in German - see German
- thanks to
Margaret Ewing for translating this text for me!
“Imagine there is war and
nobody shows up?”
War makes me sick!
War is escalating as I sit here trying to write something, though completely
ignorant on the subject. War reports – as “headline news”
– are a constant element of the media design of our environment.
On the radio and internet, in the newspaper and on television, they take
on a quasi-decorative function. War reports run next to advertisements,
shopping, entertainment, and a hundred other bits of information and distraction
(“infostractions”), and are released and sold by a few large
agencies – Reuters, Associated Press – nonstop, like on an
assembly line. Just now the situation in Lebanon is escalating, and its
airport has been bombed by Israel. (BBC, NYC Radio, Yahoo News, derstandard.at).
Yesterday’s newspaper published disaster photos from Mumbai of nearly
200 dead. (New York Times). I also read there that in the last 3 days
in Iraq there have been over 100 killed. The constant killing in Sudan
and in other regions of the world doesn’t make the news or headlines
right now. Furthermore, the deliberations and defacto preparations for
a preventative war against North Korea (Japan’s politicians and
defense minister are in agreement with this as of last week) and Iran
are forced into the background, although this changes the situation only
I feel sick.
I belong to the generations of Europeans who have no direct experience
of war. (No European wants to admit that the war and genocide in Yugoslavia
actually took place in Europe.) The current escalation in Lebanon could
theoretically have directly affected me when I visited this region two
years ago – something that further drives my ideas on the subject.
I also have plenty of friends here in NY whose relatives live in Haifa.
I experienced the destruction of the World Trade Center with my own eyes.
It still felt very abstract and unreal, even though I know quite a few
people who lost friends in this catastrophe and I had to inhale dirty
toxic air for a month and developed breathing problems. Based on worried
questions and discussions with Europeans and Americans who don’t
live here, it seems to me as if the destruction of the Twin Towers was
experienced for a longer time and more intensely than by those who were
here in the city. This has also been confirmed by all of the post-9/11
polls about the estimation of danger, the level of fear, and the desired
response in America. It is in this discrepancy between direct and imagined
experience that I see the power of the media over our ability to imagine.
The media plays a part in creating reality as it transforms an abstract
scene into pictures that feel like something personally experienced. When
I was in Moscow in 1991 (Yeltsin crisis, siege of parliament) protesting
with Russians between the tanks, I felt like a protagonist in a déjà-vu
soap opera, and so felt relatively secure, even though quite a few protesters
were shot nearby on the same night.
I know war only from the media and from the personal reports of people
who were affected. I remember, for example, a young Kosovar artist from
London, who I came across three years ago on the beach in Albania. In
response to my questions about war, he explained to me that he and three
friends from London flew to Kosovo voluntarily to participate in the war,
in order to defend his people. He was the only one who survived. That
took my breath away. I couldn’t ask anything further – I didn’t
want to know anymore. An oppressive feeling of shame and guilt mingled
with the heat of the day. I sensed that behind all these unimaginable
destructions called war that constantly surround us via impressive, aestheticized
photographs and reports, was a gaping banality that insignificantly, unrestrained,
and senselessly feeds the realm of the escalation of violence.
In the 60s and early 70s the two world wars were a matter of curious questions
and selective answers and accounts within the family, and were hardly
brought up in my schools. (My question to my father, “Did you shoot,
too?,” still remains unanswered, although his silence and the shrapnel
in his neck and skull are a kind of answer.) As children we could also
play in the ruins and old ditches of the wars, where we hid and even kissed.
Munitions shells and things from the attic like medals, pieces of uniforms,
duffel bags, shoes, and Reichsmarks were our toys. We also saw many people
with wartime disabilities, for whom we gave up our seats on the streetcar,
ahead of pregnant women, the blind, and the elderly. In the 70s and 80s
the threat of a nuclear winter hung over all of us like a real and unreal
ghost. In “London Calling,” The Clash sang about “nuclear
fear.” This ambivalent real-unreal aspect of the so-called Cold
War was part of a personal deep-rooted feeling. As a nihilistic teenager
with only an immediate short-lived sense of time, I was sure that I wouldn’t
make it to 30, having already lost my mother and brother prematurely (which
was attributed to the indirect psychological longterm effects of the Second
World War.) War would destroy us all.
My grandparents had survived two world wars, and my parents one, and their
memories and accounts – as well as the media – were not totally
wasted on us, but were rather compartmentalized into a part of our minds.
To us children, these world wars seemed very monumental and historically
overwhelming, and seemed to have been sent from God. Grandmother sometimes
took us to pray that another war would not break out. The war took on
a meteorological-theological quality, like a thunderstorm sent from God.
In Vorarlberg I felt geopolitically secure. The mountains seemed to offer
protection from atomic attacks, and there were no significant targets
in the immediate area. The mountains did not, however, protect us from
the radioactive fallout of the heavy clouds from Chernobyl, that quietly,
normally, harmfully, and inconceivably banally moved over the Alps. We
were unprepared for and unprotected against the rain that followed the
nuclear reactor disaster, and it brought countless numbers to their deaths.
