Essay Thought
Essay Thought
War As Fiction

If the Second World War was a conflict between two amateur painters, Churchill and Hitler, the current war in Iraq is the struggle between two authors of fiction. Saddam has published two novels, Zabibah and the King (2001) and The Impregnable Fortress (2002), 'a moving tale of love and war'. And the Bush administration has its own blockbuster, a policy document called 'The Project For The New American Century'.

Bush, of course, is not the kind of guy to write novels. With his Texan proverbs he's more fake folk, an electronic teller of clumsily-hewn tales of the sort once heard around campfires or in caves. But although he's no Mark Twain, he's there anyway, author and authoritarian, hammering out sentences, his own clumsy extemporisations and slicker lines from speechwriters like Mike Gerson and David Frum, inventor of popular memes like 'the axis of evil'.

The Thousand Year Century

Like a TV show, Bush has a narrative slot with an actual time duration: the four to eight years of his election term. Considerably longer than 'That's My Bush!', which Comedy Central pulled after a mere eight episodes.

Fiction has trompe l'oeil or illusory time built into it, just as a painting has, in addition to the actual space it takes up, the illusory space it creates in our minds by tricks like perspective and shading. A Greek tragedy takes a couple of hours of our lives to narrate events which happen in the illusory space of one day in the fictional lives of its characters. Our time and their time are mapped to each other, but in different scales. Fictional time -- unless you're reading Nicholson Baker -- tends to be bigger, accelerated, telescoped.

The president of the US can pack a lot of 'illusory time' into the actual time allotted to him. The current president, we're told, is someone with 'an agenda'. He barely reacts to real events (Enron, Kyoto, Alaska) as they arise in real time, but instead prefers to link his actions to fiction -- a much grander design, the blueprint outlined in the script authored by his 'ghosts', Perle, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Rumsfeld: 'The Project For The New American Century'. Hitler was doing the same thing when he mapped out his agenda in 'Mein Kampf' and packed an illusory 'thousand year reich' into his dozen years of German narrative-shaping.

Turning Fiction Into 'A Moment Of Truth'

No matter how inspired they are by imagination and fiction, the actions we take, here on the timeline of now, are real. What Bush means when he speaks so often of a 'moment of truth' is not that something irreducible and authentic -- something 'real' -- is about to be recognised. He would like to mean that. But, on the contrary, Bush really means by 'moment of truth' that something fictional -- an element from his 'illusory space', his ideology, 'the project' -- is about to impact on the real world. He means, in other words, that a piece of fiction is about to be forced, by means of spin, money and military might, to wrap around the realities of the world, rather as you might wrap a flag -- pure metonymy, pure ideology -- around a rock.

With the authoritarian privilege of the author, Bush says to the world 'This is what happens next'. And no matter how ridiculous, how fascist, how murderous, how reductive, how damaging, how retrogressive his proposal might be, it becomes, because he is 'the author', fact. Everything which resists his fiction-become-fact is 'irrelevant' and starts to head in the other direction -- facts like NATO and the UN start to look distinctly fictional. His chapters replace theirs. A chapter heading of his, 'Shock and Awe', replaces the alternative, 'Dialogue and Contain'. (The Guardian reports that one of the authors of the 'shock and awe' stategy has co-written a novel with Tom Clancy.) Meanwhile, real people die. Real people die in order that he might bring closer the reality of his fictional template, his illusory space, 'The New American Century'.

(Note the use of the definite rather than indefinite article. It is not a feasibility study for 'a' new American century, one among many, but a long march to 'the' new American century, the only acceptable result for the hawks now in power, a century of American 'full spectrum dominance' and 'global leadership'. Fiction presented as a fait accompli.)

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Like all fictions, though, the new American century is a house of cards, a cat's cradle of dreams strung on moonbeams. For a start, as we know, narrative works by 'the willing suspension of disbelief'. It works by a sort of charm. It works because 'friends, Romans and countrymen' have 'lent their ears'.

So do we suspend disbelief? Do we grant the author full authority, just because he's the author? Do we say, with Martina Kamano, 67, retired in California, 'I support the president because he's the president -- you have to abide by the president, whatever he does'?

Do we, with Tony Blair, insist that a world without the North Atlantic alliance is unimaginable, even as his allies the Americans are in the very act of stripping the factual status from NATO, the UN, and many other international frameworks, returning them to the state of utopian nebulousness -- of fiction -- from which they came? Do we go along with the view that angering muslims in the middle east is the best way to make Americans safe from terrorism in their homeland? That seems like too much disbelief to suspend, at least willingly. It seems much more likely that, rather than suspending disbelief, we're out there on the streets demonstrating against this war, or giving Rumsfeld the finger every time he comes onto our TV screens.

What, then, of the charm? Well, the perception of charm is undoubtedly a rather personal thing. Having seen a shifty, foolish, narrow-minded and, frankly, rather criminal-looking little man participating in the 2000 presidential debates and finding him utterly charmless, I was astonished to hear US media reporting that there was something about Bush which made the average American want to go on a fishing trip with him. 67% of Americans are apparently with him on his current fishing trip. But outside the US only a few Israelis agree. If this president had any real charm he would surely have managed to persuade a majority of the US electorate to vote for him, or more than three countries actively to join his 'coalition of the willing'. His version of 'charm' must be a severely local one. Perhaps it's restricted to Texas.

