Looks like the revolution’s going to be televised, after all. The fine folks at CNN are doing a marvelous job of keeping things lively so far, replaying Friday’s artful explosions whenever the sky over Iraq gets too quiet for too many consecutive minutes. They’ve even brought back the “America Under Attack” feature music from the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001 – presumably to recapture the spirit of the day – only now they play it in conjunction with the “War in Iraq” graphics. Sneaky. Well done.
I won’t pretend to be better than any of this; I sat, riveted to the screen, with everyone else and beheld as the first buildings went up in smoke, as imbedded news correspondents adjusted their gas masks and world leaders confidently pledged God’s allegiance to their respective nations. Maybe I’m not as compassionate as I’d like to be, but my first thoughts as I watched those buildings go down were not of the people who might have been inside, the janitors and maintenance crews who almost certainly left behind best friends, spouses, favorite songs and lucky underwear. Instead, I found myself oddly obsessed with the buildings themselves, with the act of destroying buildings and what it signifies.
There are plenty of pragmatic reasons to wipe out “enemy” buildings. It is, for instance, much more difficult to hide in the middle of the desert without a roof under which to do so (and preferably a number of surrounding roofs for camouflage). Buildings are useful storage facilities for important documents and weapons and so forth; demolishing them hits “enemy” higher-ups where it hurts – in the physical and administrative structures that keep things running smoothly. I don’t dispute that. But there are other forces at work here too, juvenile assault tactics dangerously coupled with the power to control people.
Buildings, like soldiers, are pawns on the international chessboard of war. When Iraqi troops capture, torture, maim and kill their American counterparts and then send videotaped proof to the media, they’re not doing it because they think the people they’ve captured specifically pose that great a threat; they’re doing it to make the other guy (i.e. President Bush) angry. These actions, heinous as they may be, are purely symbolic. Similarly, U.S. fighter pilots don’t drop bombs on Saddam’s elaborate palaces because they think someone would otherwise convert the grounds into classy terrorist training camps; they do it because of the psychological toll it will take on Saddam et al. The shock and awe associated with the near-instantaneous destruction of mighty man-made structures notwithstanding, no one likes to have his toys taken away.
But the most common targets are not palaces; they’re high-rises and boxy buildings in Baghdad, structures in which average citizens once had offices and coffee mugs. Watching one or nine of these get blown to smithereens by meddlesome U.S. missiles will surely annoy the dictator, but not nearly as much as it will annoy the people who built those buildings and will likely have to build them again after the war. Tales of personal toil and rightfully peeved construction workers aside, a solid and functional building is an architectural wonder, a testament to human ingenuity, an all-too-rare demonstration of what people can accomplish when they work together. So in a sense, bombing a building is a symbolically perfect act of war; it shows the “enemy” that no amount of teamwork will get him out of this one, and it shows the world what happens when the dark side of human nature prevails.
It may seem self-indulgent to wax metaphorical on a subject so literal as war, to dare propose analogies while boys who can’t legally buy beer in the United States are dying so far from home. Maybe thinking about war in terms of lost skyscrapers rather than lost personality quirks and devastated families and friends betrays in me a CNN-like desire to romanticize tragedy and hold a captive audience. But it’s so important – in the face of a reality so gruesome as war – to ground the gut revulsion nearly everyone feels at the sight of bloody soldiers and starving children on something more logical. War is every bit as horrific as these images suggest, but so are the abstractions that lead nations to it. When violence becomes an allegory, all bets are off.
Henretty can be reached at email@example.com.