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War: It's What's For Dinner
By Scott Nicholson

War is bad. Except when it’s easily digestible.


In the early days, we used sharp sticks to make our point and big clubs to pound it home. War was up close and personal.

Now, we use smart bombs that are so smart we are scarcely disturbed by military action except when a presidential press conference interrupts “Joe Millionaire.” But we also use the time-honored tricks of self-deception. The average American is aware that Iraq is a threat because Saddam Hussein, though a recluse by ordinary standards, affords far more photo opportunities than does Osama bin Laden.

We are a nation in a state of misdirected rage. The 2001 terrorist attacks served the double duty of revealing both our vulnerability and our total disregard for the fact that some people around the globe hate us and our way of life. The seamless segue that shifted the cross hairs of our rage from the elusive Osama to the stubborn but less mobile Saddam was a marvel of modern media manipulation. But the manipulation doesn’t emanate from a powerful outside influence; it comes in the form of audience demand.

Those who believe in conspiracy theories can say President Bush pulled off the sleight of hand as a political move geared toward the 2002 elections. That’s giving Bush far too much credit. The major culprit is sitting right in front of your eyes, across the living room, or a mere twist of the dial away. The media, the so-called liberal elite, is slavering over this war in a fashion that would shame Pavlov’s dogs.

We live by the old newspaper dictum, “If it bleeds, it leads,” giving primary coverage to murder, personal tragedy, and depravity. War neatly fills all those needs, even when we couch it in the guise of civilized international discourse. It’s the ultimate in reality TV and satisfies all of our ancestral instincts to eradicate those who aren’t members of our immediate tribe. However, the media is only a mirror, because it reflects our needs. It feeds a diffuse and abiding hunger, but the consumption only leaves us emptier.

We need a focus for our anxiety, and all the duct tape and polyvinyleruthane in the world won’t patch those places inside ourselves where we hide our doubts.

We climb into our SUVs and say “This war is not about oil.”

We leer at the photos in the grocery store checkout counter of Saddam dressed in drag and say to ourselves, “We are an open-minded and tolerant people.”

We watch Fox News and nod our heads and say, “This is fair and balanced reporting, and I believe everything our leaders and experts say.”

We stop buying French fries and sauerkraut and say, “You are either with us or against us.”

Yet we act surprised when we learn that other nations around the world consider us arrogant, ignorant, and anything but tolerant. We have the military capability to convert Iraq into a sheet of glass and be rid of the “Saddam problem” once and for all. But we would then be surprised when some Muslim factions increased their suicide attacks, became as cunning and fierce as any cornered animal, and ignited a series of perpetual conflicts that likely would continue until the Middle East had less oil than Africa, where our foreign policy stops at the borders of where white people live.

Most of our shock would be in realizing that maybe the Iraqis didn’t want to be “set free” of their way of life. Maybe Muslims are happy with their religion, proud of their culture and want to make their lives more secure for themselves and their families. We have no way to imagine what it’s like to have a foreign power building up military forces around our front yards, schools, and houses of worship. We can’t imagine being told we can’t fly over a portion of our own airspace.

As deeply as we fear a terrorist blowing up the shopping mall while we’re buying the latest cell phone accessory, we can’t digest the thought of a nation poised to eradicate our way of life “for our own good.” We can’t comprehend the threat of extinction.

Quite simply, we don’t have the patience to stay the course. Ending terrorism doesn’t involve merely the time-consuming task of tracking down secret government ties, arms-for-drugs deals, and isolated fanatics. It also requires an appetite for seeking to understand why others might hate us, because in our eyes we have done no wrong. It involves communication, information, and education. In short, it requires effort from all of us.

Which is why it’s easier to let slip the puppies of war and drop the bombs and get it over with, then televise solemn ceremonies for our fallen soldiers with no apologies to anyone for the loss. We prefer the illusion of a problem solved to the deeper satisfaction and long-term sustenance of mutual understanding. Give us the brief escapism of whatever combat footage our government will allow us to see, sandwich it between commercials that reaffirm our value system, and let us sleep again at night.

The dream tastes sweeter than the nightmare. The nightmare is all the other things we don’t want to think about: the very real and much more imminent threat from North Korea, the collapsing economy, the challenges and dangers of new technologies, our looming environmental crises, our status as an international role model for democracy when we can’t even manufacture a decent voting ballot.

But those problems are more ephemeral and less photogenic than a quick war, and the solutions won’t be broadcast via live satellite feeds or sent over the AP wire. Solutions require looking behind the scenes, seeing different sides, examining ourselves, peering into our national soul. It requires honesty.

On second thought, maybe we don’t have the stomach for that.

(Copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson)

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