Imaginary Friends

What about 'friends, Romans and countrymen' and their willingness to 'lend their ears'? This 'author' certainly has friends. His election campaign was financed by oil companies. But merely being a friend of the author was not enough to prop up, and make a fact of, just any fiction. Some of the author's friends, like Enron, collapsed like houses of cards within months of having funded his election campaign, their increasingly fictional accounts finally unable to persuade anybody. A crisis of narrative credibility which even so powerful an 'author' as the president of the US couldn't help them solve.

What about 'Romans'? There has been a lot of talk recently of America -- the new, pre-emptive, 'full-spectrum dominance' America -- as a new Roman empire. Britain is cast as the 'Greece' to this America's 'Rome', a kind of wise yet powerless philosophy teacher standing on the sidelines inventing sophisticated justifications for brutal powerplays -- hence the 1001 humane and high-minded reasons the Scheherezade-like Tony Blair creatively found to justify his friend's brutal, imperialist invasion. So it seems fair to grant that the 'Romans' in the audience are listening: those who want to be part of the empire are certainly, desperately, buying into the narrative, and lending their ears, even at the price of deafness to the people they supposedly respresent, who feel very differently and are still capable of hearing the world scream.

Extra In Crowd Scene

What about 'countrymen'? Well, we're told that 67% of 'the author's' countrymen are with him. The trouble is, the 'project for a new American century' is a fiction involving the whole world. And although it may play well with 'countrymen' -- let's face it, the idea of 'full-spectrum dominance' is quite a reassuring one, as long as you're one of the Americans doing the dominating -- to those in the rest of the world it offers the unappetising role of extra: 'a cast of billions' paid to play demeaning roles; extra in crowd scene, swarthy villain, 'cheese-eating surrender monkey', 'terrorist', 'fanatic' or 'evil-doer'. There are few positive or unstereotypical roles in this script for non-countrymen. There's 'loyal friend' (which we know already translates in the domestic market into 'poodle'). There are 'the willing'. And there's by far the biggest category, the 'evil' and the 'against us'. The pay for these supporting or crowd roles can be pretty lucrative. 'Sidekick' or 'friend standing shoulder to shoulder' may be in line for billions of dollars in aid and development packages, although, as we've seen, these vast sums can vanish as quickly as they're proposed if something like democracy (the vote in the Turkish parliament) gets in the way.

But it really doesn't matter that 'the rest of the world' doesn't like its role in the script, because the script is going to be filmed anyway. It will become de facto reality, because there is only one superpower in the world, and the purpose of power is to make the fictional whimsies that cross the minds of the powerful into realities. When your army outstrips the next nine countries in firepower, when your economy is bigger than anyone else's, you don't need agreement. You just go ahead and do what you want to do, right?

Well, not quite. Huge military superiority didn't help America win the Vietnam war. Being Bush's biggest sponsor in 2000 didn't stop Enron from going bust the very next year. And trying to bribe every little African nation on the UN security council didn't allow the US to get the legitimacy of a second resolution explicitly authorising force. Might does not make right, and might alone -- without charm, without diplomacy, without willing suspension of disbelief -- cannot turn fiction into fact. Realities have a habit of intervening. Even the war games the US army staged in summer 2002 to model an invasion of Iraq ended in the US losing -- a result so embarrassing that the games were played over again until the desired result -- a win for the US -- was achieved. War games, like other fiction, can come in flavours like 'Realism' and 'Fairy Tale'.

Full-Spectrum Dissent

In his inaugural address, John F Kennedy famously pledged to put a man on the moon within the decade. At the time, 'a man on the moon' was pure Jules Verne. And yet the combination of charm, political will, technical ingenuity and millions of dollars managed to make the fiction a reality. The US earned the admiration of the whole world and captured everyone's imagination with its 'giant leap for mankind'. But can the same be said for ideas like 'full-spectrum dominance' and 'the new American century'? Aren't these ideas, by their very nature and design, going to repulse most people in the world, to 'shock and awe' them into bitterness and dislike rather than imagination and identification? As fictions, these scripts are poor, insecure and provincial, designed to rally support in a limited number of hardcore republican states and to reassure only a few nutty Left Bank settlers.

To demand, as Tony Blair does at every opportunity, 'unity' behind ideas which benefit so few people seems completely perverse. Is that really what 'unity' means, for 90% of the world to abandon and deny its actual interests and fall into line behind the laser-narrow vision emanating from Donald Rumsfeld's spectacles?

Much, much more likely is that unity will happen in opposition to the 'thousand year reich'. Just as, in a way, we have Hitler to thank for the stable, global institutions of the postwar order, so we will have Bush to thank for the institutions that will rise out of this new unity, the unity of revulsion which is forming quickly all over the world.

Swept Away

'The new American century' is a fiction which has already failed disastrously, alienating and revolting global audiences, who are now interrupting it with cat calls, paint bombs, slow handclaps, civic disturbances, and other, more violent, shows of dissent. If it were just a film, it would probably never have got past the studio heads. In fact the Bush 'film' barely got released, relying for its certification and distribution on an unprecedented intervention from the Supreme Court, an implausible, unprecedented and undemocratic deus ex machination.

If it were just a film, 'The New American Century' would, like Madonna's equally insular castaway clunker, have closed quickly, made a loss, had its release in other territories cancelled, gone quickly to video, hit the cut price bins. and been swept away. But it's not a film, it's a presidency. It's not ninety minutes, but four years, eight years, possibly even the whole century the hype says it's going to be. And the people dying -- RIGHT NOW -- are not extras.

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