Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Is the war over?

Wow. Here's how I get my news these days:

I go to Jim's blog and find him writing, "If this war is truly over..."--of course with one more dig at Barrett Watten.


So I swallow my pride and pull up, which is advertising "FALL OF SADDAM."

Of course, I don't trust CNN, so I pull up the New York Times. The good gray lady is a little more circumspect: "Iraqi Government Apparently Breaks Down...But Fighting Persists in Parts of Capital."

Now I really don't know what to think, so I turn to our faithful coalition partners. The BBC tells me: "Baghdad falls to US forces...Saddam Hussein loses control of the Iraqi capital." But what's the evidence? A picture that shows the "fall of Saddam": the toppling of a *statue* of Saddam in central Baghdad.

I'm not sure if War=Language. But it certainly seems as if End of War=Language.

Iraqi UN ambassador: "The game is over." Ari Fleischer (!): "The war is not over." BBC poll: "Have Your Say: Is the War Over?"

A BBC correspondent called it, somewhat ironically, a "rolling victory." It's a problem that didn't seem obvious at the outset but certainly does now: in an undeclared, illegitimate war with no obvious justification or definable goal, how does one decide when war is over? You can't disarm someone of weapons you can't find (and even if you find some, you can never be sure you've found them all). You can't be assured of "regime change" when you'll never find Saddam Hussein (either escaped or vaporized by a 2000-lb. bomb) and when you're going to have to turn to Saddam's own bureaucracy to run the country (as the British are doing in Basra). Like the "wars" on Communism and terrorism, the very definition of this war suggests that it might be boundless.

"Declare victory and withdraw": that was Senator George Aiken's famous suggestion for ending the Vietnam War. It will be interesting to see at what point the U.S. government decides it has "won."

But I really want to know what we're supposed to think when we're told the war is over by a picture of a statue falling, with the caption "FALL OF SADDAM." Are we to believe so deeply in symbolism, in the connection of signifier and signified, that we are to take this literally? Or do we take a skeptical stance--deny the reality of the symbol--which allows us to imagine a proliferation of Saddams (which we've surely seen in media coverage of the war--soldiers attacking pictures, statues, murals of Saddam everywhere, allegations of body doubles and stand-ins, but no sign of the man himself), even as the "real" target recedes further and further from our grasp--hence justifying an endless pursuit, an endless war? Is this a war against the signifier or the signified? Somebody ask Ari Fleischer that one.

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