Yet Another Failed Apocalypse
Like the inevitable outing of virulent homophobes, we have yet another example of a failed apocalypse. The problem is not necessarily the apocalypse itself, but the frequency of these failed apocalypses has become so grating that even the jokes have become predictable and flat. In 2012 alone, we had Howard Camping’s multiple declarations of impending doom as well as the famous Mayan “apocalypse.” (Ironic air-quotes because it is a classic misunderstanding of a non-Gregorian calendar system by hysterical nutjobs. In December 2012, the Mayan calendar ends. What happens when you reach December 31, 2012 in your household? Most people usually get a new calendar.)
I won’t bother listing the failed apocalypses. Here’s a link. It’s a really long list. And in the future there will be more non-apocalypses added to that list. But people will still be hysterical, declaiming the end of the world, and getting everyone worked up over nothing. Another after-effect of all these failed apocalypses is that apocalyptic rhetoric has lost all meaning.
Apocalyptic rhetoric has been trotted out whenever a poorly written cash-in reaches the New York Times bestseller list. (Because that never happens.) Until the next sub-literate hack gets a choice book deal and struggling authors continue to struggle in obscurity. All this talk of cultural apocalypse because the author of Fifty Shades of Grey sold some books seems a bit overheated. The wealth of Hollywood wasn’t built on good movies either. The apocalypse is fast becoming meaningless the same way terms “indie” and “edgy” have been eroded to vacuous buzzwords.
Do not misinterpret this post as some snarky smug “religion is dumb, hooray science!” diatribe. (The Internet has plenty of those.) I was raised in a Lutheran household and apocalyptic rhetoric wasn’t in the conversation. Yes, the theological basis for Lutheranism includes the Apocalypse, but there wasn’t any ham-fisted close readings of the Book of Revelation like certain denominations, sects, and cults do. (For examples, tune in to your local religious networks, except EWTN, since the Catholic Church isn’t apocalypse-happy as Kirk Cameron’s flock.) The Apocalypse was part of Lutheran theology, but believers were taught not to presume to know when it would happen.
Presume is the key word here. As with other things, God will determine when the Apocalypse will happen. Hence the constant empty blathering of failed prophets. This goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of the Antichrist of the Week. So many people have been charged with being the Antichrist that it gets comical. Cracked.com, the reliable barometer of American opinion, published one of their most hilarious articles saying “Obama is the least efficient Antichrist ever.”
Not to belabor the point, but naming someone the Antichrist has become as politically expedient as calling someone a Hitler. The same people using the same rhetoric have called everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Saddam Hussein to Barack Obama the Antichrist. One doesn’t need a PhD to see what’s going on. Label the political opposition the Antichrist and the flock will follow accordingly. And since Obama was re-elected, American is in a state of moral depravity and God will smite us. Or something. (I live in Minnesota and the state recently voted down the Traditional Marriage Amendment. I’m still waiting for the being-caused-by-gays earthquakes and hurricanes. We did get a snowstorm on the day of the Mayan Apocalypse … in Minnesota.)
The same people who label the President as the Antichrist are the same people who allege there is a War on Christmas. Which leads us to …
The Holiday Spirit
August to December 25th annually, depending on the retailer
“First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
I enjoy the holiday season. I get to home to Wisconsin, be with family, open presents, and generally have a good time. Again, this is not some garden variety anti-religious screed. Those are boring. This post is exploring the issue of fatigue. Along with apocalypse fatigue, the commodification of Christmas inevitably gives way to fatigue. Since free market capitalism is based on the premise of an ever-expanding market, the Christmas season has been incrementally expanded into more of the calendar year. While retailers and businesses are right to exploit the reason for the season, this can have an unintentional blowback effect.
Christmas is fine. Shopping is fine. But I don’t need to see Christmas trees in retailers in August! By the time Black Friday rolls around, I’m already sick of Christmas. To put this another way: I like chocolate cake, but I don’t want to eat chocolate cake for every meal every day for three months. What is happening to me and fellow shoppers is the retail equivalent of diabetic shock.
