic militants see us as infidels whose existence corrupts the pure Islamic society they hope to build. [See The Apocalyptic Crusader for more on this point.]


The chief institutions that disseminate the myth are the press and the state. The press has been culpable since the telegraph made possible the modern war correspondent. And starting with the Crimean War, when the first dispatches were fed by newly minted war correspondents in real time, nearly every reporter has seen his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. The advent of photography and film did little to alter the incentive to boost morale, for the lie in war is almost always the lie of omission. The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war, to the public. Only when the myth is punctured, as it eventually was in Vietnam, does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner. But even then it is reacting to a public that has changed its perception of war. The press usually does not lead.


The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe that we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters. It disguises our powerlessness. It hides from view our own impotence and the ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune.
Later in his book, Hedges writes:
The record of the press as mythmaker stretches at least from William Howard Russell's romantic account of the 1814 charge of the Light Brigade--he called the event "the pride and splendour of war"--to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. The true victims of war, because we rarely see or hear them (as is usual in most war reporting), faintly exist.


The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language. When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just in an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy. There is a constant act of remembering and honoring the fallen during war. These ceremonies sanctify the cause. As Americans we speak, following the September attacks, like the Islamic radicals we fight, primarily in cliches. We sound like the Serbian or Croatian nationalists who destroyed the Balkans. The official jargon obscures the game of war--the hunters and the hunted. We accept terms imposed upon us by the state--for example the "war on terror"--and these terms set the narrow parameters by which we are able to think and discuss.


It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause if viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.
Today, with the rare exception of someone like Woodruff -- someone many of us feel we "know" -- the "true victims of war" continue to remain almost entirely invisible. The "mayhem and violent death" are prevented from becoming real, so that the mythic reality may endure. For the most part, we remain trapped in the "terms imposed upon us by the state."

As for me, excommunication has always held a profound attraction. What we need now is a great and growing number of committed heretics -- the more, the better.