Our New War Culture

The Timex spokesman was outraged to discover that noted international terrorist Mr. Osama bin Laden was wearing a Timex watch. And Sesame Street producers were livid to find that goofy old Bert hovered over the terrorist’s shoulder in a poster brandished by a demonstrator in Bangladesh. “Sesame Street has always stood for mutual respect and understanding,” they said in a statement. Catastrophic for the brand, the implication was – and, let’s not forget, for the world. The images reinforced the fact that it’s not only Stinger missiles we’ve sold our enemies. (The Taliban all seem to drive around in light pickup trucks – that’s what they use to carry their victims to executions in the soccer stadium, in some of the most chilling footage in the documentary Behind the Veil. It makes an American want to say, idiotically: Don’t you know we invented the pickup truck?) But we’ve apparently overestimated the power of American culture. Our products don’t seem to contain much coded information about truth, justice, and the American way. As in images of helicopters in those Soviet-invasion-era Afghan carpets, our products are woven into a fabric of the Afghans’ own devising. They don’t see them as ours; they’re happy to make them theirs.

Anthrax had already struck most of America, installing a spore of fear in people who would never think of buying a gas mask. But just in case reason had a shot at prevailing, the recently opened chem-bio front happened to be in the epicenter of tabloid media. Who at the Enquirer and the Globe needs alien dog-nappers when Bob over in photo retouch drops over dead from a bio agent? The soapy narrative deepened immeasurably when salient government institutions left people in the building for three days before deciding, oops, maybe Bob’s death wasn’t as natural as we had hoped. The sign on the front of the building-american media-and the scant mile to where the terrorists trained made it hard not to infer causality even when the government wouldn’t. The next target? Tom Brokaw’s NBC. Proving that Al Qaeda has a firm grasp of the new paradigm of viral marketing.

Information overload arrived in Times Square last week the old-fashioned way, in an envelope. New York City, of course, has a gleeful genius for rumors – this is a chicken-and-egg reason the media business is here. But many at the New York Times reacted to the event like British sailors, sticking to their posts and keeping a stiff upper lip. They’d seen rumors before, the message was – and besides, the elevators were shut down. Elsewhere in the city was the chaos of war, with rumors escaping their sourcing and bouncing around the media decks. Was there a Sarin-gas alert at local hospitals? Wrong, apparently. Did we really have the blood of 500,000 Iraqi children on our hands? Some in the city – friends, even – seemed to think so. New York has become a city of uncertainty – which is the romantic old stereotype (remember Casablanca?) about the Arab souk. Or about the touristless, dangerous nighttime Times Square of, say, ten years ago.

The necessary reunion with self-interest, as opposed to common interests, leaves people in a conundrum of manners. It’s probably okay to go shopping, but is it appropriate to seem excited about it? Retailers and restaurateurs have no choice. As a matter of survival, they service those who show up and must convince others that there’s nothing distasteful about buying a sandwich, a car, or a handbag. To create an air of permission, fundamental consumer activities have been re-spun into vaguely patriotic endeavors. “Keep America rolling,” urges GM, adding, “Believe in the dream, believe in each other.” Of course, these are duties Americans can get behind. “People really have to party,” said a publicist working an opening event for a bar that she unself-consciously explains will have a Versailles-inspired interior.

World War I was preceded by a charmed season that came to be known as the Long Summer, the beautiful twilight flowering of Edwardian civilization in surreally perfect autumn weather. But in the present instance, the sense of a fall, the kind of loss of innocence that accompanied events like the Kennedy assassination, is complicated by the question, Fall from what? The events of September 11 brought to a close the Summer of Lizzie (and, let’s not forget, of Gary) – a period of cultural excess thought to have brought down the Hamptons, if not all of Western civilization. The more literal-minded – Jerry Falwell, for instance – actually established a causal relation between what they saw as the failings of our culture and the attack. Others, like Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, smugly gloated over the struggles of the likes of Graydon Carter as they tried to accommodate human suffering into their worldview. “I always wondered,” wrote Wieseltier, “what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind. And at last, I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan.” While Falwell apologized, the fact remained: The people of the book – the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, The New Republic – had stolen a march on the people of the TV. And they haven’t been ashamed to crow about it. Of course, people of the book are not necessarily known for their good manners toward those who don’t share their affiliations.

The Times’ saturation coverage of the attack and its aftermath is, of course, indispensable – and remarkable. Still, the paper of record has tended to leave yawning crevices of doubt and anxiety in its coverage – apparently by design. How much asbestos is in the air by ground zero was a question it took the paper upwards of a month to answer. (“The persistent doubts and fears of residents,” the Times reported in an apparent attempt at reassurance, “may actually be deeply rooted in human nature and evolution, and are apt to continue to outweigh any reassurances provided by health or environmental officials.”) Are the police using racial profiling (a practice many New Yorkers privately admit to using on the subway)? What threats lead sources to say that there’s a 100 percent probability of a new attack? These crevices, combined with the unwillingness of the media to bridge them with interpretation, manifest both a wartime lack of information and a wartime concern for the civic weal. Rule No. 1: Don’t cause panic. But readers are not afraid to interpret. And we’re plenty worried.

What a stroke of luck for Tony Kushner to have written a play about Afghanistan, right? Not exactly. While the play contains certain Nostradamus prefigurings (“If you love the Taliban so much, why don’t you bring them to New York?” asks one character. “Well, don’t worry,” replies another. “They’re coming to New York”), the prophecies have nothing to teach us – we’re living them. And the event, in its extremities of feeling, its visual spectacle, its rhetoric of crusaders and infidels and Wanted Dead or Alive, inevitably dwarfs its artistic representations. “God knows,” Kushner told an L.A. Times reporter, “there should be a certain degree of caution approaching the subject of this horror. As with Auschwitz, or the slave ships.”

