A week-or-so ago I watched Obama’s speech of December 1st to cadets at a place called ‘West Point’ late at night on the BBC. The one which talked about Afghanistan and simultaneously announced a long-term ‘exit strategy’ and the immediate ‘deployment’ of 30,000 more troops. If you can stomach it, you can find the full text – including iplayer footage for now – up over here.
I back-and-forth on the question of what to do with such a shitstorm of lies, distortions, half-truths, misrepresentations, cynical appeals to emotion and jingoistic patriotism, orwellian inversions etc etc; how to respond to such naked, shameless state propaganda as & when it inevitably comes up from people in official positions. A sane society would marginalise or shun individuals who pump out such disruptive, hateful sentiments; put them into some kind of rehab, or, failing all else, employ someone to take them on a walk somewhere nice and remote for them to have a little ‘accident’ and never return. In our society they make it to the highest, most prestigious positions, spouting their poisonous garbage all the way! (They can keep it under wraps for a spell when trying to get elected.)
So, the questioning goes, what to do when the insanity permeates the culture, saturating it from the top down? Can I afford to ignore these pronouncements, declare them irrelevant, beneath contempt, not worthy of serious consideration (which implies legitimacy), knowing that they will provide the basis or support for a thousand other challenges that will come my way and impact my life, often through the people closest to me? Or would I better spend my time cutting these things off at the source? … But then, where to find that source? Obama’s the one speaking (and ultimately responsible for the damage his words and actions will cause), but in this instance he’s basically reading out a Pentagon briefing, and has any number of establishment shills behind the scenes, pulling his strings and making his lips move. On a deeper level, also, he’s acting out on a broader social expectation – e.g. that imperial leaders exist to look after our individual safety and interests (not merely those of transnational corporations) – which might prove infinitely more difficult to challenge and root out, and would involve routine engagements with a much wider constituency.
I don’t know how to answer or to whom to direct my response. I guess the best guide might come from the Zen (or common sense) advice to remain responsive within any given circumstance, following what feels right to direct the energy-that-arises where it needs to go. At this moment in time I can’t be bothered with tearing Obama a new one (here’s an essay contest that looks on the right tracks if that sounds like something you’d like to do). Nor can I be arsed with my usual deal of typing out long passages from books by Mark Curtis and John Pilger (this is my blog – if you want to hear their opinions they’re not hard to find). I could do the ‘Shouting At The TV’ bit and make my intial grumblings more articulate, but they wouldn’t amount to much more than “these words reside in a historical vacuum” and “reference to declassified records makes it evident that the governments of nation states never act out of benevolent intent – their motives drive from economics, pure & simple”. Did those words ever convince anybody?
Maybe. Either way, I’m going to tell a personal story instead.
I take the train once a week to go to a pub that hosts a pretty decent open mic night where I play guitar and sing with other people, and by myself. A couple of weeks ago I went a little earlier than usual because of an episode at home that made me feel uncomfortable enough to want to get out. On the station platform, under a light drizzle, I bumped into a guy I knew from the pub, C, who was on his way there from the city. We had perfunctory conversations for ten-or-so minutes until the train rumbled in. He was already slightly ‘merry’ from drinking with a group of friends earlier in the evening.
We got on the train and looked for a place to sit, with seats facing opposite one another in such a way as to support the ongoing exchange. Turning right into the compartment with the toilet in the corner there was only one option for that, which was next to a young guy with short-cropped hair, sitting by himself next to the window with a can of lager resting on a small piece of shelf and looking pretty far gone. He motioned to me to sit in the seat in front of him, so I did, and C sat next to him, across the small aisle.
After a quick trip to the loo, this kid came out leaning very heavily on seat-backs and having visible difficulty moving his legs. After a while we asked if he was all right, where he had been, whether he had someplace to go – the usual questions you might ask someone in a sorry, drunken state while trying to avoid a recounting of their tragic life story (because you were getting off at the next stop). He reassured us he had friends to stay with further along down the line, and told us, completely casually, that he wasn’t so good, having been shot in the leg. After quickly making sure I hadn’t overlooked a pool or trails of blood on the floor, I assumed he didn’t mean he’d been shot that same evening.
