Letter From Elsewhere: War Games
By Anne Else
This time last month, waiting for the invasion of Iraq to begin, I failed to write a Letter from Elsewhere. I just couldn’t think of anything that seemed worth saying, apart from “Don’t go there”. But of course, they went anyway.
It’s hard not to get the impression, even from the major network dispatches, that the people most responsible for the invasion – Rumsfeld, Perle, Cheney, and all the other CEOs and neos, as the New Zealand Listener called them recently – are fundamentally incapable of seeing any country the USA is even remotely likely to invade as a real place, with real people. They seem to have thought of this war as some kind of ultimate video game (with great special effects, and amazing prizes, like real oil wells!) and they can’t quite grasp why it hasn’t all gone according to plan. They certainly don’t seem to understand why the “liberators” were not warmly welcomed. The only explanation for this blindness is that they cannot imagine these unreal, cartoon people having the same feelings they themselves would have about foreign invaders.
Even Lieutenant General William Wallace, commander of the US Army’s V Corp, is reported as saying, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against…” The problem, he said, was the paramilitary forces: “We knew they were here, but we didn’t know how they would fight.” Now there are loud complaints that they’re fighting dirty, and breaking the rules, and that having to be so careful not to kill too many civilians is just too hard, especially when you can’t easily tell who’s a civilian and who’s not. It wasn’t meant to be like this. It never is.
Others’ reality is hard to grasp, even when you’re in it. But it seems to be a little harder when you come from the greatest power on earth. And most of the fearsomely kitted out marines we see driving tanks through dust storms and running across streets (and sometimes lying dead) are barely out of their teens. I remember seeing a news item about US forces (an honest word, forces) in Somalia. (Remember Somalia? Hot, dusty, mostly black people, a lot of famines. Had some bad guys in charge who had to be taught a lesson.) It was Christmas, and the troops were just sitting down to their turkey dinners, when in came a triumphant soldier. He had managed to find what was almost certainly the last spindly tree for miles around, and he had cut it down and brought it back to be a Christmas tree.
For lucky audiences, protected from the noise and the smell and the mess, reality quickly gets boring. Already the media are reporting viewer “war weariness” and turn-off. Slowly the coverage is shrinking. While the war still looms large, the front pages of our dailies and the lead items on our television news are no longer exclusively devoted to it. I wonder how long it will be, newswise, before Iraq turns into another Afghanistan. How long is it since you saw any in-depth coverage – or any coverage at all – of what’s happening, or not happening, in Afghanistan?
Unless something pretty spectacular is going on, broken buildings and people in the middle of deserts don’t make good footage. When the bombs stop falling and most of the forces come home, will Iraq cease to exist for most of us? This war is so public and so contested that it might be different this time. I hope so, because otherwise it seems horribly likely that more and more of the people who thought they were safe in the audience might suddenly find the war flaring up beneath their feet.