War As Entertainment

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

OMG, pirates! Headlines around the country squealed with glee as our Navy SEALS — the Easter SEALS — took out the Somalian baddies, freed the newest American hero and helped President Obama with the “dodging of a PR bullet,” as USA Today put it.

Meanwhile, “Pirates around the Indian Ocean vowed revenge,” the New York Daily News chimed in, letting us know that we could have an exciting new war on our hands, as speculation continues that at least one of the old ones will be cancelled (someday). And if you think this sounds kind of like reality TV, well, it is. E! Online reported that “Spike TV has closed a deal with the U.S. Navy to chronicle pirate-hunting special forces in a new reality show, ‘Pirate Hunters: USN.’”

So fasten your seatbelts, America. This is why we maintain an annual defense budget of more than half a trillion dollars — to protect ourselves from “heavily armed but untrained and antsy youths,” as Defense Secretary Robert Gates described them. The War on Pirates: an idea that’s win-win-win. Military recruitment will soar; the dying media will rejuvenate (or at least go into remission) as it reports the play-by-play; and a depressed, fragmented nation will reunite around an enemy it can probably beat.

“It was,” according to the Daily News, “something Hollywood could have scripted: three sharpshooters on the fantail of a destroyer, wearing night vision goggles as dusk settled over the sea, each drew a bead on one of the three teenage pirates standing 100 feet away in a pitching lifeboat aiming weapons at a bound (Capt. Richard) Phillips.”

Excuse me, Hollywood?

The consensus reporting of this small but complicated crisis was transparent on this particular point. Hollywood not only could have but might as well have written this script. The plot is formulaic: a context (war) waiting for a pretext (outrage). The forces of inappropriate, mutually beneficial collusion are always churning, and the pirate story allowed them to consummate an unholy marriage in the nation’s media outlets, which are ever prepared to pander for profit.

Here’s my rule of thumb: Whenever the defense and entertainment industries seem to join hands — whenever the blood of dead Third Worlders is publicly cheered without restraint or the least compunction, and the activity is called patriotism — the only flag we ought to be waving is a red one.

One reason why war is a nonsensical “solution” to almost every problem the world is grappling with is that these problems tend to be interconnected and deeply tangled up at their roots. To bring serious firepower to bear on a random manifestation of this tangled mass of trouble does nothing but make matters worse.

A responsible media would have investigated and reported on some of the causes of Somalian piracy and given us a far more troubling story: the story of a country whose people became vulnerable to the world’s worst predators — us, the civilized First World — after its last legitimate, or quasi-legitimate, government collapsed in 1991.

“Its 9 million people have been teetering on starvation ever since — and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas,” Johann Hari wrote recently on Huffington Post.

Consider that, shortly after the devastating tsunami of December 2004, a United Nations report noted that people along Somalia’s northeastern coast had begun suffering from “far higher than normal cases of respiratory infections, mouth ulcers and bleeding, abdominal hemorrhages and unusual skin infections,” according to a story in the Times of London from March 2005. These were diseases “consistent with radiation sickness.”

Two European companies, it turns out — one in Italy, one in Switzerland — had “contracted” with local Somalian warlords to dump the toxic waste of Europe into Somalia’s waters. The industrial and hospital garbage included radioactive uranium, lead, cadmium and mercury, the Times reported. The companies paid the warlords $8 a ton for dumping privileges; in Europe, proper disposal and treatment of such waste would have cost as much as $1,000 a ton.

When the tsunami hit, the waves ripped open the leaky barrels of toxic waste and the Horn of Africa became an environmental disaster site. Starving, desperate Somalians — who had already seen fishing rights in their waters sold on the international market, depriving them of food and income — now inherited a toxic hell Europe would never have bequeathed on itself. And the world community didn’t give a damn. Some Somalians, having run out of options, turned to piracy to survive, and perhaps extract a little revenge.

But none of this matters, right? The script is already written, the contract is signed and production is about to begin. Let’s go to war, boys! Arrrrr . . .