I used to think of the Iraq-Afghanistan Wars as somewhat Orwellian: the braying voices of politicians committing us to endless war against unseen enemies, the constant lies and the clumsy but barefaced covering up of those lies, the imprisonment of mildly dissenting citizens for crimes the state decides the nature of in secret and at their discretion and the presentation of the inciters of war as homely, steadfast and moral guardians of the social good.
Now, after the latest WikiLeaks release, it’s Dante that comes to mind. I need some metaphor to help with the visceral response to the revelation of Fragmentary Order 242. I’m not fond of using literary shibboleths to give me a way of coping with human suffering, but reaching for Orwell or the Inferno or both seems meaningful in this instance, as in others.
The thing that has always struck me about the Inferno is the kind of sickening claustrophobia that keeps being ratcheted as Dante descends the rings of Hell. Every time we think that we’ve been horrified by our own mental response, we seem to get an exponential increase in it as we level up while levelling down, so to speak.
Frago 242 orders coalition troops not to investigate any abuses of what the Guardian demurely calls ‘the laws of armed conflict’ – that is, torture, kidnapping, murder, rape etc – unless coalition troops are involved. This has essentially meant an official sanctioning of the grossest violations of human rights and a systematising of brutality as a mundane form of political control and conflict. What WikiLeaks has revealed is that beneath the lie of the war itself – and the lies about civilian casualties, the traumatised and abandoned vets, the further deceptions concerning secret prisons and rendition flights, and so on – there is now a whole other underworld where the lid’s torn off, showing visions that make the schlock-Dante depictions of horror in the Chapman Brothers works look positively anaemic.
If Bush and Howard and Blair had sat down to deliberately design a war that not only demonstrated the corruption at the heart of their politics, but also invent new horrors to appal a world that thought it had seen everything, they couldn’t have done a better job. It’s not just the scale of the torment in Iraq and Afghanistan that’s so unbelievable, but the enormous and mindboggling apparatus devoted to the official lying and justifications.
For the most part, the media is happy to use those lies as copy. With this raft of documents, WikiLeaks has tried to increase the impact by releasing them to a wider range of media organisations. It was certainly wise, if only to ensure that the initial framing of the content of the documents wasn’t just left to a few big guns. The Guardian has headlined the leaks and gone for key points such as Frago 242, well illustrated with their usual interactives and with plenty of links to the original logs. The New York Times, much more sinisterly, has led with a negative profile piece on Assange, shown paranoidly slinking around the globe in a clutter of personal controversy. I can only assume that they’ve been sitting on this piece waiting for the latest release of documents. Le Monde have bumped the leaks down beneath the current nationwide demonstrations and next to a video about Cristiano Ronaldo, while Al-Jazeera have gone for blanket coverage of everything they can fit on the page. The Fairfax papers have of course given the leaks a very tiny patch, just a few brusque lines under ‘World’. This is actually something of an upgrade from last time when the WikiLeaks dump was filed under ‘Technology’, along with reviews of the iPad and console games.
I can’t imagine that the Iraq-Afghanistan invasion can stop unravelling like this. Its evil, deliberately engineered by the democratically elected representatives of the West, seems to have no end. It’s impossible to know whether these demonic spruikers of the free market are just gobsmackingly stupid or, like the Preacher in the HBO series Carnivale, just sow mayhem and brutality because they can, because it suits them, because it’s expedient, and it makes them feel good. At any rate, the politics of the war are nothing new, and Orwell’s prescience seems more prescient all the time. It’s an unbelievable industry of lying, a lying masquerading as piety that’s so nauseating and so terrifying, lies spoken to mask the thousands and thousands of murders, and an even greater number of instances of torture, rape and mutilation.