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.


  1. I like this whole thing, but especially, this line: " 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."
    Well said, Walter Norris Kirn the third.

  2. Wayne Newton Black. Oh how you delight me! I missed you.

  3. I know you don't want to know her name, but the precocious government aide is actually Audrey Tomason, White House counterterrorism chief.

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