The story came out slowly, with evident distress. He was currently on a six-month leave from the army which had put him in Iraq. While on patrol in one of the cities over there a 12-year-old boy had shot him twice in the leg, whereupon he had whirled round and killed him (the boy) by shooting him in the head. He described how the bullets had felt going through his body, and, matter-of-factly with much attention to detail, how his own bullets had impacted on – taken the life from – the child, and then how the mother had screamed and cradled his lifeless body. I imagined him using the same words in describing the incident to his superiors, although now, with us, the tears were streaming freely down his face. Clearly the image made a strong impression that would probably haunt him for the rest of his life. He was nineteen years old (eighteen at the time of the incident).
It was hard to know what to say or do, other than to just bear witness to the story which could not stay contained. C pulled out a close-to-full 35cl bottle of whisky and offered it, wisely or unwisely. The guy drained about half the liquid in big, desperate gulps. We wished him the best from the given circumstances before getting off at our stop.
In the pub I briefly explained what had happened over the PA before singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Story of Isaac’, which includes the killer inversion of:
When it all comes down to dust I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can
When it all comes down to dust I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can
– a terrifying ‘line of the times’ and amazing how close it comes to the soldier boy’s story, considering I’d learned and decided to play the song before even meeting him. This seemed like an appropriate artistic response. On his ‘Live Songs’ album, Cohen himself introduces the song as ‘about those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another’. I aped this by dedicating the cover to the guy, his recovery and to “those who sent him” before going through every line and feeling (transmitting) the various relevances & resonances (only slightly biting down on the part about the ‘beauty of the word’ – personally I don’t think any amount of beautiful words could justify the acts Cohen sings about).
It was only afterwards that I managed to kick myself with the realisation that I’d forgotten to dedicate it to the one person who actually got killed – the Iraqi child! How did I fail to mention him or the family he’s left behind in my dedications? It happened so easily, almost reflexively. The hidden message behind the ommission: those who deserve sympathy – or even attention – are the people on our side. The rest barely qualify as human beings. We are the actors. They are the acted upon.
The question that eventually wound its way toward me was this: How would we in Polite Society react to the original incident – one boy shooting and wounding another; the second then shooting and killing the first – if it involved two equal citizens in a western country; if we strip the context of ‘soldier in a foreign occupying force’ vs. ‘member of a resisting population (with a different culture, language and skin pigmentation)’? I think the survivor would quickly find himself in jail, pleas of self-defense notwithstanding. He wouldn’t get any automatic sympathy, people wouldn’t stand up for him, asserting pure motives and noble intentions on his behalf. Few would suggest that he had a right to do what he did, or endeavour to make sure he was better armed for his next violent encounter. We wouldn’t see one as a hero, the other as a villain; in the best case scenario we would call it a tragedy, observe the mess it left behind with horror and try to trace the causes to make sure the same thing never happened again. We would see victims further victimising one another. We would want to stop it.
What’s the difference? Why, after for the first time meeting somebody who had killed another human being, did I feel more drawn to reactions of respect and empathy than repelled by feelings of horror and disgust?
About two months ago I wrote that ‘the test of a fully-fledged radical, at least in the Western context, comes not so much in the form of police lines and other forms of overt social opression, but in being able to face the culture down when it comes at you with puppy-dog eyes, white wristbands or pictures of distended African bellies.’ After reading ‘For Whose Sake Wear A Poppy?‘ by blogger, ‘martin-j’, I feel like adding ‘war widows’ and ‘wounded soldiers’ to the list:
The simplest form of propaganda is omission. How can you not feel sympathy for someone who has had their legs blown off? How can you not pity the war widow left to struggle on a pittance? The easiest way of course is not to know about them. That’s exactly how our pity and sympathy for the victims of our invasions are kept in check. We’re not told much, so we don’t care much.
