David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: July 2008

George Packer: The Assassins’ Gate

I’m watching Generation Kill and wanted some more background, so I picked up this book on Juan Cole’s recommendation. Packer says he supported the war “by about the same margin that the voting public had supported Al Gore,” and there is an “I wuz duped” tone to the book that helps reinforced the voices of the dozens of individuals quoted and mentioned who actually tried to improve the situation rather than give people the results they wanted, and who were marginalized or fired for their troubles.

But it also occasionally brings out a defensive side of Packer, who spends a few pages pointlessly attacking antiwar protesters for being naive.

The movement’s assumptions were based on moral innocence–on an inability to imagine the horror in which Iraqis lived, and a desire for all good things to go together, for total vindication. War is evil; therefore, the prevention of war must be good.

Now really, holding the protesters to some pure ideological standard is absurd. The point of protesting wars is, namely, to protest, not to propose: an act of disagreement when no other power is available, by joining up with whatever strange bedfellows are available to oppose them. Plenty of them had read Kenneth Pollack’s damn book (now out-of-print but readily available for $0.01), found it unconvincing, and decided that no, war in Iraq was still a bad idea, perhaps by the margin that Gore lost to Bush. Plenty of them had supported military action in Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. Plenty of them, including many of the organizers, fairly loathed ANSWER for being pointlessly annoying and divisive. So what? All protesters have are numbers, which are still a poor substitute for actual power.

Packer’s feels like a justificatory posture. If he couldn’t have seen through the smokescreen, then others did not either; they opposed the war for the wrong reason, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s horrible crimes and pushing pure isolationism. Against them he mentions the general populace:

And so the American people never had a chance to consider the real difficulties and costs of regime change in Iraq.

Despite the best efforts of the media and the government to disguise such, there was no shortage of information out there for those who choose to look for it that described exactly these difficulties and costs. (Even Walter Pincus and Dana Priest brought some warnings to those who read past the first page of the Post.) No one should be making excuses for “the American people,” and certainly not from ignorance. We all have blood on our hands, George. Own up.

RIP Thomas M. Disch

I first heard Disch‘s name when I was a pre-teen computer geek and his text adventure game Amnesia came out. I didn’t play it until years later, but I do remember reading about how the game had squeezed the whole of Manhattan onto a single 5 1/4″ disk as the game’s map, including subway and bus system. How? By making New York awfully empty. Most of the street intersections are completely barren, save for occasional Chock Full O’ Nuts and other food stores. These were important: Wikipedia quotes a review complaining that “the main character would collapse after an unrealistically short amount of time if he didn’t eat or sleep frequently.”

And yes, much of the game was wandering around this empty simulation of Manhattan as a homeless man, sleeping in an abandoned tenement, being persecuted by everyone from police to rats, and begging and washing windshields for enough money to keep yourself fed. The game made the gap between ten cents and ten dollars seem insurmountable and condemned you to a random and frustrating struggle merely to stay alive.

Later on I would realize exactly how representative this was of Disch’s worldview and would come to recognize Disch’s signature move of cutting down his characters right at their greatest moment of triumph. But it made Disch an ideal representative of the left-behind in America, both in the close-minded midwest and in decaying and broken cities. On Wings of Song presented the divide between the urban and rural parts of the US taken to a plausible extreme, well before it became a fashionable trope. 334 presents, with more sympathy than was usual for Disch, the failure of New York to provide for its indigenous people. And I still rate The MD as a very modern fable about technology and medicine, as well as one of the better allegories of AIDS. And his best short stories–“Descending,” “102 H-Bombs,” “Dangerous Flags,” “Slaves,” “The Asian Shore,” “Angouleme,” etc.–are some of the best in the genre and easily some of the best of the new wave.

Many right-wing sci-fi authors use cruelty to show the unstoppable forces of history, how the strong survive and the weak perish, and so on and so forth. Disch’s cruelty sometimes took similar forms, but he always treated its effects on the personal level and made sure that no one could walk away feeling good about those left aside on the road of “progress.” In this I do not know his better.

(Also see John Sladek’s piece on Disch. Disch and Sladek also collaborated on the odd, indescribable non-scifi novel Black Alice.)

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