Recovering from Empathy

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

What I thought of, straight off, as I watched that 17-minute WikiLeaks video of Iraqis — including a Reuters photographer and his driver — being strafed on a Baghdad street in 2007 by a U.S. helicopter, was a book of postcards published a decade ago.

The book, compiled by James Allen, is called Without Sanctuary. My guess is that you don’t have it sitting on your coffee table. The postcards and various other stained, frayed photographs — about a hundred of them — depict mostly black men, a few women, a few white men, in the process or aftermath of being lynched in the United States, in the first half of the 20th century. The dangling or burned corpses are surrounded, in most of the pictures, by grim or smirking or benevolently smiling onlookers, some of them children. It’s the most surreal and troubling historical document I’ve ever seen in my life.

It’s a stark testimony to the devaluation of human life, and this is its thread of commonality with the video, which — justify it if you will in the name of war, rail as Defense Secretary Gates did that it’s “out of context” — records helicopter crewmen chuckling in exaltation as they kill a dozen people (“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”), including the driver of a van who was trying to rescue one of the wounded.

When ground troops discover two wounded children in the van, which had been taken out with armor-piercing shells (“Look at that, right through the windshield”), one of the helicopter crewmen comments: “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”

This is where the frame freezes for me, and I remain stuck, churning in my own outrage and despair just as I have — and so many millions of Americans have — since the war on terror was launched amid all its lies and cowardly righteousness in 2001. For God’s sake, we’re killing people. We’re doing so in large numbers, with high-tech savagery. We aren’t even defending ourselves. We’ve invented an enemy out of whole cloth.

We’re . . . killing . . . people.

But it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. Those who defend this war, or war in general — or the infinitesimal slice of war depicted in the WikiLeaks video — have an endless supply of rationalizations that only make sense within a heavily fortified consciousness: a consciousness unable or afraid to cross the line demarking us and them, to ask, fleetingly, “What if those ‘dead bastards’ were my parents, my brothers, my children?”

Ask that and things start to change. It’s called empathy. Embrace it and you can no longer tolerate war — not this kind of war, modern, impersonal, fought from above — as a way to advance the interests of business and empire, or to make a geopolitical statement. If too many people cross that line, it’s a big problem for the war economy. This is “Vietnam syndrome” redux. The original took a generation to expunge. The powers that be, who took a big hit with the Abu Ghraib torture photos, certainly don’t want a leaked, decrypted video to undo all that meticulous planning.

The media that supported the war on terror at the outset continue, helpfully, to cover all matters related to it with their empathy meters set at zero. In so doing, they, and the dispassionate experts whose quotes they solicit, are able to coax many guilt-stricken and confused patriots back to psychological safety.

The New York Times, ever the leader in this effort, recently hauled out some psychologists to “explain” the video: “You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” said Army psychologist Bret A. Moore.

And thus those viewers of the video who were shocked to discover just how real and unpretty war is can relax and recover from their empathy attack. War is a game, see? These guys were doing their jobs. All the way up the chain of command, they’re just doing their jobs. And mainstream journalists will continue to describe those jobs unquestioningly within the parameters of the game.

Thus Yochi J. Dreazen, writing in the Wall Street Journal, explains that “Defense Secretary Robert Gates said civilian casualties in Afghanistan were posing a strategic challenge to U.S. battlefield success there. . . .”

Dead Afghan civilians are “a problem.” They make other Afghans angry and then they join the enemy. One of the “problems” Dreazen’s story referenced was the American Special Forces operation last February in Gardez, in which five civilians, including two pregnant women, were killed during a raid on what turned out to be a baby shower. The Americans, apparently realizing they’d screwed up, tried to give themselves deniability in the killings by digging their bullets out of some of the corpses, witnesses said. At least it wasn’t caught on video.

While the war on terror, or whatever it’s called in the Obama era, will grind someday to a shameful halt, I despair that there’s no stopping the next one. The occasional graphic video is no match for a media establishment with empathy meters set at zero.