Behind the Lines

Photo: Joe Zeff

War is exciting. Everything seems sharper, tauter, more on the surface. Television itself has become a tinderbox. Everybody is more responsive. And more fragile. And touchier. All sorts of new sensitivities are exposed. There’s both an intensity and a tentativeness to the war talk. A reluctance to ask but a need to know. It’s all still so new that you can’t be sure which direction people will go (years into Vietnam, for instance, you could look at a person and instantly know his views).

“Okay, so let’s talk about it,” a friend said at lunch the other day, as though getting to the real, painful thing in our relationship. This was a nice and expensive lunch, which I didn’t want to ruin. And yet it was the moment of choosing sides, of identifying yourself. Whatever the response, it was going to change things. In a word, you’d meet your brother or your opposite: One thrilled by the president’s implacable assertions of American might, the other convinced he’s a one-note impostor. One with a crabbed, ungenerous, fearful, unreasonable, sheeplike nature; or another, with a depth and understanding and passion and clarity that you might never have known was there. (Which is which, or who is who, depends, of course, on your own view.) One you embrace; the other you’re instantly cut off from.

Every day, the contempt each side has for the other grows more sweeping and personal:

“So what you’re saying is that you support suicide bombers?”

“No, what I’m saying is that if I say what I think, I could get suspended by my ankles in a freezing room!”

For instance, Michael Kelly, writing this month in The Atlantic, isn’t just making an argument, or taking a columnist’s contrarian view, but expressing that extra measure of scorn, derision, and animus for the other side—and, regardless of the nuances of their views, for everyone on it. The Times’ Paul Krugman, the actress Janeane Garofalo, the columnist James Wolcott (and, for that matter, Vanity Fair, the publication Wolcott writes for), the novelist Kurt Vonnegut (who served a similar role during the Vietnam War), and, of course, all Frenchmen everywhere are not just wrong, in Kelly’s telling, but callow, pathetic, unmanly, inferior, dishonorable.

It flows the other way, too. Krugman comes as near as any respectable voice in branding the administration a rogue group: “I’m saying that the men who are controlling our destiny are lying.” More and more, you hear the echo of the Europeans’ who’s-the-most-dangerous poll. “Bush is more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden, because like Osama he really believes in good and evil,” says a normally Establishment-centered friend, now full of uncommon fury.

There is, too, as part of this drama of the rending of the nation, the Times’ Tom Friedman, who, in a loopy column about “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” finds himself in near public tears for some mythically unified nation that, he believes, existed at a halcyon moment after 9/11. (Who bears responsibility for that lost 9/11 feeling may be a future political issue.)

The fracturing, against the background of the coming-together orchestration, seems to be occurring on a minute-by-minute basis. Jews from Gentiles. More-conservative Jews from less-conservative Jews. Republicans from Democrats. Emotional Republicans from economic Republicans. Don’t-rock-the-boat Democrats (who include most of those running for president) from ever-angrier ones. Yuppies from college students. Employed yuppies from unemployed yuppies. Men from women. People who don’t go to Europe from people who do go (especially to the country whose name we dare not speak). California from the rest of the west. And, too—and most telling for the ever-degrading center—those core Bush supporters who every day grow more belligerent, determined, intractable, hard-core, cocksure (the U.N. has never had the balls to do anything, anyway!) from those who have been reluctantly in favor (those hardened cynics of middle age), but who now find themselves dumbfounded by the immutable march. And, of course, America, as we light up the skies and gun the Humvees, from absolutely everyone else in the world (except Tony Blair).

It may be, against all odds, that after a quarter-century of political somnambulance, people have come alive again – either ominously or hopefully.

Reality divides, Jekyll and Hyde:

(A) Bush is decisive, steadfast, methodical, nonequivocating, focused, unfickle, not brilliant perhaps, not well-spoken, but an honest—even far-thinking—steward of national security, surrounded by the best military thinkers ever to have occupied the White House. What you see is what you get.

(B) Bush, the illegitimate president, is a religious authoritarian with a total disregard for (and inability to grasp) nuance, who has obvious testosterone issues and is strutting about on the world stage oblivious to his own high-risk behavior. What you don’t see are family grudges, ulterior motives (Halliburton already lining up its Iraq oil-field contracts!), and vast messianic ambitions.

Each second, someone chooses a side and becomes ever-more righteous about it.

