It’s Black Friday: shop ’til you drop! I watch my share of TV (mainly sports), and this week I’ve been subjected to a bumper crop of commercials showing me that my happiness–even my life–depends on buying more and more stuff. People on these commercials experience paroxysms of pleasure when they save a few dollars on sweaters or shoes or electronic gizmos (probably all made in China). Thank goodness I stopped watching morning “news” shows and other infotainment, which simply reinforce the drive to consume like gormless zombies.
Speaking of zombies, my favorite scene from the “Walking Dead” series came in Season 1 when our intrepid heroes are hiding in a department store among the racks of merchandise as hordes of zombies press against the doors, fighting desperately to gain access so they can consume some choice brains. What a telling visual metaphor for brainless consumption!
As usual, Joe Bageant knew the score. If you haven’t read his work, I strongly urge you to read “Deer Hunting with Jesus” or “Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball.” From the latter:
In effect, the economic superstate generates a superhologram that offers only one channel–the shopping channel–and one sanctioned collective national experience in which every aspect is monetized and reduced to a consumer transaction. The economy becomes our life, our religion, and we are transfigured in its observance. In the absence of the sacred, buying becomes a spiritual act conducted by satellites in outer space via bank transfers. All things are purchasable and, indeed, access to anything of value is through purchase–even mood and consciousness, through psychopharmacology, to suppress our anxiety or enhance sexual performance, or cyberspace linkups to porn, palaver, and purchasing opportunities. But, most of all, the hologram generates and guides us.
Through advertising and marketing, the hologram combs the fields of instinct and human desire, arranging our wants and fears in the direction of commodities or institutions. No longer are advertising and marketing merely propaganda, which is all but dead. Digitally mediated brain experience now works far below the crude propaganda zone of influence, deep in the swamps of the limbic brain, reengineering and reshaping the realms of subjective human experience…
Now, as walking advertisements for Nike and the Gap or Jenny Craig, and living by the grace of our Visa cards, we have become the artificial collective product of our corporately “administrated” modern state economy. Which makes us property of the government.
Bageant, from another essay: “The media have colonized our inner lives like a virus. The virus is not going away. The commoditization of our human consciousness is probably the most astounding, most chilling, accomplishment of American culture.”
Amen, Joe. One thing that strikes me from the commercials I’ve seen: the depictions of people as they purchase that commodity they hold so dearly. Their expressions are akin to religious or sexual ecstasy. The message is simple: Here is your god. Here is your loved one. Here is your life. This commodity–buy it–now. Rapture!
In 1936, my dad was nineteen and serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, fighting forest fires in Oregon. Due to a dry summer, 1936 was an especially bad year for fires, and my dad fought a killer one at Bandon-by-the-Sea in Oregon. After a tough fall, he and his fellow CCC boys sat down to a well deserved Thanksgiving Dinner at Camp Brice Creek in Disston, Oregon. My dad was a pack rat who saved everything, so I have the menu from that Thanksgiving Day.
So, what were the hungry young men in the CCCs eating 77 years ago?
Puree of Split Pea Soup/Ripe Olives/Hearts of Celery
Roast Oregon Tom Turkey with Cranberry Jelly, Kellogg’s Dressing, and Giblet Gravy
Snowflake Potatoes, Candied Sweet Potatoes, and Creamed Onions
Hot Rolls and Butter
Mince Pie and Pumpkin Pie
Bananas, Apples, and Oranges
Coffee and Cider
Mixed Nuts, Assorted Candy, and Cigars
Now that sounds like a fine Thanksgiving meal. And these men, who put their lives on the line fighting wildfires, truly deserved it.
Wherever you are, I hope readers of The Contrary Perspective are enjoying a fine Thanksgiving meal. And let us give thanks to the men and women of our firefighting corps, who risk everything to keep us safe.
Tom Engelhardt has a stimulating article at TomDispatch on the many monsters stalking us, both real and imagined. The imagined ones we can deal with; the real ones, well, not so much. As Engelhardt notes:
“we’re living in a country that my parents would barely recognize. It has a frozen, riven, shutdown-driven Congress, professionally gerrymandered into incumbency, endlessly lobbied, and seemingly incapable of actually governing. It has a leader whose presidency appears to be imploding before our eyes and whose single accomplishment (according to most pundits), like the website that goes with it, has been unraveling as we watch. Its 1% elections, with their multi-billion dollar campaign seasons and staggering infusions of money from the upper reaches of wealth and corporate life, are less and less anybody’s definition of ‘democratic.’”
