Dehumanizing the enemy is the first unwritten rule of war. The impulse is psychologically excusable, because it is easier to kill a subhuman thing than it is to kill a mirror image of yourself (a father, a lover, a son). Thus America's rich gallery of slur-infected enemies over the years: krauts, wops, greasers, slants, yellow bastards, yellow monkeys, reds, pinkos, gooks, ragheads, sand-niggers, and, every mom and pop's current favorite, terrorists. Except in their fixation on race and color, Americans aren't unique at this. They're Islamdom's Great Satan of choice, remember, and the lusty stocks of porn and bared bellies on American streets (not to mention Geraldo and Bill O'Reilly on American airwaves) are a godsend for the other side's muezzins of poisoned euphemisms.
To dehumanize assumes that the aim is always to make something seem evil. But it's also possible to dehumanize something by making it seem saintly, by placing it beyond human reproach. Americans in this latest war are managing to be unique in that one respect. They have "positively" dehumanized their own troops, their own campaign, and consequently their own means and ends in Iraq. Soldiers are not grunts or jarheads but heroes on a mission of mercy. They won't sack or loot on their way to victory like soldiers in every war since Homo Sapiens first took up sticks. They're liberators who kiss babies and treat enemy wounded. They're innocents positively amazed that the enemy would shoot at them.
They're also pawns in the most dishonest reality show since the Vietnam War's nightly crawl of waste on the evening news. We are told daily of the Ba'ath Party's total control of Iraqi society from Baghdad down to every village street corner. But the American war effort is a study in total control, too, of a war positively dehumanized at every level: Politicians, military leaders and their media lackeys, in bed with the military rather than embedded within it, are daily producing a scripted war of advances and virtue more divorced from reality than Max's dream in "Where the Wild Things Are."
News stories from the front for the most part are clips for the military's "Army of One" ads, produced in a void of analytical perspective and to the drone of self-important reminders of inflated secrecy: "I can't tell you where we are..." "I can't tell you where we're going" "I can't tell you what they're doing" Of course not. You've not only been embedded. You've been captured. A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words. In this war, a picture is worth a thousand veils. At home, the networks' anchored news streams have been closest in kind to porno movies: A little meaningless chatter sets things up, and then money shots of bomb blasts over Baghdad or the Pentagon's latest dirty videos of things being blown up. The human and emotional cost is an afterthought. There is purpose behind the veil. When war is so positively dehumanized, the possibility of defeat is eliminated. Setbacks become narrative devices, stepping tombstones for America's moral superiority. It is war as magical realism. But it isn't real.
Contrary to Donald Rumsfeld's G-rated previews, the invasion of Iraq hasn't been a different kind of war, or a more "humane" war, as he put it last week after the "shock and awe" show. The bombs are fancier but the blasts are their same dumb and dumber selves. Civilians are dying by U.S. and Iraqi hands. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have yet to make their American debut. But B-52s unloading 2,000- and 5,000-pound bombs by the Dresden-dozen aren't quite weapons of mannerly destruction, either. And the fiercest duels since day one have pitted Americans against Iraqis in daily briefings of lethal Pinocchios. Between President Bush, Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers on one side and Tarik Aziz, Taha Yassin Ramadan and Saddam's ghost on the other, it's difficult to tell whose noses stretch to Sodom and whose to Gomorrah.
Americans are incensed at Al-Jazeera's broadcasting of piles of bloodied civilians and American POWs. But it's not sensitivity. It's self-righteous cowardice. It's also quite simple: If viewers are not disgusted by the images they see, if they're not sick to their stomachs and wracked with insomnia, if their faith in humanity isn't shaken to the core from watching the war news, then they're not seeing the war. They're watching a version as dehumanized as those blurry green shapes scurrying across a night-vision device before being evaporated. They're watching high-tech propaganda. In that sense, the coverage of Al-Jazeera has been more honest than most of American media's Goebbels-gobbled reporting. Al-Jazeera's coverage disturbs. It angers. It keeps you up nights. As it should. War isn't "The Tonight Show" with bombs. Nor is an Iraqi victim any less sacred, any less deplorable, than an American.
It isn't obscene to report war's inhumanity no matter how repellent. It is obscene to romanticize soldiers, to sanctify the war and sanitize its consequences in order to make it more acceptable. And that's one obscenity Americans are happy to live with, to peddle in schools, to hang on the rustle of yellow ribbons, to preach in church or at the next civic club meeting, and to doze off to at night when CNN's latest from the battlefield is as good as warm milk for a good night's sleep.