Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 War and Dramaturgy 

May 6, 2003

Lately I’ve 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 weren’t 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 take notes.

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 terrorism.”

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.

[Breaker quote: Hitchcock and Bush]Still, the 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 Hussein’s 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 they’ll believe anything.

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 didn’t even appear when Saddam Hussein’s 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 couldn’t 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 audience’s mood and attention, to distract their minds from inconsistencies and improbabilities — and even from yesterday’s 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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