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How Not to Tell a True War Story

‘HOW TO Tell a True War Story'' is the title of one of Tim O'Brien's master works of fiction. Telling war stories that are true has been one of the great challenges to the human imagination, from Homer to Hemingway. False war stories not only dehumanize victims and perpetrators alike, but, with glib valorization, can grease the rails of future wars. Last week, a new way to tell a false war story surfaced, and commanders themselves were the ones to decry it. The ubiquitous use of PowerPoint slides in military briefings about Afghanistan and Iraq has been tagged as a problem. Breaking down battle reports into bullets and bites, as Brigadier General H.R. McMaster told The New York Times, "can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.''

It's worse than that. Anyone who has ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation has seen how the speaker surrenders initiative to the machine, and how the prepared breakdown of information inhibits actual thinking. Because the speaker is not thinking, neither is the audience. The mere short-hand display of ideas requires no engagement, so the speaker drones and the audience sleeps. But it's worse than that, too. The degradation of rhetoric throughout contemporary culture, epitomized by PowerPoint, means that essential capacities for thought and communication are being lost. The sound-bite reduces experience to episodes shorn of context, when understanding what matters requires a honed feel precisely for the connection between episodes.

Here is an example from E.M. Forster, whose concern was with the shape of a story: the queen died, and then the king died. That set of events, related chronologically, tells us only so much. It could be rendered as bullet points. But if, instead, the report is: the queen died, and then the king died of grief, we have moved into an entirely different realm of understanding, where attention has shifted from discrete events to the connection between them. Causality is what matters. The moral imagination is defined by awareness of how choice leads to consequence, which leads to a new and graver choice, which in turn leads to a larger and more fateful consequence. The culture of sound bites and bullets knows nothing of such spacious narrative form. This is not an aesthetic problem, but an ethical one. Only the capacity to attend to the causal connection between events separates brutes from persons. When it comes to war, the loss of that capacity is dangerous.

The US military's problem did not begin with screen technologies, laptops, and clickers. It began with the bureaucratic leveling of decision making that occurred during World War II, symbolized and abetted by the vast anonymity of the Pentagon. The war stories told there since 1945 have consistently been false. Why? Because in the cipher-creating Pentagon, individual moral agency has counted for less than blind institutional momentum. Battle order was replaced as the defining martial social structure by the organizational chart, the warrior ethos by the functionary's. Endlessly circulated interoffice envelopes replaced the officer's personally drafted action report, much as those envelopes, with their figure-eight fasteners, would eventually be replaced by e-mail. The face-to-face interaction of humans, debating urgent questions and criticizing the in-flow of intelligence, was replaced by the bite-size thought structure of electronic communications that inevitably delete complexity.

The downplaying of individual initiative in favor of group-think led to a diffusion of moral responsibility and the emergence of an impersonal dynamic over which no human authority could be effectively exercised. How else to account for the insane accumulation of nuclear weapons, or the consistently uncriticized ease with which this faceless military establishment took the nation into its sequence of unnecessary wars (Korea, Vietnam, Central America, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq I and II, Afghanistan)?

The PowerPoint imagination, with the speaker causing death-by-droning, is perfectly suited to the new technology of the drone as an actual weapon. The inflicting of hurt by an impersonal assassination machine, remotely managed with no risk to the hurt-inflictor, who is blind to the connection between "prompt global strike'' and its village-level consequences throughout the far distant war zone - such is the climax of the false war story of which we Americans are master tellers.

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James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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