Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fight Night in the Situation Room (They Also Serve Who Only Sit And Watch)

How curious that the most arresting image -- and the one most likely to endure -- from The Night We Finally Got Bin Laden has nothing do with the late terrorist mastermind (whose death shots have been embargoed, I suspect, not simply because they might spark outrage but because our government's psy-ops experts would just as soon he be remembered as a flaccid grey shut-in who used 'natural Viagra" and primped before shooting propaganda tapes by dying his beard a specious Wayne Newton black) or the robo-stud soldiers who sent him straight to Hell (their hyper-virile DC comics fearsomeness somehow enhanced by their anonymity) but captured instead a knot of tense officials huddled around an unseen video monitor, watching a mission they'd funded and approved but were powerless, for the moment, to control. In direct violation of the laws of showbiz as codified by Aristotle and perfected by Samuel Goldwyn, the Osama drama's climax was a played as a reaction shot, that is. It was all spectators, no spectacle. The chorus took center stage and the antagonists weren't onstage at all but present only by implication, as the objects of the others' gazes. 
Even if footage of the raid emerges, my hunch is that the poster for the production will still favor the static, passive supervisors over the kinetic, engaged participants, partly because the tableaux of their faces tells a range of complicated stories while an action shot would tell just one, and a comparatively crude one. Examine the picture closely. Start with Obama, the leading man, who looks less like a stalwart head of state than a grumpy hostage of circumstances. He seems to resent the fact that this high-stakes dice roll forced on him by the collective, by history, might well break him as an individual, reversing the lucky streak that got him here.  Less distressed but appearing slightly bored is the vice president, whose face wears a second banana's dull disengaged look, since the best he can claim if things go well tonight is an assist, and if things go poorly, whatever, he won't lose sleep but he might feel less like waking. As for the general with the laptop, he's a model of disciplined on-task professionalism lightly salted with ironic fatalism. He understands in a wise old soldier's way that victory is just defeat turned shiny side up and every battle short of Armageddon is important to the combatants but is finally only a skirmish. Then there's Hillary, the stunned control freak with her right hand clapped over her mouth. She'll later pretend that the gesture was a nothing, an innocent attempt at cough suppression, but what most observers see and can't not see is a workaholic bureaucrat suddenly confronting the blunt force impact of foreign policy on the fragile human skull.

One of the group portrait's small surprises is that give-em-hell Hillary,  who stood firmly by her man as he smart bombed some sense into the Serbians and shelled the encircled Branch Davidians until they died in a mass rush up an imaginary stairway to heaven, comes off as as a humanistic softy compared to the younger woman to her rear who's one of those precocious government studies nerds Obama is always importing from the Ivy League. I don't know her name and refuse to waste time finding it because she's the kind of ambitious, knife-willed woman that I confess I find threatening on occasion and sometimes feel that others should as well. Look at her there, peeking in between the others with her hard, bright, algebraic eyes that plug into her Baby Mozart brain.  It interests her, the drama on the monitor, but not directly, the way it does the others. It interests her sociologically, as the key to the rank-based seating arrangement which correlates proximity with power and didn't assign her a formal spot but didn't banish her, either,  allowing her to loiter at the periphery as long as she pretends that she's not staying, just pausing on her rounds.

But enough of with the magnifying glass. The picture has been scrutinized for days now and soon it's nuances will be all picked over. What's gone unremarked on, though, is the great broad fact of it as an expression of a critical shift in our dramatic vision of war.  Put simply, we've downgraded the action-adventure part -- the shooting, running, ducking stuff performed by a demographically narrow contingent of volunteers with a low cultural profile who figure in our imaginations, increasingly, as depersonalized weapons operators rather than vibrant full-spectrum individuals --  and emphasized the management aspect, recasting it along the lines of power-player, white-collar melodrama whose typical settings are courtrooms, corporate headquarters, and other sites where massive egos clash and titanic strategists plot strategy. Seen this way, war is a matter of high-caste intrigue, which is why the great war photo of the new era leaves out the soldiers, the weapons, the debris, the carnage, and the whole battlefield. That's background now, all that mayhem and that mess. The front has shifted. The front is now the rear.

Right now, today, again, before a group of watchers who we out in the audience can envision quite clearly now that we've studied a photo of them at work,  the image of a new target or  a new victim is being broadcast onto a large screen from tiny cameras mounted on a drone or in the helmet of a commando. This is war, though it doesn't seem like war. It looks like what we do when we plunk down on the couch at night or when he head out on the weekend to a sports bar. I can't fully articulate my thoughts on this, but I sense that some longstanding human project, perhaps a secret one, a dark one, and possibly one that's uniquely American, has finally been consummated with this development.