It may even be, against all the odds, that after a quarter-century of political somnambulance, people have come alive again—either ominously or hopefully. That a new, passionate opposition is in play (with each side maintaining that the other is really the would-be usurper). That something great and terrible is being born.

If this is true—this sudden, dramatic sundering—then the press has missed this story as it missed almost all stories involving the public heart these past many years.

In part, this is certainly due to the fact that the press is overexcited, too. It has converted itself, willy-nilly, into a wartime press corps. (It’s also a poll-driven press—and the polls say Americans support the war!)

The story is about the war as a fighting-man event, not a political event. It’s 90 percent a Pentagon story. No context, just blow-by-blow. The excitement is about going along, about having access, wearing war clothes, eating war food—a desire, finally, to be part of the scene, to be an “embed,” to hang out in Doha at the $225,000 briefing stage. It’s all spectacle. War is a media thing. Not just a ratings gift but a personal professional plum. Take advantage of it.

In this regard, it is almost impossible to read the European press and not think there exist two different worlds. Either the Euros—who seem far more installed on the ground in Iraq and across the Gulf and Middle East, and for far longer than American reporters or any American news organization—are making it all up: the dangers, the obstacles, the risks, the real stakes. Or the American press is downright befuddled, or ignorant, or in some kind of immense PR fog, or, well, just too excited for words. Even the Times, with its all-out wartime mobilization, seems largely to be spoon-fed from the Pentagon and to be unnaturally aroused by the bigness of it all (war as Viagra).

The excitement may be why the press is so obviously cowed. Such giddy excitement puts everyone on his best behavior. Indeed, this best-boy behavior is not a secret, and, it seems, barely an embarrassment. (A certain press docility surely continues from 9/11; you can argue, of course, that a weird docility has been present since the beginning of the Bush administration.) Nobody is even very defensive about it. The president’s get-ready-for-war news conference may in fact be some sort of landmark in the history of a well-behaved press. The quiescence is in the open, treated jocularly, or with only a smidgen of sheepishness: Yes, it’s scripted. Duh. Everybody is playing a part. (Except that old bag, Helen Thomas.) It’s a prayer breakfast. (Nobody, however, is going to bring up the prayer issue. “Mr. President, can you expand on your views relating to Armageddon?”)

As a sideshow, there’s Sy Hersh vs. Richard Perle. Perle is either the secret (or not-so-secret) administration stalking horse and spinmeister or the greatest self-promoter of the new diplomatic (or undiplomatic) age. In either instance, he is a Bush media star. His is the excited voice in every reporter’s ear (he’s on the phone all day flacking for war and for himself). Here is the message: Old Sy Hersh is “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist,” Perle says excitedly, marking the point at which reporters, being too bothersome, become persona non grata. Editors everywhere register this (although, later, given the opportunity, they chafe against it).

And most of all, there is the excitement of the America-goes–to-war networks. They’re excited by our oneness (television believes in and yearns for oneness). And when we go to war, we go to war as one (Americans, during wartime, the three anchors have all said just about a thousand times, back their commander-in-chief). So no point in emphasizing or investigating or aiding a lack of oneness, because oneness is the story. Unanimity, power, pageantry. MOAB. Bunker-busters.

Except then thereÂ’s Jon Alpert, the independent TV-documentary filmmaker, formerly of PBS, formerly of the Today show, with twelve Emmys, who was in Iraq during the Gulf War, and who, in the weeks before the start of the second Iraq war, was again in Baghdad, where he managed to do what the networks say they couldnÂ’t do: get uncensored, unmonitored footage inside Iraqi homes.

This view, in as yet generally unseen footage (I heard rumors of it and called up Alpert and got a copy), includes the bedroom of possibly the only heavy-metalhead in Baghdad—or, possibly, Baghdad is filled with heavy-metalist teenagers. Possibly in every house and up in every bedroom in Baghdad there is a surly, uncommunicative, anti-social, recognizable-in-every-sense teenager.

Now, Alpert’s film is not about the American fighting man. It’s about seven American high-school and college students talking via film and satellite to seven Iraqi students. And as it happens, nobody, in all the 24/7 news time, could quite find the context to air Alpert’s footage. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, MTV, no, no, no, no, no, no.

If you’re on this exciting, unstoppable train to war, running the clock, the big ticker on the screen, it takes a more or less subversive sensibility to show, at ground zero, the clearly innocent people—and not strange women in burkas but an annoying teenage heavy-metalist—who we’re right about now going to blow the shit out of. And television news does not, at this point, have a scintilla of subversiveness. It’s onboard—and excited about it.

