I hate TV commercials, so when I want to watch a program, I usually tape it so as to fast-forward through the ads. Consequently, I’m a little behind in my viewing. There’s a tall stack of gray videotapes by the VCR, each with its little cache of programs I mean to watch as soon as I have the time.
Most TV viewers have their little festishes: I hate hospital shows and love courtroom dramas and “Battlestar Galactica.” I’m scared to watch vampires and slashers and nauseated by dissections of corpses, but have no trouble stomaching forensic scientists’ descriptions of depraved acts. I’d heard quite a bit of good buzz about Steven Bochco’s new show, “Over There,” about the war in Iraq. I liked Bochco’s earlier show, “N.Y.P.D. Blue.” So I taped it. But would I like it? I couldn’t predict if it would be blood-and-guts battle or “M.A.S.H.”-type gallows humor or follow the style set by fifties war stories, where O’Leary and Rabinowitz and Washington and Lopez all find they are brothers under the skin in the crucible of war. The series has been running more than a month, but Wednesday night, I began to watch the first episode.
I can’t remember all the characters’ names–they had a rainbow of names like O’Leary and Rabinowitz and Washington and Lopez of old, and nicknames like “Dim,” “Doc,” “Doublewide” and “Mrs. B”–or all their backstories. But we did meet their spouses and babies, and within a few minutes of the opening credits, we were given an inkling of how it might feel to leave one’s infant in a high chair and walk out the door, saying, “I’ll be back in a year.” We viewers were introduced to an array of war themes and social issues: racism, class conflicts and gender differences all poked their heads above the plot in the first half-hour. The script focused on the postmodern military’s absurd regard for public relations over safety: on their first day in Iraq, our new friends found themselves stuck in foxholes, taking fire from a nearby building, forbidden to return fire because a reporter from Al-Jazeera was reputed to be inside and the brass were still discussing the implications. It was well-acted, the dialogue was lively and engaging. It was a good show.
I watched about half of it before I felt I had to turn it off or my head would explode. This was an interesting reaction. Why?
The feeling that gathered in my chest was a kind of shock. This is unseemly, I thought, making entertainment out of a war that’s being fought in real life right now. But as soon as I heard myself think it, questions began to form. I’ve watched countless World War II movies. I’ve watched innumerable gunslingers saunter down the dusty main street of Tombstone and Dodge, trying to kill each other point-blank. What made them different? The deaths those films and TV shows depicted were precisely as real (i.e., based on historic fact) and as unreal (manufactured on a soundstage somewhere in Hollywood) as “Over There.”
I suppose the first difference is in formal dramatic structure. Cowboy movies and American pictures about World War II reenact set-pieces the main thrust of which is almost always reassurance that after a good fight, the forces of truth and justice will triumph. We have an agreement about how those stories came out and we tend to feel comforted by seeing it repeated, the way a child will want to hear the same story each night before bed.
But the war in Iraq hasn’t settled into its final form. It is full of ambiguity. As depicted both in “Over There” and in real-life stories, soldiers signed up for myriad reasons, from economic desperation to passionate idealism I would call misplaced. (I heard a snatch of a fascinating talk show on Thursday on our local NPR station, John Hockenberry and several soldiers who’ve created popular blogs from Iraq. Click here and go to “Military Bloggers” on August 25th to hear it.) Above all, we don’t know how the story comes out, and that produces anxiety, not reassurance.
In the end, even though I started out on my high horse scolding the makers about seemliness, I had to admit it was my own squeamishness that made me turn off the TV. I’ve consumed a lot of news about the war, but most of it has been through those cool, distanced, old media, print and radio. There, images of suffering are either frozen moments dispelled by turning the page or even more ephemeral, shadows my own mind generates to illustrate what I am hearing in voiceover.
In contrast, television drama almost always works by reeling the viewer in through close-ups that foster empathy, so that we are affected by what happens to an individual character with whom we feel some sort of bond, however manipulated. The first time I felt my stomach clench–which was when the camera cut away from one of the two women soldiers just as she was surprised by an armed man wearing a kafiya as she laid down her rifle to relieve herself in an isolated spot–I thought “Whoa! What do I have to do this to myself for? I’m already against the war!”
But really, I think there’s a deeper and less noble truth. I want the war to be over. I want us to turn a comparable level of attention and resources to healing what we have harmed, replacing our military presence with aid. But if it’s not going to be over yet, on a gut level, I want it to keep out of my head and stay over there.
Obviously, no one has a moral obligation to watch TV drama, the overriding purpose of which is to sell whatever is advertised between scenes. “Over There” seemed anti-war to me: I found myself thinking that someone (but evidently not myself) ought to watch it, that it would have a positive effect on ending the war. But from the bit I saw, I have a hunch “Over There” will be calibrated within a nanodegree of absolute “balance,” in TV terms, doling out equal measures of character or action or story-line that can be perceived as “pro-” or “anti-war,” so that most viewers can find enough of their own values reflected in it to keep watching.
So like most viewers, I was watching through a mirror. This morning, I am a little uncomfortable with what I see there: I am wondering if in wanting what’s over there to stay over there, I have seen in myself the evasion and indifference that allow the war to continue.