Essay

The house of fear and the house of war

IN THE 12 months since President George W. Bush made his Top Gun arrival on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare, "Mission accomplished", more than 600 Americans have been killed in fighting, with more than 100 dying in April alone. Over that same period, many thousands of Iraqis have been killed, with many more yet to die as the United States pursues an Israeli-style communal-punishment strategy to obliterate resistance. In short, Iraq has become the nightmare all those who opposed this war said it would be and we are now watching the military humiliation of the most technologically advanced nation on earth by people with minimal armaments.

The implications of this disaster will roll out over the next months and years, but the first and most obvious consequence is that the US and all who sided with it in this conflict have succeeded in turning the entire Arab world into a seething mass of fury, praying and working for our downfall. If the point of this exercise was to stop terrorism, it has succeeded in recruiting an entirely new generation of suicide bombers longing for the day they can bring their brand of justice to our doorsteps. If it was intended to promote democracy or bring stability to the Middle East, it has succeeded in turning a powder keg into a burning fireball whose exploding pieces are yet to settle. On every count, the Iraqi adventure has been a total disaster.

That was predicted from the first moment it was mooted. For no war in recent history has been so publicly debated as the invasion of Iraq, and as the US developed its war plans and levelled its charges at Iraq, trying to convince a sceptical world to back military action, nearly every aspect of the proposed invasion was canvassed and debated in increasingly strident terms until, impatient and annoyed, the US launched its Shock and Awe campaign of murderous computer-game pyrotechnics without United Nations approval and precipitated the entire debacle.

 

WHY? HOW DID this come about? How is it that a country that claims to be the most advanced, the most informed, indeed the country whose values make it pre-eminent in the world, could stumble so badly and get it so wrong? And in getting it so wrong, it has plunged us all into a crisis from which it is going to take an incredible amount of ingenuity the US has so far proven incapable of demonstrating to extract ourselves.

How did we get here? It is not the details of the lies, the deception and the manipulation of public opinion that I wish to consider in this article. That something like a conspiracy existed for some time before September 11, 2001 to wage a war on Iraq now seems likely, and certainly the ambitions of what have become known as the neo-cons to make this the New American Century have been well documented and are by now well known. But it is not such strictly political issues I wish to consider here. They will no doubt be revealed in greater detail as time goes by.

What I want to do instead is to look at the cultural elements of contemporary American society that seem to predispose it toward a bellicosity that favours violent and forcefully decisive action over careful and considered reasoning and negotiation. What I want to look at is the glue that binds this diverse country together; that makes it prey to the morbid fears and extravagant fantasies that are now lurching so dangerously out of control across the world.

The first thing that strikes any observer of contemporary America is the prominence and importance given to loyalty and patriotism. The reverence with which the symbols of America – the flag, the Liberty Bell, the Bald Eagle, even the Presidency itself – are treated is frequently commented on by non-Americans, either with amusement or admiration. But what is not generally recognised is that this patriotism is not at all the natural upwelling of a people's feelings for its country, but has, on the contrary, been deliberately fostered over the past century, reaching its climax in the period of the Cold War, and consciously aimed to counterbalance the threat of communism and any other political movement challenging the dominance of big business in the US. Americanism, with its celebration of militarism, capitalism and unfettered individualism, is the dominant creed of America, eclipsing all others to such an extent that we almost forget there ever were any.

It is promoted through the vigorous drumbeat of the media. Since at least the Second World War, the propagandistic value of even animation has been recognised by the American military, and military themes have ranged from the infamously racist Bugs Bunny cartoons of the era through to pro-war celebrations of such classics as Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day, films shot with the active participation and co-operation of the military, a practice continued to this day, as shown by the recent Disney presentation, Pearl Harbor, which premiered on a serving aircraft carrier that had been moved from its home base in San Diego to moor at Pearl Harbour especially for the screening. Indeed, the American military values its relationship with Hollywood so highly that each of the armed services maintains an office in Los Angeles to promote its message.

But it is not just the serving military that has participated in the creation of Americanism. The rites and pageantry cultivated by organisations such as the American Flag Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (which substituted Loyalty Day, for example, for the trade union-endorsed May Day) in the strife-torn twenties and thirties were aimed at intimidating and defeating trade unionists struggling for better wages and conditions in a period of great economic distress. As the Cold War was launched shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War to counter and contain the threat of international communism, these earlier successes were built on to produce the whole intricate machinery of patriotic fervour Americans exhibit today, with their pledges of loyalty, their numerous patriotic holidays, such as Armed Forces Day and Citizenship Day (replacing the earlier I Am An American Day), the elaborate memorial services and oaths of allegiance in which every child is immersed from his or her earliest school experiences and which altogether produce a strikingly religious set of rituals, symbols and gestures that combine into a kind of mystical belief in this amorphous thing called America.