Anyway, really advanced war consciousness has moved beyond the shooting war. The smart money expects the war to be over in days, not weeks. The real excitement is all about the new world that comes into existence after Saddam.

It is, everybody knows, not the fate of Saddam that is now the most exciting issue, but of Bush.

The sides are drawn; the scenarios, in vivid opposition.

For the Bushies, the reasonable expectation is of a technological victory so quick and mighty that every pantywaist in the world will have to starkly confront his own weakness and shame. Then, after the stunning and exciting humiliation of Iraq’s army and the world’s peanut gallery, we enter a post-Saddam world that has so many demonstrable benefits over a world with Saddam that the Bushies can triumph by breathless press release alone—we’ll be greeted everywhere with stories about the excited flowering of Iraq. Of course, the Bushies are, fairly, also counting on the long- and medium-term-memory issues of the American public and the American media. Iraq, like every other foreign escapade, should, they analyze, quickly return to the back burner (the thing about excitement is that if you don’t keep ramping it up, it gets boring). Then the news shifts to some other product launch dear to the heart of the Bush “core,” in the ever-onward Bush agenda.

But on the other side, the global opposition, and the new, excited homegrown anti-Bush front line, are anticipating—can barely contain themselves about—the myriad ways this colossal and quixotic undertaking will invariably fuck up. In this view, the post-Saddam world is anything but just the world without Saddam. Rather, it is, finally, inevitably, the world of the evil American empire—one in which almost everybody’s foremost interest is in displacing it, undermining it, and tormenting it (this may be the real dénouement of the past few years of excited anti-globalization protests). Having become so big, the U.S. can only be taken down. It is not only the biggest target; it is now the only target. America becomes the world’s pariah (this may not play so well with Americans, who, beyond the French jokes, really do count on being loved).

In the U.S., among the anti-Bushies, there is suddenly not just a sense that a great Pandora’s box of calamities has been opened in Iraq, not just a persistent nausea at the whole drawn-out affair, but the exciting feeling that after more than two years, Bush has revealed himself. It gets clearer and clearer: He’s odd and frightening. We may want our presidents to say they pray—but that is different from finding out that they actually do pray, intensely pray. The bland, obtuse, sometimes not uncharming figure is, it turns out, rough and menacing. The bully boy wants what he wants.

Of course, the Bushies also figure that if it gets bad in Baghdad, or if you get bombs on New York buses, well, then, in a crisis, you don’t want to switch horses. Indeed, in an ongoing crisis, with Bush as the leader, the favorables, you can expect, go way over the top.

Similarly, for the opposition, if it’s quick and clean, and easily forgotten about, then the issue turns to the Bush economy—because no matter what, the smart money knows that nothing the Bushies can do will pull it out. That the Dow is going to 6,000. They can pray all they want, but they’re going into an election with an economy worse than the economy that killed the father.

All the more reason, in fact, for the Bushies to want the war to go on and on.

Indeed, double-reverse switch-back scenarios are exciting possibilities for both sides.

But in the end, it is probably the flaky (if still cowed) media that will most determine the fate of the president and the tenor of the post-Saddam world.

Right now, in its collective mind, it is already excitedly rushing with the rear echelon for occupied Baghdad, already getting ready to observe (and participate in) the first exciting days of the new American Raj—U.S. generals setting up HQs in Saddam’s former palaces.

On the other hand, without Saddam, it is really not going to be so exciting anymore. (There was that party’s-over moment when it seemed like he might have been decapitated from the first salvo of the war.) The search for more excitement will have to move on. Without Saddam, both Bush and the media may enter into some existential moment: Who are we? Why do we exist? And, not unlikely, they will begin to turn on each other. The media, mingling with the better-informed international press in Iraq (hanging with hip and passionate Al-Jazeera reporters), finds new, exciting, and provocative things to report, infuriating the Bushies, who clamp down hard, causing the media, emboldened by war, to go after Bush himself. Or the media just goes after Bush because it’s all keyed up and needs someone to go after. Or the Bushies, wise to this, will be looking for some new, exciting, ever-more provocative diversionary moves.

The intensity, the expectations, the mania grow.

We are in an altogether altered, stirred-up, much-too-excited world.

Behind the Lines