WASHINGTON — One of the gravest losses attendant with the spread of broadcast media is, I suppose, perspective. Yes, the public gains pictures, film clips, and sound bites, but we lose perspective and with that judgment, always at the expense of sound policy.
The moral revulsion now being felt about the despicable behavior at Abu Ghraib prison is warranted to the utmost. Senator Joseph Lieberman is always careful to describe the guards’ behavior as first “immoral.” That is the most damning thing that can be said about it and the most pertinent. After that all the other descriptions rendered by the politicians and journalists tend towards coloratura. What is essential is that the civilized not lose a sense of proportion. American forces, aided by other members of the coalition, are in Iraq to pacify that country and give its citizens a chance for peace and freedom. Our government and our soldiers have paid a high price for this expansion of American security and civilized values. Saddam’s regime was crueler than anything done at Abu Ghraib prison.
What precisely happened will take time to establish. Writing several years after World War I in his The Irish Guards in the Great War, Rudyard Kipling noted, “The only wonder to the compiler of these records is that any sure fact whatever should be retrieved out of the whirlpools of war.” When war breaks out order breaks down and reason takes a holiday. We must attempt to maintain reason but that is difficult, especially when the blare of the modern media drives out perspective.
The other night in New York the Englishman Sir Martin Gilbert, one of the great historians of our time and among other things the authorized biographer of Winston Churchill, spoke of history and biography during a lively dinner with assembled journalists and some public policy types. One of the policy types was a representative of the Iraqi National Congress. Asked about the pictures that are being broadcast of mistreatment at the Abu Ghraib prison, the Iraqi noted that his countrymen have available video of torture practiced in Iraqi prisons by Saddam’s torturers. They buy and sell the videos on the street. They show dogs eating prisoners alive and prisoners being put in shredders. Our guards, devotees I presume of Hustler magazine, were mere amateurs, slaves to infantile sex.
What troubled our Iraqi interlocutor more was the tardiness with which our government is handing authority back to Iraqis. He insisted there were sufficient numbers of Iraqis with a sufficient longing for good government to get on with governing Iraq. I was not so sure, but here Martin Gilbert interrupted me. He thought the Iraqi made a plausible case, and then the historian went on to talk of the vast effort his country and ours had made to maintain freedom against the Nazi and fascist brutes in World War II.
Gilbert’s two-volume history of the world wars has just been released in paperback. Reading through his introduction to World War I reminded me vividly of the price our countries have had to pay to bring us to our present level of freedom. In his introduction Gilbert recounts visits he has made to World War I battle sites, for instance, Ypres in 1967, “where we listened each evening at eight o’clock to the Last Post, sounded at the Menin Gate….While the buglers played under the vast archway of Menin Gate, all traffic was stopped.” On the gate’s walls are carved the names of 54,896 British soldiers who died there between 1914 and 1917. He visited the Tyne Cot Memorial at Passchendaele where the names of another 34,888 British soldiers are carved. Again they have no graves. And in this moving introduction Gilbert proceeds to talk of other grave sites and memorials to the nine million soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in World War I. Another five million civilians are estimated to have perished in that war.
What is going on in the Middle East is not pleasant, but it in no way compares with the suffering and loss endured in the last century to secure peace, security, and some degree of liberty for us and the world. Reading the printed page gives us a better chance at perspective than being bombarded by film footage and sound bites.