With the noblest of intentions, one consequence of the poppy campaign is to elicit selective sympathy. It focuses our grief on one specific group of casualties – no surprise, our own. Meanwhile the victims of our invasions slip further from view, perhaps further despised for bringing this tragedy upon ‘our boys’.
Exclusive focus on our own soldiers is of course the current media method of dealing with the hell we have made of Afghanistan and Iraq. For those who supported these invasions reporting their true horror and failure would mean admitting complicity. So roll on the squaddies, let the tragedy be theirs. Rather than the criminality of the invasion all attention turns to the plight of Tommy Atkins. Rather than failed states and piles of civilian corpses, the tragedy becomes one of shoddy equipment and shitty living conditions.
The culture has no qualms about smuggling its agendas through the voices of people you’d never think to challenge – ‘[a] grieving mother is difficult to argue with’ as John Kelly put it. Absent from the picture and the high-profile media podiums, as usual, are any dissenting voices, with the very real bravery of ‘refuseniks’ like this guy comparatively ignored (and certainly not held up as an example for others to follow).
I read in the local paper about a funeral for one of ‘our boys’ killed in Afganistan. Apparently someone in the back of the church called out ‘three cheers for the soldier’ which resulted in a standing ovation from the entire congregation. How monstrous would someone at that funeral seem if they refused to stand and cheer on the grounds that they didn’t want to support militarism or those who (however unwittingly) do the dirty work of Empire? After all (John Kelly again):
[…] one of the necessary conditions in the process of transforming civilians into soldiers – willing to kill, maim and die – is for soldiers to feel the public supports them and their actions. (ibid.)
[It’s possible that the soldier we met was looking for this ‘public support’ in telling his story – I hope we supported the recovery of his human rather than his institutional side in this – ed.] How outlandish do I sound as I make my baby steps towards being able to tell mourning families that their sons and daughters fought and died for no good reason (economics don’t count)? The answers to these questions reflect on the mental health of the wider culture, on the success of elite groups in mindfucking the masses until they identify with their rapacious programmes, and on the ability of ordinary people to go along with any comforting lie if it will help them think the social structures operate according to essentially decent, human values.
Talking about it later, C said he thought the people in this country were going to have a lot of very disturbed young men to cope with in the years to come. I agreed. Still (as it came to me afterwards), better to deal with the problem here, on our own soil, than to allow unscrupulous men to harness – to feed – that disturbance in order to visit it upon innocents in a faraway land.
Then, once we have enough of the young ones choking on their ‘duties’ and vomiting up their traumas, we can start to deal with the disturbed old men who gave the orders in the first place. And, I’ve got to say, I don’t feel much sympathy welling up for them at the best of times…
So yes, Afghanistan. The important first step is to explode the official explanations and justifications. Once you get past those, other answers make themselves available. Here are some articles that helped me do that:
Also, watch Eddie Vedder fall into the same trap as me during (-30:15) and after (-03:30) this awesome concert performance from Austin, Texas. I’m sure there were illustrious artists making similar points in the Soviet Union during the 80’s when their armed forces were ‘working so hard, living off the land [sic] in the desert […] to fix what they can fix and somehow come up with a resolution to this situation’ [I can’t bring myself to type what he said next – get with the program, Eddie! – ed.] in the territory they had occupied… This after singing a verse like:
Her son’s slanted
Always giving her
The sideways eye
An empty chair where dad sits
How loud can silence get?
And mom, she reassures
To contain him
But it’s becoming a lie
She tells herself
And everyone else
Father is risking
His life for our freedoms
Never thought I’d regret sharing such distinguished company :| Seems that empathic impulses can make our brains drop out of our heads – can in fact be employed as tools of oppression – if we only direct them selectively, to those the culture has deemed worthy recipients.