Death and voyeurism in reporting

February 27, 2010

Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence WarBy Mark DannerBlack Inc., 2009626 pp, $39.95 (pb)

"Why can't you go somewhere nice for a change?", complained Mark Danner's mum about the destinations — Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq — of her son's 23 years as a foreign correspondent: 23 years of witnessing, and risking, shocking violence.

Danner was in Haiti after the military coup in 1986, during which deposed dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was flown out in a US miliary jet. He took with him US$250 million amassed from a country where nine in 10 people lived on less than $180 a year.

The US had backed this "virtuoso of terror" for 15 years because Duvalier's rule ensured the "containment of communism" — code for keeping subdued the labour unions, students and liberation theologists (including future president and coup victim, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide).

So brutal had been Duvalier's reign, however, that it had spurred the "counter-power of the streets" to greater opposition, and US strategists went for Plan B, the "transition to democracy", in which a parliamentary facade would be erected around an army that held effective power and ensured the usual services that Haiti offered US corporations — cheap labour sweatshops for US investment and a favourable market for US exports.

Washington, writes Danner in Stripping the Body Bare, supports and ditches dictators depending on whether they can deliver "stability" (for US corporations).

Further repression from the Haitian elite, the army and the old Duvalierist militias promptly stifled the optimism that emerged with Duvalier's ousting.

Danner's next stops were the Balkans, where "ethnic cleansing" was the massacre strategy of choice after the break-up of the Yugoslav federation in 1991, and Iraq, which matched the Balkans for atrocities during and after the US-British-led invasion in 2003.

The Iraq war delivered one-sided, industrial-scale death and destruction (and provoked a violent resistance) for political ends that had no basis in the "facts" touted by then US President George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. In fact, it had everything to do with the "unfettered flow of oil".

A secret memorandum of the minutes of a war planning meeting in July 2002 between Blair and his senior ministers, reveals that when the head of Britain's MI6 met with his CIA peer eight months before the invasion, the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq. It was scrambling to "fix the intelligence and the facts" around the policy, concocting fables about Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

The secrecy and lies about the Iraq war soon included torture. The Bush administration "repeatedly and explicitly lied about this practice", publicly denying a policy approved by the president and monitored by his senior officials.

Euphemised by Bush as an "alternative set of procedures for interrogation, torture was candidly described by then vice-president Dick Cheney as the "tough, mean, dirty, nasty" tactics they wanted to fight the Iraqi resistance, which the administration now lumped in with its "global war on terrorism".

Danner's reporting from the global epicentres of violence is a "moral test of the history of America as a world power", a test that the American political establishment fails — although there are less verbose writers who make a similar assessment without getting as lost in a welter of journalistic impressions or as bogged down in a forensic analysis of "intricate bureaucratic mechanics".

Danner also illustrates with grim precision how violence is the continuation of politics by its most naked, deadly means. As one former Haitian president told Danner, "violence strips bare the social body" — the real but normally hidden structures of power are revealed in extremis through assassination, coups d'etat, death squads, paramilitaries, invasion, massacre, concentration camps, torture and genocide.

Danner's fascination with violence, especially at its most grisly, is, however, problematic. Danner draws "narrative pleasure" from the carnage. Mutilated bodies are a source for the "voluptuous pleasure of reporting". Violence arouses Danner's senses.

He becomes alive through the "excitement and life-heightening passion of being there" — a positive outcome for Danner, perhaps, although the less-than-alive corpses might disagree, if they were able.

Sadly, Danner's voyeuristic focus on violence, with its sensual arousal and "erotic pull", is more pornographic than political and offers nothing in the way of solutions to the terrible human and political decay he records.

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