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Democracy’s Ultimate Cover-Up

It began with the right to vote. But democratization’s mass-market successes lie elsewhere. Public schools democratized education. Universal literacy and penny-cheap newspapers democratized information. Refrigeration democratized good diets. Cheap travel democratized tourism. Department stores democratized luxury. Media democratized entertainment. The Internet demo-cratized publishing. On goes the list of equality’s triumphs. Not only could the masses be trusted to make their own choices; they’d do a better job than the “elites” ever did.

One exception looms over this impulse to democratize. When it comes to war, we’d rather know as little as possible. Leave it to the few to tell us what it’s about, to lie or tell us nothing at all. We’re fine with generalities and features about hometown heroes, with embedded stories earnestly self-censored. Just don’t tell us battlefield truths. I’m not referring to troop movements and tactics, which don’t mean anything to anyone except those directly involved. Of course they shouldn’t be publicized. I’m talking about the human (and inhuman) stories of the battlefield and its periphery, the indiscriminate suffering of civilians and soldiers, the brutality that mocks the claim that any of it is human, or done on behalf of humanity.

“The vanquished know the essence of war—death,” wrote Chris Hedges, the former New York Times war correspondent. “They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.” Yet those are the only narratives the military and its complicit media allow.

Maybe most of us, democratically minded as long as it’s convenient, don’t want to know what a more democratic perspective of war entails. But if we’re willing to send soldiers to war, the least we can do is know what they’re going through, what’s being inflicted on them and what they’re inflicting on others—uncensored. The Pentagon would have us think that the quickest way to lose support for a war is to show its gory details unfiltered. Not true. The gory details don’t help. But the quickest way to go to war is to not know the gore, as most Americans historically haven’t (and refuse to know). The quickest way to lose support is to start an illegitimate war and to keep fighting long after it’s been proven unwinnable and inflaming of the very brutalities it supposedly set out to eliminate. One reason we’re still in Iraq is because the Bush administration and the Pentagon continue to lie—mostly by omission and invention—about the war’s viciousness at its most basic level. They don’t just sanitize the news out of Iraq. They bleach it. They hide death. The major media, unable or unwilling to cover most of the war free of a military escort, go along.

But the democratic impulse can’t be denied in these technologically savvy days, not even in war. Blogs written by ordinary Iraqis have given a more consistently honest picture of the day-to-day bleakness of the war than has the mainstream press. Now actual images of the war—videos by soldiers, ordinary Iraqis and insurgents—are making their way to the Internet, breaking down the last taboo: An American soldier falling from a sniper’s bullet, a patrol blown up by a roadside bomb, a beheaded or tortured corpse (one of the dozens found every day on the streets of Iraqi cities), a suicide bomber executing his last deed. Two of the major video-sharing Web sites where many of the videos are appearing are censoring them as fast as they’re able to find them. But the videos or other sites that carry them thankfully reproduce faster than the impulse to suppress them.

Thankfully, because it is no one’s business to decide what the public ought and ought not to see from the war. It makes no difference if the video is an insurgent’s propaganda device or an American soldier’s cell-phone missive home. The images being shown are images of a war whose truths we’ve otherwise been denied from its earliest days. The images’ propagation through the Internet is a reaction against the mainstream media’s timidity, which has been indistinguishable from dishonesty. War’s truths, finally, are being democratized. We’re starting to see war through the eyes of the vanquished, as these unsanitized videos allow. It’s only appropriate, now that we are the vanquished. Earlier honesty might have kept us from getting this far.

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