Ironically, I see myself as a traditionalist here. Christmas season should begin on Black Friday and end on Christmas (with some overlap for New Year’s). The relentless drive to have us shop, shop, shop til we drop has extended the holiday season way too far. The Holiday Season has become a calendar-eating amoeba, devouring everything in its path.
Christmas, the best seven months of the year.
The Battle of Stalingrad
July 17, 1942–Feb. 2, 1943
Nikita Khrushchev: [addressing a roomful of Soviet political officers] My name… is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city… is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans… capture this city… the entire country will collapse. Now… I want our boys to raise their heads. I want them to act like they have balls! I want them to stop shitting their pants! That’s your job. As political officers… I’m counting on you.
Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Thousands died, thousands more were killed, and it was an ideological wrestling match between two totalitarian superpowers. I only mention this because, as a punchline, I have likened the annual Christmas season to the Battle of Stalingrad. It is a Stalingrad-like battle of enforced cheer and omnipresent Christmas songs. I’ll leave you with a clip of Christopher Hitchens likening the holiday season to living in North Korea. Is it really? Let me know your opinion in the comments section.
This week, I continue my ongoing series “On Being Human” with “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica,” two Syfy TV series that explored the struggles between humanity and the machines that rebelled. |
Warning: This is not a traditional movie review, but an exploration of politics and pop culture within the Hunger Games movie universe. Spoilers ahead!
“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” – Guy Debord
Hunger Games fever is sweeping the nation! Catch it! The film adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), focuses on the story of Katniss Everdeen, a coal miner’s daughter from District 12. Through an act of selflessness, she volunteers to go in her sister’s place to the 74th Annual Hunger Games. At the Hunger Games, children between the ages of 12 to 18 fight to the death in front of a national audience.
While this represents only the bare bones of the plot, the film itself offers a unique take on the collisions of politics and pop culture. The nation of Panem had a nasty civil war where the poorer outlying districts fought against the richer central districts. When hostilities ceased, a Truce was signed. The Truce stipulated that two young children be selected from each district to fight to the death. (A nostalgic film is played on a massive public screen in District 12. This commemorative film eerily echoes Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia(1938) with its chiseled heroic youths holding swords and striking sculptural poses.) The process by which the children are drafted is named The Reaping, a term with agricultural and religious connotations. During the opening text crawl, it is explained that the Reaping and Hunger Games are “penance” the former rebellious districts must pay to the victorious districts.
Susanne Collins vision is fascinating because she shows how a political ideology transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. After 74 years, what was once a weighty political ritual has become an empty sports spectacle, complete with sponsors, an opening ceremony, and betting. Gary Ross is a nice fit for director, since his previous effort, Pleasantville, offers an analogous situation, with Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon trying to escape, then eventually trying to liberate, an entirely mediated space. The Tributes fight in a similar mediated space, since personnel associated with the Head Gamemaker can easily manipulate its environment.
Akin to the modern-day Olympics, the Hunger Games seeks to depoliticize a painful political event. Instead of killing each other for political or territorial control, the contestants kill each other in order to become victorious. Prior to the actual game, the draftees are treated as media superstars, each getting interviewed by the Emcee Caesar Flickerman.
The Hunger Games offers a fascinating blend of right- and left-wing authoritarianisms. Like North Korea or Nazi Germany, there is mass spectacle. Everyone watches the Games, the same way everyone listens to Big Brother’s instructions via television in Orwell’s 1984. The economic gap between the districts has echoes of France’s ancien regime and the Occupy movement’s nefarious 1%. The wealthy districts has a dolled-up citizenry with facepaint, make-up, and outrageous hairstyles. (Cf. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s futuristic costuming in the Fifth Element). The film is to be commended for making Elizabeth Banks ugly (she plays Effie Trinket). Not ugly in the sense of Quasimodo or someone with physical deformities, but someone whose artificiality, arrogance, and unawareness make her simply vulgar. The largest breach of decorum with her is not the televised murder or economic chasm between district, but “manners!” In the end, manners are rituals and codes one must follow in a certain socioeconomic group. Katniss is a threat to Panem, not because of her adept archery skills, but because her intelligence bespeaks a knowledge of codebreaking. She is victorious as both a tenacious fighter and one who “games the system.” (We live in an age where school shootings are commonplace, alongside stories of teenagers hacking formidable computer programs. No wonder this movie and novel trilogy speaks to so many young people.)
