Letters

April/May 2004

Life with the 7th Cavalry
The cover story of your February/March issue, “The Burning Tip of the Spear,” by Rita Leistner, was pure propaganda. The ostensible idea of “embedded” journalism is to share the experience of war with soldiers and thus to experience them as human beings. In fact, this practice is how the American government ensures that the mistakes of Vietnam will never be repeated. In that war, the media took us close to the “enemy” so that we could see their human faces as they were being killed, while, at the same time, dehumanizing and distancing the soldiers so that their actions were shown as brutalizing. As a result, the public turned against the war.

Today we learn to care for the soldiers we come to know so well as ordinary people; we are never shown the anguished faces and torn-apart bodies of those they have killed, nor do we learn why the Iraqis continue to fight against a force that has vast technological superiority. This seems like a particularly manipulative manner of propagandizing for the war on Iraq.

Leistner’s prose style reveals the inherent bias in this kind of journalism. The whole piece is written in a breathless, almost pre-orgasmic, tone – a strange attitude for a Canadian “pacifist.” The beefcake cover image of a bare-chested soldier with sensitive eyes shows the real meaning of “embeddedness.”

The images in the article itself were particularly disturbing. They portray these young men as regular folks from real places in America. They are shown in all their boyish silliness – just kids playing around, sitting with bare bums on ice, wrestling, sunbathing. These innocuous pictures could be found in a family album. The embedded journalist is unable to show the pain and suffering that these boys are inflicting on the others.

The practice of embedded reporting has to be questioned. It sanitizes and legitimizes acts of war and encourages us to applaud and romanticize soldiers for being human beings in a tough situation. We need to remember that war is killing that is sanctioned by the state. Embedded reporting leads us both to glorify war and to reduce it to a mundane, workaday activity at the same time. Not only does it hide the faces of the enemy from our gaze; it ultimately obscures the faces of our own soldiers as well. In the end, we can no longer see what is going on.
Ellen and Steve Levine
Toronto

Rita Leistner responds:
I was surprised to read Ellen and Steve Levine’s criticism of my story on American soldiers in Iraq. It is my point exactly that these men are “regular folks from real places in America,” inclined to sit on a block of ice, or sunbathe for a few unsatisfying minutes on the top of a building in dusty, burned-out, bombed-out Baghdad, in an effort to find some kind of normalcy in the wake of the horrors they had seen, inflicted, and suffered.

During my fifteen weeks with the troop, I never witnessed the kinds of photo opportunities the Levines find wanting – images such as Eddie Adams’s famous photo of a Vietnamese man being shot in the head, images that contributed directly to anti-war sentiment back home. But I did photograph soldiers interrogating and tormenting Iraqis, as well as holding them at gunpoint.

I think the jury is still out on how embedding journalists affects war coverage in general, but as I made clear in my story, my status as an embedded journalist was anything but typical. And far from sanitizing and romanticizing what I saw, I described, among other things, an incident in which innocent civilians were fired on by American troops; in addition, the magazine published a highly disturbing photograph of an Iraqi detainee, bagged and tied.

I sometimes wished the soldiers had been more obviously monstrous – it would certainly make the explanation of why they found killing so easy a tidier story. My story ends by saying that “everything was okay,” but I had hoped that a reader, having experienced everything that came before, would understand the implicit irony: in truth, nothing at all was okay.

I really enjoyed the first two issues of the magazine. However, I was dismayed and disappointed by the cover of the third (February/March). An American soldier? What about the experiences of Canadian soldiers abroad?

Essentially it boils down to this: the Americans make a decision; the rest of the world follows and calls it “important news.” A freelance-journalist friend of mine recently returned from Armenia, and – with my North American sense of what is “internationally important” – I asked him about coverage in Armenia regarding Iraq. His response was essentially that, “It wasn’t important there. They have their own problems.” It wasn’t important? How could that be? It’s world news! It’s an American event!

Please do not let The Walrus become yet another Canadian media outlet that covers American news, events, and arts. We should refrain from feeding the cultural imperialism to the south and determine our own sense of what is important in the world.
Dayle Furlong
Toronto

The cover photograph by Rita Leistner manages a subtle and ironic challenge to American power. A bare-chested U.S. soldier sitting beneath the American flag – surely two of the most charged symbols in today’s world – is, on the surface, a composition meant to convey pride, dominance, and strength of purpose. But a portrait’s strength is in the eyes, and in our soldier’s eyes? An unmistakeable flicker of doubt, fear, and above all, a sense of bewilderment.
Brenda McDonald
North Vancouver

Turning Profit Into Culture
Ouch! How sad it is to watch a former champion of decent, democratic government and human rights morph into an uncritical enthusiast of capitalism and its “well-developed conscience” (“The Culture of Enterprise” by Václav Havel, February/March). Havel apparently believes that business will significantly support beneficial activities such as education, health care, and stewardship of the environment. He favours tax breaks for business and looks forward to this culture of business and economics infusing civic society while assuring the warm-hearted tycoons that they will see their authority strengthened and their investments protected. With all due respect to the former president, perhaps he should give some consideration to the remarks of CanWest Global CEO Leonard Asper quoted in the same issue of The Walrus: “Culture should just get out of the way and let industry handle it.”
Bob Luker
Toronto

Not In Our Backyard
All power to Oakville and other municipalities fighting billboards (“Not In Our Backyard,” Joshua Knelman, February/March). Ogden Nash wrote:

“I think that I shall never see / a billboard lovely as a tree / Indeed, unless the billboards fall / I’ll never see a tree at all.”
Roger Hudson
Brampton

The Libeskind Effect
Don Gillmor (“The Crystal Method,” February/March) has given us a concise overview of the state of architecture today, as well as a realistic account of the difficult process involved in realizing any large public project.

