Last week I was speaking to David Enders,
who has covered the Iraq war on the ground for the past year, and
he said this about the events at Abu Ghraib: “We knew about
the Abu Ghraib torture eight months before it hit major American
media sources. We’d collected widely corroborated testimony
from all parts of the country, we’d seen evidence of torture,
we’d seen evidence of electrocution, we’d seen evidence
of beatings, we heard the stories of people forced to stand naked,
rape each other, all this bullshit. And it didn’t make
headlines until there was actual porn to go with it.”

Steve Cotner

Yes, he said porn. And it made me wonder, for how much news and
entertainment could we say this? The answer is simple: If it is not
wholly critical, if it does not speak to the brutality that happens
every day in that country, and if it does not look Iraqis in the
eye, ask what they are thinking and what they want, then it’s
nothing but war porn.

It can be soft, like a reporter describing bombs arcing across
the sky as the “terrible beauty” of war. Or it can be
hardcore, like the U.S. Army using $8 million in taxes to develop
“America’s Army,” an online shoot-em-up videogame
where killing civilians is perfectly alright. The army was also
behind “Full Spectrum Warrior” for Xbox, which
simulates combat in the fictional “Tazikhstan” (not
Tajikistan), so that players can kill foreigners of no particular
nationality. And let’s not forget those Army ads where teens
morph into video game characters and launch “Let’s
Roll” mortar shells. Ah, the discoveries of youth.

But real porn involves a plot, albeit a totally ludicrous one.
So we wrote a few scripts — WMDs, Democracy by Gunpoint,
They’re Terrorists Too — and then just tore them up.
There were a few photo-ops along the way, like Bush’s
“Mission Accomplished” speech on that ship, which was
positioned for “the best TV angle for Bush’s speech,
with the vast sea as his background instead of the very visible San
Diego coastline,” according to the Associated Press. And
don’t forget Saddam’s statue falling over, which was
attended by a couple hundred Iraqis corralled by the United States
and guarded by tanks, while the entire block around them stood
vacant. More than 10 million people on five continents organized
themselves and marched against this war on Feb. 15, 2003, and all
we could do was find a handful of Iraqis to wave the flags we were
handing out.

War is much more than a script though. It is the destruction of
a place and a people. Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Sallah reported
the atrocities of the Vietnam War, as did John Kerry when he spoke
to the U.S. Senate in 1971, reporting on 150 soldiers who
“told the stories of times that they had personally raped,
cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable
telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off
limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages
in the fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs
for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside
of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the
normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied
bombing power of this country.”

Today we have the normal ravages as well as Abu Ghraib and
incidents like it all over Iraq. We have soldiers electrocuting
Iraqis’ genitals, blindfolding them, beating them naked. We
have troops shooting Iraqi civilians for target practice as they
drive by, like buffalo from the train as the settlers made their
way west. How can a person live with all this violence? On our end
we’re lucky; the news scores the action with patriotic music,
so we know it’s alright. On the soldiers’ end, the
scoring is less about brass and tympani, more about death metal.
Just think of the soldier interviewed in Michael Moore’s
“Fahrenheit 9/11” who listens to The Bloodhound Gang
sing “Burn motherfucker, burn” while destroying people
with his tank. Who can blame him? He’s in the shit.

But this is what porn does: it diverts you from real people and
numbs you with a magazine or a video screen or a pair of
headphones. It removes a person from reality by insulating them
with representations of reality. The soldier blowing up people
while listening to headphones is not really blowing up people. He
is not even a soldier. He is the army ad itself, the video game,
the movie. Everything is tricolor light from a cathode ray tube.
Explosions are subwoofer blasts. Bits of people are digital
bits.

Soldiers no longer need marijuana, as they did in Vietnam, to
elevate themselves out of the horrific scene in front of them. The
conditioned response to consumer technology does this much better,
and without the risk of introspection. They are button pushers and
trigger pullers navigating an array of image and sound. But the
soldiers storming houses with cameras on their helmets are nothing
like videogame characters or action-film producers. They are porn
stars with point-of-view camcorders.

Erotic porn is almost always the male eye on the female
“Other.” The woman is impaled, gagged, slapped, spat
on, anything to remind her that she is nothing but a woman. If she
speaks, it is only to say what she can do for the man. In war porn,
it is the American eye on the foreign Other. Iraqi children are
handed guns by reporters and told to pose with them. Young girls
are shown smiling at the strong American men. And in this porn, it
is all of them — men, women, and children — who cannot
speak. An Iraqi man-on-the-street has never been heard in this
country. When his marketplace is bombed, we hear from our own
generals, not from the woman who has lost her husband (our Defense
of Marriage Act does not extend to Iraqis). The Iraqi citizen is
impaled, gagged, slapped, spat on. The banners he hangs are torn
down, his throat stomped on, his doors kicked in, his house turned
over. George Bush dons a flight suit with a crotch full of timber,
and Iraqi men are stacked naked in a pyramid, raped, forced to rape
each other. These are the money shots. Unspeakable acts in rooms
with blank walls. We watch. The war goes on.

 

Cotner can be reached at
“mailto:cotners@umich.edu”>cotners@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *