If we believe that the present war in Iraq is just and necessary, why do we shrink from looking at the damage it wreaks? Why does the government that ordered the war and hails it as an instrument of good then ask us to respect those who died in the cause by not describing and depicting how they died? And why, in response, have newspapers gone along with Washington and grown timid about showing photos of the killing and maiming? What kind of honor does this bestow on those who are sent to fight in the nation’s name?
Some readers may object to my use of the word slaughter. I do respect other points of view. But I served in the military, and as a reporter I covered several wars—in India, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I came away persuaded that whether one considers a particular war necessary or misguided, the military goal in armed combat is always to kill and thus render helpless those on the other side. That being the case, what is a government’s basis for depriving the public of candid press coverage of what war is all about? How else can voters make informed decisions about a war their government has led them into? The true reason why a government—in this case, the Bush administration—tries to censor and sanitize coverage is to prevent a public outcry against the war, an outcry that might bring down the administration.
It’s tempting to say the concept of gravitas died unremarked in the past four years, along with irony, self-awareness, humility and grace.
But read this, I mean it, read the whole thing. And then when you go and read Ass Missile or Jonah Goldberg, think about something I often notice and always admire in writing: authority.
It’s a hard concept to realize as a writer. There’s no formula to convey to your audience that you know whereof you speak. There’s no easy plug-in-the-verbs-and-dates system to capture the particular voice that tells your readers, I saw this, dammit, I know. And that’s because it’s not an artifcial construct, and you either have it or you don’t.
There’s a lot of opinions about this war. There’s a lot of writing, a lot of punditting, a lot of public gnashing of teeth and hashing-out of strategy and view. I’m inclined to listen to people like Schanberg, whether I always agree with them or not, because it’s blindingly obvious no matter which side of this octagon you’re on that this person speaks with authority, and owns what he says.
Second rate pundits like Goldberg and Hinderaker could, if they cared that much, take lessons.