Being there

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.

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6 thoughts on “Being there

  1. Derek Gregory

    ‘Being there’ is no guarantee of truth or insight: just look at all those reports from Fox News…. and in any case there’s surely an important difference between “visiting” Iraq (with or without a rifle in your hand, and with or without an invitation) and living there. The claim to ethnographic authority by such “visitors” is a common enough trope, but it’s often deployed as a silencing strategy by those who are unwilling to have the partiality of their own claims to know called into question. It’s another version of what Donna Haraway called the ‘God trick” – the claim to see everything from nowhere in particular – whereas writers like Paul and Tom reflect on the inescapable partiality of their own views and enter into dialogue with others. That’s honesty – and, if you believe Haraway, it’s also what makes for meaningful objectivity.

  2. DE Teodoru

    “Being there” is what? Tom reads all things from all sides to provide a wide-angle view and deep analysis of both events at the source– Wash DC– and in the field—Iraq/Afghanistan. Let’s recall what Mao said: a soldier’s perspective is like that of a frog looking at the sky from the bottom of a well. That’s why they depend on us to make sure they don’t sacrifice in vain. Until now America operated on opportunistic ideological perspectives invented by the far from the action neocons blinded by ideology and Potemkin tours and kept in prpagandistic darkness our unfortunately intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb soldiers sent there originally for a quickly in and out. Sine UC Berkley I argued that it is every citizen’s duty to study and engage in meaningful dialogue about the war to which they send their kids. But without a draft America suffers from the “ain’t my kid going to war” disconnect syndrome, cheering on the Pentagon for doing with our kids what they would never allow it to do with their own biological kids. During Vietnam we had teach-ins set up by the anti-war academics but providing equal time in debate for all. Over a decade of involvement with Vietnam, I always heard complaints about military “LOCALITIS” and saw how little understanding soldiers had of the overall war effort. But now it seems that now we hear about “SUPERFICIALITIS” from the very “been there” types, complaining of “being there” too short a time, causing dangerously shallow illusion that desperately need the bird’s eye view of WAR IN CONTEXT:

    “Being there” in war is not an observing mission for soldiers as you are there to violently change what they see; which brings on all sorts of unexpected changes called “the fog of war.” Best way of all to bring clarity is what WAR IN CONTEXT and TOM’S DISPATH were created to do: present the tactical in a strategic context. The ISAF Chief of Intel, Gen. Flynn, has recently said the same about our whoooole intel ops there, making “being there” dangerously senseless for our mom&dad soldiers pecking at the grains in front of their feet:

    Tom Engelhardt, like Paul Woodward, are model patriotic citizens who give the chicken-view pecking at the grains a panorama of meaning to a soldier’s ultimate risk of life for the nation that sends him/her into the jaws of peril. Thank you both!

  3. delia ruhe

    ‘“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.’

    If “being there” justifies what the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama administrations have done there, then it’s a good thing that so many of us have not been there.

  4. Richard Rosenwald

    To use an old but nonetheless accurate expression while in the midst of a given environment whether it be Iraq, Afghanistan or somewhere else:

    “…can’t see the forest for the trees.”

  5. DICKERSON3870

    RE: On that day (9/11) a neoconservative cabal grasped the opportunity to set in motion a process that has shaped the last decade: the Israelification of the world. – Woodward

    ALSO SEE – Shadow Elite: March to War — The Neocon Playbook, Straight from the Soviet Bloc, By Janine R. Wedel, 03/25/10

    During March, to mark seven years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Shadow Elite column has been focusing on what I call in my book the “Neocon core,” a tiny circle of longtime ideological allies who used their interlocking relationships across government, think tanks, business, and national borders to achieve their vision of asserting American power, and firepower, to remake the Middle East. This week: how I came to understand the core’s modus operandi: through my experience studying the mechanisms of power and influence in post-Cold War eastern Europe.


  6. Yaw and Mog

    What sound does a tree make falling in a forest when you are not there to hear it?

    There are people who have been to the forest and they describe it in their own words, in their own objective or subjective points of view. Then there are those who haven’t been to the forest, but imagine the sound and describe it. And there are those who listen to both sets of people — the ones who have heard it and the ones who have imagined it — and they in turn make their own descriptions of the sound.

    Three opinions. Three interpretations. Three different sounds.

    And who are we to say that one is right above the other? But for the ultimate decision-maker, one must listen to all sounds, these interpretations borne of experience and knowledge, in order to arrive at an ideal course of action — and the true sound.

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