We’ve up-armored our country and our nightmares even as we’ve downsized our jobs and our dreams. The worst nightmare of all, Engelhardt notes, is our continued trashing of the planet in a drive for corporate profits tied to fossil fuel extraction and consumption. We may be making our planet a hell-hole, but it’s hell in slow motion. And since our corporate sponsors are telling us to look away, we hardly notice the descent, even as it gets just a little warmer every day …
“However nameless it may be, tell me the truth,” Engelhardt asks: “Doesn’t the direction we’re heading in leave you with the urge to jump out of your skin?”
Yes, it does. Our real fears are not as Hollywood-ready as vampires or zombies or velociraptors, but they’re equally as frightening and immobilizing. Fears like keeping our jobs, paying the rent or mortgage, not getting an illness that may bankrupt us.
Fear is indeed something to fear. “Fear is the only darkness,” as Master Po explains to the young Kwai Chang Caine in “Kung Fu.” “Fear is the mind-killer,” as Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune.” “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave,” explains the doomed replicant in “Blade Runner,” memorably played by Rutger Hauer.
Today, our fears run at fever pitch. In movies and on TV, they take the form of zombies, vampires, and other “terrorists” out to destroy us. But in real life, our fears are more mundane, even as we’re distracted from the true vampires and zombies – those among us who mindlessly consume without ever reaching satiation.
How are we kept distracted? Because we’re taught that voracious “monsters” are really superheroes. We inhabit a world turned upside down in which victims (the homeless, the jobless, the desperate) are portrayed as despoilers even as zombie capitalists are celebrated for voraciously munching their way through America’s wealth.
What keeps us in line? Our fear. Fear keeps us in the dark. Fear numbs our minds. Fear slaps us in chains.
Change – if it comes to America – will come when Americans master their fear. But before that, we must recognize the true monsters.
Five years ago, I wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog with the title, “Networks Should Replace Pentagon Cheerleaders with Independent Military Analysts.” Major media networks rely on retired colonels, generals, and admirals to give “unbiased” and “disinterested” commentary on military matters to the wider public. At the same time, many of these same retired military talking heads serve on boards for major defense contractors, a clear conflict of interest, as revealed most tellingly by David Barstow. I argued that media outlets need to develop their own, independent, commentators, ones that are not embedded with (or in bed with) the military and companies that profit from war.
In five years, I’ve witnessed no change to military coverage on TV and cable news. It’s wave-the-flag boosterism, pure and simple. The main problem with such uncritical coverage is that it keeps us in untenable (and unwinnable) wars. Consider the latest announcement from Afghanistan that American troops will remain in that country for another decade. Such an announcement is greeted with collective yawns by the U.S. media, even though a majority of Americans want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan now. After a dozen years of death and waste and corruption, who can blame them?
Critical documentaries have been made about the U.S. military and its wars, but they are consigned largely to leftist fringes and seen by audiences that need little convincing about the peril of war. To name just three, consider watching The Ground Truth (veterans’ perspectives from Iraq), Dirty Wars (based on the Jeremy Scahill book by the same title), and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (currently streaming for free online). These documentaries give the lie to the idea that America’s wars are heroic and clean and necessary.
Nevertheless, a pervasive myth is the belief that the U.S. media is “liberal” and “anti-military.” In “Stop Blaming the Press,” journalist David Danelo (in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings from January 2008) recalled a comment made by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, in September 2006. Lauding Marine reporters, General Conway barked, “Maybe if we could get the rest of the media to do the job like you folks, we might have a chance of winning the war [in Iraq].” Stormy applause greeted this comment.
To his credit, Danelo defended the fairness of most U.S. media coverage, which drew strong dissents in the February 2008 issue of Proceedings. A Navy officer complained that Danelo failed “to level criticism at reporters for not doing their part to ensure victory.” Today’s press, this officer implied, neither supported American troops nor wanted America to succeed in its wars. Another officer, a retired Marine, wrote that “just one negative story” from an American journalist “bolsters our enemies’ confidence and resolve while equally destroying support from the public at home, thus eroding our servicemen’s and women’s resolve on the battlefield.” Refusing to suffer such journalistic “fools,” whose “stories could not have been more harmful than if al Qaeda had written them,” this officer demanded immediate military censorship of media working in-theater. Those journalists who refused to cooperate “would operate at their own risk and without military protection,” this retired Marine concluded ominously.
The idea that critical media coverage provides aid and comfort to the enemy is a commonplace. It serves to muzzle U.S. media watchdogs, ensuring that America will continue to unleash its dogs of wars across the world.
