War isn't a game after all

Friday, September 14, 2001

War isn't a game after all

by Naomi Klein, The Globe and Mail, September 14 2001

Now is the time in the game of war when we dehumanize our enemies.

They are incomprehensible, their acts unimaginable, their motivations senseless. They are "madmen," their states are "rogue." Now is not the time for understanding -- just better intelligence.

These are the rules of the war game.

But war is not a game. It is real lives ripped in half; it is lost sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. Perhaps Sept. 11, 2001, will mark the end of the shameful era of the video-game war.

Watching the coverage this week was a stark contrast to the last time I sat glued to a television set watching a real-time war on CNN. The Space Invader battlefield of the Persian Gulf war had almost nothing in common with the destruction of Manhatten. Back then, we saw only sterile bomb's-eye views of concrete targets -- there, and then gone. Who was in those abstract polygons? We never found out.

Since the gulf war, U.S. foreign policy has been based on a single brutal fiction: that the U.S. military can intervene in conflicts around the world -- in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan -- without suffering any U.S. casualties. This is a country that believed in the ultimate oxymoron: a safe war.

The safe-war logic is, of course, based on the technological ability to wage a war exclusively from the air. But it also relies on the deep conviction that no one would dare mess with the U.S. -- the one remaining superpower -- on its own soil.

This conviction allowed Americans to remain blithely unaffected by -- even uninterested in -- international conflicts in which they are key protagonists. Americans don't get daily coverage on CNN of the ongoing bombings in Iraq, nor are they treated to human-interest stories on the devastating effects of economic sanctions on that country's children. After the 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (mistaken for a chemical weapons facility), there weren't too many follow-up reports about what the loss of vaccine manufacturing did to disease prevention in the region.

And when NATO bombed civilian targets in Yugoslavia -- markets, hospitals, refugee convoys, passenger trains, and a TV station -- NBC didn't do"streeter" interviews with survivors about how shocked they were by the indiscriminate destruction.

The United States is expert in the art of sanitizing and dehumanizing acts of war committed elsewhere. No wonder Tuesday's attacks seemed to many Americans to have come less from another country than another planet. The events were reported not so much by journalists as by the new breed of brand-name celebrity anchors who have made countless cameos in Time Warner movies about apocalyptic terrorist attacks on the United States -- now, incongruously reporting the real thing.

The United States is a country that believed itself not just at peace but war-proof, a self-perception that would come as quite a surprise to most Iraqis, Palestinians and Colombians. Like an amnesiac, the U.S. has awakened in the middle of a war, only to find out it has been going on for years.

Did the United States deserve to be attacked? Of course not. But there's a different question that must be asked: Did U.S. foreign policy create the conditions in which such twisted logic could flourish, a war not so much on U.S. imperialism but on perceived U.S. imperviousness?

The era of the video-game war in which the U.S. is at the controls has produced a blinding rage in many parts of the world, a rage at the persistent asymmetry of suffering. This is the context in which twisted revenge-seekers make no other demand than that U.S. citizens share their pain.

A blinking message is up on our collective video-game console: game over.