This year’s dominant atmosphere of disarmament and peace movements
turned me into a confirmed pacifist. People protested and wore t-shirts,
bandanas, stickers, and buttons about peace and disarmament. People hitchhiked
to protest rallies, marches, and peace concerts in Germany, Italy, and
Switzerland. A famous quotation circulated in many forms, that was (perhaps
falsely) attributed to Bertold Brecht: “Imagine there is war and
nobody shows up.” I think it was also a subject for essays in German
schools. I was surprised to learn from Google just now, that this quotation,
which was so frequently printed on posters, was actually incomplete, and
that it has a deceptive ending that would dash the pacifist’s hopes:
“Imagine there is war and nobody shows up. Then the war comes to
you.” This ending, which contradicted the goals of pacifism, astonished
me. Without soldiers the war battlefield should stay empty, and war could
not continue on, and also not come to us. If a soldierless war came to
us, this would mean that the pacifist solution would not be preventing
war, but rather subtly calling for a mobilization for war. This would
make this solution of refusing to go to war pointless.
Today we can see that the complete quotation can also be understood literally,
and that battlefields can exist without soldiers. There is technology
where destruction can be programmed on a screen, and armies are replaced
by non-military outsourcing to semi-privatized special units. Soldierless
battlefields can also arise where unresolved political conflicts are unevenly
manifested, and gym bags and suicide bombs bring death and misery to packed
restaurants, commuter trains, subways, theaters, and outdoor markets.
It seems to me that battlefields have increasingly disappeared –
that is, spread out – over whole regions and halfcontinents. According
to the reactionary theoretician Samuel Huntington, whole cultures and
civilizations will turn into war scenes. Furthermore, troops are no longer
necessary, and no soldiers need to be there.
The media brings the war to our living rooms and desktops in an instant.
The hopeful solution of not going to war mutates into the question, “What
would happen if there was a war and nobody looked?” Or more specifically,
“What happens when we see the onscreen headlines but don’t
click on them?” All of us at least look at the computer and the
“headline news.” Thanks to sensitive technology, these news
currents track our internet activity. Whether or not we notice it, every
hit and site visit is counted, registered, analyzed, and turned into user
profiles. Without intending to, one runs the risk of landing on a site
that propagates radical content of every kind. The Big Brother from “1984”
lives on in 2006, within a large family with innumerable siblings that
take on every conceivable form, in a logarithmic nightmare and mathematical
butterfly effect. As we know, the State Department demanded search data
from Google and other search engines, in order to be able to create a
picture of the interests of many millions of users. There is war, and
if you look, you will be observed. It is surely a subtle form of self-censorship
and paranoia when I say that I don’t dare to follow all online links
and to study sinister news sources. (There are secret no-fly lists to
screen for potential riskgroups. Meanwhile we have found out that all
telephone conversations in the USA were being analyzed.)
I look in spite of the depressing global situation, though I must say
that I find it overtaxing. Looking, clicking, and navigating supplement
my newspaper subscription. With the click of the mouse, I can get the
radio programs from various international stations around the world, acoustically
rounding out my worldview through the Infopipeline. It is striking to
notice that there are hardly any differences between reports from Germany,
Austria, France, England, Japan, and the USA, not only in their presentation,
illustration, and time of release, but also in their interpretation. Perhaps
this is due to the fact that the original reports come from just a few
sources. War wants to be looked at, to be listened to. What we call terrorism
can’t exist without cameras and reporting. War and terrorism, terrorism
and war, become cut out and shaped for an international news audience.
U.S. citizens hardly see any U.S. casualties, and even fewer wounded soldiers.
The world is full of complicated interests and conflicts, and should not
be characterized as a fairytale. We have recently seen how cartoons themselves
can trigger violence, and trigger their own war scenes. An accurate description
of war involves not only the numbers of bombs and deaths, but also many
other kinds of representation. It is not surprising that journalists and
entire television networks are always coming under fire. They have become
another battlefield. Pictures follow bombs and bombs follow pictures.
In the post-Watergate era, this means “follow the money.”
This advice is also crucial in the study of violence and its causes. Americans
understand the business of money and the quick worldwide transfer of money
very well. They understand even better its power to finance, directly
and indirectly, their political, ideological, economic, and social interests
worldwide. The makeup of the current Bush administration corresponds more
or less to the makeup of the most important sectors of today’s global
economy: petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries, financial sectors,
and not least the military industrial complex. Interestingly enough, this
government lacks a representative of the so-called new technologies, a
field often associated with the tender age, liberal background, and diversity
of the main protagonist. These megainterests and concentrations of power
seem to function as bridgeheads in today’s war scenes and theaters
But the money and power also follow the pictures. Power, money, and pictures
go together just like war and interests. Knowledge and power, resources
and violence. The interesting difference between “Follow the money”
and “Follow the pictures” is that while money drains from
our pockets in the form of taxes, high prices, state robbery, corruption,
etc, pictures come to us. Pictures and misleading explanations also come
to us without us asking for them, wanted or only estimated. The unbalanced
trade of money, power, and the demands of powerful monopolies for pictures,
calculations, and lies has also become a billion dollar business. The
former Prime Minister Berlusconi, the most facelifted and richest man
in Italy who gave Bush complete apriori support for the war in Iraq, controls
the majority of the Italian media, and tailored laws like shirts for his
own purposes. The corresponding pictures followed.
