It was just about this time 29 years ago; I was driving my '66 Barracuda to morning class at the "commuter" college on the north side of St. Louis when I heard on the radio that during the thunderstorms the night before, an Ozark Airlines twin turboprop had come down short of the runway, breaking up on the very campus I was driving to. Sure enough, as I turned into the college entrance, there was the crash scene scattered against the slight hillside that carried the entrance road. Like everyone else, I stopped and got out of the car.
So many people say at times like this that "it was like something out of a movie," and I stood there waiting for something of that experience, but it wouldn't come. A movie or TV image is a picture frame put around a specifically composed image, its meaning implicit in the composition, with dialogue or narrative added to complete the meaning to be conveyed. But there was no picture frame here, no narrative, no story; there were hardly even any recognizable pieces of airplane to be seen—it looked like the contents of a landfill had been dumped on the hillside, with a heavy concentration of foam-plastic seat cushions. It was just a bunch of junk.
After class, a classmate asked if I wanted to get a cup of coffee at the student union. He wanted to talk. He was a Vietnam vet, and the morning's scene had reminded him of something from the war, how after a battle the generals and other high-ranking officers would chopper in to have their pictures taken on the battlefield with the bodies of the enemy dead. The crowds gathered that morning had reminded him of that practice, in a way he found mordantly amusing. He didn't seem to have much respect for the generals.
I think it was maybe that fall that I was a volunteer safety worker at the area amateur sports-car races, and a Formula Ford crashed directly in front of me. I was alone at this remote yet fast corner of the track, and on the cool-down lap after a qualifying session, this driver's concentration had lapsed, and he drove straight into the armco barrier. His car's tube framing collapsed around his legs, trapping him, while the impact itself had caused multiple compound fractures in his legs. I ran across the track, only to find there was nothing I could do and then signaled for help. Then he began to scream. I stood there, helpless, and he screamed and screamed. He screamed the whole time they cut him out of the car. It was nothing like a movie.
Supposedly, the only honest war story is the one that goes like this: we went up this hill, and not all of us came back. Meaning, there is no narrative to be found in actual war stories, no meaning to be discerned in violent death. It's really the same thing as landfill scattered on a hillside, junk that fell from the sky.
But our TV has been giving us lots of images from the war on Iraq, overlaid with a distinctive narrative, purporting to tell us the meaning of that event. American TV hasn't shown much in the way of actual violent death, which is one thing; the other of course is the strident vainglory, mistakenly called patriotism, that has cast this most doubtful of wars as the moral equivalent of our wars for independence, against slavery and the smashing of fascism, all rolled into one.
What this orgy of "patriotism" actually speaks to, I think, can be found in a favorite painting of mine (speaking of picture frames), "Christ's Entry Into Brussels." In this painting, Christ is being welcomed into modern-day (19th century) Brussels by all the city's fathers and prominent businessmen and social elites, and it's just such a tremendous event, and everyone's just so very, very proud to be part of this extremely important occasion that . . . well, actually, the figure of Christ himself has become this tiny little speck, his importance forgotten.
Notice how the various rationales offered by the Bush administration for this war—weapons of mass destruction, colluding with al-Qaida, bringing democracy to oppressed peoples—were each proffered and then forgotten because each was as important as Christ in his Brussels' parade, merely the pretext for what is now seemingly taken as the ultimate victory in the culture wars—the supremacy of unrestrained worldly power, of the denigration of thoughtfulness and the intellect, of "leadership."
The brute truth of the Bush administration, if there had previously been any doubt, was revealed in Donald Rumsfeld's remarks on the looting of the Iraqi Museum of Antiquities. Western Civilization? He could give a flying fuck. Just a bunch of vases.
(But perhaps witlessness has its limits. A BBC story I heard during the war had a British officer commenting on the differing styles of his army and the American's. "There's a saying—Americans man the equipment; we equip the man." And if our tech-heavy approach to everything also results in a certain brain-deadedness, a future classic example will be how we allowed the looting and destruction of everything except what was related to oil, causing many groups to step into the power vacuum, most notably the Shiite clerics who most likely won't give this power up in the name of "democracy.")
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A couple of years before her passing, my dear ladyfriend took over an abandoned community garden with the vision of turning it into a rose garden everyone could enjoy. After the news broke on Sept. 11, we spent some hours there working, grateful for the respite from the madness. It has become my favorite place to spend time. A few months before she left, her 80-year-old father came out for a last visit. He felt the need for confession to me, for some reason. I knew my friend had suffered some awful child abuse, but I had thought it was mainly from her mentally imbalanced mother, but I guess that wasn't the entire story. He had been in the Marines fighting in the South Pacific, he said, and the experience had filled him with a brutality that he had turned on his family in civilian life. He was so very sorry, he said. He died of a heart attack within a week of his daughter's passing.
These things do happen. My grandfather buried the dead in World War I, which no doubt had something to do with the emotional distance he maintained from his family. He lost his second son in a B-26 a month before VE day, which tipped my grandmother into something close to madness, with repercussions for the family for decades. Another old galfriend had a father who was a tanker in Patton's army, and within a couple of years of his return, he put his head in an oven.
These are the real war stories, if you ask me. Already, some newspaper stories tell of young American soldiers who don't know how to account for the savagery they've caused. Not that the Bush administration or Fox News cares, of course. The truth isn't what they're selling.