In the days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as the U.S. military planned a massive aerial bombing campaign on the densely populated city of Baghdad, the Pentagon phrase “Shock and Awe” was repeated with enthusiasm on television, part of the celebration of the power of modern warfare.
At the same time, Deep Dish TV was setting in motion a plan to record, illuminate, document and bear witness to what would be left out of the commercial media war frame. They would title the 13-part series of 28-minute programs Shocking and Awful, and the group of independent artists and media producers would tell the story of an Iraq War that would be unrecognizable to the commercial media gaze.
Comparing the Deep Dish lens to that of mainstream media results in a Rashomon look at war that reveals the importance of the battle over public perceptions, a battle that employs the powerful resources of the media industry. The Shocking and Awful series stands up to those weapons of mass persuasion, and provides a view of war obliterated by commercial censorship, official government stagecraft and the emergent culture of 21st century militarism.
In March 2003, when the shock-and-awe bombing started, Americans were invited to look through the elevated eyes of the warriors in control of the exciting high-tech weapons. The digital imaging of weapons is a graphic style recognizable now across the media spectrum from TV news to films and video games. Its prominence confers a kind of video-game sensibility to war, one antithetical to concerns for the victims on the ground; such digital thrills are easily dissociated from the killing of real people. The Deep Dish series brings those people to life.
Television news often speaks of a singular, demonized enemy. Just before the invasion, a Fox News broadcast declared that a missile was a “mean Saddam-fighting machine”—as if somehow it would hit only one man. During that same month, Deep Dish TV interviewed a dignified Iraqi woman in her Baghdad home for the program Erasing Memory. She sits among art treasures, ranging from the lost traditions of antiquity to the work of contemporary artists.
She is an impressive individual, one difficult to present as an enemy whose death could be justified; her presentation resists codes of danger and maliciousness, while her fluent English undermines any sense of her as “other.” Viewers are able to superimpose recognizable identities over hers; along a public dimension, she could be an art teacher, a curator, a diplomat. Along personal lines, she could be one’s mother, sister, wife—even one’s self.
Her name is Amal Al Khedairy, and she possesses enormous cultural capital. As she speaks, she reminds us that so-called smart bombs are not “clever,” that they fall everywhere. She speaks of the constant day-and-night bombing during the 1991 Gulf War that destroyed art galleries, after which her family home became a shelter for these treasures.
In a later sequence of Erasing Memory, we meet her again. It is July 2003, after the invasion and bombing of Baghdad, and she walks through the rubble of her once-beautiful home. No longer calm and reassuring, she appears pale and annoyed at the camera. She stands amid barren walls where once we saw the beautiful art displayed. There is no color, just the gray of concrete dust that covers the scene. “This is not bombing Saddam,” she tells us, looking down and pushing crumbled concrete with her foot. “This is not one man. This is Iraq.”
Such humanity was not part of the celebration of the invasion on commercial media. Indeed, identities such as hers were not presented on U.S. television, for viewers would have had to come to terms with the recognition that Baghdad is full of people like her, like us.
Mainstream television presents virtually no one coded “like us” standing accusingly in judgment of the U.S. destruction of his or her home. But we meet many such people on the Deep Dish series. University professors, some in Western style, others in Mideastern dress, walk through the rubble that once was shelves that held Ph.D. dissertations. They explain that they have no copies, and that all the research done at the university since the early ’70s is lost. In a Baghdad square, we meet other intellectuals who try to make sense of the U.S. actions from philosophical, political and economic perspectives. But an overpowering impression begins to take hold as viewers are shown how people, art treasures, antiquities and important archeological sites have been destroyed: None of it makes any sense.
It made sense on U.S. television, though, as former generals and news celebrities alike spoke before the bombing of strategies and battle plans, and made use of Pentagon-supplied graphic illustrations. The producers of Deep Dish also use graphics, but they illustrate other perspectives of war. Editors visually superimpose the faces of children inside the targeted structures as cable-news generals illustrate aerial weapons. Images that confer power and moral superiority to advanced weapons are far less convincing and entertaining when non-combatant victims are pictured on the receiving end. The technique shatters the meaning and sensibility made of war by what has become a military/entertainment complex.
When seeing these tapes, another stunning realization builds into outrage after a moment of contemplation. U.S. media present such a tiny sliver of the world, and especially of its people, their beliefs, ideas and actions. In the silence that renders so many acts of resistance unfamiliar to average television viewers, there exists a well of courage, power and joy.
Few could repress a smile at the catchphrases and costumes of the Radical Cheerleaders who turn a demonstration against war into a happening event. We are filled with admiration for the Women in Black who stand in silent solidarity with their sisters whose lives, children, homes and communities are being destroyed. Catholic workers are jailed for symbolically challenging the culture of death that surrounds nuclear weapons systems, exposing the true purveyors of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The commercial media, tied as it is to the military enterprise, must hide these people and the daring challenges they make to war because they are so compelling. There is no question as to who would win a viewer popularity contest to become the next American Idol. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld could not hold a candle to those who hold so many candles at vigils protesting the war.
The absence of anything like Shocking and Awful on mainstream television is testimony to the increasing irrelevance of the U.S. media industry. Deep Dish Television pioneered a satellite networking model to distribute its collaborative programming to public access channels across the country. Over the 20 years since its conception, it expanded its outreach to educational, art and community venues.
Recognition of the compelling quality of the series, and the public need for a 21st century creative merger between critical art and politics, was conferred by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, which aired the tapes continuously at its 2006 Biennial from March 2 to May 28. Visitors exiting the elevators on the lower level of the museum saw visual documentation of the global opposition to the occupation of Iraq, the outspoken anger of military families, and the bitterness over Phantom Fury—the military term for the destruction of Fallujah, Iraq’s third-largest city, and the killing of over 4,000 of its inhabitants, the vast majority of them civilians.
My experience showing these tapes to college classes is that these programs have enormous impact, especially on those least familiar with alternative video. After seeing the results of war, the people it affects and the attitudes and arguments of those against it—so grippingly presented by Deep Dish—the outraged response from students makes it clear that military planners could not succeed in their violent pursuits without the aid of the U.S. mainstream media. Years from now, the Shocking and Awful series will continue to provide an irrefutable public memory of the unofficial truth of war.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that given the power of programming content such as this, that public access is under serious attack. The telecommunication giants are battling to remove the channels from their cable lineups. As public access pioneer George Stoney told Extra!, cable monopolies “are fighting hard so they will never have to deal with communities again.”
Robin Andersen appears as an analyst on the program Channels of War: The Media Is the Military in the Shocking and Awful series and is author of A Century of Media, a Century of War.
Contact Deep Dish TV at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to 339 Lafayette St., NY, NY 10012, for information on ordering Shocking and Awful.