We live in a time of relative excess, greater connectedness, a non-zero sum state of affairs; yet we still fight bloody wars. The New York Times war reporter and author, Chris Hedges, described combat as a Zen-like experience; a drug trip, from speed-like adrenaline rushes, to hallucinogenic landscapes of eviscerated bodies, to zombielike states caused by sleep deprivation.
Michael Ware’s recent documentary, Only the Dead, is a graphic reminder of Hedges’ point, revealing the dark recesses in the soul of man. Shot at a time when a blinding red-mist had fogged the conscience of the most powerful men in recent history, stirring in them passions raw and bestial, nudging them along a cycle of violence at once primal and vulgar, the documentary presents a harrowing close-up to the post 9/11 Iraq war. What instantly becomes obvious is that picking sides in war, any war, is at best, naive. Because war unlocks in man a kind of animal only found in humans; an animal which kills not merely for survival, but mauls and maims for reasons more perverse and personal: an ego-lifting relish or combat high. We do well in daily life to keep this invisible animal in its cage, concealed from society’s civilising gaze, behind a cascade of perfectly erected layers. Yet, ever so often, we can feel its rattling of the cage, as it hungers for escape. War is the ultimate reserve where this animal finds release. And it is this animal we see in action as the documentary captures scenes of war between Zarqawi’s men — convinced of postmortem glories — and US marines — drunk on the elixir of US exceptionalism.
Early in the documentary, we are introduced to jihadi insurgents, bearded men in headbands and Kaffiyehs, wearing death in their eyes as they make deathly rounds in combat vehicles around city squares and local streets. Imagine the terror this would have set off in the minds of young Iraqi kids, unsure of what would come next. Like an unpredictable pitbull, these savage insurgents could turn on them or their families any moment, or take their mothers and sisters as concubines; ripping, tearing and shaking any remaining semblance of a normal life, like feral beasts. There are also scenes of beheadings and summary executions. Once again, kids are made to witness these actions, the jihadis being fans of early childhood education. Parental discretion is firmly advised in violent movies, young minds being vulnerable to blood and gore, but what about live amputations and head chopping? What would that do to the psychology of a kid? Any kid who grows up sane and stable, witnessing all that, would have earned himself a Nobel Prize for superhuman compassion. Because trauma has a way of leaving behind a trail in the subconscious terrain — there is indelibility to it, hard to fully conquer. Add to this trauma, the hole left in a young heart upon witnessing their nearest and dearest brutalised, chopped, or blown to pieces right before them; imagine the helplessness, the desire for it all to make sense, any sense.
Zarqawi was indeed a special breed of animal, a man made so violent by his metaphysical convictions and diseased mind, that he lay the seedbed for the Islamic State in Iraq. Even Bin Laden, a man not famous for secular humanism, cringed at Zarqawi’s animal ways. But let’s not forget that the Iraq war was waged on a fabricated premise — a lie. And while there are scenes in the documentary of jihadi violence, there are plenty of scenes of US marines soaring the high winds of first-world swag, cussing and sniggering at anyone else not in a marine uniform, treating the locals with something less than contempt. They seemed far less concerned with the project of ‘spreading democracy’ in the Middle Eastern badlands, and more with juvenile aggrandisement. This looked nothing like the most organised army of the greatest nation on earth; it was really a bunch of buoyant first-world kids hopped up on feverish fantasies of triumph and victory, the sort of stuff birthed by a pop culture dripping in super-hero and celebrity worship. There is a scene in the film where American marines are bullying a store owner who seems not to understand much English, ordering him to close his shop, deploying generously the F-word as though it would add more semantic clarity for the poor chap. But most poignant is the last scene, where the US soldiers leave a man to die after he’s injured in crossfire. You can see the man lying on grass, gasping harder and harder with each breath as his body tries frantically to hold onto his fleeing spirit, while the American soldiers are seen making crass jokes and taking cheap shots on a dying man.
Perhaps, we humans will never fully shed the baggage of our savage past. No amount of technology, self-help books, and sermons on compassion and humanism can fully cleave the primordial chord, which still attaches us to a part of us we no longer need. But genetic baggage is only part of the explanation. The fact is that the post-enlightenment world hasn’t quite lived up to its promise. In his book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, novelist Mohsin Hamid touched in a subtle way an incredibly important theme of our times: that while we live in a world obsessed with growth and gains, success and profit margins, we are rapidly losing the language of dealing with loss. Historically, religion was that language, a way to comprehend the intangibles and to make peace with loss. Of late, though, religion itself has become more a group identification project, which deals less with matters spiritual, and has become more an exclusionary instrument for crowd control. One reason for this need for group identity is globalisation itself. With the gradual erosion of national borders, people are falling back on more primal forms of identity. Religious nationalism — of which Islamism is one component — is on the rise across the world: the rise of Trump in America, the rise of the BJP in India, the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Burma, and so on. Although humans are more connected today than ever before, the flame of tribalistic and xenophobic passions is as incandescent as ever. And we wonder why so many respond to Baghdadi’s call to a caliphate or why citizens of the greatest nation on Earth are casting their lot with a bigot like Trump.
Till we rediscover a language to deal with loss — an inevitable component of the human condition — and the intangible vagaries of existence, we will muddle along, stumbling ever so often into archaic violence we thought we had left behind. What we can say for sure, though, is violence begets violence. The terrorised of today will be the terrorists of tomorrow. As Ware says at the end of the film: “certain dark chambers of the heart, once opened, can never be closed again.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2016.
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