Sunday, January 13, 2008
What does the war have to do with facebook?
UPDATE 1/28: My friend returned from Baghdad in one piece, after being subjected to rocket and mortar fire pretty much every day for two weeks. As he put it "there is no love in the Duck and Cover bunker." Black humor aside, at least it consoled me to know that he was checking facebook and that he claims that the messages I sent every day -- silly or affectionate or (attempting to be) funny -- helped him to stay grounded somehow.
A couple of years ago I happened to go by Union Square and saw a group of people placing military boots on the ground, it turned out to be an anti-war protest organized by various groups, among them the Quakers, that consisted of a pair of boots for each US soldier dead in Irak. Each pair had a label with information about a soldier and they were arranged more or less by state. I spontaneously volunteered and spent probably an hour carrying boots and placing them with several others, quiet repetitive work. I would read each one, wondering over their lives. Then I spent a couple of hours on another day at the Judson Church welcoming people and giving out information at an installation they had organized with facts about the war such as comparative costs of the war per day versus costs of improving health care or education, or the estimated civilian casualties. It felt somewhat good to do something...that was really nothing.
At the Venice BIennial this Summer, I was equally disturbed by the dissonance of standing in front of Emily Prince's work during the elite preview opening of the exhibition. In general, so much of the work shown had to do with political upheaval, migration and exile, the economic fallout from global capitalism, war, atrocities, but we were all privileged enough to fly into Venice and then go to fancy parties, the billionaire collectors swept in on yachts, young curators zipped around in their individual water taxis.... Prince's work, which consisted of drawn portraits of US soldiers dead in Irak, was based on photos and arranged according to the soldier's home state. A wall-sized US map looked strangely pixelated until you got up close, and to your horror you saw individual faces staring back at you, their names lovingly inscribed by hand by the artist. For me that was the best piece in the whole Biennial because it made all of this injustice personal and immediate and it forced you to actually look. Prince created an archive which was shown beside the piece, consisting of individual index cards tracking each soldier, and an album with the copies of the ID photos pasted on each page.
For a while my morning route took me past the Judson where they update the casualty numbers (civilian and soldier) every few days, I would stop and look.
Since my scholarly work deals with war, and my own family has been marked by civil war and political dictatorship, I should be more focused on Irak. In fact, I am pretty much oblivious. When I travel outside of NY, for example to Florida, I am struck by the large numbers of yellow or American-flag-themed ribbons stuck to cars. Although in NY there are thousands of US Flags posted in public and private places, the majority were placed after 9/11. I remember returning to Mid-town to work. This was after a fruitless day waiting in a cue to give blood at St. Vincent's on 9/12, and feeling like I was in some kind of Leni Riefenstahl-directed nightmare scenario. There were flags EVERYWHERE, people were wearing ties, scarves, you name it, festooned with the stars and stripes. My whole neighborhood was plastered with flyers asking if anyone had seen people last known to be in the buildings. Those reminded me of images from Argentina of the desaparecidos. I woke up to the smell of fire and saw smoke at the end of Sixth Avenue. This is the closest I have been to a "war."
I remember going to a friend's party that took place right after 9/11 and feeling guilty that I was dancing. I also remember being scared to go on a plane but having to do so anyway a couple of months after it happened, because one of my best friends was getting married, and I was a bridesmaid. (The dress thanks to her elegance was gorgeous and I have even worn in to black-tie events since though now I am about 3 sizes smaller than then. The hair was less successful, the Southern queen who styled it exclaimed "Y'all look like Imelda Marcos!" after he finished an updo that I had requested resemble Holly Golightly's. He couldn't cope with the profusion of Ethic Hair) At the wedding we also all felt shell-shocked and a bit guilty to be dressed up and dancing. Yet now while in the middle of a war, this doesn't seem to cross my mind, or that of people I know.
Every so often I am nauseated at the thought that we are killing people while over here we're eating delicious meals, shopping at Banana Republic, going out dancing, living as if nothing is happening. I am ashamed at the thought that, when Anderson Cooper announces the latest horrific bombing, I either change the channel or barely register the information. And I am ashamed however to say that I am in extremely upset each time the ETA terrorists carry out an attack and murder people in Spain. That is very vivid because I lived there and know what it's like to hear about a bombing and have to call friends and loved ones to make sure they are OK or to think: "Oh, I go by that place often, but not today. I could have been dead."
Now one of my dearest friends is in Baghdad. This is a person that I have known since I was 18, a friend who has never ever disappointed me and who has been there for me at the absolute worst times in my life. Ironically, the very Big Brotherish features that I worry over on facebook I now am grateful for, such as the "status update" and the "date stamp" that indicates when one performs an action, or the "feed" letting me know about a friend's virtual "activity." This is because when he called from the airport last week to say good-bye, he assured me that he would post each day to let everyone know he is OK. So if I check facebook and I see something, I know he is OK for that day, more like on that moment.
He will be there for a short time, I tell myself. I feel completely incapable of doing anything with this new found realization and I feel ashamed that it has taken me this long to empathize to this degree. I cannot imagine how people who have loved ones there for indefinite periods of time can cope. I have new found admiration for them. I hope that they understand that many of us think the war is unjust but that it's not a condemnation of the soldiers or their families. This is of course incredibly obvious and embarrassingly banal. Like most rhetoric related to the war it means next to nothing. So I continue to go shopping for groceries, going to the gym, watching TV, "interacting" on facebook, writing this blog, while people are getting killed.
Latest US Soldier casualty count; 3,904 (Jan. 11, 2008, source: http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/iraq/forces/casualties/index.html)
Estimated number of civilians dead: over 88,000 (source: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/)
Information on Emily Prince: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/06/04_biennale.shtml