Thursday, June 01, 2006

Haditha and My Lai: The Image of War and Irony

Those who declared irony dead after 9/11 were infidels. Irony is alive and well. Ironic, isn't it?

The similarities and differences between the killings at Haditha and My Lai are clear. But it remains to be seen into which of these columns we will be able to place the public reaction. My guess is that you will not see the same sort of outrage, but either way it will be able to be placed snugly into the "best laid plans of mice and men" file.

Part of the reaction to My Lai was justified moral outrage. Part of it was the edge of the times. But part of it was the piercing of the John Wayne/noble warrior bubble. The disconnect between the romanticized image of battle and the reality on the ground finally became too overwhelmingly great to fit into all but the most double-jointed pro-war intellect (back in the late 60's, of course, there were many double-jointed intellects). The report of the horrific incident made it impossible to maintain the sort of fictitious picture of the brave, bold, and handsome good guy arriving to save the day. For those who needed such a cerebral crutch to justify their support of the military action, it was like that day when you first find out that the cone is not really filled to the bottom with ice cream. The world, especially the world at war, is a horrible place where horrible things happen. My Lai forced us to face it with no illusions and that changed the calculus in a subtle, but important way.

But an interesting thing happened after Viet Nam. That evil, liberal Hollywood changed the way it made war movies. All of a sudden, we were seeing the horror. We were seeing the trauma. We were seeing the complexities. The cavalry coming to the rescue defeating the bad guys, that just didn't happen so much anymore. American soldiers could be portrayed as shallow, course and ragingly bloodthirsty just as much as they could be portrayed as moral, dependable, and disciplined. The image of war took pains to be honest in an effort to strip it of its old facade. Where there is war, we were shown that there will be atrocities. War is hell and we were shown hell.

At the same time, those on the right were largely convinced that the failure in Viet Nam was a result of the press. TV images of coffins and those bleeding hearts in the newsrooms. They did away with McCarthy and Nixon and they undermined support for the war. The war was not lost in Asia, it was lost on the TV at home. And so they came to realize that PR was every bit as much a part of the war effort as the infantry. The battle plan needed an "in theater" component and an "in theaters" component. And so we got smart bombs -- munitions that restore the cleanliness to warfare. Indeed, we got the same one shown over and over again. We got pictures of Patriot missiles shooting down SCUDs -- whether they did or not -- the idea being that the war is happening in the sky, safely away from the people on the ground. We got briefings from Pentagon spokesmen in very professional, CNN knock off, spit polished briefing rooms. And then we got embedded reporters. Get to know the troops. Send back touching stories about the guys. The right was trying to rebuild the image that My Lai seemed to have buried.

So the question is which PR campaign was the most successful? The answer may be one factor in how we as a nation respond to the tragedy in Haditha. If those who tried to warn us away from war succeeded in convincing us that military conflict creates an all-permeating cloud of despair from which the dreadfulness of incidents like this one will necessarily follow, then the response may be a mere sad shrug of shoulders. "What did you expect? This is just how war is." We may have been so desensitized to atrocities that we can't muster outrage at the outrageous. But if the pro-war forces succeeded in rehabilitating the old picture in which war was only nasty to those who deserved it; if the hospital corners on phrases like "collateral damage" managed to work like All-Temperature Cheer on the bloodstains of the past, then the story of this massacre may again lead us to that place where sadness turns to indignation.

It seems that both sides were right that the images of war that made it into the common consciousness would be crucial when the time really came. But they didn't realize that when the cartoons are over and the film itself is shown that the winners lose and the losers win. Whoever won the PR battle may have just lost the war. Irony can be so ironic.