Yes, I know “abstractification” is not a real word, but I made it up to make a point about how public elites and opinion-makers on both the left and the right have treated Iraq: as a pure abstraction unconnected to the concrete, empirical facts on the ground.
This was brought up when I had a conversation today with someone, and in any conversation with me, politics is never far away. Eventually the topic came to Iraq, and this is what my interlocutor had to say: “in the sense that Iraq has been an abstraction and something to argue, belittle, and roll one’s eyes about.”
That comment struck me as especially true, because the war itself has become anything but the war: it has become a concept, a blank slate onto which different people project different things. I realized just how abstract the war has become when it’s being used by both the Berkeley military protestors and Frank Rich when he compared the war to Hillary’s presidential campaign.
In other words, the war has lost pretty much all “real” significance to the opinion-makers and public elites back home; instead, the war has become a concept that can be used in whatever arguments that they wish to make.
This is essentially George Packer’s argument in this World Affairs Journal piece. In that piece, he argues that “In the United States, the war is an abstraction that routinely shades into caricature. For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like.”
That is precisely the case: we are very disconnected from the war, and we hardly know what is going on the ground, which is ironic, considering the fact that if we wanted to, we could watch the war coverage in the media for 24 hours non-stop, because that’s how much “information” there is right now on the war.
The implication of this abstractification of the war is that “Each side picked and chose from its own catalogue of facts, and one’s opinion about everything from body armor to body counts was decided accordingly.”
The most damning argument comes when Packer says that, “In a sense, they believed or refused to believe each story before it was published, even before it occurred. There wasn’t a moment’s pause to digest information, much less to weigh facts dispassionately; objectivity wasn’t even an aspiration. What mattered was whether the facts supported the theory or not. Throughout the opinion classes, the impulse to keep a little part of the brain open to inconvenient facts seemed to have been extinguished. In magazine offices, bloggers’ bedrooms, Hollywood studios, and the White House, a fantasy war was underway, a demonstration of American virtue or a series of crimes against humanity—both of them self-serving fictions.”
That pretty much sums it up as far as I’m concerned. And I’m not saying that I have been innocent either. After all, the tendency to conceptualize and make abstract is indelibly human, but after 5 years, it really does look like the war has been emptied of its empirical character, instead assuming an entirely political/abstract one.
But this is of course only from our perspective, the people who are not affected by the war, who can view the war from a safe distance. For the people actually involved in the war–the soldiers and the civilians–the war is hardly a “concept”; it is fucking real and happening NOW, and will continue to happen for decades to come.
So the next time you hear the incessant, endless debates about whether the surge is working or not, whether we should gradually or quickly withdrawal, blah blah blah, just try to remember that we have no fucking clue what it’s like to be in the middle of it, that perhaps we should exercise a little epistemological scepticism when bombarded by pundits and elites from the left and right.