Iraq the place and Iraq the abstraction

Over the past few years, the New Yorker’s George Packer has provided some outstanding reporting from Iraq. (He was also the author of one of the best articles on counter-insurgency we’ve come across, which introduced the State Department’s counter-insurgency boffin David Kilcullen to a bigger stage.) Now, in the current edition of World Affairs, he’s reflecting on the difference between ‘Iraq the place’ and ‘Iraq the abstraction’. 

It’s a terrific piece of journalism.  And it’s also a reflection on journalism, as in this surreal snapshot of life as an embedded correspondent:

A friend who went in with the Marines during the assault on Falluja in November 2004 paused one night in an abandoned house, with mortars landing outside, and downloaded his e-mail using a satellite modem. Pro-war readers had filled his Inbox with angry complaints that he was concealing the progress of the Marines—the “mainstream media” was too lazy and unpatriotic to get off its ass and go find the war.

And yet, he continues, “For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like”:

The image of Iraq is flickering and formless. Each year of the war seems like the last, and the patrols and meetings with Iraqis that soldiers conduct every day don’t make for good television ratings. With the exception of Falluja, there have been no memorable battles. The mundane character of counterinsurgency, the fact that journalists have become targets, and the media’s sheer lack of imagination have combined to make this most covered of modern wars one of the least vivid. Iraq is more remote in our consciousness than Vietnam ever was.

Part of the reason for this, Packer thinks, is that opinion on Iraq was so polarised in American minds even before the fighting began – unlike, say, Vietnam, where the arguments only became “truly poisonous” after a few years of fighting:

Once, after a trip to Iraq, I attended a dinner party in Los Angeles at which most of the other guests were movie types. They wanted to know what it was like “over there.” I began to describe a Shiite doctor I’d gotten to know, who felt torn between gratitude and fear that occupation and chaos were making Iraq less Islamic. A burst of invective interrupted my sketch: none of it mattered—the only thing that mattered was this immoral, criminal war. The guests had no interest in hearing what it was like over there. They already knew.

If that sounds like oblique criticism of the blogosphere, it is: “the Iraq War coincided with a revolution in technology that allowed … reclusive twenty-somethings to register their reactions every seventeen minutes on their blogs (and become influential commentators at the same time”.

The flood of information and commentary resulted in an intense, irritable, balkanized view of the war, but not a clearer view. The same combat that partisans waged over impeachment and the Florida recount found its latest battlefield in Iraq, where the American political debate was largely irrelevant and quickly became an impediment to understanding.

Towards the end of his article, Packer reflects on the movies that have been made about Iraq, and how those movies have portrayed US servicemen:

It’s curious that the Vietnam War, during which some Americans demonized soldiers, generated a number of movies that depict military personnel as thinking, feeling human beings, capable of committing terrible deeds but also possessed of insight, sorrow, and even redemption. Iraq, the war in which everyone loudly supports the troops, has produced a film genre that systematically dehumanizes them. I doubt these filmmakers truly regard American servicemen as moral degenerates. Instead, they treat soldiers as abstractions, empty canvasses on to which the filmmakers can project their own fantasies about the war.

What Packer describes here is in some ways the the flipside, the shadow if you like, of what Clay Shirky was discussing in the clip I posted here yesterday. Clay Shirky’s interest is in how the internet enables groups of people to organise themselves on a grand scale (for good or ill); on how it can produce coherence and order. What George Packer describes is the opposite, how participatory media can produce incoherence: chaos, disorder, cacophony, where the very idea of any objective truth is lost amidst the blizzard of commentary, opinion and white noise. It’s not such a great leap from here to Baudrillard’s famous position on the first Gulf War – that it never happened.  And yet, Packer points out, this kind of lazy subjectivism obscures the fact that “…the war was not about nothing. No war ever is.”

I’m curious about what makes the difference between the two polar opposite ‘modes’ that Shirky and Packer describe, and I think it’s another case in point of what happens when “the centre cannot hold“. If participants in a conversation approach it with a genuine desire to forge consensus and uncover the truth, and start from respect for different opinions, then the way is open towards the mode of operations that Shirky describes. If, on the other hand, they start from rigid certainties and dismissive attitudes, then presto! – back to the white noise. The how, in short, plays a big part in determining the what