Massing shows that the rigorous self-censorship practiced by the American people and the media is actually worse than the machinations of Big Brother in Orwell's 1984; at least in that fictional world, the draconian repression of reality was imposed by force at the hands of an all-powerful state – but today we are doing it to ourselves. Not that the Bush Regime isn't giving Big Brotherism the old college try, but as Massing points out, there are too many venues and formats of information dissemination for the state to control it all, especially in the United States, where many vestiges of freedom remain. Yet one of the most disheartening aspects of American society today is how very little use the people make of those freedoms they still have.
Indeed, Massing's observations on Americans' self-censorship – the surrender of the awareness of reality in exchange for self-regarding fantasy – have implications far beyond war reportage. In our time, we are witnessing a society voluntarily surrendering its liberties, its rights – its gumption – to a harsh and malevolent authority. We are witnessing a society surrendering its pride and its moral core to torturers and thieves, liars and killers. And it is a willing surrender, as if vast swathes of the American people are relieved that they can finally lay down the burdens and responsibilities of freedom.
What can you say about a society whose leaders – including the leaders of the so-called opposition – are about to approve the appointment of an enabler of tyranny and an apologist for torture as the chief law enforcement officer of the nation? (And this is only the latest of a series of such outrages, going back years.) You can only say: This is a country that has lost its soul, lost its nerve and – literally – lost its mind. It's like watching a loved one being destroyed by a brain-eating disease.
But the Iraq War is where this surrender of moral consciousness reverberates most sharply, and most murderously. Massing's story draws heavily on the published accounts of soldiers in the field – those who know the reality in all its depths, and who have been maddened by their fellow Americans' refusal to grasp it. Massing writes:
How can such a critical feature of the U.S. occupation remain so hidden from view? Because most Americans don't want to know about it. The books by Iraqi vets are filled with expressions of disbelief and rage at the lack of interest ordinary Americans show for what they've had to endure on the battlefield. In "Operation Homecoming," one returning Marine, who takes to drinking heavily in an effort to cope with the crushing guilt and revulsion he feels over how many people he's seen killed, fumes about how "you can't talk to them [ordinary Americans] about the horror of a dead child's lifeless mutilated body staring back at you from the void, knowing you took part in that end." Writing of her return home, Kayla Williams notes that the things most people seemed interested in were "beyond my comprehension. Who cared about Jennifer Lopez? How was it that I was watching CNN one morning and there was a story about freaking ducklings being fished out of a damn sewer drain -- while the story of soldiers getting killed in Iraq got relegated to this little banner across the bottom of the screen?" In "Generation Kill," by the journalist Evan Wright, a Marine corporal confides his anguish and anger over all the killings he has seen: "I think it's bullshit how these fucking civilians are dying! They're worse off than the guys that are shooting at us. They don't even have a chance. Do you think people at home are going to see this -- all these women and children we're killing? Fuck no. Back home they're glorifying this motherfucker, I guarantee you."
Yes. Back home they're glorifying the war, or else, at most, tut-tutting over how "incompetently" it has been managed -- or, as Hillary Clinton likes to do, berating the Iraqis for not taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity we've given them by invading their country, killing their families, destroying their society, robbing them blind and empowering violent sectarians to rule over them. This is the full range of acceptable, "serious" discourse on Iraq: it's either a noble crusade marching steadily toward victory or a noble if mismanaged crusade on behalf of a bunch of ingrates who don't deserve our benevolence.
Only a nation that has willed itself and dulled itself into a state of extreme torpor could stomach the hideously depraved and infantile level of America's political debate today – a mindless howl that will reach an unbearable crescendo in the coming months as the sinister carnival of the presidential race kicks into high gear. And then the reality of the abomination in Iraq will recede even further out of sight, out of mind.