Scars of war in Lebanon, which is dealing with its own crises this week - collapsed government, pointed fingers over assassinations, civil strife. Humanity 2011, what else is new?
History’s assault on our senses begins with the blunt instrument of a calendar. Along with rejoicing at the life of the great anti-war agitator Martin Luther King, Jr., those military-weary souls among us celebrated two less happy occurrences Monday, January 17.
The first was the fiftieth anniversary of President Dwight D Eisenhower’s last address to the nation in 1961, his so called warning against the rise of the military industrial complex.
The second less celebrated moment of remembrance was the 20th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, the early morning invasion of Iraq in 1991.
So it seems fitting that January 17 is also the birthday of another great anti-war hero, Muhammed Ali. The champion pugilist did time in prison instead of a tour of duty in Vietnam.
His famous rationale for resisting the draft: “I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”
If I were a student at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School, the African-American superintendant David Snead would censor this column, based on his yanking of the school play, August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Why? It uses the n-word.
So, Ali’s anti-war statement is apparently unfit for the ears of American youth. Is there any anti-war sentiment that we can hear in mass culture today?
On Monday, NPR’s morning host Renee Montagne and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman explored Eisenhower’s speech and its core message: do we have a military-industrial complex?
Bowman's story begs the question: does NPR mean National Pentagon Radio? Sure, the story quotes Eisenhower’s statements about the creation of a permanent arms industry, and this concentration of power will threaten democracy.
Bowman mentions Lockheed Martin in passing. Bowman apparently missed William Hartung’s January 11, 2011 story about Lockheed Martin, documenting how this “military” contractor is the largest government contractor. Period.
Lockheed Martin received $36 billion in U.S. government contracts in 2008 alone, Hartung reported. Lockheed does work for more than two dozen agencies, including the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the EPA, the Department of Energy, the USPS and even the Census Bureau.
That $36 billion equals $260 per household, Hartung said. Lockheed spent $12 million on Congressional lobbying and campaign contributions in 2009 alone. That allows it to train TSA security agents who give us pat downs in airports, and run prisons overseas.
Listening to NPR, I wondered A) why they didn’t bring up Hartung’s reporting, and B) why we don’t we do the opposite of privatizing with Lockheed, and make it a state run company.
Allowing a for-profit, private corporation to do so much business with the U.S. government seemingly puts it in a position to dominate policy. But that would get me labeled a socialist, and an enemy of the state (or Lockheed’s bottom line). It might even get me put on a terrorist watch list.
After NPR, I yearned for refreshing wisdom from a King or an Ali. Of course, I heard this King gem on Monday: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Of course, on January 13, 2011, some military pr hack named Terri Moon Cron, writing for defense.gov, said that MLK would support the murder in Afghanistan. Cron quoted Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel at the Pentagon’s celebration of King’s life, saying today’s wars are not out of line with King's teachings.
King was an ardent pacifist. Orwellian double-speak got you confused? Then you’ll love NPR’s comparing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to his fellow Kansan Eisenhower.
Gates himself has questioned whether we need a navy that is larger than the next 13 battle fleets combined, 11 of which are our allies. But Gates, the Secretary of Defense for both a Republican and Democratic president, has presided over Orwellian state of permanent war in Afghanistan.
If you doubt that the war in Afghanistan is meant to be fought and not won, just watch Restrepo, a 2010 documentary about a year in the life of a 15 man Army platoon in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
Korengal is one of the most dangerous deployments in Afghanistan. The film takes its name from PFC Juan Restrepo of Pembroke Pines, Florida. Restrepo was a medic who was killed in action on July 22, 2007.
The first scenes of Restrepo show the eponymous soldier on a bus saying “You can’t tame the beast.” Cut to a live firefight in Afghanistan. “Holy s*&^, we’re not ready for this!” said one soldier.
The movie, directed by Sebastian Junger (A Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington, is a step forward for National Geographic Films, which distributed war porn/propaganda about the 2003 invasion while lamenting the destruction of priceless ancient artifacts.
Restrepo highlights the power of military arms. I wished the weapons manufacturers emblazoned their brand names on the guns and copters, like they do in Nascar.
Perhaps that might warn us of the power of the military-industrial complex, when we see Lockheed Martin’s name and slogan “We never forget who we’re working for” shining on the side of Trident missile.
More importantly, Restrepo shows the reality of cold, violent combat. It is unsanitized, with images of dead Americans, and their crying platoon mates. And their commanding officers telling them “I want you guys to mourn and get over it and go out and make the individuals who did this pay.”
The strategic value of the Korengal Valley, according to the film, is a proposed road the Americans want to build to connect to the Pech River Valley. At weekly meetings with Afghan elders, US troops make promises through an interpreter.
“Five years from now a road will go through here,” the American captain in combat gear, tells the old Afghan men, in their white beards and traditional dress.
“The road will make you guys more money, richer, more powerful,” the captain said. “I need you guys to join with government. We’ll flood this whole place with money, projects, with health care, with everything.”
Health care? Why not just promise them sugarplums, too? We can’t even universal health care in the United States. What would Speaker of the House John Boehner say about that?
If it sounded like devilish desperation to win hearts and minds to me sitting in Connecticut, the bargain must have sounded even more hollow to the assembled Afghan tribal elders, knowing about Bagram.
The U.S. captain, new to the Korengal, promises the elders he is different from his predecessor. “Everything that happened in the past with Captain McKnight is in the past, we’re wiping the slate clean, putting it behind us,” he said.
As if you can translate the idiomatic expression wiping the slate clean into Pashtun. The film lets the viewers know that the elders know about McKnight putting people into the black hole prisons at Bagram.
The elders also know about the lifeless bodies of their children and loved ones. The camera follows the platoon into a mountainous village to determine the effectiveness of a helicopter air strike.
The lead American soldier laments the death of five Afghan civilians. “I kill bad guys, but in the same instance, I kill five locals,” the American says. Sounds like a war crime to me. But he justifies the murder by noting that if they weren’t pulling the trigger, they must have been helping in some way.
If the insanity of war doesn’t become clear when the veterans who served in the Korengal lose their composure in post-combat interviews, it should when the white text on the black screen ends the movie by saying that the U.S. military pulled out of the Korengal in April 2010, after some 50 soldiers had died there.
And when their families remember those fallen men in years to come, hopefully, the passage of time will have blunted the sting of their death for such folly as an unwinnable war.