As the games hit their dramatic peak, someone from a wealthy district kills Rue, a young girl from District 11. This causes a riot in District 8 that boils over into other districts, creating a tense political situation. During the ensuing debacle, President Snow talks with the Gamemaker, saying to the effect that “a little hope is good, but too much hope is dangerous. Contain it.” When I first heard those lines, I recalled last year’s Arab Spring. For too long, the United States has spooned out hope in tiny portions to the peoples of the Middle East. The United States would make constant promises about freedom and liberty, and then simultaneously prop up brutal dictatorships because of either their natural resources or their geopolitical position associated with the Cold War and/or War on Terror. The Arab Spring was something the United States could not control and it scared us as much as an Osama bin Laden videotape. One recalls how the United States simultaneously talked about supporting freedom yet made constant associations between Arab Spring protesters and Al-Qaeda. Freedom and liberty are fine, control and commodities are more preferable.
It is not often that a Young Adult novel can so presciently capture the zeitgeist and offer up such lacerating commentary on our brutal, hyper-mediated culture.
Having survived Ayn Rand’s epic literary atrocity Atlas Shrugged, we thought that it is time to explore other pop cultural avenues. The two subjects under consideration are the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer 40,000. (Each title is shorthand for sprawling creative properties involving TV shows, role playing games, video games, web series, tie-in novels and comics, and countless other pop cultural artifacts.)
Battlestar Galactica represents a rich vein to tap into the struggles and ethical dilemmas facing the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The spin-off series Caprica dealt with issues like organized religion, terrorism, virtual reality, technological advancement, organized crime, and capitalism. The franchise will expand again with the upcoming series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, chronicling the First Cylon War.
Warhammer 40,000 (hereafter known as Warhammer 40K) began in the United Kingdom as a fantasy role-playing game. (There is also a companion RPG called Warhammer that has a fantasy setting.) Starting from the premise of The Lord of the Rings … IN SPACE!, the franchise has expanded in tie-in novels, video games, a magazine, and a vastly expanded universe. Issues like colonialism, imperialism, and posthumanism will be explored.
NOTE: For both features, there will be spoilers. These are critical analyses, not episode or book summaries. Also, given the vastness of these franchises, we at Coffee is for Closers would appreciate any feedback, corrections, etc. from fans and members of the academic community studying these pop cultural touchstones in greater detail.
Of Mad Men and madmen
In the AMC series Mad Men, Bert Cooper tells Don Draper he should read Atlas Shrugged. The episode takes place in the first season during the year 1960. The advertising firm Sterling Cooper, of which Bert Cooper acts as senior partner and office eccentric, later accepts the Republican Party as a client for its upcoming battle with Nouveau Riche candidate John F. Kennedy. But the Atlas Shrugged reference is telling, especially since the series has gone on to deconstruct the Greatest Generation with an Altmanesque cynicism.
Joshua Glenn, a writer for the website HiLoBrow, offered a brilliant reconfiguration of the Greatest Generation. He split it into three generations (Hardboileds, Partisans, and New Gods). The project also explained the artificiality of periodization in pop culture histories. Unfortunately, in cultural institutions, the Strauss & Howe-cum-Brokaw-inspired moniker “Greatest Generation” has calcified within the popular consciousness and become as immovable as a boulder and as loaded as a theological dogma. Glenn’s periodization offers a new perspective on the generations that endured the Great Depression and fought World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. This brings us back to Mad Men, Madison Avenue, and Atlas Shrugged.
