Question Reality

(Published in The State, Columbia, SC 4/1/98)

Welcome to the 90s: Smart bombs. Rapid deployment. Cruise missiles. 72 hour wars. Just when it looked like the decade’s military/political hype had finally drifted deep enough to make the world feel safe and small, two incidents recently brought me back to reality.

The first was my viewing of the Barry Levinson cinema satire Wag the Dog. Forget the uncanny luck of life-imitating-art-oh-my-God-she’s-wearing-a-beret similarities to the sex scandal the fictional president works to free himself from in the movie’s plot. While it is interesting to consider Monica and the President in relation to the movie, I suggest you look at the deeper implications of Wag the Dog. There is something much more important than scandal in the way Wag the Dog’s spin doctor from Hades, played by Robert De Nero, creates doubt of the very truth of any press-mediated-we-caught-it-on-video-tape-it-must-be-accurate reality.

What if the De Nero character is right? What if that Gulf War smart bomb only blew up a Leggo block building in the suburbs of Atlanta, and the conflict was for the most part a media creation complete with theme song, ratings, and product tie-ins? The next time you see a Humvee next to you in traffic, thank George Bush.

The second cruise missile strike to my sense of reality happened the day we finally settled the latest weapon’s inspection issue with Sadam; this needs no commentary, but instead uses story as a weapon of mass destruction: I was flying from Salt Lake to Atlanta and I sat next to a bony Marine private in dress greens. His hands were clutched tightly between his legs. His head, tonsured with unruly blond hair. “Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Fort Gordon, Georgia, sir,” he said, never looking at me.

“That’s regular Army isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Communications, sir. Special training with army satellites.”

I asked the young man if he thought we were going to war with Iraq again and whether he thought ground troops would be deployed. “No doubt sir,” he said, “Oh yes sir.”

“Did anyone in your company fight in the first Gulf War?

“My sergeant was on the outskirts of Kuwait City when they pulled the plug, sir.” He told me how the day before hostilities ceased the platoon leader called in an air strike on what he thought was an approaching column of Iraqi armor.

“When the war was over and they went out to check the site, they’d killed a herd of 72 camels.”

“72 Camels?” I said, dismayed.

“You know on radar, sir, you can’t tell ‘em apart.”

“Question authority,” Thoreau said over 100 years ago, on the verge of a great bloody Civil War. “Question Reality,” this social critic is saying. So much of our current information now comes to us by way of electronic screens, speakers and networks, it’s difficult to tell the camel from the tank, much less the dog from the tail.

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