Friday, 21 March 2014

Another war with privacy

In a recent piece in the NYT's titled:'Talking Out Loud About War, and Coming Home' Karen Zraick described a troubling feature of contemporary American culture-- the failure to discuss the experience of war.  I characterize it as troubling (although perhaps not uniquely American, I argue it is culturally rooted), because the debate about being in war lacks the voices of veterans.

What intrigues me most about this phenomenon, this silence, is how it can happen at all in the culture of new media.  While we capture, catalog, share, comment, repost, and remix every second of our existence, we still avoid this topic.  What is it in our cultural dna that compels us so strongly to keep the experience of war private?

According the Zraick, returning veterans today are seen, but they are not heard, and they are not even asked.  They remain isolated which is detrimental them and the nation. She explains the reasons for the reluctance to engage with veterans:
Civilians said they were reluctant to bring up what the veterans had experienced in combat, for fear of reopening old wounds. One mentioned guilt at not having served, another of growing up with a distant father who had been scarred by war. Some spoke of wanting to reconcile opposition to war with support for those who had fought, or anger about what the veterans had gone through. 
Without including the realities of veterans' experiences, the national discussion surrounding whether to be in a war relies on abtractions, rhetoric on broad ideas of freedom and democracy; it does not include the details of what it means to the human being doing the fighting.  Should this be part of the debate?  Why do we turn away from this?

In her compilation, How We Are Changed By War: A Study of Letters and Diaries from Colonial Conflicts to Operation Iraqi Freedom (2011) (review), Diana Gill appraoches this question by examining the words of soldiers, support staff, and families over almost amost a century.  She finds there has often been a willing denial about the intensity of the situation we find ourselves in.  She offers several reasons for this avoidance, all of them culturally rooted: we don't complain; we put country first; we don't want to worry family; we stay positive... and many more.  It is a rich trove for sociologists and pyschologists to trace all the factors.  What stands out for me is the contrast to other approaches for addressing painful and violent events-- a contrast in terms of communication style and cultural attititude. 

Take the District Six Museum in South Africa for example.  There the approach is to bring everything out into the light. 
Covered by the dust of defeat –
Or so the conquerors believed
But there is nothing that can
Be hidden from the mind
Nothing that memory cannot
Reach or touch or call back.         Don Mattera, 1987 (District Six Museum website)
Not only can you walk through the houses, you can write your story on the wall, you can add your living memory to everyone else's.  The idea (paralleled in other museums in post-conflict zones in Africa) is to provide a space (a sensory environment) to heal and to use the memory of the pain to prevent similar conflicts.  It is the opposite approach in many ways to the American style.  However, I hesitate to generalize one style as open and another as closed.  I think each style is concerned with trust because of the sensitive nature of the topic and is therefore still aimed at an internal or intragroup audience. 

From the observations of Susan Sontag in her 2003 essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, the visualization of pain, the horrors of war and suffereing, these have played a role historically and certainly have a pyschological effect.  Among the cultural turning points for the US would be the televised war in Vietnam and subsequent decsions not to broadcast violent content.  Watching programming today, compare the American Al Jazeera and the Arabic version of the same new story; the coverage of war and violence is strikingly different.  Is the American version sanitized because no Americans are shown to be harmed?  (as in Sontag's title, only the pain of others is shown)  Or is it more humane?  Is it part of the phenomenon of denial of the details of the war experience?  I have more questions than conclusions, but a taboo is a rare bird these days.  It deserves to be investigated more thoroughly.

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