Builders and Inventors
While Matt and I have given the novel a relentless critical laceration, it is worthwhile to examine the historical context. Like literary biography, it is another key to unlocking the secrets of this doorstopper’s ongoing popularity.
In Mad Men, Sterling Cooper staffs a mix of generations. Don Draper fought in Korea and Roger Sterling fought in World War II. The specter of war, devastation, and tyranny hang over the series, a silent menace that could mean instant nuclear obliteration. Ayn Rand, fitting into Glenn’s schema as a member of the Partisan Generation, influences the men in the New Gods Generation. As Glenn says, “Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, at the age of 18, [George H. W.] Bush postponed going to college and became the youngest naval aviator in the US Navy at the time; that’s so New Gods.” (Another member of the New Gods was President Nixon, notable for his use of the “Madman Theory” in foreign policy.)
The generation takes it name from the Jack Kirby comic series. In the Fifties and Sixties, Americans had ascended into a position that one could associate with “godlike.” Relatively unscathed from World War II’s devastations, at least compared to Europe, the United States accumulated wealth during its feverish war production. Following the War, Americans had money to burn, both on an individual level and on a national level. Whites migrated to the suburbs and the US government bankrolled the military-industrial complex to protect the globe. Meanwhile the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Europe, paving the way to free markets and free peoples … unfortunately, it was usually in that order.
X: I was one of those secret guys in the Pentagon that supplies the military hardware – the planes, bullets, rifles – for what we call “black operations.” – “black ops,” assassinations, coup d’états, rigging elections, propaganda, psych warfare and so forth. World War II – Rumania, Greece, Yugoslavia, I helped take the Nazi intelligence apparatus out to help us fight the Communists. Italy ’48 stealing elections, France ’49 breaking strikes – we overthrew Quirino in the Philippines, Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran. Vietnam in ’54, Indonesia ’58, Tibet ’59 we got the Dalai Lama out – we were good, very good. Then we got into the Cuban thing. Not so good.
JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
Even the New Gods have feet of clay. While the CIA did the dirty work and the US acted like the Global Policeman, the world was rebuilt, at least those portions untouched by Soviet oppression. Atlas Shrugged, stacking the deck a la X’s black ops, is about builders and inventors. What makes the world of Mad Men unrecognizable to younger viewers is its look of newness. New inventions kept popping up, technological advancements, and a wealthy suburban populace ready to cash in on the decades of poverty and miserliness created by economic devastation and global warfare. The Fifties and Sixties were a sustained orgasm of conspicuous consumption. Only when the inflation, social unrest, and cash-hunger created by Vietnam brought things to a head, did the party stop.
Rand glorifies the builders and inventors, written in the heady atmosphere of 1957, a hothouse mélange of capitalist frenzy, McCarthyism, and Soviet expansionism. Nevertheless, the historical record casts a different light on the situation than the Atlas Shrugged’s ostentatious utopianism. The government made the world safe for free markets and the government provided. The problem with Atlas Shrugged is that it reinforces the Manichean mindset that permeated the Fifties. Evil government looters versus capitalist industrialist heroes. Godless Communist versus Bible-believing patriot. Republican versus Democrat. Coke versus Pepsi. Rinse, lather, repeat. The delightful thing about Manichean oppositions is that it frees the individual from thinking with his or her brain. When X = bad, choose Not-X. It’s reductive, it’s intellectually lazy, and it’s behavioristic. Only addicts repeat the same acts, even though they are detrimental. Any lab rat knows that.
The anti-government hatred inspires both a hero like Hank Rearden and a domestic terrorist who flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS building. On the other hand, the regulatory mandate of the Federal Government needs to adapt with the times. When times are flush, the individual investor needs the freedom to take more risks. When times are tight, investment should take an ancillary role to a more pressing need, that of personal savings. That said, regulations are useless when legislators rubber stamp bills written by their lobbyist friends (and future campaign contributors). Not all regulations are good and not all corporate behavior is beneficial. The best perspective should be nuanced, examining legislation and corporate behavior on a case-by-case basis. As the joke goes, “All generalizations are false.” The burger-flipping philosopher Hugh Akston says that a contradiction exists when one of the premises is false. Rand’s tendency to generalize everything (evil looters vs. Objectivist heroes) renders the novel into one huge contradiction.
