After a recent piece by Tom Engelhardt was republished in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes — his op-ed was on opposition to the scheduled US withdrawal from Iraq — a reader from the military sent Tom an email posing this pointed question: “When was the last time you visited Iraq?” The obvious implication being: if you ain’t been there, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
It’s a reasonable charge and one that can be thrown at most of those of us who are presumptuous enough to write about what’s happening on the other side of the world. For instance, I live in North Carolina and I’m not Jewish, yet I spend a great deal of time writing about Israel, a country I’ve never visited. Shouldn’t I be keeping my nose out of their business?
Up until 9/11 I certainly was minding my own business — but then everything changed. On that day a neoconservative cabal grasped the opportunity to set in motion a process that has shaped the last decade: the Israelification of the world.
In a shockwave that ripped across the planet this was as evident in California (where I lived at that time) as anywhere else. An ideological framework that had been used to deny the legitimacy of Palestinian rights and to justify forms of warfare and collective punishment that contravened international law, was suddenly and seamlessly transposed from the local theater of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the global theater of a war on terrorism.
On September 11, we all became Israelis whether we liked it or not. Among those of us who saw what we were being co-opted into as a twisted view of the world, George Bush’s bullhorn had the opposite of its intended effect: it was a call of resistance.
Still, the question, when was the last time you visited Iraq? is a legitimate question.
To have ventured outside one’s neighborhood but only along trails of text, tracing electronic rivulets to their source and soaking in pixelated landscapes, does without question provide a narrowly filtered view of the world.
I am lucky enough to have lived on three continents; to have seen the Buddhas of Bamyan before Osama bin Laden ever dreamed their destruction could light a fuse igniting a clash of civilizations; to have slept in caves and under the stars and to have drunk warm buffalo milk and rancid butter tea. I might not have been to Iraq but I do at least have the privilege of having seen the world from many vantage points.
There is though a sense in which wherever we go, we take our own world with us. Our experience is mediated through our own history. Nevertheless, when we get there — wherever that might be — the extent to which we bridge the gap between going there and being there can have as much to do with how we are seen as it has with what we see. Thus the self-limiting view of the world afforded to so many of America’s soldiers, journalists, missionaries, tourists, and business people who do not meet the world as much as they experience the world meeting America.
It is, as Tom Engelhardt notes, all to easy to go to Iraq (or Afghanistan or anywhere else on the globe) without really being there. Here’s part of Tom’s thoughtful response to his Stars and Stripes reader:
Sometimes being far away, not just from Iraq, but from Washington and all the cloistered thinking that goes with it, from the visibly claustrophobic world of American global policymaking, has its advantages. Sometimes, being out of it, experientially speaking, allows you to open your eyes and take in the larger shape of things, which is often only the obvious (even if little noted).
I can’t help thinking about a friend of mine whose up-close and personal comment on U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan was that they were trapped in an American-made box, incapable of seeing beyond its boundaries — of, that is, seeing Afghanistan. Let me be clear: I have no doubt that being there is generally something to be desired. But if you take your personal blinders with you, it often hardly matters where you are. Thinking about my Stars and Stripes reader’s question, the conclusion I’ve provisionally come to is this: It’s not just where you go, it’s also how you see what’s there, and no less important who you see, that matters — which means that sometimes you can actually see more by going nowhere at all.
When American officials, civilian or military, open their eyes and check out the local landscape, no matter where they’ve landed, all evidence indicates that the first thing they tend to see is themselves; that is, they see the world as an American stage and those native actors in countries we’ve invaded and occupied or where (as in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen) we conduct what might be called semi-war as so many bit players in an American drama.