In this view, America is not a place or a political entity; it is a state of being. America, like God, can do no wrong. To be American is almost by definition to be right and to be incapable of bad intent, and these values are firmly and emotionally held, as for example when candidate George W. Bush said in the 2000 presidential campaign, "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world." But such sentiments are not restricted to American conservatives, as can be seen when Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said on another occasion, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation."

 

THE INDISPENSABLE NATION, the can-do nation, the nation that values action over words, is not a nation that, at least in its more official pronouncements, entertains doubts or countenances criticism. It is, on the contrary, already the haughty face of empire. It is the face that Australian journalist Paul McGeogh met when an American soldier screamed at him in Iraq, perhaps unconsciously quoting from An Officer and a Gentleman, "Don't you eyeball me!"

But the violence of empire is already a violence that has been visited on the American people themselves. To get here took some effort. It should not be thought that the victory of Americanism was won on the Hollywood set alone. Jehovah Witnesses, who refused to acknowledge secular symbols, were assaulted and shot during the struggle to sanctify the flag, with one being castrated for not saluting it; and workers and unionists were shot, assaulted, framed, lynched and executed right across America as business asserted its rights to free labour. With their organisations banned, broken up, disrupted and subverted by Mafia and organised-crime figures with the connivance of the authorities, union membership dropped to one of the lowest rates in the world at the same time and, perhaps not coincidentally, as inequality increased to the point where the richest 2 per cent of the country personally owns 38 per cent of the total wealth. Indeed, when the history of the US is considered as a whole, the picture that finally emerges is of a nation whose laws and politics have consistently favoured the rich and powerful to the point where, uniquely in the advanced world, there are practically no class-based trade or political organisations of any strength or significance left. The result is that ordinary Americans are very much on their own when it comes to any sort of welfare benefits or protection from the vicissitudes of the market.

This goes a long way to explain why Iraq now seems to be full of bankrupt dairy farmers and Mississippi postal workers.

Indeed, the armed forces of the US reflect in no small way the kinds of divisions apparent in American society itself, with Chalmers Johnson quoting in his recent study, The Sorrows of Empire (Verso, 2004), an account by two British journalists, Roland Watson and Glen Owen, of their visit to the aircraft carrier the USS Kitty Hawk. "Boarding the ship," the journalists wrote, "is like entering a time warp back to the former Deep South. In the bowels of the carrier, where the crew are cooped up for six months at a time, manual workers sleep dozens to a room. Most are black or Puerto Rican, paid $US7,000 to $US10,000 a year to work in the broiling temperatures of the kitchens and engine rooms. As you move up the 11 segregated levels toward the pilots' quarters beneath the deck, the living quarters become larger, the air cooler, and the skin tones lighter. Officers exist in almost total ignorance of the teeming world beneath them, passing around second-hand tales of murders, gang fights and drug abuse. Visitors are banned from venturing down to the lowest decks, which swelter next to the vast nuclear-powered engines ..."

If this is America, then one can perhaps understand the need for escapist entertainment of the sort Hollywood specialises in.

 

BUT IF AMERICANISM and its shadow, un-Americanism, are the dominant forces shaping people's hearts and minds, religion of a more conventional sort is there to plug up the gaps. America was, after all, founded by Puritans and their particular brand of religious intolerance soon set the stage for the quarrelsome form Christianity took in that country. It was a form that was marked by repeated attempts to inflict conformity and ban deviation; that burned witches and outlawed dancing and took a particular interest in all matters sexual and that, in a land that prides itself on being free, still exercises incredible power in the bedroom. This is a religious frame of mind that continually sought to revitalise itself by returning to the essence, the purity, the fundamentals of religious life, and which began to provide the overarching narrative that storytellers soon took up to explain to Americans their role and purpose in the world. This purpose soon saw them displacing the indigenous peoples of North America as the Europeans embraced their Manifest Destiny to take possession of the entire continent and then anointed themselves as an exceptional people, a new chosen people to undertake God's work on Earth.

It's a very handy justification to have when invading another country. President McKinley informed Congress in 1898 that God had told him to attack the Spanish. A little more than a century later, President George W. Bush stated in his State of the Union address, "With the might of God on our side we will triumph over Iraq." Such a god is a very good god to have.

