It’s election week in the U.S. of A. The candidates have smiled, shaken hands and rolled up their sleeves, brought their fist hard down on the podium and blamed the other guy for months now. Campaign activities are telescoping towards the one, decisive day, Tuesday, November 6th. And U.S. publisher Simon & Schuster chose to commemorate this quadrennial event with the paperback release of We Got Him!: A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein, written by retired US army lieutenant colonel, Steve Russell. There are many things that trouble me about this, and most of them coalesce around that exclamation mark.
We Got Him!… chronicles the six months leading up to Saddam Hussein’s capture, from the perspective of Russell and his battalion who were stationed in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. The titular phrase is taken from the statement given by US administrator Paul Bremer upon Hussein’s capture, which opened, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.” The BBC did not report an exclamation point at the end of this sentence when they published Bremer’s statement in full, which we can perhaps assume was issued as a press release. And yet, there in the book’s title an exclamation mark proudly stands to attention.
The exclamation mark introduces the book from the outset as entertainment, as celebration, and in some ways as propaganda. It sensationalizes an account of a deeply complex, and far from uniformly successful war. It showcases, for your consideration, this one-sided account, written in the format of the incredibly commercially profitable, celebrity ‘memoir’, and encourages its listing by the bookreporter.com as a ‘thriller’. That this account exists in this commercial and entirely profitable state, at all, is concerning.
The publishers’ description of the book, on their website, sets it up it in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination: “When U.S. forces exterminated Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1, 2011, the world cheered not only the death of the 9/11 terrorist mastermind but the unmatched might, skill, and perseverance of America’s military elite.” This language reinforces a hegemonic U.S. world-view, in which America is always the victor. The “unmatched skill and perseverance” of the army, these words belong on propaganda posters.
The popular new US drama, Newsroom, recently previewed a fictional depiction of the moment when Osama’s death was announced, and, indeed, the room clapped and cheered. I did not. And I can imagine few Brits cheering, either. It is not just that I find it distasteful and slightly chilling – cheering death in any form, it is that this cheering only reinforces the tunnel vision and obtuseness that began the Iraq war in the first place. To cheer is to forget that invasion was an arbitrary and rash decision, that it has been messy and unsuccessful process since then. The death of two dangerous men does not change this.
This cheering is of the particular brand of patriotism that defines the U.S., and here reveals itself as a gleeful, vengeful patriotism. It extends to the all-encompassing (self-interested) worldview held by America, that basically goes ‘either you’re with us or you’re against us, and if you’re against us then it is our duty (and our right) to extinguish you’. And it is very much in America’s interests that there are, and remain, high-profile enemies against which patriots can rally; and subsequent mythologies surrounding the ‘extermination’ (as Simon & Schuster so charmingly put it) of these enemies by smiling, apple pie-fed American soldiers. This book is both mythology and the celebration thereof wrapped up in one package.
That the paperback release of We Got Him! comes less than a week before the US general election is no coincidence. As the publisher spins it, Sadam’s capture led directly to the circumstances allowing for Osama’s death, and therefore “opened the door for the most recent and essential victory in the War on Terror”. This is the worst case of history as told by the victors – where the victors aren’t victorious, and the story is political collateral. This release is well-positioned to remind (and gain from reminding) the American public of their superior international position and dominance. It is self-congratulatory and self-fulfilling. When America defines itself through a foreign policy of dominance and violence, this becomes the only role through which it can assert a coherent identity.
President Obama also turned his attention to books this week. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the current president discussed novelist Ayn Rand (of The Fountainhead) and her Salinger-esque appeal to the self-obsession of youth, “…as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else…that’s a pretty narrow vision.” However, the President couldn’t resist concluding his answer once more with an attack on his current closest enemy, the Republican Party. In a political system predicated on bi-partisan battles and one-upmanship I see little hope in the near future for America growing up.
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