March 20, 2003: The date on which former President George W. Bush first deployed troops to Iraq. Exactly 10 years, $1.7 trillion U.S. and a minimum of 190,000 corpses ago today. Ten years ago today, we were horrified by the war crimes perpetrated by the Bush administration. Now the prospect of ever electing another president who will not commit war crimes seems like a distant pipe dream. And the prospect of a future without endless wars and proxy wars seems as distant as it did during the Cold War. The relatively peaceful 1990s look like an uncharacteristic blip in American history. Ten years ago, we were a nation of ignorant innocents who could still be devastated by images of American soldiers engaging in torture. But nothing is innocent now, and probably never really was. Not knowing is a privilege afforded to the citizens of wealthy countries with imperial designs.
Ten years ago, Americans were thinking about the war. Yes, the Dixie Chicks were maligned and cut from country radio. Yes, those of us who spoke out about the war were often accused of being “anti-American.” Or of being “supporters of terrorism.” But the war was on our minds, and it was central in our news coverage. We were talking about the war, and worried about how much it might cost. Democrats even spoke out against executive oversight and indefinite war now and then.
But most of us – those of us without loved ones deployed or otherwise living in the country – stopped that long ago, once the civilian deaths and suicide bombings started blurring together, long before drones became a central feature of American foreign policy.
Like 6 million Jews, 1.5 million Armenians or 800,000 Rwandans, 190,000 people, mostly Iraqi civilians, is too big a number to fathom. Of course, if you’re living in a country in which almost everyone has lost loved ones, it’s probably not that hard understand the scope of devastation. What bitter laughter must ensue each time an Iraqi citizen or resident hears an American politician invoke a “culture of life.”
In America, we’ve taught ourselves to stop thinking about anything other than our immediate well-being, plus that of a few of the people we’re closest to. Anything more can feel paralyzing. And we’re getting meaner. Our empathy has steadily declined for the past 30 years, and a full 75 percent of American college students rate as less empathetic than college students in 1981. Can this really be a surprise?
Sure, traits like psychopathy or narcissism may have a biological component, but as Scientific American points out, “[E]ven when a trait is hardwired, social context can exert a profound effect, changing even our most basic emotional responses.” Studies blame internet-related social isolation, and it’s true that that could be part of it. But couldn’t it also have something to do with living in an endless war economy?
Today we are a nation of people who feel nothing when a number like 190,000 is trotted across our newsfeed. Of course there are some exceptions, but let’s not pretend that this happens for anything but an almost nonexistent – and probably statistically insignificant – minority. There’s not even any social expectation that we’ll play-act empathy when it comes to callous mass death anymore. We hardly manage to care about senseless death near or inside of our own borders.
Over the past 10 years, I think the most significant transformation in American consciousness is this: We have removed context from killing as much as possible. In an attempt to prevent 1970s-style backlash against American soldiers, we’ve stopped journalists from filming images of dead civilians. Up until 2009, journalists were prohibited from releasing photographs of the coffins of dead American soldiers. If we’d seen how many of our young adults were dying all along, maybe it wouldn’t have been as easy to forget this war.
The development and expansion of the drones program is the most ambitious project of decontextualization yet. Now we don’t even have to do our own killing because there are flying robots for that. There has never been such an effective way of shielding ourselves from the faces of war casualties.
The inability to contextualize 190,000 dead people protects us from feeling anything about them. We don’t have names or faces, except for those of strongmen like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Their deaths do not keep us awake at night, not like images of dead children the same ages as our own might.
None of this absolves us of responsibility. It just is.
President Obama is marking the 10-year milestone in Israel. A thousand articles were published yesterday that analyzed the symbolism of this trip. But you see, the man who strongly opposed the Iraq war 10 years ago? He doesn’t exist anymore.
None of us are still who we were then. I cried on March 20, 2003 when President Bush deployed troops to Iraq. As I read about the car bombs and suicide attacks that took place in Iraq on March 20, I just feel numb. And that freedom to travel between righteous indignation and numb indifference for the purpose of self-preservation? That’s the privilege of citizens of empire too. When you’ve seen bombs reign down on your own community in recent years, you don’t get to move past anger and despair. You’re just stuck there, forced back into it time and again, atrocity after atrocity, death after death. You may long to go home, but you’ll never find the way.