War offers us an intense if perverse spiritual experience with its myth-making drama of life lived at the extremes of human experience. America has always been susceptible to this kind of religious fervor particularly when we need to forget all of our deep internal divisions and our failure to address even the most elementary social problems. We have pushed the uneasy knowledge of our own wars and war crimes deep into the recesses of our souls but we still long for absolution. There is nothing like a really nasty enemy to restore a sense of our own high moral character. Of course, the thrill of this spiritual revival is usually experienced from the comforts of home far from the blood, guts, and gore.
I’ve seen this movie before and it sucks.
The first time was 1979. I was ten years old, in Omaha, Nebraska, which was an intolerant, ignorant place, and insolent about it, to boot.
It was called, “Hostage Crisis.” In Iran, some students took over the US embassy and held a bunch of Americans captive for 444 days. The bad guy was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Everybody hated him. Everybody hated “Eye-Ran.” It was popular, this hatred. It was a bandwagon you were supposed to jump on.
I didn’t get it. It felt faked. I mean, people were really into it—very enthusiastic with their stupid jokes and name-calling and all that—but the way it was suddenly everywhere, like flipping a switch, seemed artificial. How could everyone despise someone so much who they’d just heard of for the first time?
I was smart enough to keep these doubts to myself, or rather, intimidated enough. I could tell that asking questions could get me into trouble, and maybe beaten up.
Over the years, there were more movies and more villains. The biggest stars were Brezhnev, Gaddafi, Milošević, Hussein, and in Laden. More minor ones included Castro, Arafat, Noriega, and Chávez. These were men whose names you were supposed to spit out, men you were supposed to curse, men you were supposed to want dead.
Yes, some of these men committed truly vile acts, even war crimes, and some accomplished sincerely beneficial things for their people. But their actual records were irrelevant. They were targets to pummel when needed, for the drama, for the movie. It was never really about human rights or law breaking or justice, like the US claimed. If it was, we would’ve also gone after South Africa, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, or hell, the UK, Germany, and France.
For any one of these despicable figures, years might go by with the animosity only set to a low simmer. It was like a preview playing constantly in the background. The pot was never taken off the burner, and when the time was right, the establishment cranked up the flame and it was movie time again, with lurid tales and grotesque caricatures and loud calls for war. The audience always knew what to do: jeer the bad guy and cheer for us.
It’s not that the media doesn’t report any facts. They do, but only in the service of fashioning a narrative. Fashion in the sense of something that’s designed to come and go after making a flashy impression. Fashion in the sense of spectacle.
The first Gulf War in 1991 was a big movie, and so was Yugoslavia in the late ’90s, and the Iraq invasion in 2003. But the huge blockbuster was 9/11 and the War on Terror. In all these cases—and all the little ones in between—I didn’t buy what they were selling because it never felt right to me. I’d also educate myself, and read up on everything, but even before I had all the information, I could spot the misinformation and the disinformation right away. Propaganda has its own unmistakable odor, or tenor, or shade, or however you want to put it.
The current movie is Ukraine and the villain is Putin. Once again, there are facts and there is narrative, and it’s the narrative that’s driving the cultural response, which is emotional and bellicose and demands conformity. Once again, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Once again, I’m disappointed that people who seemed well-balanced up til now are suddenly spouting invective.
Once again, I’m not on board.
It’s not because I’m politically naive. I don’t lack knowledge of history, or of geopolitics, or of what’s going on over there. Yes I’ve heard all the things about how evil this villain is, and I know that what’s happening is tragic and I’m not minimizing that. But I’m not going to change my mind because it’s a different cast of characters and a new setting.
Here’s the thing:
When a military recruiter called me in high school, I told him I’d never go kill someone in a war overseas. He was taken aback, and pissed off, and demanded to know: “What if we were invaded and someone was after your family?”
“Well then I might think about picking up a rifle,” I said. And I told him to never call me back again and hung up. Now I can look at that and identify it as non-interventionism but not pacifism per se because the possibility of self-defense is not ruled out. But my stance was not intellectual, or even overtly ethical. It was just what I felt, and what I still feel: I’ve got no right to go over there somewhere and shoot people, and neither does the government. That doesn’t mean that people over there didn’t do bad things. That’s beside the point. The point is not going over there to kill because it’s wrong and it won’t fix things.
“War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again.” [video]
That’s just where I’m at with that. Maybe I was born that way. I don’t know, but I might as well have been because I don’t remember ever choosing it. For all practical purposes, it’s innate and I refuse to try to rip it out.
So I strongly resent the media propaganda pushing for war, whether that’s sanctions or air strikes or boots on the ground. We know who wins every time: the military industrial complex and the elite. We know who loses: regular people, both here and there.
Just as much, I resent the peer propaganda from regular people, repeating the media talking points as if they were their own words, and pressuring me to join their team. The blue-voting people have a different vocabulary than the red-voting people, but it’s all the same crap, trying to make me hate somebody somewhere and join their call for blood.
But I’m telling y’all now: I’m not signing up, no matter what you say. So if you can’t talk about anything else right now, go away and leave me alone until you’re done. I don’t want to hear it.
It’s 2022, but online it’s really no different than being in Nebraska in 1979, surrounded by intolerant, ignorant people, being insolent about it.
I’ve seen this movie before. And it sucks.