 

OF COURSE, MESSIANIC religiosity is not the only theme in American history and the American Revolution was not undertaken to establish a Puritan state, but a secular and democratic one whose principles were fundamentally in conflict with the old absolutisms. This contradiction, between the Enlightenment principles of tolerance, scepticism and reasoning that framed the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on the one hand and the firmly held conviction of God's revealed truth as held by Christian zealots on the other, has represented one of the most fertile grounds of conflict in American life, right down to the present. A conflict, one must say, that has shifted decisively in favor of intolerance and dogma.

For when more American people believe in Satan than in evolution it must be said that the Enlightenment-style liberalism of Mark Twain and Gore Vidal is on the defensive and the gentle, humane convictions of To Kill a Mockingbird are being replaced by something harsher and more convinced of its righteousness.

But maybe there is something else going on here other than a kind of return-to-Puritan-type. For while there is some debate about the actual figures of piety (with something like 90 per cent, for example, claiming to believe in God), there is not a great deal about their meaning, as any Bible-thumping preacher will tell you. For even pollster George Gallup has said that, based on his research into religiosity in the US, religious belief is "a mile long and an inch deep" and that the religious beliefs of Americans are generally a wild mishmash of vaguely held and often contradictory notions. (For example, many people who believe in God don't necessarily trust him.) It's a place where belief in ghosts cohabits with belief in UFOs in an odd mixture of superstition and hooey that has more to do with Homer Simpson's view of the world than anything the televangelists would have you believe, and it is now impelling America down a path toward becoming a truly Christian Republic. Indeed, the idea that the largest producer and consumer of pornography in the world could be turned into a Christian Republic without the stationing of tanks on every street corner defies belief.

But that could very well be its strength, and the potency it gives to that other vague but powerful formation referred to earlier, Americanism. A coherent religious belief system could very well be accompanied, as it so often has been, by a desire to bring about change to align the world with the moral precepts we are convinced should guide it: to embrace the commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, for example, and to oppose capital punishment. However, a loose amalgam of other-worldly notions impels us to nothing more than a feel-good sentimentality about our own place in the order of things and either a pity for or disgust with those not part of the plan. It can give us the sense of our virtue without the need to actually do anything, and while this might appear relatively harmless, in association with those other bracing notions of individuality, competitiveness and loyalty to the chief, it remains a powerful set of triggers with which to charge public discourse.

 

PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN the United States is very charged with essentially metaphysical notions that are driving it to ever more aggressive postures. Since Ronald Reagan seized back control of public rhetoric from the liberals who had betrayed America during the Vietnam debacle, and baptised the Soviet Union The Evil Empire, America's foreign policy has been couched and conceived in increasingly apocalyptic and millenarian terms.

And with the defeat of the arch enemy, Godless communism, Americans have faced the threat to the implosion of their ideology by discovering another: militant Islam.

Islam has stepped willingly and ably into the role of American nemesis, and just as communism could not be engaged rationally, for fear that even debating its ideas could contaminate the listeners, so Islam has been stereotyped, abstracted and demonised so that the only answer left to the question, "Why do they hate us?" is, "Because they are totally insane". The actions of these militants and suicide bombers are not the actions of rational men and women aimed at achieving a result, and have nothing to do with such simple questions as the ownership of land in old Palestine or decades of persecution and neglect; no, the actions of these people can only be understood as the final conflict between Christianity and Islam; the actions of these people can only be understood as the eruption into our world of pure evil.

And, of course, pure evil cannot be negotiated with. Once identified, pure evil can only be exterminated, or exterminate in turn. To even look for rational explanations for why 14-year-olds might turn themselves into human booby traps is already to surrender to liberal defeatism and to invite ridicule and suspicion. There is only one answer to that question: they're mad and they're bad and the only thing left to consider is how to get them before they get us.

To which the United States now has only one answer: kill them.

Such a simple-minded world view allows no other alternatives. The evildoers must be punished and demons smitten and sent back to hell. Evil cannot be allowed to exist and so this heavily religious view of the world, filled as it is with Biblical resonance and heavy with prophecy, drives the Bush Administration deeper and deeper into the disaster of Iraq with a war it chose against all advice to enter. The logic of the quagmire is now taking over: we can no longer leave because that would be just letting them think they've won. At every step of the way, George Bush and the neo-cons who stack his administration had a choice, and at every step of the way they chose badly, but more importantly, they cannot choose otherwise until these paradigms with which they appropriate the world are abandoned.

For the world is not a struggle between good and evil at the end of history and there is no evidence that God or history has chosen anyone, least of all the Americans, to lead us all to glory. The various gods the Americans worship – the gentle Jesus, the wrathful Jehovah, the mysterious Yaweh sprinkling secret codes through his opaque and enigmatic Bible – are not gods the rest of us need worship or even reference as we go about our business finding purpose and value where we can. Worship is a private thing and every man or woman's soul is his or her own, and until America recalls these simple lessons, which its own fraught past should have burned indelibly into its mind, it can look forward to nothing more than war without end.