Power and money determine how war is delivered to us, through either celebrations
of or publication bans against inadvertent pictures. Images of war are
therefore loaded with money, gods, and power, as well as pictures, ideologies,
and interests. Soldiers are secondary. There is much more to not going
to war: not paying, not believing, not participating in commerce, not
looking, not listening, not wanting, not consuming. But the war comes
right to us – is flung onto the population. Everyone is involved,
whether on the frontlines or at home, wearing a helmet or supposedly safe
from the weapons of death and destruction. During the Vietnam War (probably
after the death of Martin Luther King), they said that every bomb that
fell on Vietnam also exploded in an American city (“innercity”).
Today international terrorism illustrates these words again and again
(London, New York…).
The miniaturization of every kind of technology and weapons system (pocket-sized
laser guided weapons) and the global demographic changes and revolution
in transportation of the last 40 years have made every capital into a
reflection of the world’s population, turning the Niebelungenlied
dream of absolute invulnerability into fantasy. Mandated conflict resolution
has also changed the situation, so that absolutely clear military dominance
is increasingly an illusion. (The “mission accomplished” in
Iraq is an example.) After barely two weeks of fighting, the Israeli army
must realize their miscalculations, since Lebanon’s air attacks
have not been reduced 50% as expected. They are dealing with an enemy
that has not only Iranian weapons systems at its disposal, but also modern
Chinese rockets, with which they succeeded in destroying a ship at sea.
Meanwhile here in the U.S., the media discusses this as a “proxy
war” – as connected to a war between the USA and Iran (what
a nightmare!), with its potential to spread across the region. Fasten
The utopian hope that one could somehow snatch the war, gods, pictures,
bombs, and rockets out of the sky mingles with melancholic aporia, political
powerlessness, and confused hatred toward all the decisionmakers. What
is missing in that hope is at least some sense of complicity in every
war, resulting from our dependence on and benefit from the acquisition
of raw materials and other western hegemonic claims. We drive cars and
fly on planes and use tvs, computers, air conditioners, and other energy
guzzling comforts. Much of our clothing, equipment, food, and drinks –
even water – travel constantly across continents and seas, the associated
costs of which we don’t pay directly. I’m surprised that nature
itself, global warming, and glacial melting are not considered terrorists
and part of the “axis of evil”. Nature is a great protagonist
that is rarely provoked by arrogant unilateral decisions. The consequences,
however, are already terrorizing us.
The provocative question, “Imagine, there is war and…”
is not some underrated crazy idea, but rather one that must be further
considered in your absurd-utopian, quasi-poetic, crazy artist ideas!
Imagine if today’s wars – for example Israeli, Lebanese, or
Palestinian – were fought without weapons, uranium-enriched rockets,
helicopters, suicide bombers, and homemade- or Iranian-supplied projectiles,
and instead only with hands!
Imagine if the media could only publish stories and marathon runners!
Imagine if the U.S. media published not only the numbers of dead Arabs
and Afghanis, but also the 2,500 killed and 19,000 wounded American soldiers
Imagine if the true costs of war and consumption were passed on to the
Imagine if military strategists were bicycle-riding artists with knowledge
of Arabic and Chinese, without direct links to lobby groups!
Imagine if peace negotiations were carried out not with the arrogance
of military supremacy, but rather with respect for the opposing side’s
Imagine if at least half of the consumers who think oil prices are too
high were to organize daily protests in Washington and London!
Imagine if Sudan were as important as the western powers, and if every
time a village was liquidated the prices of all goods rose one cent!
Imagine if the religious- and media-driven fears of the masses dried up,
like the advancing evaporation and devastation of global warming that
creates new conflicts.
Imagine if world trade would be negotiated liberally, mutually, and justly,
and if interests and wealth were distributed equally instead of being
Imagine if the absurd repetition of these quasi-dadaist demands for peace
would disgrace people into protesting in the streets against weapons!
Imagine if the ideas of poetic dreams, of spoiled urban alternatives and
the readers of this awkward essay would have a defacto effect on today’s
Imagine if people begin to grasp that different thinking stands in dialectical
relation to different action!
Imagine if the residents of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and a hundred
other American and European cities would pour out of their homes and into
the streets like they did during the last power failure, and protest against
the universal prevailing war policy!
New York, July 24, 2006
translation: Margaret Ewing