Ten years ago, the television coverage of the Gulf War featured a monthlong bombs-bursting-in-air fireworks festival accompanied by beaming officers who pointed out precision-guided munitions being feathered down air ducts. In this conflict, the before-and-after pictures look depressingly similar. And after the officers have convinced us that, yes, the bombs have found their target, they struggle to explain how we’ve impacted the enemy’s ability to make war: their (deserted) camp has been destroyed. Does this mean, what, they can’t practice on the shooting range? Do pushups? The images underscore the fact that in a conflict in which America has everything at stake, our enemies have little to lose.

Just a month ago, Donald Rumsfeld seemed a has-been, fighting a quixotic jihad on behalf of his beloved missile shield. Democrats of a certain age couldn’t help seeing a parody of Bob McNamara, or a character out of Dr. Strangelove. But now his demeanor makes sense: a jaunty soldierliness, accompanied by – surprise – a sense of humor. In deadpan midwestern lockjaw, he pokes fun at aides and reporters (Ari Fleischer, by contrast, seems in his exaggerated somberness like one of those out-of-towners who called on the day of the attack). Rumsfeld’s bluff comportment winks at the artificiality of the news conference: “I know secrets. You know I know secrets. But I’m not going to tell them to you … and you know that.”

Just over a year ago, Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, joined forces with war journalist Scott Anderson to start a bar in Chelsea known as the Half King. Conceptually, the Half King seemed torn from a J. Peterman catalogue – the kind of place where, passing through town, a war correspondent could hang up his tank goggles and have a couple of stiff ones. Both writers have lived it, not only talked it; still, there was a whiff of adolescent romanticism about it. American culture marauding over the world, Junger and Anderson were on their way to see the last of the Mohicans. Then September 11 made many of us war tourists (raise your hand if you’ve been to ground zero). And there are, clearly, an alarming number of Mohicans. But while temporarily raising the value of Junger’s cultural product (his new book, Fire, was optioned for “high six figures”), it removed his monopoly on cojones – everyone in New York has been in a war.

The first, hard-eyed, thin-lipped image of Mohammed Atta we saw – Rutger Hauer as a brunette – fit our fixed idea, however scarily, of a terrorist mass murderer. But the pictures in the Times last week – hugging his sister on a beautiful beach, wearing a turtleneck sweater and crisp white pants, receiving a passionate smooch on his head from his mother (a sweet little boy? Think again, Mom) – were more unsettling: How do you get from there to the Trade Center? Then there’s his will: no pregnant women – come to think of it, no women at all – at his grave; rubber gloves for those who’d anoint his body, so they wouldn’t touch his genitals. It’s hard not to leap to the notion that somehow, his everyday fears – some overintensity of feeling toward the women in his life – became monstrously transformed and amplified. President Bush and the media have been at pains to underscore that this is a war about women – their safety, their freedom. It’s worth wondering: What gender issues might this generate down the road?

A war without good images requires an army of talking heads. Domestically, pundit supply is never a problem. But obtaining an unobstructed view of the geopolitical environment is a more difficult challenge, requiring news organizations to join the FBI in their hunt for Muslims who can translate for Americans the reason those towers got knocked down. The manhunt turned up Fouad Ajami, who has annotated bin Laden for 60 Minutes, The New York Times Magazine, and U. S. News. Ajami is eminently reasonable – but it’s often hard to hear, through his hyperarticulateness, the shouting mobs burning George W. Bush effigies in Islamabad. The vast Arab middle, those who speak without their fists in the air but nonetheless feel passionate about American cultural and economic hegemony, have also mostly gone missing. We know that they hate us, and why, but the networks have decided, apparently, that too much unmediated reality is a dangerous thing.

The producers of the $300 million Lord of the Rings film trilogy were undoubtedly putting their money down on the coattails of George Lucas’s Star Wars. (Lucas had been inspired by Tolkien.) This cinematic giantism seemed a little risky – until September 11. Suddenly the movie, which opens around Christmas, makes perfect sense: a struggle in unfamiliar lands against implacable forces of evil. Whenever it makes us uncomfortable, we can remind ourselves: These are Hobbits, not people. (The orphan, magical Harry Potter is another big winner – as if he needed it.) When was the last time Tolkien was this popular? Try Vietnam.

If wealth is defined by possessing the most of the least available commodity, feeling secure has become the consummate luxury. The First World rich are adopting Third World measures, bypassing airport security by securing their own aircraft. Bodyguards, who have presumably received training in spotting renegade jets, are getting $800 for a twelve-hour shift. When Jennifer Lopez married Cris Judd at the end of last month, guests were checkpointed through a metal detector before getting an additional pat-down with a security wand. It’s somehow fitting that a war that seems to have started in part over the ubiquitous global display of Britney Spears’s navel would beget a security detail for J.Lo’s booty.

The assault was of such epic dimensions, Roger Angell and others have suggested, that America has finally been annealed into a single generation. But teenagers and young adults, raised in their own version of The Truman Show, don’t seem eager yet for a peek outside the bubble. Once the piece of tape was viewed enough, it became (TV people actually use this term) video wallpaper – it looked no more or less produced than everything else that lives on TV. As a result, young people didn’t exactly take a Greatest Generation approach. Days after the incident, the question that popped up on the welcome window for AOL was not “Where can I sign up?” but “Will I be drafted?” Gallup found that 77 percent of Americans favored military action even if the draft was reinstated, but fewer than half of the college-age respondents to a survey conducted by CollegeClub.com said they would serve if conscripted. “I know this sounds terrible,” says one 19-year-old New Yorker, “but we pay people to do this kind of thing.”

Additional reporting by Jada Yuan.

Our New War Culture