The New American Motto: Choose Death!

-Clint-Eastwood-clint-eastwood-24780712-1024-768
Clint Eastwood as the Outlaw Josey Wales

W.J. Astore

As some Americans party hearty this Memorial Day weekend, I just happened to catch this snippet via The Washington Post:

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) [of Arkansas] said a recent high school swim party contributed to the state’s “second peak” of infections but still encouraged residents to venture out. “We take the virus very seriously, the governor told Fox News. “It’s a risk, it causes death, but you can’t cloister yourself at home, that is just contrary to the American spirit.”

Don’t you love the false choice?  Apparently, the only two choices available to Americans are 1) Cloister yourself at home; 2) Get out there, throw caution to the winds, and celebrate your “American spirit.”

What about a third choice?  Get outside, be responsible with social distancing, wear a mask when necessary, and be prudent while thinking of others and their health and safety.

Again, no one said you had to cloister yourself like a nun, but at least you’re not harming anyone if you do.  Far, far worse is an attitude of total irresponsibility, as the Post reported here from the Ozarks: A nearby bar and grill advertised a pool party for hundreds of people called “Zero Ducks Given.”

Ah, yes, how clever.  Or, as I like to say, “Live free and die.”

But let’s remember what the Outlaw Josey Wales said about this: “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”  Just so.

America’s Bizarre Cult of Death

KCM_FlyOverHealthcareme0249
B-2 bomber flies over Kansas City to honor Covid-19 workers

W.J. Astore

A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.”  New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force.  “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.

Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life?  And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.

Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here.  We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe.  Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic?  From an article in The Guardian:

Estimated gun sales also soared to 2.58m in March, Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting reported, an 85.3% jump from the same time last year.

An explosion in gun sales during a pandemic suggests something about the American psyche that is truly scary.  So too do combat jets screaming in the skies as a celebration of heroic lifesavers.

In the USA, Life Is Incredibly Cheap

merlin_170974152_1520eff5-5086-4b5a-af30-814a37dd14bb-jumbo
America’s counterfactual leader, hands posed like pistols, telling it like it isn’t

W.J. Astore

The coronavirus has made one thing clear: life is incredibly cheap in the USA.  Or so it seems to our leaders, who are desperate to put America back to work by Easter in two weeks’ time, irrespective of the death toll that would result.  It’s all about getting back to “normal,” keeping the wheels of capitalism rolling along, and the profits rolling in for corporate America.

Capitalism is America’s true national religion, and money is our god.  Our leaders make decisions consistent with that belief system.  And, as Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic activist for the poor, said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Worth citing here is Caitlin Johnstone, who in a recent article noted how America’s response to COVID-19 illustrates the pathologies of market-driven capitalism and the politicians who so willingly serve it:

The corporate cronyism of America’s political system has been highlighted with a massive kleptocratic multitrillion-dollar corporate bailout of which actual Americans are only receiving a tiny fraction. Instead of putting that money toward paying people a living wage to stay home during a global pandemic, the overwhelming majority of the money is going to corporations while actual human beings receive a paltry $1,200 (which they won’t even be getting until May at the earliest) at a time of record-smashing unemployment.

America’s capitalism worship has been highlighted with Wall Street Journal headline “Dow Soars More Than 11% In Biggest One-Day Jump Since 1933” running at the exact same time as “Record Rise in Unemployment Claims Halts Historic Run of Job Growth — More than 3 million workers file for jobless benefits as coronavirus hits the economy“. Stocks are booming, Amazon is surging, and mountains of wealth are being transferred to sprawling megacorporations, while actual human beings are terrified of what the future holds.

Nice to know a few are profiting while so many worry, suffer, and die.  But should we be that surprised by how callous America’s leaders are?

I recall reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book on U.S. planning for nuclear war.  Sixty years ago, U.S. leaders were prepared to kill 600 million people (that’s not a typo) in their efforts to “win” the Cold War.  As I wrote about in December 2017:

U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Daniel Ellsberg noted, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.

Notoriously, General William Westmoreland once mused that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.  Life is plentiful.  Life is cheap in the Orient.”  That philosophy helped to justify massive killing of the Vietnamese people (perhaps as many as three million) in a futile quest to “win” the Vietnam War.

Thinking about Westmoreland’s musing in light of our government’s response to COVID-19, as well as past plans for “winning” a nuclear war and prevailing in Vietnam by killing everything that moved, one wonders about which value system truly esteems life.  It sure doesn’t seem to be the “Western” model as espoused by our leaders.

Bonus Lesson: In its daily send out, the New York Times had this article today: FACT CHECK: “Trump’s Baseless Claim That a Recession Would Be Deadlier Than the Coronavirus,” by LINDA QIU.  The opposite is more likely to be true, according to research and experts.

Collateral Damage: A Terrifying Euphemism

kent state
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground — would she be simply “collateral damage”?