Sadly, the saying “The first casualty in war is truth” has never been more true. When our media coverage of wars is compromised, so too are our wars. And when our wars are fought for ill-conceived notions, so too will our media coverage be ill-conceived and notional.
As long as our nation keeps lying to itself in its wave-the-flag media coverage of war, our nation’s wars will persist.
One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is reading old books. The one in front of me is John Fiske’s The Destiny of Man (1884). Fiske was an American philosopher and popular writer on Darwinism, Spencerism, and many other representative isms of his day. Like many thinkers of the late 19th century, he believed in inevitable progress as well as the inherent superiority of men like himself.
From the vantage point of 2013, what is perhaps most striking about Fiske was his optimism that war was coming to an end. In his words:
The nineteenth century, which has witnessed an unprecedented development of industrial civilization, with its attendant arts and sciences, has also witnessed an unprecedented diminution of the primeval spirit of militancy. It is not that we have got rid of great wars, but that the relative proportion of human strength which has been employed in warfare has been remarkably less than in any previous age … In almost every case [of war since the Revolutionary War and Napoleon] the result has been to strengthen the pacific tendencies of modern society …[War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization …the final extinction of warfare is only a question of time.
War was coming to an end, to be replaced by the reign of law, Fiske predicted in 1884. Thirty years later, the horrors of World War I came to visit (in one way or another) almost everyone’s door, with World War II proving an even more persistent caller. Today, the United States finds itself in a self-defined, and apparently endless, “war on terror.” What happened to Fiske’s pacific progress?
We all have blind spots. For Fiske one of those was the European imperialism of his day, which he didn’t treat as war since inferior brutes needed civilizing by Whites. Another was his belief in inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, as shown by “the pacific principle of federalism” and the “due process of law,” which he believed would settle future disputes without war.
Rather than bashing Fiske, it’s perhaps more useful to ask what our blind spots might be. American exceptionalism is certainly one. Just as Fiske believed that the White man was inherently superior – the culmination and fruition of evolution and civilization – many Americans seem to believe that the United States is the best nation in the world, the most technologically advanced, the most favored by God. This belief that “When America does it, it’s OK; when another country does it, it’s wrong” is one that’s opened many a Pandora’s Box. A second blind spot is our belief that more and better technology will solve the most intractable problems. Consider global warming. It’s most definitely happening, driven in part by unbridled consumption of goods and fossil fuels. Our solution? Deny the problem exists, or avoid responsibility even as our country goes whole hog into boosting production of new (and dirtier) sources of fossil fuels via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
Like Fiske, Americans by nature believe in their own exceptionalism. Like Fiske, Americans by nature are generally optimistic. But Fiske dismissed the horrors of imperialism even as he missed the looming disaster of mass industrialized killing in two world wars.
What are we dismissing? What are we missing? I’ve suggested we’re dismissing the blowback produced by our own exceptionalism even as we’re missing the peril we pose to the health of our planet. I encourage you to add your thoughts below.
Jeremy Scahill is a reporter for whom the word “intrepid” may have been invented. He’s been remarkably bold in covering the creation of private mercenary forces in the United States (as documented in his bestseller, Blackwater) as well as America’s “turn to the dark side” after 9/11/2001, which led to “wars of choice” in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with interventions in Somalia, Yemen, and across the world in the name of combating terrorism. Indeed, the subtitle of Scahill’s new book is “The World Is A Battlefield.” And since there’s always a terrorist organization at large somewhere in the world, we are ensured of a forever war, a grim prospect on this Veterans Day.
I’ve written an extended review of Scahill’s Dirty Wars at Michigan War Studies Review, edited by the incomparable Jim Holoka. An aspect of this review I’d like to focus on is the use of macho language by Bush Administration operatives soon after 9/11. A strength of Scahill’s account is his ear for the tough talk of civilians within the administration, most of whom had no military experience.
In the days and weeks following 9/11, L. Paul Bremer, later to become the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, wrote of the Clinton’s Administration’s “limp-wristed” approach to terrorism. Cofer Black, Bush’s head of counter-terrorism, talked of “taking the gloves off” as well as of “unleashing the junkyard dog” of CIA and special operations forces against terrorist networks. Perhaps the most telling attempt at tough-talk came from the lips of Jose Rodriguez, Director of Operations at the CIA, who said it was time for “everybody in the government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities what we [the CIA] needed [to take action].” [Emphasis added.]
The worst fear of these men seems to have been of appearing weak. They didn’t want to be caught wearing little boy pants; they didn’t want to fight with gloves on; and they certainly didn’t want to appear to be limp-wristed. No — these were REAL men. They wanted to put on big boy pants; they were ready for bare-knuckle brawls; no limp-wristed wimps need apply.
