The technology of smart-bomb war transports death and destruction to the virtual realm. With one hand on a joystick and eyes on a video screen, a bomb can be dropped here, a cruise missile targeted there. The vaunted accuracy of these weapons (and they can be accurate) make the splattered guts of what once were human beings (in those too-common instances when a market or hospital is bombed) the fault of a technical glitch, an unfortunate failure in a system that otherwise delivers surgically precise mayhem. Time to reboot and accept that what was lost is no longer there.
This distancing of cause and effect takes advantage of the natural human propensity to disconnect ourselves from the results of our actions, be they exploiting Third World sweatshops by buying cheap consumer goods, contributing to global warming by using inefficient internal combustion engines, or supporting far-off wars as if there were no other options.
Yet that disconnect from the real to the virtual can be a fragile construction. The Vietnam War was graphically brought home to Americans through the pages of weekly magazines and the television news. A napalmed Vietnamese girl running down a road, a young American with his insides spilling out — such images viscerally showed the horror of war. And that is precisely what the Bush administration is trying to protect the American people, and thus themselves, from. Top brass expressed outrage at Al Jazeera for showing images of frightened American POWs and the corpses of British and American soldiers. They did not want the real effects of the war to intrude on the reality-TV version being broadcast to the public. That they anointed their outrage with the sanctity of the Geneva Conventions, which the United States is grossly violating in Guantanamo, would be laughable were it not so readily believed.
Meanwhile, rumbles of surprising dissent are coming from military officers themselves, who have accused the administration of not sending in enough soldiers. The blame for this has been put on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his love affair with the idea of waging a high-tech war backed up by a limited number of men. Like a teen video gamer, Rumsfeld traded in his gold coins for the magic sword rather than the faithful warrior. Whoops, bad decision.
Barry M. McCaffrey, a retired Army general and former drug czar, took direct aim at Rumsfeld. “I’m a professor of national security studies, and I know a lot more about fighting than he does,” McCaffrey said. “The problem isn’t that the V Corps serving officers are commenting or that retired senior officers are commenting on televisions. The problem is that they chose to attack 250 miles into Iraq with one armored division and no rear-area security and no second front.”
“That we do not have enough troops on the ground is not important in terms of outcome — we will win,” wrote Joseph P. Hoar, a retired marine general, on the New York Times op-ed page. “However, the concept of risk in a military operation is not solely about winning and losing, it is also about the cost. In this case, the cost will be measured in American lives.” He called for Senate hearings when the war is over so that Americans will know “why we didn’t send enough troops to begin with.”
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blasted his dissenting fellow officers, contending that their criticism is “just harmful to our troops.” Indeed, morale could suffer should U.S. forces find they are just not being adequately supported.
As for any problems with the war plan, well, they aren’t Rumsfeld’s fault. “I would be happy to take credit for it, but I can’t. It was not my plan, it was Gen. Franks’ plan,” said Rumsfeld. As for Tommy Franks, his relationship with his buck-passing boss is best captured in a passage of Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, in which the president asks Franks for his opinion and he responds, “Sir, I think exactly what my secretary [Rumsfeld] thinks, what he’s ever thought, what he will ever think, or whatever he thought he might think.”
The administration would have it easier if everyone were so subservient. Of course, some are. “I heard Rumsfeld, and I think he is absolutely correct,” said MSNBC’s Eric Sorenson, the man who fired Phil Donahue because his anti-war views were not compatible with MSNBC’s patriotic marketing strategy. “We’ve instructed our generals to be careful not to speculate on what they don’t know.”
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.