However, not all public projects are the same, and I take issue with the images that illustrate the article, meant to represent Daniel Libeskind’s boots stomping on the downtowns of Toronto and New York.

Projects such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin (and surely Libeskind must be commended for dedicating ten years to realizing this project) and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site are so charged with emotion that the architect’s intensely personal vision must tap some aspect of what everyone is feeling.

But an addition to a museum in downtown Toronto or Denver doesn’t carry that kind of emotional weight. Rather than a “look at me” stance, one hopes that an addition to a prominent public building will be more collegial in its approach. How much more difficult is it to develop a design that clearly uses contemporary materials and technology while responding to the rules of the game set out by the existing building and street? This more subtle approach may not be possible for an architect who is not familiar with the city, its people’s patterns, the way the particular light of the particular place falls on indigenous materials, and the meanings invested in each of these things by its citizens.

We can pose the following question: Is the architect to blame if a museum board decides to select for “architainment?” Or are we seeing the death throes of the traditional museum experience? Gillmor points out that although current technology allows us to build anything we want, we lack a theoretical framework for architectural design. Perhaps technology is part of the problem that museums face, in that we seem to be moving away from the real, in-person visitor experience. It’s possible that in the not-too-distant future, people will be able to tour any museum collection from their multi-media living pods, possibly crystalline in form, while the crystal addition to the ROM is converted into a Second Cup.
Rosanne Moss, architect
Montreal

Promised Lands
To follow up on David Berlin’s article on the Geneva Initiative to create an agreement on the future of Israel and Palestine (“Where Leaders Fail,” February/March), I can report that the response to the Initiative, both locally and internationally, has far surpassed even our greatest expectations.

First, our civil-education campaign (unprecedented in its scope in Israel), in which we mailed a copy of the draft agreement to every household in Israel, urging citizens to read the document, has, judging from the level of public awareness, proven extremely effective.

At the same time, we have been holding countless forums on the Geneva Initiative designed to reach diverse constituencies across the country. And we have been continuing to work on enlisting backing within the international community, including an initiative in support of Geneva recently introduced in the German Bundestag. Two similar resolutions have been introduced in the U.S. Congress: one in the Senate, sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, and the other in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps. We are currently planning, among other things, a major rally.

Other developments in our immediate vicinity include a worrisome squabble with Jordan. The issue concerns Jordan’s involvement in the legal campaign against the seperation fence being built throughout the West Bank. While Jordan’s action surely puts Israel in an awkward position, its anxiety over the ramifications of the fence – and more specifically, that life in the West Bank would become so intolerable that huge numbers of Palestianians will soon move eastward in Jordan – is only natural.
Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Initiative
Jerusalem

Typographical Error?
I enjoyed Robert Bringhurst’s “A Brief History of Typography” (February/March), though – as a printer (and amusician) – I think he succumbed to a few temptations regarding oversimplification and chronological fiddling.

The advantages of the new iron handpress (1800) had primarily to do with speed (a larger page could be printed with one pull) and ease of use, compared with the wooden “common” press. The quality of Gutenberg’s press-work almost four hundred years earlier has never been surpassed, and the challenges of printing from his black-letter type are probably greater, not lesser, than with modern typefaces.

Similarly, the author’s comparison of the iron handpress with the “new iron-frame piano” is a neat analogy, but little more, since the piano with iron frames did not appear until the 1830s. At that point, the evolution of the instrument finally caught up to the challenges of Beethoven’s piano mu-sic of the 1820s – which does indeed “lunge” from pianissimo to fortissimo. But the wreckage of wooden-framed pianos that Beethoven left behind him is a witness not merely to his deafness, but to the inadequacy of these still-developing instruments to express the full dynamic range of Romantic emotion that was being demanded of them. The real heyday of Romantic piano music is several generations after the date cited by Bringhurst.
Jamie Syer
Sundre, Alberta

Doing Time in Bolivia
The man without a country has done it again – this time, from Bolivia. Nobody writes about international travel quite like Pico Iyer (“Lost in La Paz,” February/March). His trip through Bolivia past, present, and future brought to mind T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” And no modern travel writer contemplates paradoxes and incongruities quite like Iyer.

Typically, he challenges the reader with stimulating insights into local culture, history, and politics. His essay reminds us of the importance of going to a country, in Thomas Merton’s phrase, “without names and words and terms.” Iyer knows well that a foreigner can explain so very little about a place. Nonetheless, his description of San Pedro Prison is riveting.
Leo Furey
St. John’s