On losing count of the dead.
By Jeff Sharlet
Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Jim Hoagland notes that “the American public and media seem to be slowly trying to tune out Iraq’s continuing violence. Accounts of all but spectacular assaults slide deeper into network news broadcasts and the inside pages of newspapers as the summer and the U.S. presidential campaign progress.”
That’s certainly true on the small scale of The Revealer. We used to compile daily — or, at least, weekly — round-ups of religion in the news from Iraq. But it’s been awhile since we broached the subject. And now our featurewell is, indeed, filled with news of and reflections on the presidential campaign.
After all, there are only so many times you can point out that the conflict in Iraq is a holy war. You’d be a bore if you kept noting that many Americans view the fight as one betweenChristianity and Islam. And that while the secular press most often explicitly ignores the role of religion on both sides, the stories it tells implicitly reinforce that notion.
After awhile, every picture of a dead body starts to look alike. The bodies that return, and the bodies that stay where they are; the coffins shrinkwrapped red, white, and blue, the corpses laid out on blankets or heaped in the back of pick-up trucks.
We’ve grown tired of reading and looking at this story; the mainstream press is getting tired of telling it. Tired, and wary of the costs of getting the “good stuff” — true tales of soldiers in action, or even just “man-in-the-street” interviews in Sadr City. This reporter was kidnapped; the guy from Time lost a hand; who, in the end, is really willing to die for a story?
Especially one in which so little happens. A year and more into the occupation, nothing seems to change. Schools get built, city halls get bombed. Troops return home, troops go to war. And the pictures, they keep coming. All these photographs of bodies. So many that nobody bothers to read the captions anymore. All we say is — “Did you see? Those pictures?”
The burnt skin, the crushed heads. Corpses without limbs. Images without explanations.
But we need stories. The press needs to sell them; the public needs to buy them; and, apparently, politicians need to tell them.
The story we have now is of a contest, between two bitter enemies. One side claims God’s backing, the other hints that it may be the standard-bearer of a more inclusive religion. Both say they champion democracy; both claim to speak for the people. Both insist that only one side can win, and that the world hangs in the balance. This, of course, is not Iraq. It’s the campaign.
It’s no accident that the war and the campaign can be described in nearly identical terms. Campaigns, after all, are abstractions of combat, violence by symbolic means. As Jay Rosenpoints out, campaigns are increasingly defined by rituals — conventions, stump speeches, indistinguishable advertising, slogans meant to sound like the other guy’s — that are as devoid of transparent meaning as they are suffused with, well, the stuff of ritual. Myth, manipulation, emotion.
Most rituals require blurred boundaries. They only work if the timelessness of the ritual bleeds into the mundane lives of its enactors. Likewise presidential campaigns. Voting is the climax. Before that, we re-discover “character.” We detect rifts, schisms, gaping cultural divides. Disillusionment and boredom set in, maybe a little self-disgust; finally, excitement and titillation prevail. We can’t wait for the ending. The campaign is a fable, and we imagine — or our media imagines for us — that we’re hearing this one for the first time. That the outcome will be a revelation.
So what’s this story about? The economy? Not really. People may vote their pocketbooks, but they demand more drama in their campaign parables. “Character”? No — both Bush and Kerry are so utterly lacking in distinctiveness that the quality of their consciences is important only as a slate onto which we can project ourselves. Not just Who-We-Are-As-A-Nation, but how we got here, into this fix.
Because there are these bodies, these pictures, and they’re starting to seem kind of meaningless.
There’s no longer much difference between Bush’s and Kerry’s positions on the war. The “most liberal” senator drones on about strength and combat; the “war president” changes the subject to marriage. Bush is running away from the war, trying to downplay its part in the campaign, while Kerry is embracing it, hoping to convince pro-war moderates that he’d make a betterwarrior-in-chief.
But wait — those bodies. People died. They’re still dying. Terrible questions remain. The hardest ones go to the heart of the war, and of the campaign. The questions about Why We Fight, and why they fight. These are, ultimately, questions that cannot be answered conclusively, just as no one can prove that God is on their side.
Which is why every time we talk about stem cells, or gay marriage, or John Edwards’ hair vs. Dick Cheney’s heart, it’s worth remembering that if rituals are sometimes hollow, they are also a means of reframing familiar ideas, of making old stories new again. You don’t have to believe in miracles. Rituals are just metaphors; liturgies can only suggest; processionals simply evoke. The music, or the incense, or the standing-and-sitting — the rituals that bore you or thrill you are nothing but reminders of reality.
For the believer, that reality might be God; for the unbeliever, the world. God, the world — two ways of talking about what we actually, really are, regardless of whether we’re godless or created by God. That is, flesh and bone.
So, to remind ourselves of that reality, and of holy war in this season of campaign culture war, three useful websites: Iraqi Civilian War Casualties, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, and the more partisan Iraq Body Count.
And a liturgy of pictures.