written in German - see German text >> - 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, 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 slightly.

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 of conflict.

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 your seatbelts!

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 in Iraq!
Imagine if the true costs of war and consumption were passed on to the consumer!
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 vulnerability!
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 greedily concentrated!
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 politics!
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!

Rainer Ganahl
New York, July 24, 2006
translation: Margaret Ewing

see German text >> -