 

THIS IS A war that is now creating enemies in its own image: fanatics working for the overthrow of the Great Satan, for whom individual life has no meaning in the struggle against pure evil, and against whom any and every weapon must be used. The attack on the World Trade Centre, as every terrorist expert knows and has warned, is only the beginning and sooner or later every major city in the world will end up looking like the West Bank and every piece of architecture and art we hold dear will be shattered among the broken bodies our terrible decisions have made our future.

This harsh, brutal world of American power, this "just do it" world of backwoodsman anarchy where men settle their differences in the way men do, by force of arms and fists; this world of black-and-white, us-and-them choices where people don't have to think, all they have is to do, is, in the end, a bully's fantasy that is falling apart in front of our eyes. Iraq has become a slaughterhouse where an army of PlayStation-playing children is being torn apart by zealots and returned to America in flag-draped coffins. Iraq has become a hellhole where 21-year-old GIs give the thumbs up as naked Iraqi men are assaulted and tortured. And when asked at his April press conference, George W. Bush couldn't honestly think of a single thing he'd done wrong since September 11.

And, of course, according to his lights, he hasn't. He saw a threat and he responded. And the most unsettling thing about President Bush is his complete conviction in the correctness of his policies even as his army is being torn to pieces. Because facts on the ground don't matter to the true believer, the true believer knows in his guts the correctness of his position, because God is telling him the truth. As he explained to former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, "God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did ..." When politicians start talking to God, the rest of us need to keep our heads down.

 

BUT THERE IS another tradition in the United States that has nothing to do with such hokum and which, one can only hope, will regain the initiative and remind America of the time when it could stand tall and proud in the world and that its last hope was not to at least be feared enough not to be attacked. That America now seems long gone. It has been devoured by a century of sustained assault topped by 30 years of low tax supply-side voodoo economics that has seen the entire American infrastructure, from its highways to its schools and hospitals run down and trashed, literacy decline and infant mortality increase to surpass Cuba's. Prison populations have exploded to the point where both in absolute numbers and percentages, the United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world, even surpassing the old Soviet Union's gulag. It has seen the world of community, mutual care, public service, respect for others' opinions and pride in being part of a diverse and varied society destroyed. It is no longer a place where the opinion of the least is as valued as the conviction of the most important, a place celebrated in the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the books of Dashiell Hammett and F. Scott Fitzgerald. That America now seems long gone, even fanciful and the hardheaded realists of the present administration sneer at it as they stoke the fires now creeping out to consume the world. And if they have any thought for it at all, maybe it would simply be about how they can use one of those hokey paintings of Norman Rockwell to sell the latest spin from the Gestapo office – which was how Colin Powell described Vice President Cheney's office to Bob Woodward.

But fantasists cannot live in their fantasy forever and sooner or later reality intervenes. Reality is now intervening forcefully and violently and destroying in anyone but the most blind the conviction that the war on Iraq is anything other than an unmitigated disaster. But, of course, it is the blindest among us who are leading and so we can expect the carnage to go on for quite some time.

At the end of his movie Black Hawk Down, an account of the disastrous Somalian peacekeeping effort in 1993, director Ridley Scott has the surviving American soldiers running from the scene of their defeat through a gauntlet of laughing Arab children. As the war plans for the invasion of Iraq were developed, the lessons ofBlack Hawk Down were frequently referred to but no one, to my knowledge, noted those last, poignant images. But as the Bush Administration scrambles for its own answer to what went wrong, no doubt settling on the usual culprits of backstabbing liberals unprepared to support our troops or else at last finding a "good" Saddam who can nail the right peoples' heads to the floor and bring order to a people who could only ever understand force, it might be worthwhile meditating on that image of a well-disciplined and proud military machine doing everything right – right up to the point where it turns out to be disastrously wrong.

But it is going disastrously wrong and has been for quite some time. Bush is not what's wrong with America, what's wrong with America is a vision of itself as a forthright nation of action with an intuitive, metaphysical understanding of how the world works that has no need to consult, debate or reflect on its decisions and history. What's wrong with America is what's wrong with American culture, where art has been replaced by entertainment, content by spectacle and reality by fantasy. Where You Can Fly is taken as a genuine and uplifting possibility instead of an insane and idiotic admonition. America has withdrawn into a culture of gesture and spectacle, assured of its righteousness and driving hard and fast into the brick wall of the world.

And when it crashes, the whole world will shudder.

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