All Splendid on the TV Gulf War Front
THE video dazzle of the Gulf war calls to mind a very different account of a very different war. The book is ``All Quiet on the Western Front,'' and it portrays the trench warfare of World War I. The account is so human, so wrenching and grisly in detail, that a reader is immune forever to the notion that war can be glorious, or intriguing, or fun. ``All Quiet'' should be required reading for all fascinated by this TV war. And the trenches of World War I hold a further lesson in this regard, one that is little known. It concerns the difference between communication and control. Far from their high commands, soldiers on the front became peacemakers on their own. They were facing one another from trenches for weeks or even months. Their forces were evenly matched. Any assault by one would be more than matched by the other.
And so the German soldiers on one side, the French and English on the other, adopted the adage, ``Live and let live.''
It began with cease-fires at dinner time, Robert Axelrod recounts in his book, ``The Evolution of Cooperation.'' Gradually, the sides began to fraternize and arrange informal truces. The high commands put a stop to these, but the survival instinct was not easily crushed. In place of truces, the two sides worked out unspoken rituals of cooperation.
They settled into fixed artillery routines, for example, so both sides knew exactly what was coming, and could stay out of the way. ``At seven it came - so regularly you could set your watch by it,'' a German soldier recalled of the British fire. ``It always had the same [target].'' Once, a salvo came unexpectedly from the German side while the British were out of their trenches. A German soldier appeared immediately on a parapet to apologize. ``We are very sorry about that,'' he shouted. ``It is that damned Prussian artillery.''
The high commands finally disrupted these arrangements, by ordering the soldiers to go on raids. But how did they last so long? The reason, partly, is lack of communication. The soldiers in the WWI trenches were isolated and alone. A high-tech age assumes this is a state of backwardness; if only they had better radios or phones, or better still, TV.
Yet happily out of touch with the central command, the soldiers in the trenches could follow their own best instincts. Intelligence doesn't always flow from the top down; when ``communication'' becomes a matter of technology, it can mean being wired to ignorance or manipulation. Technology means control - control over troops, and today, increasing control over viewers at home.
There has been much discussion of technology in the Gulf war. Many reports sound like military procurement catalogs or ads for further Stars Wars funding. Coincidentally or not, one of the major networks, NBC, is owned by a major defense contractor, General Electric. The United States doesn't make much that the world wants to buy anymore, weapons excepted. The war has been a kind of airborne trade show, for weapons buyers abroad.
The military used to talk of ``spinoffs'' from weapons research to consumer products. As weaponry becomes more arcane, however, that happens less and less. So now, it spins off images instead. President Bush has declared this won't be ``another Vietnam.'' One thing he means, apparently, is that the military will control the images on the evening news. The weaponry has become a TV production crew: neat views through bomber range-finders and the like. The technology is looking at itself, calling itself splendid.
One effect, is that war seems fun. ``It makes me want to go play a video game,'' a friend said. Another effect is to deaden thought. A student at Kent State University - a hub of Vietnam protest - complained to a reporter that his fellow students were ``apathetic'' about the war. Why? ``Everyone has settled down in their armchairs with their popcorn and are ready to watch the war on TV.'' And this student was trying to organize demonstrations to support the war.
We are all wired to the high command. The message of ``All Quiet on the Western Front'' has been reversed. In the future, resistance to using - or selling - these weapons will be less. Unless we turn off the tube, and read the book again.