People Who Need People

Wired has a video depicting a robotic mine clearing device. The little machine fires a line charge across the intended path of advance and — boom — a path is cleared. It’s called APOBS, short for Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System. It’s proponents are at pains to say that “APOBS isn’t meant to kill people. But obviously, it could produce a deadly result.”. Deadly is now bad PR. Wired goes on to explain that the fundamental public problem with the concept of ‘killer robots’ is the ‘killer’ part.  So don’t worry: in the video below, not a single animal, unless you count the bugs crawling on the ground or flying in the air, were harmed in its production. It’s as harmless as the CGI in Avatar. And that’s the way modern Western man likes things. Clean and sanitary, untouched by human tears.


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Why so? Perhaps as a result of exposure to movies and videos, society is accustomed to seeing a dramatic arc. Unless it looks like a movie it isn’t real. But what about the physical details? Isn’t for example, an oil spill at the bottom of the ocean real? Sure. But not as real as the images are to us. Let’s see if Maureen Dowd can persuade herself to take the greasy stuff seriously — as greasy stuff. Nope. The problem with the oil leak in the Gulf, she writes, is that it looks bad for the President. “It’s not a good narrative arc … one little hole a mile down on the ocean floor, so deep it seems like hell spewing up its sulfurous smoke, has turned the thrilling saga of ‘The One’ into the gurgling horror of ‘The Abyss.'” After reading the rest of the article it is clear that Dowd actually means it. The actual problem isn’t the oil. Which of us has actually physically seen that oil? But how many have seen Barack Obama starring in a bad movie. Lots of people. So that’s the real problem. Birds don’t vote but people who watch television and read the New York Times do. That’s reality. So what’s in the images?

Besides the roiling water below, the skies opened from above and gusting, lightning-streaked rains drowned the president’s plans to give a Memorial Day speech at the Lincoln cemetery near Chicago. On the evening news, pictures of the president standing under an umbrella shooing people off the soggy field were a sad contrast to the wildly sentimental Joe Biden presiding, hand on heart, over a sunny and moving Memorial Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery.


Pictures, atmosphere, lights, camera, action. From a certain point of view all problems are about bad sets and hammy acting. Dowd was at pains to emphasize further on that the President and his Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, made themselves look ridiculous. It’ wasn’t that they lacked competence. Even Peggy Noonan has given up on finding that in the White House. Gibbs and Obama came across as uncool. That’s unforgiveable.

After Gibbs asserted that his boss was “enraged” at BP, CBS News’s Chip Reid skeptically pressed: “Have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no.”

“I’ve seen rage from him, Chip,” Gibbs insisted. “I have.”

Reid asked for an exact definition of what constitutes emotion for Obama: “Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do?”

Gibbs mentioned the words “clenched jaw” and the president’s admonition to “plug the damn hole.”

How does a man who invented himself as a force by writing one of the most eloquent memoirs in political history lose control of his own narrative?

Maybe public life has reached the stage where words, spin and images are no longer required to represent reality because words, spin and images are reality. At least to people who work in the media that may be literally true. Consider the Obama administration’s advice to Israel with respect to an oncoming ‘humanitarian’ flotilla bound for Gaza.  Is it about the logistics of keeping resources from Hamas? Is it about seeing to it that there are no rocket parts in the cargo. Hell no. It’s about keeping the optics nice. “What’s most important to the President is that events like the one that transpired a couple nights ago don’t transpire again,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said Wednesday. “So we are talking to our partners and are hopeful that we won’t see a repeat.” If you’re a military organization worried about lead and things flying through the air at supersonic speed it’s a wholly new paradigm, this image thing is. The problem is that Israel, perhaps because it doesn’t have an unlimited number of special forces types, is going to use the same unit to intercept the next flotilla.


Still, the Israel Navy will likely choose the same unit – Flotilla (Shayetet) 13 – to lead a commandeering operation of the ships expected to try to break the sea blockade of Gaza later this week, according to defense officials.

