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Postmodern Village
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Letter from the Editor
By Lael Ewy

Of Embedded Reporters . . .

We get images like this: through the green haze of a night-vision lens, a coterie of Marines lays down bright tracer fire from a heavy machine gun and their M-16s. The camera pans to a nondescript block of building into which the tracer is pouring like molten radium. Or this: a lone soldier against the nearly Martian landscape of Iraq, all blue sky and red-tinged dirt and rock. He's tired but in good spirits, talking longingly about "back home." Or this: The reporter himself, his satellite video-phone giving jumpy images of an obvious civilian in blue Kevlar and an ill-fitting helmet, the word "press" written across his chest in six-inch high white block letters. This is the current war in Iraq from the point-of-view of the "embedded reporters," correspondents trained with and placed within the platoons of coalition soldiers themselves as they advance on the long, treacherous ride to Baghdad.

The American military has been hailed by the press for such unprecedented access to the war as it unfolds on the front lines. And that certainly seems to be true: we hear the grunts and the chatter of automatic weapons, see the muzzle-flashes light up the infrared cameras. It's immediate, real, raw, right from An Nasiriya.

It's also the most brilliant bit of public bamboozling the U.S. military information machine has come up with since the sensational "bomb's-eye-view" videos of the first Gulf War. This may appear to be combat as it happens - raw and real - and, by God, it is! But it's also remarkable what, in all its candor, the phenomenon of the embedded reporter fails to show. Lost in the fog of war, seeing combat from the vantage point of the average foot soldier, the embedded reporter utterly fails to see the big picture. He is completely blind to strategy, to the real humanitarian costs of war (except as he happens to run across individual instances), and to the war from the perspective of the average Iraqi (otherwise known, as Iraq uses more guerilla tactics, as the potential enemy).

"Embedded" is the correct term: the U.S. military planners have succeeded in making reporters the bedfellows - literally - of American and British soldiers, essentially forcing a bias on them by putting them in the same place as our troops, looking down the barrels of the same guns, subject to the same small arms fire and mortar attacks.

The utter genius of this tactic is further reinforced when we consider how embedded reporters are, on the surface, totally free to cover the war: they are there, as it happens, without any intervention or "spin" from the military brass. In reality, though, they are self-censored. By being placed inside army units, these journalists have a vested interest in not revealing too much about where they are and what's going on, lest they tip off the enemy to their positions and bring Iraqi fire on themselves. Self-censorship becomes, literally, a matter of life and death for the embedded reporter, even though a reporter's primary job is to tell people where she is and what's going on.

So the armed forces make it look like they're being totally up front about war information. They have, after all, allowed journalists to ride along with the troops as they cruise right into combat. It makes them both look good: the army looks very open, very accommodating, and the reporter has some sensational video to beam home. But the military allows this knowing full well that no reporter in his right mind (and Gerlado Rivera's revelation of where he was and what was going on proves without a doubt that he's not) would actually report too much when he really gets into a combat situation.

It may seem like that's a CBS correspondent in the M1A1 Abrams, but it's the American people who are being taken for a ride.

. . . And on The War In General

It would be out-of-character for me not to have at least one or two little things to say about this war and the reasons we are waging it. There does seem to be some confusion on that matter in the administration itself. First the war was about Iraqi violations of UN sanctions against weapons of mass destruction. Then, when we couldn't find any of those and didn't want to wait for UN inspectors to do their jobs, we determined the war was about ousting Saddam. Then, when that sounded too much like assassination, we decided it was about "regime change." Then, when that sounded too mercenary and imperialist (shouldn't The People of Iraq be responsible for their own regime?) we decided it was liberation of Iraq from an evil dictator. Even better: we were committed to the overall spread of democracy in the region. That was something we could all agree on, right? Everyone, even the Doves, can agree that Saddam is a bad dude: he gassed his own Kurdish population (never mind that Turkey would probably do the same to their Kurds if they could get away with it) and rules his land through torture and intimidation. I couldn't agree more that getting rid of Saddam and finally allowing Iraq to choose its own course is a noble goal (unless, of course, that course is for the non-Kurd majority to decide Saddam was right and the Kurds need more gassin').

