Traveling across the mainstream American corporate-state television broadcast spectrum with an eye for the sickening truth of United States policy is like watching the stars for certain astronomical occurrences. Most of your time is spent peering into the vapid abyss of nothingness. When you do get a glimmer, you’d better look closely, you’d better look fast, and you need the right equipment to identify, record, and interpret what you’re seeing. It’s over before you know it, the meaning often unclear, as the corporate-state communications universe returns to its normal state of dull, monotonic, power- and privilege-friendly thought-control.
“There Were Innocent Lives Lost, Everybody Regrets That”
Chilling after too many hours in the office and flipping through the standard fare of re-runs, infommercials, and basketball games, I happened upon a brief occurrence Thursday night in an occasionally center-left band of the spectrum called the Public Broadcast System (PBS). Thirty minutes after its beginning, I came upon a two-hour PBS documentary called (I think) “The Iraq War.” After 10 hours of (computer) screen gazing, I needed exercise – a walk, a little fresh air – but I quickly realized wasn’t going anywhere. Here was “Colonel Parker,” a hero of the U.S. invasion last year, speaking with pride and relish about his daring “Thunder Road” incursion into Baghdad. By “Frontline’s” account, however, the maneuver had a little problem. Nobody told ordinary commuting Iraqis where and when their American “liberators” were coming into the city. At a certain bridge (“Diala bridge” I think it was called), a dozen civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were freed from the burden of biological existence by United States military personnel.
“The Iraq War” gives first-person testimony from an Iraqi woman who lost (I think) a brother and a nephew at “Diala bridge.” The woman was so terrified of her “liberators” that she stayed in a bullet-ridden van for an entire evening, pretending to be dead, surrounded by the bodies of murdered loved ones.
The camera shifts to a U.S. military commander, who remembers the slaughter well but quickly pronounces the “operation” at Diala bridge “a success. There was innocent life lost,” the commander acknowledges, and “everybody regrets that.” He doesn’t look too broken up. “Shit happens” in “war,” if that’s what we want to call the invasion of an essentially defenseless nation by the most powerful military state in world history.
An Iraqi man relates a different incident where his car was stopped by an American GI who “shot my mother,” who “fell dead on the ground.” Another Iraqi recalls that Americans “showed no mercy,” so “there were bodies everywhere” on the glorious, bloody, and imperial path to Saddam’s palace. Back to smiling “colonel Parker,” who quickly “knew it was over,” and spent a triumphant evening in the palace, untroubled by the loss of “innocent life.”
Predator’s Victims: “I Dug Them Out With My Own Bare Hands”
“Frontline” includes commentary from a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst named Mark Garlasco, who became so troubled by the unnecessary civilian carnage that he joined Human Rights Watch to document the unwarranted killing of innocent Iraqis. Garlasco remembers sitting in a Pentagon office watching live Air Force video-stream of the precision bombing of a DIA-targeted building thought to contain the notorious Iraqi general known as “Chemical Ali.” Garlasco saw human bodies flying “like ragdolls” out of the exploding structure.
The “ragdolls,” it turned out, were innocent civilians, including members of a family that “Frontline” shows in a smiling photograph from the days “before Predator came,” to use the brilliant native-American indigenist Ward Churchill’s phrase to describe “America” prior to European conquest. The 21st century Predator crosses the Atlantic in a different direction, naming some of his tools of conquest after native North America tribes he tried to tried to wipe off the face of the earth in the 19th century: the “Apache” and “Comanche” Attack Helicopters and the “Blackhawk” (actually named after a vanquished Sauk chief) Utility Helicopter.
American “defense” planners and their victims experienced a different targeting snafu when they blew up 18 civilians in a house they thought sheltered Saddam in Al Mansur. An Air Force participant in that bit of “unfortunate” racist butchery tells “Frontline” that the two sets of coordinates given to the B-1 bomber pilots who conducted this operation “were less precise than usual” (“intelligence” told the Air Force to increase the likelihood of getting Saddam by taking out two structures, not one). “Emotionally,” the officer recalls, “it was, ‘we annihilated that target, ok we did that, let’s move on to the next one.’”
Oh well: Eighteen civilians died when the U.S. “did that and moved on.” Left in the rubble was “Abdul M’s” “entire family,” including his daughter and his wife. “I dug them out,” Abdul tells “Frontline”, “with my own bare hands. I carried them out with my own bare hands. I buried them with my own bare hands.” “So where,” the “Frontline” narrator asks, returning to the real question that matters, “was Saddam?”
“In the end,” the narrator tells us, “it was [Iraqi] street gangs versus [American] soldiers,” something that makes you wonder exactly what it is that colonel Parker and the rest of his smiling, imperial brethren interviewed in “Frontline” are so damn proud about.
The scene shifts to the plaza around the statue of Saddam. The crowd of Iraqis there, “Frontline” tell us, was actually quite small, but the area was “swarming with [western] journalists,” looking for some good photo opportunities to sell the bloody, illegal invasion back in the homeland. A “colonel McCoy” recalls that he decided to help the few actual Iraqis trying to pull down the statue and “the people went nuts.”