The United States has yet to fully shake off the Manicheanism of Rand’s novel and the Cold War mentality. While the polar world of the Fifties and Sixties explains why Atlas Shrugged became so popular, we do not live in those times. Back then, there was a single enemy: the Soviet Union. The foreign policy of today reflects a multipolar world with no center. Instead of Soviet Party Chairmen stampeding across the Iron Curtain and imposing tyranny, our enemies are different. Religious fanatics with dirty bomb dreams, yachting BP executives, and those whose political opposition to things stems from a fanatic adherence to ideological purity rather than common sense (this goes for nitwits who populate both the Right and Left).
Atlas Shrugged remains unique in literature for its depiction of industrialists are heroes (Cf. Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Zola, and others) and a woman engineer as a main character. It inspired many to rail against government regulations (some of which was probably detrimental to business). The sub-genre of “libertarian science fiction” owes a debt to Ayn Rand and her philosophy. But freedom, liberty, and business can be taken too far (just read the works of D.A.F. de Sade to explore the outer limits of personal freedom). Both capitalism and government regulation work well when they work within certain specific limits. What those limits are and where they fall remain points that will be debated for eternity.
The Gods Will Have Blood
The title is from a novel by Anatole France. The quotes below are from two very different movies, both on the New Gods gone too far. When things go too far, the gods will demand fealty.
General Corman: Well, you see Willard… In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Ace Rothstein: [voice-over] Before I ever ran a casino or got myself blown up, Ace Rothstein was a helluva handicapper, I can tell you that. I was so good that when I bet, I can change the odds for every bookmaker in the country. I’m serious. I had it down so cold that I was given paradise on earth. I was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas to run: The Tangiers, by the only kind of guys that can get you that kind of money. Sixty-two million seven hundred thousand dollars. I don’t know all the details.
Nicky Santoro: [voice-over] Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should have been perfect. I mean he had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend watching his ass. And he had Ginger, the woman he loved on his arm. But in the end, we fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fuckin’ valuable again.
Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)
Continued from Part One at the Driftless Area Review.
The C-Word: Nobody liked Cassandra either
In A Massive Swelling, Wilson said, “I am as liberal as they come. I stand and vote for every gay, Green, peace-loving hippie minority cause there is.” One can see in her the future of our political landscape. One can even extend this to include pro-business libertarians like Penn and Teller. While her racing stripes are liberal, she does not come across as a shrill preachy windbags. (And to be Fair and Balanced™, both Left and Right are bloated with shrill preachy windbags. In the end, all political differences between the Democratic and Republican parties become cosmetic, engineered by well-paid operatives to keep the rubes guessing and the True Believers satisfied.)
Political commentary is inbred, staid, and monotonous, with two warring camps as weak and inept as the late Habsburgs and Bourbons. Back in the 1850s, the Republican Party used to be a third party. Unfortunately, now we play musical chairs with Kang and Kodos at the wheel.
Wilson taps into this justified and hostile malaise that has gripped the Operation Repo-watching populace. This is her take on our current Administration’s inability to corral the lobbyists:
“President Obama, God Save Him, is beginning to look merely ceremonial, like the Queen of England. Despite the fact that he relinquished none of the concentrated imperial superpowers and near-papal infallibility claimed for the Presidency by Cheney, Obama still doesn’t seem to have the right wooden stakes or zombie head-smashing shovels to actually implement any real reforms. He has been either unwilling or unable to sit on the lobbyists, who have been playing musical chairs and orgies of footsie around the public/private sectors since the Clinton era, perverting the natural order of things, sucking what once was a healthy country into a cadaver with artificially reddened meat and a face jet-waxed like a Costco apple.”