W.J. Astore

The term “collateral damage” is a terrifying euphemism.  The U.S. military didn’t invent it, but it sure has embraced it.  The dictionary definition is “unintended civilian casualties or damage in a war,” which is about as anodyne a description as one could imagine.

In common usage, “collateral” is something we put up to secure a loan, so it often has a positive meaning.  (No worries: I have lots of collateral.) “Damage” is a neutral-sounding word: the book was damaged in shipping. Storm damage. And we also speak of “damages” when we sue someone. In sum, “collateral” and “damage” are impersonal and imprecise words.

Let’s think personally and precisely.  What is “collateral damage” in the “war on terror”? Bodies blown to bits. Blood everywhere. Skin burnt and melted by Willy Peter (White Phosphorous). Eviscerated children. Rotting corpses.

The military has a colorful saying: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Maybe we need a new saying: “Don’t murder my child and tell me it’s collateral damage.”

In his latest mini-essay introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes how “collateral damage” has become a central and defining reality of America’s endless war on terror.  The main article (Burning Raqqa) by Laura Gottesdiener details U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that go horribly wrong:

By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3rd, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of coalition airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians. 

On May 7th, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.

But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.

“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview. 

That same day their bodies were finally recovered.  On May 23rd, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.

Specifics such as these are generally not reported by the U.S. military or in the U.S. media.  Instead, we get headlines about militants or terrorists being killed, along with snippets about collateral damage, “regrettable” but framed as unavoidable.

Tell that to the families of the dead.

George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms.  As I wrote a year ago, words about war matter.  Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars.  They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.

Random Thoughts on Death, Dying, and the Reality of America’s Wars

Jarecke's photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America
Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America

W.J. Astore

Americans tend to fear death.  It makes us uncomfortable.  Yet death is inevitable.  Its inevitability should teach us to revel in the richness of the here and now.  It should also teach us the foolishness of undue pride.

All is vanity, the Bible teaches.  Death reminds us of this — that human vanity, as unavoidable as it may be, is ultimately shallow.  There are riches out there that we should seek away from the glaring and garish light of vanity.  Riches that give deeper meaning to life.

Of all cultures in the world, I wonder if there’s another that ignores or denies death as much as American culture.  We’re the culture of new beginnings, fresh starts, reinvention, and also of the perpetual now, of youth, of defying or denying death through face lifts, cosmetics, adrenalin-driven adventures, and so on.  Technology and consumerism also provide distractions.  After all, how can I be nearing the end if I have the latest iPhone or iPad or if I’m wearing the latest hip fashions?

Our funeral homes seek to deny death with open casket rituals in which the dead person is made up to look alive.  Paul Fussell skewered this cultural tendency in his book, Class.  We use euphemisms like “passed away” or “passed on” for “died”; the descriptive term of “undertaker” has morphed into “funeral home director.”  Our religions stress life after death, not death itself.

We even deny that our wars produce death.  Think of the Bush/Cheney Administration, which refused to show photographs of flag-draped coffins of American troops, ostensibly for “privacy” reasons but mainly to minimize the deadly costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (Indeed, we don’t talk of troops dying in combat; we talk instead of troops “paying the ultimate price” or “making the ultimate sacrifice.”)

In minimizing the cost of war to its troops, the U.S. government and media also seek to deny the reality of death to the enemy.  War coverage in the media is often stock footage showing drones or aircraft firing missiles, enhanced by graphics and music.  You might see an enemy building or truck blowing up, but you’ll never see dead bodies.  Too disturbing, even though violent gun play and bleeding corpses are routinely shown in American crime shows and movies as entertainment.

In the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) in 1991, the photographer Kenneth Jarecke caught a powerful image of a dead Iraqi soldier burnt alive in his truck on the infamous “highway of death.”  Jarecke believed his photo would change America’s vision of the war, which in the U.S. media had been staged like a Hollywood production, neat and sanitary and clean.  But no U.S. media outlet would publish the image.  It was relegated to overseas publications.

What price do we pay as a people by ignoring death?  We lack a certain depth and maturity; put differently, we are callous and shallow.  Death has little meaning to us, especially the deaths of those in other lands.  For in seeking to deny the inevitability of our own deaths, how can we possibly recognize and process the death of others?

A death-denying culture that rains death on others using drones named “Predator” and “Reaper”; a culture that finds images of war dead too disturbing even as its TVs and movies and videos are saturated by bloody murders.  What are we to make of this?

The most powerful speech I’ve seen in any movie is that of Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man.”  In trying to make sense of the White Man’s war on Native Americans, Chief Dan George’s character, Old Lodge Skins, suggests that the White Man kills because he believes everything is dead already.  Lacking a moral center, the White Man has no sense of, or appreciation for, the sanctity of life.

Do we deny death because in some sense we are already dead?  Dead to the richness and sanctity of life?

Random thoughts, as promised.  But I hope they stimulate thought.  What say you, readers?