Here Scahill quotes Malcolm Nance, a career counterterrorist expert for the U.S. Navy, as describing Cofer Black and his fellow tough-guys as “civilian ideologues” who embraced “Tom Clancy Combat Concepts” that consisted of “going hard, … popping people on the streets, … dagger and intrigue all the time.” Tom Clancy might make for decent Hollywood action movies, but it’s never a good idea to confuse fantasy with reality.
There’s much more to Scahill’s book (and the documentary that accompanies it, also named “Dirty Wars”) than this, and I urge you to read it. Its major theme is the abuse of power by the U.S. government and the erosion of Constitutional safeguards and freedoms, all justified in the name of “keeping us safe.” But one of its minor themes is the macho posturing of men with little or no experience in the military who were all too willing to order others to fight in their name.
Yes, they all put on the “big boy pants” — figuratively speaking. They sat in offices and ordered young troops into battle. And I’m sure they signed those orders with bare knuckles and firm wrists. In so doing they risked nothing and gained, at least in their own minds, a reputation for toughness.
Far too often in the history of war have old men believed that, by sending others off to fight and die, they were putting on the big boy pants. The costs of such macho posturing have been, and continue to be, far too high.
Is the United States an empire or umpire? This is the intriguing question raised and interrogated in the latest probing article by Dan White. Since I’m a baseball fan as well as a student of the U.S. military, let me take a swing at an answer. An umpire is supposed to be a neutral observer and arbiter. He is disinterested and dispassionate. By definition, an umpire can’t be a player, and certainly not a main player, a “star.” Umpires are supposed to fade into the background, plying a demanding profession without pursuing private agendas or personal glory.
Does that sound anything like the role the United States plays in the world? But I’ll let Dan White take it from here. W.J. Astore
Yes, We’re An Empire: Just Look At How We Treat the Natives
Daniel N. White
Recently I attended a guest lecture/seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, hosted by Jeremi Suri, a rising star of UT’s History department. The topic was “The US—Empire or Umpire?” Suri, a personable sort, brought in another mainstream historian, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, to promote her latest tome which argues that the US is not in fact an empire but instead acts abroad as an umpire.
There are some lawyerly arguments that suggest that because the US does not enslave the rest of the world for its own financial benefit—this is fundamentally the argument made by Suri and Hoffman—the US isn’t an empire. Cobbs Hoffman was proud that in her recent US history classes a majority of the students came in thinking that the US was an empire but left, after a semester of her ministrations, thinking otherwise.
How swell. Lawyerly arguments are for lawyers in courtrooms attempting to convince other lawyers who all think along the same narrow lines. Most lawyerly arguments aren’t but petty quibbles about word definitions. For the rest of us, we are wise to heed instead the evidence of our senses and the stirrings of our hearts.
The most fundamental evidence of America as an empire is the wars we wage abroad. Countries that have done us no injury have the “privilege” of the US waging a war in their land with their inhabitants having no say in the matter. The most telling giveaway to the question of empire is our regard for the inhabitants in those countries who fight on our behalf. Fundamentally, we have none. They are our tools, nothing more.
During the Vietnam War, the weekly casualty lists routinely had South Vietnamese military (ARVN) killed and wounded exceeding ours. Only two weeks in the entire war did American casualties exceed ARVN’s—the two weeks following the Tet Offensive. South Vietnam, whose population may have been 14 million during the war, paid a terrible butcher’s bill for its leaders assenting to and participating in an American war in their country.
Yet how much reportage was there ever in the US press about the South Vietnamese army and its casualties? ARVN troops were in it for the duration, unlike US troops, and they and their sacrifices were ignored almost entirely by the US press, people, and government. Once a week, Walter Cronkite would recite ARVN casualty figures, when the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) released that week’s figures. But that was all the attention the US press ever gave them.
That same neglect of the natives the US claims to be “liberating” has been repeated in our recent wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Where are the articles about the Afghan Army and its casualties in the US media? The Iraqi Army and its casualties? We corral the inhabitants in those countries into our schemes for our uses and have paid them—their lives, their hurts, their deaths—no attention, just as we paid ARVN no attention during the Vietnam War.
If we’re not an empire to behave like this, then we are surely the cruelest and most heartless race of people wandering the globe.
