Friday, May 07, 2004

In the Funhouse Mirror of Empire

Apparently, "[f]or many units serving in Iraq, digital cameras are pervasive and yet another example of how technology has transformed the way troops communicate with relatives back home. From Basra to Baghdad, they e-mail pictures home. Some soldiers, including those in the 372nd, even packed video cameras along with their rifles and Kevlar helmets" (Christian Davenport, "New Prison Images Emerge," Washington Post, May 6, 2004). Soldiers of the occupation dissolve into vacationing tourists. For many working-class Americans, whose economic circumstances do not allow them to enjoy international tourism, joining the US military may be indeed the only chance of traveling and seeing the world outside the United States, however relentlessly peace activists may try to debunk the perennial sales pitch of military recruitment campaigns. Take, for instance, the American Friends Service Committee’s counter-recruitment brochure: "Before you decide to enlist, check out other options that would help you ‘be all you can be.’ Travel, education, money for school, job training, and adventure can all be found in other ways. Your local community may even have opportunities that you haven’t considered" ("Ten Points to Consider Before You Sign a Military Enlistment Agreement"). Doesn’t the AFSC brochure lie to working-class youths as much as military recruiters do? Only about 20% of Americans even own a passport (the US Census Bureau says that the current US population is 293,193,380, and the US Department of State’s "Passport Statistics" shows that about 59 million passports have been issued over the last 10 years). In this regard, most natives of the United States, a big rich country, have one thing in common with most natives of Antigua, "a small place," whose postcolonial conflict with foreign tourists Jamaica Kincaid imaginatively evokes in her book of the same title:
Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives -- most natives in the world -- cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go -- so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. (A Small Place, NY: Penguin, 1988, pp. 18-19)
Poor Americans who join the military, like poor Antiguans, are "too poor to escape the reality of their lives" and "too poor to live properly in the place where they live" -- for instance, "tiny Fort Ashby, a one-stoplight town in the West Virginia Panhandle," the hometown of Pfc. Lynndie R. England (James Dao, "From a Picture of Pride to a Symbol of Abuse in Iraq," New York Times, May 7, 2004). Or Mountain Lake, Maryland, where Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick "worked at a Bausch & Lomb sunglasses factory . . . before it moved to Mexico" (James Dao and Paul von Zielbauer, "Abuse Charges Bring Anguish in Unit's Home," New York Times, May 6, 2004). Or Cumberland, Maryland, where "[s]everal soldiers work at prisons that are among the region's largest employers" (James Dao and Paul von Zielbauer, "Abuse Charges Bring Anguish in Unit's Home," New York Times, May 6, 2004). Or Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the State Correctional Institution Greene where Specialist Charles A. Graner has worked as "an entry-level corrections officer position" since 1996, itself "at the center of an abuse scandal" two years after Specialist Graner’s arrival (Dao and Zielbauer, May 6, 2004). Imprisoned in working-class communities deserted by well-paying factory jobs, they slave to keep others of their own class in prisons in America and Iraq.

Uncanny and yet revealing, the collection of more than 1,000 digital images from Abu Ghraib -- shot by working-class soldiers who are too poor to vacation abroad and yet now stuck in a foreign land far away from home -- which the Washington Post acquired turns out to be a funhouse mirror that makes a grotesque mockery of international tourism, a montage of the self-image of the tourist juxtaposed with the truth of the tourist in the eye of the native:
The collection of photographs begins like a travelogue from Iraq. Here are U.S. soldiers posing in front of a mosque. Here is a soldier riding a camel in the desert. And then: a soldier holding a leash tied around a man's neck in an Iraqi prison. He is naked, grimacing and lying on the floor. (Christian Davenport, "New Prison Images Emerge," Washington Post, May 6, 2004)
Funhouse mirror images of aristocratic youths on grand tours of erstwhile colonial possessions, sons and daughters of the American working class continue their tours of duty, shooting Iraqis, literally and metaphorically. "American soldiers in Humvees rolled past, machine guns pointed skyward. One of them took pictures of people on the road. The men at the cafe rolled their eyes" (Christine Hauser, "In Iraq, President's Words Ring Hollow," New York Times/International Herald Tribune, May 6, 2004). George Orwell said: "In order to hate imperialism you have got to be part of it" (The Road to Wigan Pier). Will working-class US soldiers deployed in Iraq (as well as working-class communities from which the Uncle Sam plucked them), one day, come to hate imperialism more than richer Americans who do not have to join the military for travel and adventure and who are stunned by the hideous mirror images that bare the character masks that the empire makes them wear? Only if they could hold on to -- or regain -- their humanity.

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