"Irony is dead" was a phrase you used to hear a lot in the days right after 9/11. It wasn’t true, of course; genuine irony is more necessary — and more inescapable — than ever during a time of tragedy, when reality forces itself more strongly to the surface, exposing all of its fissures and inconsistencies. What the phrase actually meant was "sneering sarcasm is dead." (Which wasn’t true either, although for a time such sarcasm could only be applied safely, in print, to anyone who dissented slightly from the Leader-worship that saturated the media. Christopher "I’m with Dave Horowitz" Hitchens’ famous "It no longer matters what they think" piece comes to mind here.)
No, irony — bitter, wrenching, wounding irony — is ever-present in tragedy. A stark reminder of this cropped up last week in a little-noticed story in USA Today about the efforts of the U.S. military in Iraq to stop the rash of helicopter downings by the insurgents. It’s a straight-forward piece of embedded reporting, simply relating the statements of some American military officers about a change in tactics. Interesting, factual, nothing controversial about it at all.
The bitter irony comes in the phrase that the Pentagon has adopted for the aerial corridors they’ve laid out to escape insurgent attacks on the helicopters: "No-Fly Zones."
Although the period before George W. Bush began the mass murder of more than 600,000 innocent people in Iraq now seems so far away — a page from ancient history, like the defeat of the "world’s only superpower" by a small band of ruthless, fanatical insurgents now being celebrated in the hit film "300" — just a few years ago the phrase "No-Fly Zone" stood as a symbol of all-conquering American power. After George Herbert Walker Bush instigated then betrayed the post-Gulf War rebellions of the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, the U.S. and little tail-waggy Britain set up the "No-Fly Zones" to deny Saddam Hussein access to some two-thirds of Iraqi airspace. (With one exception, of course: George H.W. Bush did allow Saddam to use his helicopter gunships to kill the rebellious Shiites during the post-war uprising.) For 12 years, the Anglo-American air forces controlled Iraq’s skies, bombing targets in (and out of) the zones with impunity.
In those heady days — the same period when the CIA was sponsoring terrorist attacks against civilians in Iraq, carried out by former Baathist tough guy Iyad Allawi, later shoehorned into office as a post-Saddam prime minister, and reportedly being groomed for another shot at the saddle if Bush and the boys decide to do a Diem on Nouri al-Maliki — "No-Fly Zone" was one of those tough-guy jargon phrases beloved of TV talkers, along the lines of "Shock and Awe" or "pre-dawn vertical insertion," the strangely kinky Reaganite tag for the invasion of Grenada. It stood for the unstoppable imposition of American military might — anytime, anywhere, any which way but loose.
But now the phrase is the sad and bloodsoaked emblem of a wretched defeat, a pointless and unnecessary gutting of American power. It now denotes those areas where American aircraft are forbidden to fly, lest they be shot down by Iraqis — the precise opposite of the No-Fly Zones of yore.
A full four years into the war, and just shy of that mark since "Mission Accomplished" was proclaimed, the occupying power has been forced to deny its own pilots access to larger and larger swathes of Iraqi airspace — even as the use of helicopters for troop transport and supply is growing, due to the increasingly unsafe conditions on the ground. It is the Iraqis who are now imposing "No-Fly Zones" on the "world’s only superpower."
This reversal of fortune is bitter irony indeed, as the besieger becomes the besieged, and the yawning chasm between the American elite’s dreams of domination and their ability to achieve them grows wider and wider. The Bush Gang’s ever-more frantic attempts to bridge this gap — throwing more American cannon fodder into the pit, incarcerating more Iraqis, doling out more pork to war profiteers, launching one new regime change war against Somalia while inching closer to another one against Iran — will only bring more needless ruin, bloodshed and terror.
Irony is not dead; but people are. And more will die today, still more tomorrow, and more in the days and weeks and months of senseless war to come.