“No other unit has the capabilities that the shayetet has in boarding and commandeering ships in the middle of the ocean,” one defense official said Wednesday. “They are the best unit for the operation.”

They’re nitwits for thinking that operational goals are the purpose of the operation. It’s pictures. Pictures. Of course some cultures don’t care about pictures at all. In contrast to the US mine clearing bot, the Nazis simply marched Soviet prisoners across minefields to clear them. That solved the problem of feeding POWs and clearing the mines at one stroke. The Soviets, not to be outdone, used Soviet citizens to march across Nazi minefields to clear them out. “Russian people were forced under Soviet Power by NKVD bayonets and “blocking detachments” to clear minefields with their bodies, advance in dark clothing over snow to draw German fire, charge machinegun posts unarmed and generally be slaughtered brutally and anonymously in the name of maintaining Soviet Power. All this while well trained and equipped NKVD troops were used to guard the Russian gulags.” During the Iraq-Iran war, Khomeini did Hitler and Stalin one better. He used Iranian children to clear pathways through minefields.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran’s forces were no match for Saddam Hussein’s professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child’s neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them.

At one point, however, the earthly gore became a matter of concern. “In the past,” wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, “we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone.” Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers. “Before entering the minefields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves.”


Who needs an APOBS when you’ve got willpower like that? None of this matters because as Maureen Dowd probably knows, facts depicting non-Western ‘brutality’ don’t count at all in stories. Nobody is interested in them. Now talk about a guy handling a Koran without gloves and you have a war crime. That’s what is meant by narratives. Speaking of narratives, the one word which neither Burton nor the White House have used with respect to the “humanitarian flotillas” is that they are a type human shield tactic. Like the Nazis and the Soviets and the Ayatollah, Hamas figures that if you send enough human shields into the Israeli blockade the inevitable collision will clear a path through which all kinds of goodies can eventually flow through to Hamas. That’s as plain as day, as is the actual fact that the “human shield” tactic is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. But you have to establish that to the public, creative the narrative as it were. Since the media knows it won’t sell, why bother to talk about it.

Human shield is a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of civilians in or around combat targets to deter an enemy from attacking those targets. It may also refer to the use of civilians to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing the civilians to march in front of the soldiers. This is done in the hope that the other party will be reluctant to attack them. Furthermore, if the other party attacks these targets anyway, the resulting civilian casualties have propaganda value. Using this technique increases the civilian casualty rate and is illegal by any nation that is party to the Fourth Geneva Convention.


Perhaps Maureen Dowd is right. From long experience, she may have come to believe that nothing matters except appearances. The storyline, the dek, the masthead, the narrative — these are the atomic bombs of the 21st century. Call a person a ‘peace activist’ and though he might be Charles Manson himself, an aura of sanctity descends upon him. Call a flotilla humanitarian for long enough, even though the humanitarian goods they deliver are themselves refused by the recipients unless imbued with political content, and the flotilla becomes humanitarian. “Hamas officials on Wednesday refused to allow into the Gaza Strip 21 truckloads of humanitarian aid that had been offloaded from the Gaza-bound flotilla ships currently docked at Ashdod Port, until ‘all’ of those detained in Monday’s naval raid were released.” It’s all in the labeling. What’s inside the can is irrelevant. The goods are spoiled anyhow; they’ve been touched by Jewish hands.

Once upon a time “making a difference” meant changing reality. It meant winning actual victories, making actual things, saving actual lives. Today it means changing the narrative, altering perceptions, hiding brutality, or better yet, convincing the audience that brutality happens only when the dramatic cues come on. Dowd ends on this note:

This president has made it clear that he’s not comfortable outside whatever domain he’s defined. But unless he wants his story to be marred by a pattern of passivity, detachment, acquiescence and compromise, he’d better seize control of the story line of his White House years. Woe-is-me is not an attractive narrative.

Is it a sane thought? Perhaps it is, within the terms of our world. But it is certainly an original one; a rewrite of Macbeth in its last word, though not necessarily a better one.


“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying everything.”

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