Remembering Shock and Awe Nine Years Later

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Mar 20, 2012 in Culture, Politics | 2 comments

The war began on television nine years ago this week, and I’m wondering what we remember about it. I mean not the war and all that came after, but specifically its beginning: the Shock and Awe bombing campaign that started on March 21, and the fighting that continued in the coming days. And by remembering I mean something more than that vague sense we have of a long-ago episode from an old TV program long since canceled. I mean do we really remember what it felt like and what we thought, as the first concussions ripped the night air of Baghdad? Because in fact, those first days of the war were as bizarre as any moments ever recorded on live television, and now, nine years later, it’s as if this deeply strange experience we all lived through has just disappeared. Never to be spoken of.

The key was that it was all televised, and televised more specifically as though it were a theatrical event produced for public consumption. We can summon, if we try, the strangeness of the time: how arcs of light poured out of our television sets in living rooms and offices, in waiting areas and barrooms, in airports and kitchens, the explosions seeming almost to rock the rooms we lived in. And it was true: cameras were everywhere, including, astoundingly in Baghdad itself, at the very nexus point of the violence. (If you balk at the idea that television was all important, consider that a war of retribution in Afghanistan had already been fought, a war which, due to local conditions, had failed to offer the satisfying theatrical experience that Iraq produced on its opening night alone.)

This second round thus had its own aesthetic logic and became necessary as a matter of art. Those blooms of fire over Baghdad—retribution, caught in the camera’s lens—were the direct payout for the debt of fire over New York. The visuals were what really mattered. For many—and perhaps this is what is most troubling—the raw wounds of 9/11 were being healed that night.

And who can forget what followed in the coming days, as the first week of battle unfolded? How the television lens carried us on a vertiginous carnival ride into the heart of battle. We were all there, caught behind the lens. One moment: tanks roaring across the desert—dust, noise, and the thrilling disorientation of war spilling into our living rooms. A wind-whipped correspondent shouting into a microphone. A troop carrier blasts past. Soldiers dig in the sand. Fast cut to a carrier deck. The war whoop of an F-18 careening into flight and suddenly we’re on board the aircraft, the horizon tilting, the great dusty landmass of Iraq below. (A television correspondent actually asked one of the pilots returning from a sortie, “How was your performance tonight?”)

A second quick cut, and now we’re in a oil field, burning, and even before we’ve had a chance to imagine the acrid smell of the smoke, we fast cut to a small arms gun battle on the outskirts of some village, a scene so rich in imagery and drama, people will say it’s better than Saving Private Ryan. (And people will actually say this.) And then the coup de grâce, the most thrilling images of all, because it’s so like a video game: film from a helicopter gunship, or a Warthog, of an Iraqi soldier or a lone station wagon on the ground, and we watch as the gun sights lock, sudden trails of the weapons smoking through the air, the erasure in the sand of the human being, the vehicle, reduced to ant lion hill smudges, all calmly recorded in the neutral eye of the lens. (And I heard young men, and more than one—and this is pure fact—talking gleefully about these images. Did you see that? they said. They wiped that fucker out! Laughing.)

All of it then was performance, but really all of it (and here I’m borrowing from Slavoj Žižek, the philosopher and social theorist): not only those on the stage (the Iraqis, Saddam, the troops, George W., Cheney, and Rumsfeld), but us (the audience). We were performing too—as though the theater itself with cast and audience had been set up on a still larger stage. And that’s the key point. Not who we were performing for—read Žižek if you want elaboration on that point. But that we too, the watchers, were participating in a performance that thematically advanced a single idea: that we, like the townspeople in the old Westerns, had witnessed justice being done.

In Zarathustra, human beings distorted by the spirit of revenge are called tarantulas. And their motto: “Let it be the very justice of the world to become full of our vengeance.” And so Iraq became full of our vengeance.

There is a kind of embarrassment in having been swept away by an aesthetic spectacle that we later acknowledge to have been meretricious. Our teen-age enthusiasms we sometimes look back upon with a benevolent but knowing eye. More problematic are the memories of more humiliating enthusiasms. These we simply suppress, living as though they never happened, even as they remain part of the ocean floor we travel over.

I submit that those early days of the Iraq war fall into this second category of pure suppression. Obviously, under such conditions, there’s no possibility of reckoning or contrition. And why should there be? If we were to acknowledge our wrongs, we would deprive ourselves of the right to witness future performances of similar spectacles. Somewhere in the farther reaches of the psyche we want to hold on to a ticket to a later run of the same play, with only a few scenes changed, and with a new cast. That ticket is our right to violence without regret. It may be bad art, but it’s the art we need to justify our lashing out and our indifference to the meaning of our own conduct.

In the days following the opening of the Iraq campaign, I had just moved into an apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It was an odd time to be in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with the different sounds, the feel of daily life new and strange—and all punctuated, illuminated by those flashes of light pouring out of the screen into the living room.

It was a damp chilly March, but not so cold that the windows couldn’t be left open, and I remember night after night in the kitchen as I cleaned up, listening to the call of a bird just outside, and night after night, the same bird calling. Its whistle was clear and pure, and I soon realized its two-note call was always the same: a minor third, starting at the tonic. A mournful, lonely sound. I’ve never heard such a call, before or since, but listening to that brief song, repeated again and again in the otherwise silent night, an eerie sense invaded me. This became the music of my spring, the music for me that played contrapuntally against the sounds of that faraway battle pouring out of the TV screen. The blue notes, the music of elegy and regret.


  1. Peter,
    Thank you for your tender so aptly timed prose and necessary accounting of recent past autrocities that we propogate as we speak . I just stumbled upon your piece and I’m glad I did. Somehow, I don’t feel quite as alone in this video droaned amnesic world when I read such honesty. What a pleasing thought that the song of nature might once again captivate our hearts and minds and replace that horrific sucking sound of violence.

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    • Thanks, Patti. I had the feeling that no one would much care about the post — the world has moved on in so many ways. But I’ve wanted for some time to remember that odd moment of the beginning of the disaster (morally, politically, economically). I’m glad the piece found a reader in you.

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