War and Dramaturgy
May 6, 2003
Lately Ive been watching some old Alfred
Hitchcock movies for the umpteenth time, particularly
Vertigo and North by Northwest. And what
splendid films they are, combining suspense, romance, and polish.
One obvious objection to them is
that their plots are so full of improbabilities. The more you watch them,
the more you notice this. They werent meant for repeated viewing
on home video by a cranky old pedant. They were meant for the big screen
in a crowded theater, where the audience came to share thrills, not to
Hitchcock had a gift for
sweeping the audience along with absorbing action. I suspect that the
improbabilities were conscious. The old man had a mischievous humor, and
he liked to see how much he could get away with. It was a test of his
virtuousity. Like a magician, he kept the audience so preoccupied with the
illusion that they forgot all about logic. His tricks pass unobserved until
you go looking for them.
In a similar way, though less
adroitly, the Bush administration has tricked us into war with successive
distractions. Renewed war on Iraq was plotted long ago. The audience
the American people had no inkling of this. They were
caught up in the plot twists. The 9/11 terrorist attacks made them
receptive to any retaliation. They applauded the initial strikes on
Afghanistan, which were plausibly related to a war on
With this emotional momentum,
the administration charged that Iraq had weapons of mass
destruction, which might be given to terrorists. The suspense built.
The dramatic climax beckoned. Antiwar protests, like critics
cavils, only seemed to get in the way of the plot. On with the show!
For months the critics demanded
proof of the WMDs, of links with terrorist groups. The
administration insisted that both were real, but offered only repetitious
allegations and dubious evidence. When Iraq failed to produce and
surrender the WMDs, the administration accused it of defying the United
Nations, even when it seemed to be cooperating with UN inspectors.
administration set a deadline for war, and the public expected more
action. Now the announced purpose of the war was to
liberate Iraq as a step toward bringing
democracy to the entire Middle East; the WMDs seemed to
fade in importance. Added to the mix were stories about Saddam
Husseins atrocities against his own subjects. These had nothing to
do with the defense of the United States, but as Hitchcock knew, a story is
only as good as its villain. Make the audience hate him, and theyll
A military attack would
dissipate the sense of confusion by distracting attention from the flaws
in the logic. The public had forgotten all about al-Qaeda and terrorism.
Saddam Hussein had long since replaced Osama bin Laden as the villain on
the front pages of newspapers and the covers of newsmagazines.
It was effective drama. All that
mattered now was an epic military victory, and it came quickly. Victory
was a sufficient climax, made all the sweeter by crowds of Iraqis
cheering the American troops. Never mind the original purpose of crushing
terrorism. Destroying the Iraqi army and toppling the new, substitute
villain was enough for the distracted audience.
And those WMDs? They were
never found. They didnt even appear when Saddam Husseins
regime and his very life were at stake. In order to tie up this very loose
end in the plot, the administration maintains that they are still there,
somewhere. Apparently Hussein had hidden them so well that even he
couldnt find them in time to save his own skin!
In the media age, even more than
ever, government is a form of mass entertainment. The trick is to control
the audiences mood and attention, to distract their minds from
inconsistencies and improbabilities and even from
yesterdays official line. Polls, images, ratings, focus groups, and
ultimately election results these are the things that count, not
principles and constitutions.
Yet behind all the short-term,
short-sighted purposes and slogans, a larger historical pattern is visible,
of which the administration, captivated by its own dramaturgy, is barely
aware. The great wars of 1914 to 1989 can be seen as a single gigantic
struggle for global supremacy, ending in an American victory. Now we are
in a period of smaller wars of consolidation of the American Empire. That,
not terrorism or democracy, is what the Iraq war was really about.