Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Americans Are Tuning out the Disaster in Iraq

Why Americans Are Tuning out the Disaster in Iraq

By Frank Rich

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The night before last week’s Senate hearings on our “progress” in Iraq, a goodly chunk of New York’s media and cultural establishment assembled in the vast lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. There were cocktails; there were waiters wielding platters of hors d’oeuvres; there was a light sprinkling of paparazzi. Then there was a screening. We trooped like schoolchildren to the auditorium to watch a grueling movie about the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Not just any movie, but “Standard Operating Procedure,” the new investigatory documentary by Errol Morris, one of our most original filmmakers. It asks the audience not just to revisit the crimes in graphic detail but to confront in tight close-up those who both perpetrated and photographed them. Because Mr. Morris has a complex view of human nature, he arouses a certain sympathy for his subjects, much as he did at times for Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, in his Vietnam film, “Fog of War.”

More sympathy, actually. Only a few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command took the fall for Abu Ghraib. No one above the level of staff sergeant went to jail, and no one remotely in proximity to a secretary of defense has been held officially accountable. John Yoo, the author of the notorious 2003 Justice Department memo rationalizing torture, has happily returned to his tenured position as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. So when Mr. Morris brings you face to face with Lynndie England — now a worn, dead-eyed semblance of the exuberant, almost pixie-ish miscreant in the Abu Ghraib snapshots — you’re torn.

Ms. England, who is now on parole, concedes that what she and her cohort did was “unusual and weird and wrong,” but adds that “when we first got there, the example was already set.” That reflection doesn’t absolve her of moral responsibility, but, like much in this film, it forces you to look beyond the fixed images of one of the most documented horror stories of our time.

Yet I must confess that, sitting in MoMA, I kept looking beyond the frame of Mr. Morris’s movie as well. While there’s really no right place to watch “Standard Operating Procedure,” the jarring contrast between the film’s subject and the screening’s grandiosity was a particularly glaring illustration of the huge distance that separates most Americans, and not just Manhattan elites, from the battle lines of our country’s five-year war. If Tom Wolfe was not in the audience to chronicle this cognitive dissonance, he should have been.

Mr. Morris’s movie starts fanning out to theaters on April 25. We don’t have to wait until then to know its fate. Sympathetic critics will tell us it’s our civic duty to see it. The usual suspects will try to besmirch Mr. Morris’s patriotism. But none of that will much matter. “Standard Operating Procedure” will reach the director’s avid core audience, but it is likely to be avoided by most everyone else no matter what praise or controversy it whips up.

It would take another column to list all the movies and TV shows about Iraq that have gone belly up at the box office or in Nielsen ratings in the nearly four years since the war’s only breakout commercial success, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They die regardless of their quality or stand on the war, whether they star Tommy Lee Jones (“In the Valley of Elah”) or Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”) or are produced by Steven Bochco (the FX series “Over There”) or are marketed like Abercrombie & Fitch apparel to the MTV young (“Stop-Loss”).

As The New York Times recently reported, box-office dread has driven one Hollywood distributor to repeatedly postpone the release of “The Lucky Ones,” a highly regarded and sympathetic feature about the war’s veterans, the first made with full Army assistance, even though the word Iraq is never spoken and the sole battle sequence runs 40 seconds. If Iraq had been mentioned in “Knocked Up” or “Superbad,” Judd Apatow’s hilarious hit comedies about young American guys who (like most of their peers) never consider the volunteer Army as an option, they might have flopped too. Iraq is to moviegoers what garlic is to vampires.

This is not merely a showbiz phenomenon but a leading indicator of where our entire culture is right now. It’s not just torture we want to avoid. Most Americans don’t want to hear, see or feel anything about Iraq, whether they support the war or oppose it. They want to look away, period, and have been doing so for some time.

That’s why last week’s testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker was a nonevent beyond Washington. The cable networks duly presented the first day of hearings, but only, it seemed, because the show could be hyped as an “American Idol”-like competition in foreign-policy one-upmanship for the three remaining presidential candidates, all senators. When the hearings migrated to the House the next day, they vanished into the same black media hole where nearly all Iraq news now goes. If the Olympic torch hadn’t provided an excuse to cut away, no doubt any handy weather disturbance would have served instead.

The simple explanation for why we shun the war is that it has gone so badly. But another answer was provided in the hearings by Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, one of the growing number of Republican lawmakers who no longer bothers to hide his exasperation. He put his finger on the collective sense of shame (not to be confused with collective guilt) that has attended America’s Iraq project. “The truth of the matter,” Mr. Voinovich said, is that “we haven’t sacrificed one darn bit in this war, not one. Never been asked to pay for a dime, except for the people that we lost.”

This is how the war planners wanted it, of course. No new taxes, no draft, no photos of coffins, no inconveniences that might compel voters to ask tough questions. This strategy would have worked if the war had been the promised cakewalk. But now it has backfired. A home front that has not been asked to invest directly in a war, that has subcontracted it to a relatively small group of volunteers, can hardly be expected to feel it has a stake in the outcome five stalemated years on.

The original stakes (saving the world from mushroom clouds and an alleged ally of Osama bin Laden) evaporated so far back they seem to belong to another war entirely. What are the stakes we are asked to believe in now? In the largely unwatched House hearings on Wednesday, Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, tried to get at this by asking what some 4,000 “sons and daughters” of America had died for.

The best General Petraeus could muster was a bit of bloodless Beltway-speak — “national interests” — followed by another halfhearted attempt to overstate Iraq’s centrality to the war on Al Qaeda and a future war on Iran. He couldn’t even argue that we’re on a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people. That would require him to acknowledge that roughly five million of those people, 60 percent of them children, are now refugees receiving scant help from either our government or Nuri al-Maliki’s. That’s nearly a fifth of the Iraqi population — the equivalent of 60 million Americans — and another source of our shame.

The prevailing verdict on the Petraeus-Crocker show is that it accomplished little beyond certifying President Bush’s intention to kick the can to January 2009 so that the helicopters will vacate the Green Zone on the next president’s watch. That’s true, but by week’s end, I became more convinced than ever that in January we’ll have a new policy that includes serious withdrawals and serious conversations with Mr. Maliki’s pals in Iran, even if John McCain becomes president.

General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker define victory as “sustainable security” in Iraq. But both Colin Powell and Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said last week that current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are unsustainable and are damaging America’s readiness to meet other security threats. And that’s not all that’s unsustainable. An ailing economy can’t keep floating the war’s $3-billion-a-week cost. A Republican president intent on staying the Bush course will find his vetoes unsustainable after the Democrats increase their majorities in Congress in November. No war can be fought indefinitely if the public has irrevocably turned against it.

Mr. McCain says Americans want “victory,” whatever that means today, and yes, they would if it could be won on the terms promised by Mr. Bush five years ago — fast, and with minimal sacrifice. It’s way too late to ask for years of stepped-up sacrifice now in the cause of a highly debatable definition of “national interests.”

This war has lasted so long that Americans, even the bad apples of Abu Ghraib interviewed by Mr. Morris, have had the time to pass through all five of the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief over its implosion. Though dead-enders like Mr. McCain may have only gone from denial to anger to bargaining, most others have moved on to depression and acceptance. Unable to even look at the fiasco anymore, the nation is now just waiting for someone to administer the last rites.

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