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.

Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why 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, I think, 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.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.

#SderotCinema: War, the Oldest Spectator Sport

News of Israelis watching the bombardment of Gaza–lounging on chairs, perhaps after dinner, smoking hookahs, chatting among themselves–has set many fingers racing on keyboards the world over, pointing to what may seem like a particularly bizarre and novel voyeuristic exploration of the suffering of others.

Imagine, people gathering to watch acts of violence. Safely, from a distance.

Dunno about you, but this seems vaguely familiar to me. War as spectator sport is as old as the hills. Whenever it has been possible to do so, non-combatants watch war–well out of harm’s way. During the Battle of Britain, the good citizens of London would stand around in large groups, staring up at the sky, while Spitfires and Messerschmitts tangled thousands of feet above them; Civil War battles were often observed by families–men, women, and children–curious to get a closer look at the guts and glory the papers wrote about; in our book on the air war component of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, in making note of an epic air battle between jets of the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces in India’s north-east, staged in the sky above the campus of an engineering college  in the town of Kharagpur, my co-author and I noted:

The citizens of Kharagpur had a grandstand view of the roaring air battle from the top of their homes. The students cheered loudly every time the Sabres – or the Hunters, it didn’t seem to matter – seemed to be on the receiving end.

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatants 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–perhaps MAN, the Military Action Network–and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay. (You can find versions of the MAN on YouTube on channels dedicated to clips showing military action from the world over.) 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.

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.

The Revealing Game of Time Machine Travel

For some time now my favorite ‘after-dinner game’ has been to ask my respondents the following questions: If you had a time-machine, where and when in the past would you go? And when you arrived, would you rather be a fly on the wall that merely observes the action or would you want to jump in and be a participant?

I find the answers to this question–and my asking of it so that time travel is restricted to one direction–revealing in more ways than one.

First, there is the National Geographic answer: I want to see dinosaurs walk the earth; I want to see sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths go at each other.  I suspect this group of respondents likes the idea of a human-free earth and wonders what it was like before homo sapiens queered the pitch; the time machine enables its inspection. Perhaps we imagine a pristine, unspoiled state; perhaps our minds bear the impress of the archetype of the Garden of Eden and hanker after it.

Then there is the History Channel or the ‘Seeing Great Folks in Action’ answer: I’d like to pay witness to Napoleon directing his marshals at Austerlitz, to life in Constantinople during the glory days of the Ottomans, or to Michelangelo hard at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I’m an enthusiastic subscriber to this line of thinking: I would like to attend the courts of the Mughals, see a wartime camp of Genghis Khan’s, or witness the great air-sea battles of the Second World War. These answers seek to bring to life the imagined contents of history books; its respondents pride themselves on a sensitive appreciation of their offerings and seek to make real the metaphorical travel afforded by their contents.

In both kinds of answers those who participate in these fantasies of mine prefer to be flies on the wall; they are aware, I think, of the impossibility of being able to ‘participate’ in any meaningful—or safe–way in the times they are visiting.

But the most interesting kind of answer to my frivolous questions is provided by those who suggest they would use the time machine to engage in personal archaeology: to visit their home-town before their birth, to see their parents on their first date, and perhaps most exotically, to visit a younger version of themselves. I’ve provided variants of this kind of answer: I would like to see my father at work as an air force pilot flying into combat, my mother attending classes in her university days, my grandfather in our ancestral village in that part of Punjab which now belongs to Pakistan. And so on.

These answers are not merely nostalgia-mongering, the sentiments underlying which are sometimes revealed in the urge we may have to jump into and through an old photograph. Rather the space-time locales we indicate as our destinations in time traveling reveal an abiding fascination of ours for getting to the root of ourselves, perhaps as clue to present behaviors of ours that we find inexplicable, as solutions to enduring conundrums created by our lack of transparency to ourselves.  So time-travel becomes a means of self-discovery, the latest addition to the ever-expanding quivers and arsenals of tricks and weapons with which we imagine and understand ourselves.

To travel backward in time is to engage in a form of speculative discovery familiar to those that spend much time in the clinic, on the couch, accompanied by the therapist, holder of the mirror that reflects our autobiographical confessions. The advantages of supplementing or perhaps replacing the fifty-minute paid-for session—controlled by Svengali-like figures—are tempting. Those long, rambling, tentative tramps through our memories—while we worry about whether we might be engaged in an elaborate self-serving fiction—could be replaced by the empirical verification made possible by time travel. This is how it happened, this is what ‘really’ took place; and so, I whip out my lab notebook and scribble notes, filing them away for future reference, recall and guidance.

A strong desire for personal archaeology may be prevalent in parents who have become aware–thanks to the birth of their children—that they are likely to remain mysteries to their offspring. This disconcerting thought in turn evokes the mystery associated with their own parents. What were my parents like—independent of being those who gave birth to me? Conversely, there is the great mystery of childhood memory: we know so little of the period when we were at our most formative, when the seeds of our origins were taking root. What was I like as a child? Did I cry as much as my own child, seem as terrified, cause as much bother and anxiety?  The most fascinating mysteries might reside within, and in those closest to us. Sometimes they may only be solved by being eyewitness to the events that lie at their heart.

So it may be that the most interesting histories for us are not the ones that talk of brave kings, beautiful princesses, and tales of valor and bravery on bloody battlefields, but rather, the much more mundane stories of our own lives, which add up to the history of our times. I suspect this ‘revelation’ is like discovering a good documentary can be as riveting as a feature movie; the time machine is our way for viewing the documentary of our lives.

Some of the fascination with the time machine should be a familiar one. We are, after all, chroniclers of our lives: diaries, photographs, autobiographies. When we peer at photo albums we are fascinated by images of ourselves, struck by the mystery of the person whose body we currently inhabit. The urge to inquire into its provenance is   irresistible. In response, our memory aids are ever more elaborate. Besides ourselves, we videotape our children; we photograph them. Most children in first world industrialized democracies have extensive photographic records and large video libraries of their lives available to them. Soon, with digital storage easily and cheaply available it will be possible to make an entire childhood available on high-definition streaming video: a movie of one’s life for on-demand watching. The time machine is but a viewer of sorts for this unmade movie of our life.

There is a wrinkle to the fly on the wall behavior the time machine permits. Consider for instance that I might want to travel back to my father and mother’s lives as a young couple, perhaps recently married, to witness their interactions, to listen into their conversations as they plan the decisions crucial in my family’s history. This is a distinctly voyeurish desire. My parents’ lives were their own; they were constructing their relationship in their expectation of an intimate space. My acting like a Peeping Tom seems like an inappropriate intrusion, a gratuitous violation of their privacy. Our use of the time machine might need to be tempered by norms of a type sensitive to its powers.

If the answers provided by my respondents in this ‘game’ are revelatory, so is the asking of the question that prompted them. For in trying to elicit responses, I seek to inquire whether others are as perplexed as I am by the bits and pieces that make up my life, and don’t mind a little fantasizing as antidote.

Note: This piece is an extended version of an older post titled ‘Time Travel and Psychotherapy.’