Then “Frontline” takes us into the Pentagon, where a preening senior proto-fascist named Donald Rumsfeld tells reporters how “breathtaking” it was to see the Iraqi masses teardown the hated symbols of the old regime. But, “Frontline” notes, the Americans were not – imagine – generally welcomed as “liberators” in Baghdad. There were few if any “triumphant scenes” reminiscent of Paris near the end of World War II. The Iraqi people hated Saddam, to be sure, but they were and are not particularly pro-American either. Garlasco thinks this is because Iraqi “civilians thought civilians were being targeted” – an understandable conclusion in Garlasco’s view.
What followed the invasion, “Frontline” notes, was an explosion of looting permitted by American commanders who had “other priorities,” and a violent insurgency against Predator’s occupation that has so far killed more than 400 U.S. troops. “The Iraq War” shows George W. Bush climbing out of a flight suit to proclaim “Mission Accomplished.” We hear from a reporter who notes the curious, revealing contradictins between (a) White House claims that it ordered the invasion of Iraq to export something it calls “democracy” and (b) the White House calling the U.S. mission “accomplished” simply on the basis of the toppling of the old regime, prior to the subject nation’s actual reconstruction along democratic lines. The post-invasion “chaos” in Iraq, “Frontline” notes, was predicted by the Chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of the Army, both of whom lost a public pre-invasion debate with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz over how many troops would be required to not only topple the regime but also to “pacify,” “stabilize,” and “reconstruct” the occupied nation.
Spreading the Spirit of Purposeless Futility and Fashionable Consumption
The documentary ends and viewers are told about some of the “Frontline” documentary’s corporate sponsors, including US News and World Report, and how to order the video cassette. My local PBS affiliate (WTTW in Chicago) advertises a coming documentary on “the teenage brain” and moves into a weekly show called “Wild Chicago,” which specializes in such curious urban phenomena as body-painting and professional dog-walking. I switch to the local 10 O’clock news on Channel 7, where the lead local story is also ” national story”: the high-tech special-effects destruction of the notorious “Bartman Ball.” This is the baseball that unfortunate Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman prevented a Cubs fielder from catching, precipitating the collapse of the Cubs three-run lead in game six of the National League Championship Series last fall. The “Bartman Ball” was subjected to a mock execution-style electrocution before a tipsy and very white crowd at Harry Caray’s Restaurant on the city’s affluent north side. Before its elimination, the “Bartman Ball” was “served a final meal,” spent the evening in a pricey downtown hotel, and received a candlelit massage. We “hope,” the Channel 7 anchor tells her viewers, that this media-hyped exercise will “clear the way for a winning [Cubs] season.”
Channel 7 moves on to other pressing stories. The big news includes the release of a local millionaire Senate candidate’s divorce documents, a terrible kidnapping, Rosie O’Donnell’s gay marriage, and a special feature on a momentous new development in American fashion and gender relations – the purchase of “right-handed diamond rings,” marketed to single women who no longer want to wait for a man to propose to them in order to wear precious jewelry on their hands. There’s a special web link for those who want to follow up on this urgent, developing story.
Between the presentation of such urgent news items, I view two clever automobile commercials. In the first commercial somebody drives a bright orange Audi in crazy 8 formations somewhere near a western United States canyon, burning up fossil fuels from the Middle East, perhaps, on sacred native-American ground. In the second advertisement a sleek black Jaguar zooms through snow-covered European mountains and stops in front of an outdoor cafÃ© so that an unseen driver or passenger can toss a snow ball at a blond-haired man wearing an expensive black leather jacket and sitting in front of a beautiful white woman and a glass of wine.
I am reminded briefly of Stuart Ewen’s New Left analysis of American corporate advertising and consumer culture in Captains of Consciousness (1976). Ewen noted the business class’s desire to implant a “philosophy of futility” and a sense of purposelessness in the minds of the American masses, and its related efforts to “concentrate human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption.”
I wonder briefly how the diamond-ring story and the Jaguar commercial are playing in the 15 predominantly black Chicago neighborhoods where more than a quarter of the children were recorded as growing up in deep poverty – at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate official poverty level – in the 2000 census. This was at the peak of long Clinton boom and things have gotten worse in these neighborhoods since 2000. I suspect that some residents of those neighborhoods, outposts of a Third World nation within the world’s richest state, would be more likely to identify with the few Iraqi resistance fighters I glimpsed in the “Frontline” documentary than with the affluent white North Side women who tell Channel 7 about their subversive desire to wear diamonds on their right hand.
I reflect, finally, that the “Frontline” documentary is also caught up in the dissemination of a “philosophy of futility.” The terrible truths it briefly aired pose minimal risk to the masters of war, empire, and inequality. They are wrapped and buried in an overall spirit of chilling equanimity before glaring evidence of savage racist and imperial Predation conducted by the masters of their own corrupt society. The awful facts are mere public relations potholes in the dominant authoritarian narrative-path of History’s Inevitable March Forward under the ultimately benevolent direction of imperfect but Noble White Men. It’s not like anyone at “Frontline” thinks we actually could or even should have stopped the invasion. “Shit happens” and “everybody regrets it.” In any event, the transition from already ancient images of bloody, bullet-ridden civilian vehicles in Baghdad to exploding baseballs and “right-handed diamonds” on Chicago’s affluent North Side and speeding sports-cars in the Alps is not so abrupt at the end of the day. It all melds together in the morally vapid universe of corporate-state media, where the outrageously spectacular becomes tiring and mundane and the tiring mundane is made spectacularly outrageous on a routine basis.
Paul Street ([email protected]) writes against imperialism, racism, and thought-control in Chicago, Illinois.