[Credit: US Army's Flickr Service]
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, Aug. 19, 2003
Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s partly consensual violation aside, the networks haven’t yet figured out how to hook reality television’s blend of exploitation, deception and cheap entertainment to the one plot that begs all three: the war on terror. The Pentagon has. It isn’t quite television, yet. It’s the Web site of the United States Central Command, better known as Centcom to those who like their tongues camouflaged in brass-knuckled acronyms.
Centcom.mil is the point-and-click world America dreams for itself and others - the white man’s burden as game station, Goebbels as webmaster. If empire ever had a daily diary, this would be it. At first glance the site has the look of a standard portal, although with its gutsy emblems, its maps, its mini-WANTED poster of a spoofed-up Saddam, its photo galleries and press releases, it’s not immediately clear whether you’re in the cyber-lobby of a gaming zone, a corporation’s headquarters or a porn site with a green fetish. The intersection of Washington, Hollywood and Babylon couldn’t be otherwise.
Two features set you straight. The first is the occasional intrusion of reality. This is the place where the military’s near-daily death toll is first made public in standard, 75-word news releases. Whether the soldier was killed by an “improvised explosive device” - no American soldier’s death could possibly be dignified by a planned attack using ordnance made in, say, Connecticut - whether he fell from a roof or died in his sleep (a strangely frequent occurrence), the prose in the news release always has the look of a vacant lot in a run-down part of town. It is flat and empty. The death toll in Iraq remains extraordinarily low, at least for Americans. But the experience of reading these releases as they are posted day in and day out is nevertheless heartbreaking precisely because they cannot veil the slow and I think pointless accumulation of grief puncturing the manufactured aura of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Centcom.mil does its best to stage-manage the operation as a vital part of the war on terror, as something directly related to Sept. 11, 2001, or to the future security of the United States. But a plot can only be contrived so far.
The second feature that sets you straight is the total absence of irony. Considering the glut of irony anywhere you turn these days, this absence is a relief. It’s also endearing, even if it’s the flip side of reality. Thus “the largest coalition ever built” is depicted as an American eagle flying east and feathered in the flags of those many nations lending a pack of butter here and a dolphin there, as if the world now really was just an overflight zone for Pax Americana. You’re invited to learn about the contributions to the war on terrorism by these 80 countries. What you learn first is that the many jokes about this “coalition of the willing” are told primarily by Centcom itself.
For example, contributions from Estonia, Latvia, Yemen, the Ukraine, Tajikistan and a few others are all “under construction.” Kuwait, which owes no small debt to the United States for liberating its playboy oligarchy from Saddam in 1991, has all of three Kuwaitis contributing to the war effort. Then again, coalition member Eritrea has only two and Slovenia just one. Kazakhstan has three Kazakhs serving at Central Command since June 7, 2002. Whether they’re hanging out at Centcom’s HQ in Tampa or somewhere less humid isn’t revealed, neither is what they actually do there. But Kazakhstan has granted the United States permission for the “transshipment of supplies” (such as butter) through its territory to U.S. forces in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Those countries are like the droves of contestants on reality shows, exploited for their warm-body factor but denied substantial roles. Their contributions are actually discouraged. You don’t want them upstaging the stars, and in this case, the stripes.
Two of the most interesting features at centcom.mil are Iraqi Destiny and Freedom Watch, the weekly and daily papers put out by the military’s public affairs brigades in Baghdad and Kandahar. They are exact replicas of the booster press that cropped up all over frontier towns in 19 th century America, often ahead of pioneers, always with the best interest of their unbuilt towns at heart. Exploits are played up, setbacks are left to al-Jazeera to report. Sixty people were killed across Afghanistan on Wednesday in the bloodiest day there since the American mandate began, but Freedom Watch devoted its next two front pages to an account of the 82 nd Airborne’s “Operation Devil Fury,” where many soldiers and Apache helicopters went looking for a satellite phone that was being used to say bad things about Americans. (It wasn’t found).
The papers can actually be quite revealing, even poignant. Iraqi Destiny’s back page is a “Man on the Street” feature every week. An issue in mid-July asked local Iraqis “what needs to be done in Mosul that hasn’t been done yet.” The responses: Electricity. Security. Gasoline. It was the last time the page featured locals’ anxieties rather than the safer trivialities of U.S. servicemen. The last issue’s question reverted to irrelevance so awesome, so out of touch with Mosul-like realities, that only Americans smoking too much imperial crack were capable of asking it: “When the Iraqis go to the Olympics, what will be their best event?” Probably not baseball.