Last night on Mosaic, a program made up of clips of Middle Eastern news items, I saw for the first time an Iraqi news program. And, not coincidentally, it was also the first time I had ever seen images of “unidentified corpses.” These corpses proliferate through our news accounts of Iraq, but always in abstract, police-report language. They are found dumped throughout the capital and elsewhere, showing “evidence of torture.” Their numbers are reported, and disputed. The abstractness of their presence is emblematic of Americans’ engagement – or lack of it – in the war itself.
Since the start of the war, the American command refused to venture a count, even in estimate, of the number of Iraqi dead. “Terrorist” dead were announced, with greater fervor into the third and fourth years, as the war went badly off script. In the search for quantities, the American command reacted just as it had in Vietnam, using numbers to obfuscate the essentially poisonous quality of the war. In any case, the pugnacious refusal to pay any attention to the numbers of Iraqi dead punched a hole in the absurd claims that the war was motivated by compassion for the lives (and deaths) of Iraqi people. How was it that the numbers slaughtered by Saddam meant so much before March, 2003, while the numbers slaughtered after that date were considered taboo? The contrast to the scrupulous attention not only to the numbers of American dead but the exact circumstances of their deaths could not be more clear. The compassion for Iraqis was a transparent lie.
In any case, had any of the people screaming about Saddam’s crimes in 2003, conveniently remembered from decades before, uttered anything about them when we were tacitly supporting his brutal tactics against Iran (and, of course, the Kurds which were fighting with Iran)? Suddenly these nameless dead, their names sunk deep in the sands of war for the sake of our righteous stand off with Iran, were recycled for a new significance: the evil of Saddam. And his evil was necessary to prove our good.
From the start of the war, Iraqi dead have been anonymous, ignored, actively avoided by our media. The reasons for this evasion are entirely different from the reasons for evading images of American death, of course. As much as American dead are feted in photographs of their living selves and in interviews with their widows, images of their corpses, whether in the field or in caskets, are suppressed. Even at this late date, when political support is eroding precipitously, the media is a faithful guard dog for the state, so afraid of being attacked it obsequiously keeps our “martyrs” in view only as idealized heroes. The actual hells of their ends are sunk deep in oblivion.
The oblivion of Iraqi deaths stems from the same basic cocooning censorship that hides American deaths, a censorship which is largely responsible for the continuance of this failed and brutal war long after its failure was obvious to planners. The other major reason, of course, is the fragility of the national ego. Apparently, we are too strong – or too weak – to be allowed to “fail,” which, translated into common English, means to “face reality with humility.” So Iraqis are slaughtered – and kept out of sight – for the august sake of America’s Self Esteem. Many of the same people who pile on educational methods which seek to “pamper” the self esteem of school children display an odd enthusiasm for the same pampering when done for the Nation. Many of the same people who rant about “responsibility” on the part of the poor are strangely unable to imagine the same kind of responsibility being taken up by the State. Nation and State are religiously feted, buffered, prostrated to, kept from the stench of corpses piled up on Her altars.
I was shocked to see those bodies, piled like refuse. I have paid close attention to news accounts. My imagination has gone there already. But the real pictures drove reality home like a drill to the skull. Our war in Iraq is clearly worse than a civil war. Like the war in Algeria in the nineties, another horrific slaughter of civilians tacitly supported by our country, (since it was done against “Islamic extremists”), the main tactic is the killing of civilians thought to belong to the other camp. People’s bodies are turned into objects for the sending of messages. How can one not shudder with rage and revulsion and deep sadness when catching a glimpse of bodies violated and tossed into trucks, one shoe on and one off, clothes trailing loosely? How can one view such crimes, done as much by our “allies” in the Al-Maliki government as by the “terrorists” we detest, and not realize that every side in this war is a terrorist? How can one view such images and not realize that while one hand raised in their killing was Iraqi, another hand was American? These bodies are only in those trucks because of our patriotic fantasies of Spring, 2003. If leftist were "objectively pro-Saddam" for opposing the war then, then certainly rightists must bear the burden of being "objectively pro-terrorist" now.
The censorship against bodies now is not done to keep up support for the war but to protect the last line of defense, the psychological Maginot line around the Holy of Holies, that which must not be breached: the stubborn faith that America is essentially better than other states and nations. More and more, this delusional faith cannot survive without censorship and selective vision of the worst kind. Our civil religion of the nation is in peril. And our Official Media is not about to see it fall for something so trivial as the humanity of the victims of Our War.
July 11, 2007