Fake Carnage and Real Carnage

In the USA, we watch action movies for fun, confident that the carnage they portray is something that never really happens: buildings explode, but the good guy escapes, rescues the girl, saves the innocent townspeople from the bad guys, and everyone leaves the theater with a smile on their face.

Promotional photography for the film A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), directed by John Moore and starring Bruce Willis (depicted here)

Promotional photography for the film A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), directed by John Moore and starring Bruce Willis (depicted here)

In real wars, buildings really do explode, and the good guys don’t always (or even usually) escape. Innocent women and children die by the hundreds or thousands in such explosions on a daily basis. If you’ve ever experienced the unexpected death of someone emotionally close to you, then you know about the irreplaceable hole that their absence leaves in your daily existence. In extreme cases (for instance: the death of a spouse or a child), you may ask yourself, “How can I possibly continue?” and “What possible meaning could there be to my own life?” On the basis of this experience, one can begin to imagine what it is like to be the victim of a real war – not the imaginary war that is portrayed in the movies. What is it really like, for instance, to have dozens of the people closest to you – your family, friends, and fellow villagers – ripped from the world forever, blown to pieces in the carnage of war? Would you ever forgive the attackers? Could you ever survive, as a person, beyond this utter rape and destruction of the most basic sources of meaning of your life?

Shock-and-awe-Iraq-600x4001406154aa04b5505384d8a4cc2f89e3f3d288d

[1st image from http://bangordailynews.com/2012/01/08/politics/iraq-war-second-costliest-ever-to-fuel-debt-for-years-to-come/, accessed 9-10-2014]
[2nd image from http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/bushandblair, accessed 9-10-2014]

In the past week, I spoke with several Iraq war veterans. Their frank recountings of their experiences in Iraq convinced me of two very troubling things:

(1) These ex-soldiers were fully aware of the horrors of war.
(2) Most Americans have no idea what such soldiers have experienced – and, relatedly, most
Americans have no appreciation of the horror of war.

I am myself a non-veteran, and item (2) applies as much to me as anyone else (though we are all able to imaginatively identify with the victims of war, in accordance with the thought-experiment I described above).

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[from Islamic State video, as posted at http://rt.com/news/176528-islamic-state-iraq-video/, accessed 9-10-2014]

U.S. officials and journalists are currently discussing the possibility that the newly formed Islamic State could carry out anti-U.S. terrorist campaigns on U.S. soil, utilizing the border between the U.S. and Mexico to gain access to the country. As security forces scramble to defend the border, a great many Americans probably have never heard of the Islamic State, or know next to nothing about its origins and aims. We are a currently a country of extraordinarily superficial minds. Compare the attention that the average American gives to their cell-phone, their car, their favorite music, or their online dating profile, on the one hand, to the attention that they give to current affairs, the history of human civilization and human conflict, the intellectual and cultural foundations of their own nation’s form of government (such as the Constitution), and philosophical questions like, “What is democracy?” “What is the best form of goverment, and why?” “What makes a human life more or less meaningful to the person living it?”, on the other.

If war hit the U.S. directly today – as it has eventually hit the territory of every empire in every part of the world for all of human history (see the histories of China, Rome, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, UK, and so on) – would Americans be even remotely prepared for it? Would they know how to respond tactically? Even more troublingly – would they know how to respond philosophically? Would they know what was worth fighting for, and what side to fight for? Or would they be so shocked that their friends and family, their public institutions, their cell-phones and their internet, had been ripped from their hands, that they would stare blindly into the black hole formed by the sudden absence of everything that they had ever known or ever cared about, and would simply whine and cajole and become “depressed” until their addictions were returned to them?

AsktheEditors_cellphones2012_610x426

[from http://www.blackpressusa.com/2014/02/cellphones-may-accelerate-nj-online-gambling/,, accessed 9-10-2014]

We must seriously consider the possibility that Americans are a people currently tethered to illusion. Their dependence on illusion is existential: Without the illusions provided by cellular phones, video games, television and film, they would literally have no idea who they are, and no idea of reality. Older Americans are addicted to the myth of American exceptionalism and the good old “downhome” ways; younger Americans are addicted to soft drugs and their cell-phones.

It would be self-contradictory to fault mainstream Americans for making their lives meaningful as best they can, in the ways that are available to them: I began this post by noting that the unfathomable tragedy of war is that it fatally severs such meaningful human relationships. But I am concerned that Americans’ habit of immersing themselves in the comfortable insularity of yesteryear, or the radical superficiality so abundantly (and profitably) made available to them by the design-and-marketing geniuses of Disney, Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Nintendo, And So On, will result (if it hasn’t already) in an irremediable impoverishment of the American soul. It also portends a quick and lemming-like demise of their castles made of dreams, if and when those stronger, tougher sandstorm winds of the East blow in.

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