Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What did we know? When did we know it?

Recently Sahar, an Iraqi who writes from Baghdad for McClatchy News Service reflected on a trip to the U.S.

...I came home with a better understanding of what areas need to be covered for the regular American to better understand the situation in Iraq.

I was greatly surprised that most people didn't have an inkling of what Iraq is - was. I would have thought that as the U.S was at war in Iraq, the regular American would have some idea of what Iraq had, and thus would be better equipped to assess the loss that resulted from this war - but I found that not very many people - amongst those that I met, at least, had any clear idea of the Iraqi society, and what the war has cost the country, in terms of how it affected our education system, our healthcare, services and infrastructure. And although they were aware of the statistics of the casualties lost as a result of the collapse in the security system, the figures were so high as to become surreal - they acknowledged them in their minds but couldn't actually feel them in their hearts.

Each and every person I met was compassionate and supportive - so much so that I am at a loss - if people felt like that, why isn't there an outcry so loud that policy makers have no choice but to stop and listen??

Why indeed? That is the question peace movement activists chew over endlessly. After all, at this point 60 to 70 percent of U.S. citizens want us out of Iraq -- why aren't we able to demand an end to our war more effectively?

In a commentary on books by Iraq vets, Michael Massing has some interesting suggestions about how the U.S. public filters information about Iraq that help explain the paradoxes Sahar encountered.

...the public remains ill-informed about many key aspects of the war. This is due less to any restrictions imposed by the government, or to any official management of language or image, than to controls imposed by the public itself. Americans -- reluctant to confront certain raw realities of the war -- have placed strong filters and screens on the facts and images they receive. This is particularly true regarding the conduct of U.S. troops in the field. The U.S. military in Iraq is an occupation army, and like most such forces, it has engaged in many troubling acts. With American men and women putting their lives at risk in a very hostile environment, however, the American public has little appetite for news about such acts, and so it sets limits on what it is willing to hear about them. The Press -- ever attuned to public sensitivities -- will, on occasion, test those limits, but generally respects them. The result is an unstated, unconscious, but nonetheless potent co-conspiracy between the public and the press to muffle some important truths about the war. In a disturbing twist on the Orwellian nightmare, the American people have become their own thought police, purging the news of unwanted and unwelcome features with an efficiency that government censors and military flacks can only envy. ...

... the Iraq war, like most wars, is a savage, pitiless affair in which American soldiers have been forced to do many un-American things. Most Americans prefer not to confront this. They want to be able to maintain their belief that Americans are an exceptionally virtuous, freedom-loving people and that their soldiers are a uniquely compassionate, well-meaning force. Any assertions to the contrary can rouse the beast, and the press, well aware of this, tends to tread warily around it. ...

... The books by Iraqi vets are filled with expressions of disbelief and rage at the lack of interest ordinary Americans show for what they've had to endure on the battlefield. ...

... In his reflections on politics and language, Orwell operated on the assumption that people want to know the truth. Often, though, they don't. ... The public has become its own collective Ministry of Truth -- a reality that, in many ways, is even more chilling than the one Orwell envisioned.

Strange times we live in, when we can both know and not know so completely. Filters cannot however, in the end, shield us from the karmic consequences of responsibility sloughed off.

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