Once upon a time, a lion was sent to the king of Sweden. After it died, its skin and bones were sent to a taxidermist so that the animal could be stuffed and preserved- the only problem was that this was the eighteenth century, and the taxidermist had never seen a lion before. His resulting work was this:
With only the most cursory knowledge of what a lion was, the work turned-out something that looks like it was pulled straight from a Looney-Tunes episode.
I’d suggest laughing at that picture for as long as you can- the rest of this post is going to be pretty unpleasant.
Most people’s Facebook news feeds are made up of snippets of conservations between friends, invitations to apps you’ll never use, the occasional rant, and baby pictures. Most people, but not so much me- only I do get to see pictures of babies, but more on that in a minute.
See, I grew up in the Middle East, specifically in Syria. For those of you who don’t keep up with the news (at all), my adopted homeland is currently in the grips of a brutal civil war. One of the ways the rebels and dissidents spread news is through social media- especially Facebook, and having “liked” such pages as “Syrian Days of Rage” and “Syrian Revolution 2011”, my news feed is mostly comprised of grainy YouTube videos of soldiers declaring their defection to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or pictures of mass protests, or of a solitary Republic flag tied to a streetlight. Or a baby.
I warned you before that things were going to become unpleasant- again, if you’re sensitive, stop reading now.
This picture was of a baby who was killed in Gaza during the short-lived but brutal Gaza war in the early weeks of 2009. It was a bombing that killed the child. It was burned so badly the skin still on it had been turned soot-black, and was tight and shiny. You might mistake it for one of those life-sized baby dolls if two broken femurs hadn’t been sticking out where the legs should have been, or if the flesh around the left arm hadn’t melted off the bone.
It was frozen like that. Eyes closed and head rolled back so that against all reason, it looks like her or she could have been sleeping. The body’s held up by a Red Crescent paramedic, and there are no words in any language that will ever describe the look that’s on his face.
There are more of them. A young man on a hospital bed, the right side of his jaw ripped open and hanging against his neck, smiling as best as he still can and gesturing the peace sign. A man killed in a shelling bombardment, held together with white gauze and bedsheets. A little boy, dead on the floor, drenched in blood and the right side of his body blown off.
That last one was from earlier today.
Last week, I mentioned how this generation is living in the longest war in American history, three times as long as WWII. I want to underscore this. I’m twenty one, and more than half of my existence has been during a period of uninterrupted conflict. I was eleven years old when the US went to war in Afghanistan, and today I could join up to fight in that exact same war. In a couple years, we’ll have kids going to high school who have never had a day of peace.
But this isn’t about that. I’m not here to rage against war, or take a stand for it. I’m not going to throw up my hands and declare that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
I’m not going to talk about what war does to us so much as I’m going to discuss what we do to war.
Let’s face it, for many of us, the current wars the US (and other nations) are involved in don’t affect us much. We’re not on rations, or ducking into bomb shelters, or being told that if we don’t carpool the Axis wins.
Whether a village in some valley in central Afghanistan is controlled by American or Taliban forces really doesn’t change our plans for the day. A harsh as it sounds, whether or not people are killed in Afghanistan doesn’t have much bearing on anyone but the families of the deceased, and it’s there that the problem lies.
See, we have had a problem in our society for a long time, but with the advent of the internet and similar technologies, it’s becoming worse and worse. Alienation. If you’ve heard it, it was probably in relation to Karl Marx, talking about the separation of workers from the ability to control their lives.
In a more general sense, it’s simply it’s the separation of things that should naturally go together. Profit shouldn’t be separated from work, and work shouldn’t be separated from profit. Merit shouldn’t be separated from recognition, and recognition shouldn’t be separated from merit. Above all else, actions shouldn’t be separated from consequences- only that’s exactly what we have today.
Most of us are more than willing to wolf down a juicy hamburger, but how many of us would be willing to watch the cow be killed, let alone kill it ourselves? How many of us who wear shirts and shoes made in sweatshops would be willing to stand in the sweatshop hurling profanities and threats at the twelve year-olds hunched over the machinery? How many of us enjoy the advances of the civil rights movement would, back in the 60s and 70s, face off police dogs, hoses, and fire-bombs?
See, we’re a nation that enjoys the hard work of other people. We’re a nation that doesn’t like getting its hands dirty. We’re a nation that has no problem sending kids off to fight, kill, and die on some windswept ridge in Afghanistan because we don’t have anything to do with them afterwards. War is cheap for us. The men and women of our armed forces are expendable to us. Again, I’m not trying to condemn or vindicate the wars we’re in, but what I am saying is that we can’t make reasonable decisions about war until we’re actually confronted with the ugly, bloody, gritty consequences of it. We need pictures of the dead. We need them shoved in our faces on a daily basis. We shouldn’t be able to turn on the news without seeing rubble, the smoke, the wounded, or the dying in graphic detail. For all the outcry against violence in our media, the truth of the matter isn’t that the problem is with violence, but with violence that has been tailored to give us satisfaction and strip away all meaning to it. War, for good or ill, is all for nothing unless we actually understand it. Can we honestly say that we’re acting in the same way now we would be if we actually had to witness the consequences of our actions?
Until then, we’re just the same Swedish taxidermist, making ridiculous travesties out of things we don’t understand. We need graphic violence.