Heart of the Matter
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|By George Packer||October 18, 2009|
STRIPPING BARE THE BODY
Politics Violence War
By Mark Danner
626 pp. Nation Books. $28.95
Mark Danner has carved out a European niche in American letters: that of the reporter who, in addition to digging up facts and getting stories, writes about the political and moral condition of his country with the intention of pushing public policy toward fundamental change. He is nothing if not ambitious, and his work straddles the subject matter and rhetoric of several disciplines: international relations, narrative journalism, opinion writing, even literary criticism. The title of his new collection of articles from two decades, "Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War," borrows the style of countless works of poststructuralist theory. Danner has recently become an essayist with a prominent place in national debates about torture and the war on terror, and the tone of his pieces ranges from the serious to the self-serious.Danner began as a magazine journalist, and his reportorial and narrative talents are best displayed in the first section — a three-part series, originally published in The New Yorker in 1989 (where I have been a staff writer since 2003), on the end of the rule of the Duvaliers in Haiti and the turbulent years that preceded the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. Today those events seem far away and of limited relevance — who remembers Leslie F. Manigat? — but under the scrutiny of a writer with Danner's eye and insight, post-Duvalier Haiti remains a nightmare, no less contemporary than 1930s Germany as chronicled by William L. Shirer in "Berlin Diary."
What interests Danner, in Haiti and the other brutal, brutalized countries described in this collection, isn't people — other than the leaders interviewed, individuals are mostly absent — but the landscape of political violence. He pays minute attention to the details of mutilation on the bodies that appear overnight around Port-au-Prince, and he devotes thousands of erudite words to the history that led to the murderous rule of the Duvaliers. Danner's title is meant to convey the notion that atrocities expose both the innards of a society and its power structure. Throughout these three articles, descriptive realism and political analysis are in perfect balance, and Haiti is permanently revealed.
After his work on Haiti, and his excavation of a Salvadoran army atrocity of the early 1980s (the story filled almost an entire issue of The New Yorker in 1993 and was published as a book, "The Massacre at El Mozote"), Danner turned away from eyewitness reporting. The second section of "Stripping Bare the Body" consists of a series of essays, first published in The New York Review of Books, that reconstruct the Balkan wars of the 1990s after the fact, almost entirely through the work of other journalists and authors. In the fourth and final section, made up of essays on the war on terror and Iraq, Danner relies on close reading of documents unearthed by investigative reporters — the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib, the Downing Street memo on planning for the invasion of Iraq — more than on his own observations. He made several trips to Iraq, but unlike in Haiti, his reporting there was undertaken to argue rather than to learn.
Untethering his essayistic ambitions from ground-level journalism does not serve Danner well. A tendency toward inflated writing and overstatement starts to appear: there are too many self- dramatizing turns of phrase, like "The first time I was killed, or nearly so"; too many moments when the writer, confronted with a destroyed city or a bloody mess of dismembered bodies, findsGeorge F. Kennan or Henry James coming to mind.
These literary affectations are heightened by an air of seeing through everything, conveyed in a heavy reliance on scare quotes and knowing titles like "The Real Election" and "Abu Ghraib: Hidden in Plain Sight." When Haitians lined up to vote amid violence in 1987, Danner interviewed their political leaders and admired their courage; when Iraqis did the same in 2005, he went looking for "the desired symbolic justifications, the capstone in the narrative building already under construction that day." Danner watches human struggle and misery at such a remove that he can't resist taking issue with a young Kosovar woman who is quoted in a news article comparing her family's expulsion from Pristina with the experiences of the Jews in World War II. "Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory," Danner intones. "How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s." Not as comfortable as condescending to a refugee.
This superior stance doesn't flag even when Danner contradicts himself. He switches, without explanation or loss of confidence, from criticizing to endorsing the first President Bush's refusal to remove Saddam Hussein at the end of the gulf war; he sounds just as assured deploring the Powell doctrine as enshrining it. Still, when a Red Cross report on torture by the Bush administration falls into Danner's hands, the result is one of the book's best essays. A reporter again, with a great find, he can stop pumping up his prose, and the article achieves a powerful equilibrium between fact and voice.
Most of the book is a relentless exposure of American hypocrisy, weakness and illusion across three administrations and at least five wars. Danner's dissections of the corruption of government language are devastating: he's a great exegete of official mendacity, with apparently endless material on hand. But all this anatomizing of Washington is performed by way of Serbia, Bosnia and Iraq. Since Danner the essayist doesn't take the care to understand these societies the way that Danner the reporter did in Haiti, violence in no way strips them bare. Without individual stories or political analysis to accompany the horrifying (and numbingly repeated) descriptions, violence reveals nothing — it's just violence.
In his introduction, Danner quotes Plato on the irresistibility of looking at dead bodies, and then he writes: "Violence horrifies us, transfixes us, draws the eye and ignites the passions; 'overpowered by desire,' we have no choice but to look." But Danner's desire doesn't seem to come with any conflict. It's not that he has no choice but to look — it's that he doesn't want to look anywhere else.
The voyeurism is especially creepy when it's directed at material unearthed by others, but it also turns up on the occasions when Danner is lucky enough to see mayhem firsthand. He arrives in a Sarajevo marketplace almost immediately after a mortar has landed: "We three passed through the bloody topography, tracing our way slowly past torsos and parts of torsos, past arms and hands and bits of limbs and unidentifiable hunks of flesh, all mixed with blackened metal and smashed vegetables." Danner takes the opportunity to try to count the number of victims, but he's thwarted by the fact that they're in too many pieces to know which leg goes with whose head (a frustration that he returns to several times in the collection). In the introduction, Danner's realization that torture has been a central concern of his writing ever since college gives him a frisson of pleasure, and in the afterword, he admits to "a secret preference for the violent outcome," even if it means his own death. Words like "relish," "savor" and "erotic" appear too close for comfort to descriptions of destruction.
An attraction to scenes of torture and dismemberment, portrayed in carefully composed literary tableaus, is a brave thing to confess, and in the work of an artist it would provide much grist for interpretation. But for an essayist whose habitual stance is one of detached moral outrage, it's at the very least problematic.
Danner published most of this work in liberal magazines, but his hero is Kennan, the author of the cold war doctrine of containment and no liberal in the contemporary sense. Kennan had little patience for either morality or moralism in foreign policy; his vision, purified in bureaucratic battles 60 years ago, was guided by the north star of the balance of power between national interests narrowly construed. Danner, too, is a realist — he even wrote 30 pages against the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, a position Kennan also held. This point of view has served Danner well in his far-reaching criticisms of the foreign policy of George W. Bush, especially on Iraq, and including the president's approval of torture: "What we can say definitively is that the decision has harmed American interests in quite demonstrable ways."
But what about Bosnia? This is the war that leads Danner into unacknowledged tangles and reveals the disconnection at the heart of his work. He wrote the equivalent of an entire book condemning America's failure to intervene in Bosnia. At various points, he ventures ad hoc arguments for American involvement — spheres of influence, the Atlantic alliance. These are realist arguments, and because they add up to a rather weak case, few other realists made them. Far stronger is the justification based on moral grounds, and in Danner's account it's suggested, urgently, by the sheer accumulation of atrocities. But he doesn't make the moral case. It's as if there were no relation between the critique of American foreign policy that's the abiding theme of the book and the piles of corpses to which his gaze is always riveted.