Fighting a Private War
by Eddie Holt
The Irish Times, Dublin, Ireland, Oct. 20, 2001
World Press Review, January 2002
There are just two sentences in Franz Kafka's diary for Sunday,
Aug. 2, 1914: "Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming
in the afternoon." It's typical diary style, of course that
coupling of an event of epochal significance with a routine personal
detail. Most people who have ever kept diaries will recognize
the consummately human disproportion. How many l 969 diaries,
for instance, have entries for Monday, July 21, along the lines
of: "Man touches down on the moon. Got landed with the bloody
It's engaging to speculate how diary entries may have changed
in various parts of the world over these past six and a half weeks.
Repetition is already making the over-arching context of "war"
disturbingly routine and a feeling of individual impotence has
taken hold. What can any one person do? Diary entries since Sept.
11 could reveal how people really feel in private during these
changed times. Of course, since diaries are personal records,
nobody ever gets to read a representative sample to probe for
collective trends and patterns. So we live on as the normal gap
between the world and personal affairs widens into a chasm.
In a world fighting fiercely to forge political connections
(both sides insisting that there is no middle ground-you're either
with them or against them), individuals are left with more and
more emotional disconnections. Reading, watching, or listening
to news, we can become acutely aware of the chasm. Sure, we can
all still be legitimately livid at an especially inconvenient
puncture, at being summarily dehumanized by entrapment in a web
of talking phone machines, at Dublin's ridiculous traffic, or
any of the other routine irritations of contemporary life.
Yet, knowing that people are dying from bombing, starvation,
and even anthrax, our anger can seem obscenely and shamefully
self-centered. It seems impossible to impose any proportion on
the world. Even believing that the victims in America and Afghanistan
were almost certainly as swaddled in their own concerns-to them
crucial, if to the world petty-as we can be in ours doesn't bridge
the chasm. It emphasizes our common humanity, but in doing so
it also emphasizes the disconnections of that condition.
In the same way as this "war" is being reported
with massive coverage while scarcely being reported properly at
all, there is a vicious irony about the chasm between private
and communal responses.
The advice of the powerful is that we should all carry on
as before keep swimming in the afternoon if that is your gig-and
leave the "war" to the people in charge.
For all the power and resources of the mass media, we have
seen remarkably little graphic horror. The planes smashing into
the World Trade Center's towers, setting them ablaze and causing
_ their collapse, produced a sensational and horrific spectacle,
but you had to imagine the appalling scale of immolation, dismemberment,
and unspeakable injury that ensued. In Afghanistan, we have seen
some children brutally injured by bombs but as the old Bord Failte
Ireland's tourism board ad used to tell us, we haven't seen "the
half of it" or even the one-hundredth of it.
One of the most chilling sights on TV since the attacks began
on Afghanistan was of two young crewmen on an American aircraft
carrier. They looked no more than 18 or t9 and they wheeled out
bombs (unforgivably called "payload" or "ordnance,"
not just by military types, but by journalists, too) to load on
to warplanes. Interviewed, they spoke, predictably enough, about
revenge for the police officers and firefighters of New York.
One scrawled "NYPD)" and "FDNY" on the bombs.
Then, as the interviewer turned from one to the other, the
lads began to snigger conspiratorially as they contemplated the
destruction the bombs would produce. There they stood, scarcely
more than children, sniggering like Beavis and Butthead. It didn't
make them unique among males of their age. You might even argue
that their reaction was less hypocritical than the gravitas affected
by politicians. But distanced from the reality of what bombs do
to human flesh, bone, and sinew, they were able to snigger. Their
usually mundane work had become a focus of world attention. They
mattered. They reveled in their roles in an event of epochal significance.
In doing so, however, they had disconnected themselves from the
butchery of bombing. Beavis and Butthead could watch cruise missiles
taking off but not landing. Their reality, like ours, was censored.
In this "war," viewers watching TV in Dublin knew
more or less as quickly as any of the RTE, BBC, or Sky correspondents
in Afghanistan or Pakistan that bombing had begun. In fact, the
correspondents had to be phoned to let them know so that a few
minutes later they could repeat the "news" back to viewers
at home. Fair enough, the better reporters offered analysis and
not just recycled accounts in characteristically breathless and
ominous tones. But it was still a contrivance to disguise the
fact that journalism cannot cover this "war."
This was not deliberate propaganda for or against war or for
or against either side. It was propaganda for journalism itself-a
pretense that reasonable coverage remained possible.
You might argue that two cardinal principles of journalism,
one professional, the other ethical, conflicted. The professional
principle is to get and disseminate the story; the ethical one
is to tell the truth. But to tell the truth that the correspondents
on the ground were, in vital respects, even more ignorant than
viewers in armchairs on a wet Sunday in Dublin, would undermine
the pretense that heavy-duty "reporting" was taking
place. There is, quite simply an information vacuum at the heart
of this "information age" conflict. That's as dangerous
as it is ironic.
Anyway, life goes on and people are understandably growing
weary of vacuous "war" coverage. Yet that tiring, too,
is dangerous in so far as it not only promotes, but also seems
to justify paying scant heed to the developing picture.
Lack of information prompts us to forget about the "war"
and instead to seek solace in our preferred version of afternoon
swimming. As such, we Westerners, like hundreds of millions of
Arabs from North Africa, across Central Asia and down into Southeast
Asia, are kept uninformed-ready to be assailed by propaganda.
The result is that the gap is maximized between expressed
public opinion and the private opinions that are typically committed
to diaries. The intention of the combatants is to turn their own
civilians into masses in which private opinions are either repressed
or progressively eliminated through disinformation and lack of
information. That the information age should so easily become
yet another disinformation age shows us how impotent much of our
vaunted information technology actually is when seriously powerful
interests decide that it should be. Meanwhile, aid agencies warn
that millions face starvation in Afghanistan. To counter doubts
about the morality of bombing such a country, the United States
has dropped food rations as well as cluster bombs. As "trick
or treat" cynicism goes, that's as vile as we've seen in
a while. But at least we've seen it, which is more than you can
say for most of the obscenities that have transfixed, then frightened,
and subsequently depressed the world since Sept. 11.
As it is, we're all expected to take more and more simply
on trust. In any conflict some secrecy is inevitable, but this
time the truth seems more evasive than ever. Where do you c turn
to learn the truth? Not to Osama bin Laden, not to the Taliban
mullahs, not to Western politicians and, sadly, because of severely
limited access, censorship and propaganda, not to journalism either.
It's a nightmare of a genuinely Kafkaesque complexion.
Control and Propaganda