Friday, March 31, 2006

Synthetic Reporting, Observer Becomes the Observed

Here is a sample of Michael Ware’s writing for Time. The link to the rest is not here. (I can't find it today, sorry.) I’m italicizing some words and phrases. Some will run on into each other.

What does it actually mean to win the war in Iraq?

The war grinds on. In Baghdad, a capital desperately seeking a sense of normalcy in the midst of a long and brutal insurgent war, it’s taken close to 40,000 American soldiers and Iraqi security forces to keep al-Qaeda's suicide bombers at bay. For the past five days the Baghdad garrison, reinforced with the added muscle of eight battalions pulled in from across the country, plus one more flown up from a forward force base in Kuwait, had patrolled a city free of car bombs or men with explosives strapped to their chests. But on Thursday, the carnage returned, when three bombers found their targets: a funeral procession, a security checkpoint, and the headquarters of the police major crimes unit. At least 56 people died. While the insurgent enemy's ability to operate had been badly crimped since March 12 by the sprawling urban offensive dubbed Operation Scales of Justice, a candid Major General Rick Lynch — the official U.S. military spokesman in Iraq — admitted,"Today he found gaps."

Still, despite the horror of flames, torn flesh and twisted wreckage staining busy streets, the day was not without marvel. Thursday morning witnessed the realization of one of those rare, wistful hopes every Westerner in the country holds deep within them — that hostages, trussed and secreted away in some anonymous hide, could be surprised by soldiers from home bursting in through the door and telling them it’s going to be okay. In a house somewhere in the city’s west, three devout aid workers from a faith- based outfit known as the Christian Peacemakers Teams — Canadians Harmeet Sooden, 32, and Jim Loney, 41, and Briton Norman Kember, 74 — were freed by British special forces and Canadian law enforcement. The raid, born of intelligence extracted from a freshly captured prisoner only three hours earlier, oddly found the kidnappers absent; alas it couldn’t save Virginian Tom Fox, 54, whose tortured body had been found on a rubbish heap earlier this month.

“…it actually mean.” Notice that modifying word, “actually”. Meant to spread some doubt. Why? Why induce doubt into the reader? And that place holder, the anonymous, ambiguous “it”. That word slides into our awareness everyday as ad packaging, “It’s all about the ‘O’”, “It’s the water”. What does “it” actually mean? . In phrases such as ‘it is raining’, ‘it is cold’, or ‘it is cloudy’, ‘ it’ means the sky, or the air, or the weather. It points. It is an indicator. A placeholder. Here “it” creates a written synthetic space. A space of doubt.

“The war grinds on.” This description sounds nothing like Clausewitz’s politics continued by other mean war but some irrational, malevolent force. Moloch slouching towards Baghdad, mouth agape, chewing on bone. Are there no tactics, no strategies, no objectives?
“desperately seeking a sense of normalcy…” How does a city have feelings? Yes, structurally, “city” is used as a synecdoche. But beyond that, we do not know who in the city of Baghdad has these feelings of desperation. Or what normalcy might be. Is every resident of Baghdad desperate? It seems like they are. At least it seems that way to me, if I choose the believe Mr. Ware. (There is ‘it’ again, heh.)

“long and brutal insurgent war…” Is there no heroism? No self sacrifice? No pathos? No humor? No boredom? “ Abandon all hope, ye who read my dispatches …?”

“suicide bombers at bay.” This sounds like a long vain,struggle to keep a boat from taking on water and capsizing. At bay? Treed like raccoons chased by hounds? Of the 40,000 how many were clerks? Wheel mechanics? Medics? Survivors of Saddam’s brutality? And the best that can be done is keeping them “at bay”? Were there no victories? Were no terrorists killed? Captured? Did none give information leading to more operations? More raids? More “insurgents held at bay”?

“Baghdad garrison “ Garrison? Fort Zinderneuf?

“added muscle” “pulled in from across the country” “forward force base” Just some dumb muscles, eh? Pulled in, not moved tactically or strategically? “Quick, get them from here, here, here, and there, and get them here now!!!” Forward force base, Fort Apache, the Bronx?

“carnage returned” All on its own? Where had it been? Surfing near Basra? Did Mrs. Carnage come back as well, or just Mr. Carnage?

“found their targets” Again, the mindless, malevolent force. Hera cuts off Zeus so he kills a few mortals with carbombs?

“sprawling urban offensive dubbed” Knights are dubbed. Faces are sometimes dubbed, so are lines. I didn’t know offenses were dubbed. And they ‘sprawl’, like the suburbs. Who knew?

