11 July 2007

Iraqalypse Now

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Over the weekend, I watched a very old TV show indeed – the second of a two-part set of Magnum P.I. episodes (having an infant can do wonders for one’s television habits). The plot was thin, borrowing heavily from the Manchurian Candidate concept of a brainwashed American soldier, but the focus on and connection to the Vietnam war was striking. I couldn’t help thinking about the potential, long-term cultural impact of the Iraq war by comparison.

A couple million American soldiers passed through Vietnam during our fight there, and the (American) death toll was over 50,000. The troops were supplied largely by the continuation of the military draft, which conscripted soldiers from across the social spectrum, even if many of the American elite (like both our president and vice president) found ways to avoid service. The result of these numbers, and of the draft, was that it imposed the war on Americans as more than just a long-running, terrible series of television news reports and governmental missteps.

That civic imposition, combined with our failure in the war, pushed Vietnam’s impact over to pop culture. Vietnam played a central role in Magnum P.I., where the main character and several of his friends served and became tightly bound together. From Apocalypse Now to Platoon and Full Metal Jacket – and television shows like M*A*S*H (ostensibly about the Korean War but hard not to interpret as relating to Vietnam), The A Team, and even The Wonder Years – the presence of the Vietnam war in American culture is indicative of its impact on our nation and our psyche. Nor is the role of the war limited to a focus on its failures; while that was certainly a topic, the war was often simply the historical reference point for a series of character relationships, of bonds formed during a conflict in which so many citizen-soldiers served.

With the Iraq war, the situation is rather different. Many fewer than 2 million troops have served there, and our soldiers come from the standing army and our large core of reservists – which limits the impact on Americans, because no one outside the existing military is called upon to fight. (And each time the army misses its recruiting targets, we are reminded of this all over again.) Moreover, as terrible as the war has been, only three thousand or so American soldiers have been killed. This is a fact for which we should be immensely grateful! Still, it has an odd and ironic downside: the flow of coffins home has been steady but slow by comparison to Vietnam, further enabling Bush and Cheney to sidestep their failures and cover up the death toll.

I have no doubt that the soldiers who serve in Iraq have their stories, surely the equals of Vietnam-era tales about being attacked by guerrillas who looked like civilians, or of the incompetence of the American military commanders in the face of a mutable, dedicated enemy. Right now, however, the biggest stories about the Iraq war look like political ones: the tortured logic and twisted evidence Bush and Cheney used to drag the country into war, the scare mongering about terrorism that this administration has used to keep us in the war, and their use of the war as a pretext for shearing away precious American liberties (like freedom from warrantless wiretapping or respect for habeas corpus rights).

Where the Vietnam war brought us (even in failure) a sense of Americans tested, pushed to their limits, and bonded together, the Iraq war has thus far showed us only Americans powerless against our own immutable and immovable administration, a stark divide between the political classes who keep the president’s war going – because their own livelihoods are also bound together with it – and the rest of the American people, whose support for the war is nearly non-existent. How that translates into popular culture remains to be seen, but it will take significant effort, to say nothing of an undeserved sense of nostalgia, to evolve all this into something the American people will find entertaining.


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