when the dust clears

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Guest Blogger Erin Hollaway: There Are No Wars of Perception

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I turn over this space today to my girlfriend Erin. We have been absorbing the troubling news from Afghanistan through our laptops here in Bangladesh. Here is her response. —BP

We will have to continue to battle the mechanisms of the dominant culture, if for no other reason than to preserve through small, even tiny acts, our common humanity. We will have to resist the temptation to fold in on ourselves and to ignore the cruelty outside our door. Hope endures in these often imperceptible acts of defiance. —Chris Hedges, “Zero Point of Systemic Collapse”

I’m not in the habit of airing my views publicly—not in writing, certainly. Indeed, the written word and I have a long, troubled history. Our relations remain strained. But as my long-standing disenchantment with my country hardens into a knot of pure rage, I feel the need to register my objection somehow, somewhere, even if no one reads it. Readership, for now at least, is not the point. The point is simply to say no to the wars being waged in “my” name—the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the “war on terror,” that ludicrous but deadly legacy of Bush & Co.—no to the arrogance, mendacity, and hypocrisy of our leaders, Obama included. The point is also to acknowledge the ever-widening chasm between what America is and what it claims to be—or worse, what many Americans believe it to be: a force for good in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation; many brilliant writers have picked apart this persistent naïveté, not to say ignorance (though it is that), with greater eloquence than I could ever hope for. This is merely my first tiny act of defiance.

So why now? It’s not as if this is anything new. The invasion of Iraq, for instance, is fast approaching its seventh anniversary. I marched against it in Amsterdam, caught up in a wave of popular resistance to what has proven to be a greed-driven disaster initiated under false pretenses (a fact that the rest of the world, and even many Americans, understood at the time). But that march was the extent of my resistance. Internally I rejected the war in all its guises, but I was paralyzed by my usual demons—timidity, self-doubt—and also, I suspect, by complacency. Complacency born of perceived powerlessness, and also of distance. While my country brutalized another, my life remained wholly untouched.

The same is true now. After languishing in Iraq’s shadow for most of the past decade, Afghanistan is back on the front page of the New York Times (though it has not dislodged the Olympics from center stage, meriting at best a small photo or two, not a splashy slide show). To what does it owe the honor of such distinguished attention? Last week, U.S. and NATO forces launched their Marjah offensive, in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, the first major assault since “escalation” was determined to be the proper course of action by the powers that be. (Why Obama believes he will “succeed” where all others have failed is beyond me. Why he believes we have the right to try is not so much beyond me as against me. I oppose that arrogance with all my being.) Ten days into the campaign, at least 46 Afghan civilians have been killed—46 people who would still be alive were it not for us.

Until the moment I read this February 15 NYT headline—“Errant U.S. Rocket Strike Kills Civilians in Afghanistan”—the naïvest part of me, larger and more resilient than I’d like, still resided in some murky maybe-this-time-will-be-different fantasy land. Maybe, whispered this corner of my subconscious, no innocent bystanders will be harmed in the making of our war. The article instantly swept away that last bit of magical thinking, and anger rushed in to fill the void. But more than the headline, it was Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s passive expression of “sympathy” that truly enraged me. So hollowed out by overuse (and misuse) as to be utterly devoid of meaning, “We deeply regret this tragic loss of life” nonetheless captures the essence of the American approach to war, effectively severing our actions from their consequences. “Loss of life” conveniently erases the actor in this and other scenarios. These people didn’t lose their lives—we took them. Unintentionally perhaps, but needlessly, pointlessly.

Then again, if we are to listen to McChrystal, “This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants” (emphasis mine). That may be the case for Washington strategists, military and otherwise, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth for those at the other end of the missile—certainly not for the people we’ve already killed, for their friends and families. For them, this is a mercilessly physical war, as all wars inevitably are.

Most Afghans don’t have the luxury of distance or escape. In a way, this fits in with something else that has recently elbowed its way to the front of my mind. About a month ago, Brian and I staggered off the bus in the middle of Dhaka, Bangladesh, after a 14-hour trip from Kolkata (Calcutta). The city, pulsing with people and furiously honking horns, threatened to swallow me up right then. I’ve since learned to navigate the crowded sidewalks, and I hesitate a little less before wading into the densest traffic. Dhaka’s rhythm, its near-perpetual motion, while still not exactly “normal” to me, have become familiar, expected. Even so, there are times when all of it—the stares, the horns, the dirt and dust—is just too much, and I retreat into my hosts’ beautiful, blissfully quiet home or the thoroughly Westernized café, where my relief is palpable and instantaneous.

It’s this privileged mobility that preoccupies me here. Not only can I seal myself off in plush surroundings to escape what feels oppressive, an overload of activity and attention, I can leave altogether. I can move, with some constraints, through a country that is not my own, where the vast majority has no such option. I can be here in the first place. By contrast, the people of Marjah—those who haven’t fled—are pinned, left with no choice but to wait out, if they’re lucky, our assault on their town.

At least some attempts to escape the violence have been thwarted, it appears. Citing a statement by the Italian NGO Emergency, Democracy Now! reported Wednesday that American-led NATO forces had stood in the way of wounded Afghan civilians seeking medical aid at the Emergency Lashkar Gah hospital in the regional capital. Host Amy Goodman spoke with Matteo dell’Aira, the hospital’s medical coordinator who has worked in Afghanistan for the past ten years. He described the situation on the ground: “There are a lot of checkpoints, and the coalition forces, it seems that they block the civilians and every kind of movement on the roads. Plus the area has been heav[ily] mined by the opposition, probably. So the civilians—actually, they are in Marjah, inside Marjah, and they cannot reach any medical facilities, which is our hospital, basically.”

I wonder how McChrystal would explain to these people, injured and almost certainly terrified, that this war exists only in their minds. How much longer can he, we, sustain the illusion that this so-called war of perceptions is any less catastrophic for the people forced to endure it? As dell’Aira told Goodman, “Despite the fact that some big brain thinks that a war can be a good way to solve problems, this unfortunately is not the reality, because every war is taking a lot of suffer[ing], a lot of dead people, and the civilians and the population, the majority of the population, is suffering a lot.” Suffering so that America can prove something to itself and to the world: We’re still the biggest and the best.

Throughout the Bush years, I held my nose and looked the other way, willing that era to end. And when Obama was elected, I joined the millions of Americans who believed—all too credulously, it turns out—that real change just might be possible after all. The burden of our expectations would have been too heavy for anyone to bear, I guess, and Obama has sagged under the weight. Perhaps that explains his decision to lead us still deeper into Afghanistan, making a mockery of his Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Whatever his reasoning, or that of his minions, I reject it. This time I will try to do as Chris Hedges urges: “resist the temptation to fold in on [myself] and to ignore the cruelty outside [my] door.”


Written by bxpnyc

2010/02/22 at 14:42

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] more resilient than I’d like, still resided in some murky … Read the original here: Guest Blogger Erin Hollaway: There Are No Wars of Perception … Share and […]

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