What follows is an illustration of the gruesome results of our imperial wars—the kind of illustration that never made our news reports. Richard Critchfield was a war reporter in Vietnam, after which he wrote several superlative books about rural life, both in the US and in the Third World. In 1965 Critchfield encountered a young Vietnamese draftee at Cong Hoa, ARVN’s largest military hospital. The wounded draftee had just arrived after a 50-mile ambulance ride:
From Villages, by Richard Critchfield, pp 62-3:
After he (the ARVN doctor, a civilian drafted into ARVN six years earlier) read the student’s chart, the doctor’s manner softened. He patted the boy gently on the shoulder and lifted up the cotton sheet from the foot of the stretcher.
‘Foot blown off with a mine,’ he told me in English. He spoke to the boy again in their own language, then turned back. ‘After treatment here, the boy will go back to his unit in My Tho to wait for the local military council to meet. The council will decide whether he can go home or not, of whether he must stay in the army to do some light job. He wants to go home. He should go home. When the wound has healed, we will send him to the rehabilitation department for an artificial limb. He says his wife came south with him. She rents a house outside the camp. They have a two-month old son. It must be a very small house.’ He said that as a private with one son, the boy got the equivalent of eighteen dollars a month; totally disabled, he would get thirty-five dollars a year. The doctor thought there were at least fifty thousand partially disabled veterans in the country already; perhaps it was a blessing he did not know the war would last another ten years.
The doctor spoke to the boy again. ‘He says he is an infantry rifleman and that he has never killed anybody.’ A wounded sergeant in a nearby stretcher muttered, ‘Who knows where the bullets go?’ The doctor lifted up the bandages from the boy’s forehead; the right eye was shut and swollen. Unclipping an X-ray from the foot of the stretcher and holding it up to the light the doctor motioned me over. The black film showed the boy’s skull; in the black socket of his right eye was a jagged rectangular shape a quarter inch long. ‘Steel fragment. That eye will have to come out.’ An orderly called the doctor and he went away.
I saw that the boy was moving; painfully, and with great effort, he reached down, groped for the X-ray on his legs where the doctor had left it, clutched it and held it up to the light. We didn’t dare stop him. There was no outcry, just thought—the deep private thought of someone faced with the final, tragic collapse of so much of his life. After a moment he lowered the X-ray carefully back to where it had been, put his head down, and stared upward.
I told my interpreter to ask if there was anything we could do. At first the boy did not seem to hear. We waited. Then he spoke and said, yes, he wanted to send telegrams to his wife and his mother, who did not know what had happened to him nor where he was. The words started pouring out then; my interpreter could only catch part of it. ‘The war must end….so there is no more killing…so I can go home…I want to go home…I want…my brothers*…’ He was crying hard now and the tears streamed down from his good eye. In shame he tried to dab at them with his pajama sleeve. I thrust some piaster notes into my interpreter’s hand to give to the boy and went outside to stare hard at the hedges shaped like rabbits and elephants.
Critchfield elsewhere tells another revealing story of Americans abroad at war, again from his Vietnam War days. From p. 183 of Villages:
“Tran Van Huong, when prime minister of Vietnam in the 1960s, once told me no American had ever asked him, ‘What do you need and how can we help you?’”
In all my years of reading about the Vietnam War, I can’t recall any other American reporter ever asking any Vietnamese that same question of Critchfield’s. I rather doubt that any American military officer, USAID worker, or diplomat ever asked that question at any time during the war. Maybe some NCOs in the Army did. Maybe.
And I can’t recall any US reporter with snap and wit enough to ever ask any Afghan or Iraqi official that same question: What do you need and how can we help you? If they had they most certainly would have received the same answer as PM Huong gave Critchfield in 1965.
Once again, Americans ignore that our butcher’s bill in both these wars is a fraction of our much less populous allies’. Except that this time there is neverany word of Afghan or Iraqi military casualties in US war reports in our media. Our total lack of interest in “the natives” is worse now in our globalized today than it was in our provincial yesterday.
Fifty years after Vietnam the US is still treating our “allies” as third-world primitives. US reporters, politicians, academics, and moral leaders are just as blind to it this time around as they were then. They are content with childish slogans and arguments about our inherent goodness. Nguyen Cao Ky was right when he said that Americans are like big children. We have a child’s self-centered view of ourselves, a child’s disregard for actions and their consequences to others, and we embrace childish rationalizations and arguments.
Our wars abroad are all about us and our plans and wishes. They aren’t at all for the benefit of the host country and its peoples. That makes us either an empire or a bunch of criminal lunatics.
What it most certainly doesn’t make us is an umpire.
*The young ARVN trooper had been a student from a coastal village, youngest of three brothers. Both of his brothers had already been drafted into the ARVN and killed before he was drafted. Unlike the US draft, there were no sole surviving son deferrals for the ARVN draft.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached atLouis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.