I stumbled across the original video for Madonna’s “American Life” single, which came out around the time we invaded Iraq.  Even after all her other “shocking” moments, this could have killed her career in 2003.  It also says a lot about what blind, flag-waving puppets people were at the time that not even Madonna was willing to ruffle any feathers.

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I’ve always thought it would have been really exciting to have lived in America during Vietnam.  Of course, I’d have likely been drafted, because my dad isn’t George H.W. Bush and couldn’t have found me a job keeping the Viet Cong out of Texas, but still, exciting times.  I suppose it’s a slightly selfish thought, given what a painful experience it was for so many American families, but the engagement of the public in such an important matter was something I’d never seen growing up but found completely fascinating.    

In high school, years before Iraq II and the comparions between it and Vietnam, we learned about Walter Cronkite’s role in shaping American opinion about the war in the late 1960s.  With the exception of veterans, the American homefront had no idea what war really was.  War was a series of battles fought by brave men defending noble causes in far away lands.  The horrors of the London blitz or the Nazi concentration camps weren’t beamed into American living rooms.  When the horrors of Vietnam were brought to American dinner tables, namely by Walter Cronkite, perceptions changed.  The public trusted Cronkite and his honest assessment of America’s engagement in Asia turned the tide against Lyndon Johnson. 

Perhaps the lack of a Cronkite-like figure is part of the reason public sentiment hasn’t been enough to bring America’s engagement in Iraq to an end.  No one is turning to Katie Couric for, well, anything, but certainly not for guidance on the war.  The first engagement of Web 2.0 is the first war in which the mainstream media hasn’t been the sole voice covering it.  While 60 Minutes II and The New Yorker broke the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, their reports were censored compared to what could be found on the web (warning, graphic).  Their coverage no-doubt depicted a horror show, but the sanitized images were not nearly as effective in changing public opinion as Cronkite’s frontline coverage during Vietnam. 

If the mainstream media had taken a cue from their own past and paid a bit more attention to the future, their coverage could have ended this war years ago, when things first started going really, really wrong and before we’d dug ourselves a hole so deep it is impossible to just crawl out of it and go home.  Now that more people are turning attention toward bloggers and other opinions from outside the mainstream, they want an end it’s much more difficult to reach than it would have been if they’d sought or discovered those opinions in 2003 or 2004.     

To me, it is hugely important that the American people are allowed access to the frontlines of wars they commit themselves to emotionally, physically and economically.  It is unbelievably easy for an angry hillbilly whose only exposure to war was “Saving Private Ryan” at the $1 theatre to put on an embarrasingly retarded Toby Keith song and support whatever the president says is necessary to protect America from legitimate danger.  It is far more difficult to support an effort with the horrific reality of that effort is forced in front of you in all its agony.