Warfare remade to resemble chilling out? 

Anyway, mission accomplished,  I suppose.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


After escaping the battle of Tora Bora in the fall of 2001, Osama Bin Laden was said by his pursuers, who made their huge fuck up sound almost like a plan, to have ‘gone to ground.‘  This week, ten years later, when the villain was killed by a land loving team of Navy Seals acting on orders from our collective consciousness that we’d half forgotten issuing, we finally found out what ‘ground’ meant: not an impenetrable mountain lair but a glum cluster of primer-colored buildings resembling a foreclosed-on Motel Six. Government officials and the press tried to magnify the hideout’s stature (and burnish the legend of those who overran it) by calling the place a ‘compound,’ but its insides were just as grubby as its outsides. The room full of soiled bedclothes where the arch fiend codenamed ‘Geronimo’ mounted his last stand -- or fell without a fight, we can’t be sure -- looked like the crib of a  meth-head petty thief ducking the pepper-spray goons of Dog the Bounty Hunter.

It had to end somewhere, History’s Greatest Manhunt, but the fact that it climaxed in dull suburbistan next to a training base for the hunters’ allies proved less startling than the discovery that the hunt was still going on at all. Like the Tuesday morning shock of 9/11, the Sunday evening shock of Bin Laden’s death caught America flossing, concluding a tragedy that we’d stopped thinking about with a catharsis that we’d stopped hoping for. It was a moment of spooky historical symmetry, especially as it played out on TV. Down a long hallway that symbolized the past strode a grim-faced first-term president whose skin color, which we still notice despite ourselves, made him look like a figure from the future.  Just as we had when Bush spoke way back when, we knew by the time Obama opened his mouth just about everything he had to say, which only heightened our need to hear him say it.

What followed was a patriotic head rush, the first thrilling chill of tribal unity that we’d enjoyed in a decade that felt like three. For an instant, I was ashamed of this euphoria -- after all, a human being had died, and my taxes had paid for the bullets that blew his face off -- but then I relaxed and let myself regress, perversely pleased that geek-era America hadn’t entirely lost the John Wayne ugly streak that separates us from the Belgians. Like the pug-nosed New York City firefighters whose machismo I’d borrowed  ten years earlier, the Navy Seals aroused a part of me that I’d kept hidden but never out of reach, much like the hunting knife stashed under my car seat. It appeared that Obama shared my instincts. As he uttered the pitiless words ‘at my direction’ in reference to the lethal raid, his educated features hardened slightly.

Harvard Law Review, First Blood. 

There are times when one’s solemn duty as an American is to watch cable news for days on end and track a big story from its early stages as a government-sponsored morality play toward its mature form as a media-driven incoherent muddle. In the earliest version of Black Hawk Up: The Payback, a cowardly Osama with a gun ducked behind an unarmed woman when Team Testosterone tagged him with its red laser dots. How our guys shot around her and brought him down was left unexplained to protect our high-tech secrets. Later on, in a transitional version, the woman declined in prominence, leaving a slow-draw Osama to face the music of a so-called  ‘double tap.’ And then, inevitably, he had no gun, though he did make a move consistent with trying to fetch one. Same difference. Our heros shot him in the eye, as the photos of his corpse would prove. If only they weren’t too gruesome to release. At which point, out of nowhere, a dog entered the story.

This swarm of details fuzzed up the big picture, which gradually came to look something like this: the last remaining superpower spends pretty much its last remaining dollar mustering armies, building secret prisons, dispensing billions of dollars in foreign aid, and launching fleets of drones in order to whack a sickly terrorist who spent his days on a dank floor-level mattress making low-grade motivational tapes. Then a courier who we identified after years of reluctant waterboarding smuggled these tapes past a garden of marijuana plants (thank you, Twitter, for this zany grace note) into a Moslem world that barely resembled,  thanks to an unforeseen series of revolutions unrelated to religious zealotry, the one that spawned Al Qaeda in the first place and that we feared it would someday dominate.

We finally got our man last week, that’s a natural fact (although we may never know quite how we got him), but here was the trouble: history got him first,  reducing him to fat-Elvis, late-Howard Hughes mode.
Frustrating side note or devastating irony? 

I think we at least deserve pictures of the dog.