But is it the real reason we're there? Laying aside, for a minute the problem of liberation on our own terms - Napoleon thought he was liberating Europe from tyrants too before he gave up and crowned himself Emperor - the very slipperiness of the Bush administration's reasoning points to another notion, perhaps one that the Powers that Are in the Bush cabinet are afraid to admit to. Or perhaps it's one that they haven't even admitted to themselves.

Somewhere along the line the administration started playing a tune that, non-sequitur though it is, went something like this: Saddam has (or may have) weapons of mass destruction. We don't want another 9/11, but this time with nuclear bombs instead of airliners, do we? Despite the fact that Saddam has never been proven to have links with al Qaeda, the administration thinks this is too high a risk to run. Again, laying aside some powerful facts, like that North Korea not only has nuclear weapons but has far more sophisticated missiles than Saddam ever had and has threatened to use them, and that "loose nukes" (or nerve gas or bio-weapons for that matter) are much more likely to leak out of the porous and cash-poor regions of the former Soviet Union, and that the only bio-terror attacks to hit the U.S. have been genetically linked to our own bio-weapons stocks, either the Bush administration is simply ramping up the rhetoric and playing off of our fears, or they actually believe what they're saying. The latter idea is far scarier, but might be closer to the truth.

"A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things," writes George Orwell in his classic essay on the effects of imperialism "Shooting an Elephant.” And George W. Bush, as a leader, as the leader of the world's last remaining Superpower, has got to appear resolute; he's got to know his own mind, whether that mind is a solid one or not. The definite thing he hasn't done is find Osama bin Laden, the one who, unlike Saddam, has actually succeeded in attacking the good ol' U.S. of A. Barring the ability to do that definite thing, Bush and his cabinet have selected the next, softest, most obvious target of opportunity. The rhetoric of inevitability coming out of the White House and Defense Department show just how definite this thing is: they speak of "certain victory" and make plans for what to do when the war is over based on the assumption we'll win.

And we probably will win. And, unlike bin Laden, we know that Saddam is in Iraq. We don't know where in Iraq, but we do know he's not fled yet. And that's a definite thing. But the administration could never admit this; it would be the equivalent of admitting that they were just angry and lashed out the way a child or my cat would do. So they fill the air with an endless number of reasons that change as the political climate or the streams of smoke and dust of the ground war change.

Beneath all this, seething and stinking like a pile of brimstone, is the very American attitude that might does, indeed, make right. For all the high-minded idealism of the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence there's the gun-totin' fight-pickin' image of The Westerner hell-bent on a piece of frontier justice. The Texan currently in office, however, happens to have the entire U.S. Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Marine Corps and the USAF as his posse, and instead of some mangy jackrabbits and the sagebrush as witnesses, he's got the whole, rather judgmental, world.

We commit to violence not just because we think, in certain circumstances, it's justified, but because, for lack of a better word, we like it. We go see Big-Bad Rambo blow away a bunch of little Asians because it reinforces our founding myth: biggest is best; direct is better; little is weasly and should probably be terminated for its own good. We believe in violence because it's what won The West for us, and look how well that turned out. How often do you hear of Indian raids anymore? (aside from raids on our pocketbooks at the casino, perhaps)

To admit to such crass barbarism, however, might be embarrassing, so we come up with excuses for it, some more legitimate than others, but all with the same message behind: "Because if you don't you will have forced our hand, and we will crush you." Even the legitimate excuses don't wash, though: if we are so concerned with human rights and self determination, where were we when genocide was going on in Rwanda? Where are we when the people in Central America have to suffer civil wars we have started and have to face repressive regimes we have supported? Why are we allowing a trade imbalance with China that reaches the billions of dollars when they routinely torture and unreasonably imprison their own people?

No, it's high time we faced the facts of the matter: we started this war because George W. Bush did not want to look like a fool. And we chose war not because it was truly the final option but because we sadly know no other way.