The soul of a machine
"By decreasing the amount of time a single executive, manager, or VIP signs his name by just 15 minutes a day, a signature machine can pay for itself in just a short time." -- advertisement for a machine that does 3,000 autographs a day "without writer's cramp."
I REMEMBER when Donald Rumsfeld was dubbed a "virtual rock star" by CNN. People magazine named him one of the sexiest men of the year. Fox News said he was a "babe magnet." The president took to calling him "Rumstud."
If, as Henry Kissinger said, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, the media fell in love with the Pentagon chief and his blunt talk. Midge Decter's hagiography to the "manliness" of the secretary of defense opened with a New York socialite who kept his portrait in her dressing room. Hart Seely's tongue-in-cheek book turned Rumsfeld's distinctive prose into existential poetry: "Needless to say/ The president is correct/ Whatever it was he said."
Rumsfeld was a hero when the Iraq war was going to be won at 30,000 feet. He was an icon of leadership when "shock and awe" was something that would happen to an enemy, not an American family.
Now that image looks about as authentic as his autograph. In the past year the rapid-strike war became an urban-slog war. We lost moral authority at Abu Ghraib. Questions about postwar planning multiply. When a soldier asked his chief about armor, he got an answer in Pentagon pentameter: "You go to war with the army you have/ Not the army you might want/ Or wish to have at a later time."
But the signature mistake of the Rumsfeld regime is a signature machine.
The news that condolence letters from his office had been signed -- if signed is the right word -- by a machine echoed everywhere. "In the interest of ensuring timely contact with grieving family members, he has not individually signed each letter," admitted a Pentagon spokesman.
This cool efficiency was not just a breach of etiquette. It was an insult added to the exquisite injury of those same grieving families. The man who sent their sons, daughters, husbands, wives to Iraq didn't have time enough to put his Donald Rumsfeld on a condolence note.
"Our loved ones aren't just a number to us," said a New Hampshire mother who lost her 20-year-old son.
"He didn't care. In my opinion he doesn't care about nothing," said a Pennsylvania father who wears his late son's Purple Heart.
The black humorists I know asked what would happen next in our lean, mean fighting machine. An e-mail announcing that a child had been killed in action? An automated voice mail offering sympathies? A fill-in-the-blanks death notice suitable for framing?
Even as Rumsfeld repented, the signature machine took on the symbolic life. It confirmed Colin Powell's description of the man who speaks -- and perhaps thinks -- in the "third-person passive once removed." But it also marked the moment in nearly every war when the grunts and their families begin to wonder out loud if they are only numbers to the people in charge. When they wonder just how impersonal war can be.
It's easier to run a war of numbers. When there were 700 American dead, Ted Koppel ran the names and faces of the dead on "Nightline," only to be accused of playing politics. When the administration worried about public reaction to rows of coffins, it kept the ban on cameras at Dover Air Force Base. War became third-person passive, once removed.
Now there are more than 1,300 American deaths. Barely a morning's work for a signature machine. There are more than 10,300 wounded. The wondrously improved medical system that saves more lives leaves wounds so devastating that even the New England Journal of Medicine triaged the photographs.
It's not a surprise that yesterday's tough guy is today's insensitive guy. As an unpopular war grinds on, the secretary's "manliness" has been renamed "arrogance." Power misused is no longer an aphrodisiac but a turn-off -- even to his old supporters. And the president who dubbed him "Rumstud" now defends him by saying that "beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply."
Those who oppose the war -- how it started or how it bogged down -- are routinely told that we are undermining the troops. Now those who run the war have to prove their support for the troops.
Josef Stalin once famously said that "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." He didn't give us a magic number when "tragedy" turns into "statistic." Maybe it's the moment we offer the sympathy of a machine.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is email@example.com.