September 8, 2007

Fighting in the Trenches


by John Lucaites

In the “Great War,” cultural historian Paul Fussell writes about trench warfare as a troglodyte world in which the soldier experiences an “unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented  and lost.”  He concludes that “the drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable.”

This quotation came to mind this past week when I encountered this photograph, which led off a Washington Post slideshow of Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) visiting the troops at Ft. Benning during the recent summer recess.

According to the caption, the senator “takes part in virtual reality firearms training.”  He does this, mind you, while still wearing a suit and tie, though he’s taken off his jacket, presumably to give himself a bit more flexibility to engage the “enemy.”

The scene is clean, almost antiseptically so, and given that no one wears air plugs, we might assume that the noise level is relatively quiet; not at all like the mind numbing din one might expect in a real fire fight.  There certainly doesn’t seem to be any danger, such as enemy combatants shooting back—otherwise we can assume he would be wearing some sort of flak jacket— and presumably no one is worried about an IED going off.

Indeed, while those shooting the “virtual reality firearms” seem to be intensely involved in what they are doing, everyone else standing around seems to be relaxed and having a good time.  Not unlike a scene we might see at, say, a local video arcade, which we know is where the Pentagon went as it searched out new ways to train its troops in the late 1990s.

The idea of killing people with high powered, automatic weapons while in the comfort of one’s own home (or in one’s “home district,” as it is here) would seem to be a horrifying, if not “unspeakable activity,” but here it is totally and thoroughly domesticated and normalized.

What makes the image all the more disturbing is that, according to his website, Senator Isakson served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966 to 1972.  There is no evidence that this unit ever deployed, nor is there mention of his having served in Vietnam or in combat anywhere else.  But he has been an active and vocal advocate for President Bush’s war strategy from the very beginning.

One can only wonder if his attitude and support for this war would be different if he were to have experienced a “real one,” in the trenches, rather than a “virtual one” at a place rather like the local mall.

John Louis Lucaites is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and the blog No Caption Needed.

(image: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post.  Fort Benning, Georgia. August 2007.

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