“— admitted” Oh! He admitted!!!! What does this actually mean? Does this factually represent everything he said? Were there forty minutes of one questioner, asking one long question, which began with an appraisal of the development of all questions ever asked at such meetings throughout American history, starting with a rehashing of some quibble Lincoln left dangling, ending with the query, “Did he find gaps”? “Yes, he found gaps”. OH, the Horror. Who is he?

“Still, despite the horror of flames, torn flesh and twisted wreckage staining busy streets, the day was not without marvel.” Marvel Comic book? Or just Marvel Comic Books writing? I’ve not read or heard such a visceral litany of misery since my criticism teacher in college read a six-paragraph description of the torments of hell. It made Dante sound like Starbucks with the latte machine down. And where was this marvel? It is torn flesh, it is horror of flames… it is marvel?

“Thursday morning witnessed” “Yes your honor. I saw the realization. It was blue, no, wait! Blue-green”. Passive voices do not witness. They are pacifists. They know nothing.

“one of those rare, wistful hopes every Westerner in the country holds deep within them” If every Westerner hold them, how can they be rare? Is hope always wistful? Can’t it ever be half full? Or half empty? Driveling sentiment. Rare and wistful also sounds like a paint color.

“trussed and secreted away” “ anonymous hide” “somewhere in the city’s west” Last night upon the stair, I saw a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish that he would go away. Again, more Sturm und Drang, smoke and fog. Descriptions without give no information or context. Can any reader see the house, know if the floor was damp or dry? Did the building smell? Were there windows? Did they have glass? Was there any natural light? Were these questions trussed up and secreted away somewhere in the west of Mr. Ware’s skull?

“Canadian law enforcement” Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, his dog King, and, (watching their six), Dudly Do Right? Where did they get the horses? I’ve read it was Canadian Special anti-terrorist forces. Apparently it was the Mounties. And Hanna-Barbera.

“ born of intelligence extracted” “freshly captured” Born of intelligence…raids can be bred? Birthed? Genetically engineered? Did any soldiers join the raid? Maybe it was a can of Raid? And ‘extracted’? Oh, so it was a C-section? ‘Freshly captured’…fresh beer is better; fresh produce, fresh fish, fresh verbiage, shaken not stirred.

“oddly found” What, had they gone out for falafel and sunscreen? Reporting I’ve read said the ‘freshly captured’ prisoner would tell the soldiers where to find the house if he could call his pals first. The text message would have read, “Get out! Save your asses! Soldiers coming!!” I’d have preferred a “gotten even” to an oddly found.

“had been found on a rubbish heap” More fortuitous blunders. Captain Rene to Major Strasser in Casablanca: “I was with the Americans when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.” Just hapless soldiers getting lucky I guess.

That’s enough word and text laundering. What is missing from Michael Ware’s reporting? We met no real people in his report. His intense, I’m a detached-observer” point of view is strikingly repulsive. And, I believe, not just amoral, but immoral. Nowhere in all his talking do we discover what he loves, whom he respects, what he regrets. Missing from his words and voice is any humanity, compassion, sadness, rage, exhaustion, doubt, grief, or sympathy. I’m certain if asked he would say, “I’m an objective journalist mate. It’s not my job to feel about things”. But he thrusts this numbed observer into his observations with every line. When we read Shakespeare we see Shakespeare, and yet we don’t see him. We see ourselves-which is to say, we see humanity. Michael Ware sees only malevolent, autonomic destruction and random passive carnage. And it’s just another point of view. We do not sense he is telling us a story, which means of course, a story about human nature, human failings and human strivings. About the terrorists he said, “We haven’t heard their story”. Is everything he sees is just some point of view? Is there no act of perfidy beyond the pale for the ‘objective journalist’? Such is the perspective of someone without morality. That is the world he’s described quite clearly. It is not a picture of the truth.

Painters have the ability to create the illusion of space. I do not mean mere optical illusion, like the pedestrian M.C. Escher. Realistic painters are masters at creating the illusion of space. Grunewald’s foreshortened painting of the dead Christ, seen prone from the feet stretches into a millimeters thin canvas some six feet. Michaelangelo’s frescos on the Sistine Chapel ceiling embrace an entire world with ¼” plaster and tempera paint. Michael Ware has created an illusion of space, a synthetic space of words instead of paint. His model is Hieronymous Bosch, the painting Bosch’s Triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, the third panel, Hell. Some details:

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