Monday, August 08, 2011

Reality TV

One of the most popular diversions these days is watching 'reality' on the television. It used to be that documentaries were as 'real' as it got, but since the advent of 'Survivor' - 'real' world entertainment has come to the fore. Now we have 'Celebrity Rehab', 'Big Brother', 'Bachelors' and cross-referable 'Bachelorettes' in a full-time (3 month) reprise of the Dating Game - with more smooching. There are a gang of brain-damaged people from 'New Joisy' who make the Three Stooges look like a brains trust and give some indication why somebody would ever want to call an Italian a 'wop'.

But some of the best reality - and this only occasionally in the media - is some of the stuff brought home from Afghanistan in some body's field pack. Of late there seems to be a lot of this stuff available.

Soldiers have always been fond of keeping mementos of where they've been and what they've done. In the 'olden' days that came in the form of looting the dead. To-day it's more apt to come in  the form of recordable media. If it hadn't been for some eager photographers, the events of the Holocaust would lack a very important visual dimension. It's hard to deny the photographic record.

No less so to-day. There is a narrative that we've all been exposed to. It's the one that justifies and defines and continues to shape what the 'civilized world' is doing in parts of the Third World. It's the one that's taken as conventional wisdom, very successfully, for it has been motivating for more than a decade now, with new motivations happening daily. The media has been co-opted into constantly reprising the narrative but, from time to time, a glimmer of another story sneaks through the cracks, often from those who are at the 'pointy' end of things. 

Lately,  Danes and now Dutchmen who have been part of the Afghan 'assistance' force are producing media based on video and photography recording the events experienced by the troops - a la "Restrepo". Two of these are "Armadillo" - winner of a European award and "Fokkin Hell". These live-actions are interspersed with interviews, with the soldiers involved, that flesh-out their perspectives. Not surprisingly they emphasize parts of the narrative the regular media plays down, and they introduce some things the regular media wouldn't show at all. What we're actually doing is way off the PR spokeperson's 'talking points'.  In fact it bears little resemblance to what we've been, and are being told, at all.

One of the notable things portrayed in the European work is the notion of  how disliked the ISAF forces are. In a couple of scenes Afghan youngsters ask these young soldiers from Denmark, in one case, and Holland on the other what they think they're doing in Afghanistan and then disabuse them of any 'ideal' of actually helping  anybody, or being welcomed to do it. There are the other scenes of Afghans trying to niggle compensation from soldiers unwilling to pay it. At least the Europeans don't seem to find the same need to 'jack around' with the locals portrayed in Restrepo. But the notion that 'they're on the take' is prevalent.

Another is the obvious anti-Afghan (anti-Taliban but who can tell the difference?) attitude held by the young soldiers. Every Afghan is a potential enemy, and so every Afghan is a potential target. It's a tribute to discipline that more Afghans aren't shot during the daily round of observation and patrol - just due to the omnipresent threat. There isn't much about 'rebuilding' in any of these works, unless it's rebuilding a firebase. But that could be because these are shot in 'hot' areas, as opposed to the more civilized spots. A further observation could be made about the men and their weapons, if the Afghans aren't awed by western firepower, the awe is certainly compensated in the western militaries. Bomb strikes, artillery stonks or missile impacts are all attended with 'oohs and aahs'. And the 'free shoots' seem to be heartily enjoyed by everybody with a trigger finger.

The casualties, the wounded, are depicted in remarkable isolation from the actual events. The camera only sees aftermath and there an impression given by the obviously unwounded that it's a fluke to be hit. If the western forces are as successful hitting their targets, there should be thousands of wounded Afghans not being medevaced out. But they must be hiding.

One other aspect that shows up in one of the pieces is the notion of unit integrity and keeping 'secrets'. In the Danish film the unit NCO gets hauled on the carpet for shooting wounded Taliban after one of the unit writes home to his parents about the deaths of three Taliban in a firefight. While the incident is depicted in all its bloodthirstiness, one can empathise with soldiers in the heat of battle, confronting an armed opponent. To say there was some 'overkill' involved is perhaps making an understatement, but that, too, is to be expected in such circumstances. What is notable is the Sargent's telling-off to his unit and his reminder that they had only done what they 'had to do' and it was the 'right' thing. That 'only those who were there share an understanding of what happened', that civilians, even nice family ones, can get it 'wrong'. When nobody raises a disagreement, "Tak! That's the story, move on.".

I think there is a whole lot more of the 'realistic' type of photojournalism that will appear after the military censors have returned to barracks. That should go a long way toward doing for Afghanistan and Iraq what a string of dissonant narratives have done to the Vietnam experience. Once again the glory  and honour of 'serving' in war - especially an unjust war- will be magnified as a fool's game. I can't see our latest round of vets getting any more respect than their Vietnam daddies and granddads, they certainly won't be compared favourably to their grand sires of the World Wars.

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