Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

Politics As Spectator Sport In A Nation That Would Call Its Dictator ‘Coach’

It had to come to this: a ‘presidential debate’ would become as television-friendly as sports, that shadow-boxing encounters replete with campaign trail inanities and evasions would be reckoned the political-show equivalent of a honest-to-goodness fifteen-round heavyweight championship bout (with figurative seconds and blood buckets close at hand.) These allusions and analogies which have retained their air of metaphor became just a little more hardened last night: the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate was expected to attain ‘Super-Bowl-sized’ ratings, even as television executives rubbed their hands with glee. Television executives have always craved the ratings that sports events bring them; how could they come up with entertainment that could match that pitting of hero versus hero on a sports field (of dreams)? Putting political events in opposition to sports events had always been a ratings disaster, a sure sign that the programmer in question did not know the first thing about the American people. The best was to hope for, and actively participate in, the transformation of political conflict into horse races that could be bet on, hyped up, complete with opposing fan bases who would put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan.’ We got that this year. What matter the provision of a platform to an unrepentant, authoritarian racist if ginormous ratings ensue in exchange?

It felt like a big final; visions of pennant games and football conference championships and perhaps even World Cup qualifiers danced in our minds. Bars placed signs outside on sidewalks, advertising their telecast facilities and drink specials; the crowds gathered early and packed the viewing venues, expelling latecomers to sidewalks; friends made debate party plans; drinking games were invented. Network effects dictated that the only way to feel like you belonged yesterday was to participate, to pull up a chair in front of the nearest television so that you could make sure of your participation in the water-cooler conversations come Monday, er Tuesday, morning. The bizarre had been normalized; the politics as entertainment trope received yet another confirmation. (Especially because it featured a man who has been seen performing during wrestling events in the past.)

Perhaps nothing signals our apparent powerlessness as political subjects like this spectacle does: it takes place on a television stage, in front of a crowd shushed into silence; campaign trail activities that preceded it now suddenly seem like the opening acts of the megashow that television had been waiting for all along. We sit back, appalled and fascinated, nervously munching on our popcorn, downing our drinks, inhaling on our vapes, waiting for commercials so we can take a bathroom break (before realizing you can take a break any time). Sometimes we check in with our fellow spectators on social media, generating streams of commentary and hopefully witty hot takes. After the ‘game’ talking heads–including retired stars from yesteryear and today’s brightest sports journalists–break down the big plays, some of which will feature in next morning’s edition of PoliticsCenter.

Remember, we’re the nation that would call its dictator of choice ‘coach.’

Goin’ to the Movies

Last December, I found myself stumped by a simple enough question: When was the last time you went to see a movie in a theater? Some ten hours later, I remembered: Terence Maillick’s _Tree of Life_ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (I cannot remember the exact date). A few days later, I returned to BAM to see David Cronenberg’s _A Dangerous Method_. And yet again, I was reminded of what a strange bargain I have struck by my quasi-abstinence from the movie-in-the-cinema experience (over the past seven years, after years of obsessive movie-watching in theaters, I turned almost exclusively to DVDs, streaming, and Blu-Rays).

The immersion in the cinema can be complete in a way that the home theater experience cannot replicate, of course, but as the intruding head of the gentleman in front of me reminded me, it can be interrupted rather easily. And as the murmurs and whispers of my fellow movie-goers also reminded me, I have company. At home too, of course, I have both company and interruptions: sometimes my wife, sometimes the schoolchildren on the street outside, sometimes my neighbors stopping by to pick up spare chairs for children’s parties, sometimes the building superintendent with a notice about an upcoming repair job. But my resentment of the company of those who watch the movies with me and occasionally interrupt me is particularly pronounced in the theater: We are here to watch a movie, are we not? Why then, the need to indulge in real-time analysis and appreciation of the movie’s plot planning or cinematographic pyrotechnics? At home, I’m almost grateful for the solitude I enjoy between interruptions (including those induced by myself as when I decide bladder control is an overrated art and and head for relief).

But these environmental issues are, quite honestly, peripheral. For when it comes to the actual business of the visual and aural experience afforded by the theater, my homebound movie experiences run a distant second. I might own a large-screen HD television and run the audio output through an amplifier and pair of powerful speakers, but it will be a very long time before this arrangement can compete with the theater screen and its powerful audio accompaniment. And no set of trailers included on a DVD will ever quite be able to summon up the encoded-by-childhood-memory frisson of the movie-preceding trailer viewed in a theater either. (And no thrill of making it on time, finding a good seat, or most intangibly, snuggling and settling into the one procured.)

When, some seven or so years ago, I gradually began to gravitate toward home-bound movie watching, I was making both an economic decision and an aesthetic one. I needed to save money; ten-or-eleven dollar tickets presented themselves as an easy target; and I was also tired as too many people around me seemed to be, of the aggravations caused by those who watched the movies with us, the cellphone user being the most prominent one. The allure of the high-end home-theater seemed irresistible; all that technical power placed in our hands, promising to render the the public spectacle irrelevant. Well, it certainly exerted a strong enough pull to make me abandon the movie-house, for long enough for me to lose contact with it as an integral part of the movie-watching experience. And the tickets aren’t cheaper, and the audience isn’t any quieter. But yet, even when aware of that, I’m still struck by the melancholy of what I seem to have traded away, and by the loss of an experience that seems destined to not be ever replicated again.