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 washing-up again"?

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.

Media Control and Propaganda

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