(“The Hot and the Dead: the corporate vampires are bleeding us dry,” New Have Advocate, January 13, 2010)
She takes on the latest Supreme Court decision giving corporations personhood with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan.
“Now, hold on to your armrests … Shazam! The legal fiction of Corporate Personhood is now a crazy, magical reality! The judicial robes of the SCOTUS now come with wizard hats! Introducing new Supreme Court Lite — all the supreme power a ruling class craves, but without all those civil service afterthoughts.
Now, federal legislation preventing corporate citizens from using their profits to influence political elections has been removed. Corporations are now SuperPeople, like the X-Men. Soft money? (Snort.) That’s for weepy little girls. We like money hard, baby — like our ball, our core, our Chuck Norris.
“This announcement is brought to you by the Shimato Dominguez Corporation – helping America into the New World.” — Bladerunner (1982)
Corporations can now splurge on all the tasty constitutional benefits natural human beings deserve. It’s going to be an adjustment, learning to live with these new neighbors. It will be hard, figuring out exactly what nationality these multinationals are, how many guns they own, how they pray, how they grieve and whether they’re gay.”
(“SCOTUS Interruptus: The Supreme Court ruling means a pornocracy is within our grasp”, New Have Advocate, February 3, 2010)
With references to the X-Men and Chuck Norris, she speaks in the rhetoric a younger generation can understand. This is political commentary for a TV-watching, texting-constantly, Facebook-status-updating culture. She is also adept enough to kneecap the Supreme Court’s pro-business legislation by turning it against itself. Honestly speaking, since corporations are now people, are corporate mergers the equivalent of gay sex? While the question seems fatuous, there are Gospel of Prosperity homophobes who need to know. Then again, it is hard to square the circle of conspicuous consumption (Satan offering Jesus rule over all the kingdoms of the world) and the commandment of “Thou shall not covet.” Cintra Wilson riffs on the cognitive dissonance that runs through the District of Columbia like a main circuit cable. She riffs on them like Jimi Hendrix playing “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.
Cintra Wilson has the rare ability to turn style into substance. The writing is smart, but not over-clever for its own sake. Beneath the snark and the cynicism lies a humanism and hope that we may eventually dig ourselves out of this glittery abyss we call American Culture.
“One feels not the living beauty of our American past, but the mortuary air of archaeology…Who lives in that shrine, I wonder — Lincoln . . . or the generation that took pleasure in the mean triumph of the Spanish American [War], and placed the imperial standard in the Philippines and the Caribbean?” –Lewis Mumford, on the Lincoln Memorial
It’s a cliché to say that there are no real winners in war, but it is one of those annoying clichés that happens to be true. The territorial or political gains the ‘victor’ of a given conflict achieves almost invariably prove ephemeral, while the real death, destruction and debt suffered can never be undone. There is one big honking exception to this rule, though: the United States in World War Two. No nation-state in history has emerged from such a massive military conflagration in such a commanding position. While Europe and Asia were reduced to rubble, with tens of millions of people killed and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and arable land annihilated, the United States lost a relative handful of combatants (fewer American soldiers died in the entire war than the Soviets lost at Stalingrad!), no civilians to speak of, and emerged from the wartime economy bristling with industrial capacity and a world market where all potential competitors had been blown to smithereens. Not only did the war position the U.S. for a generation of unchallenged economic dominance, it also gifted to the American people a heroic narrative of their involvement that has shaped America’s self perception ever since. In this narrative, a world on the brink of annihilation at the hands of tyrants was saved by the timely and selfless intervention of America’s humble but determined army of citizen-soldiers. It was a John Wayne movie with the American people collectively playing the Duke.
The United States rose from the ashes of the Second World War as an economic and military powerhouse, a people fully convinced of their civic virtue and the inherent righteousness of their political project. They had stood up to the greatest evil the world had ever seen and stopped it cold, ending a genocide in the process. To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, the U.S. was a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger, a country on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.
It was this serene confidence and faith in military might as a force for good that helped lead America into the a series of ghastly brushfire conflicts during the Cold War, most notably in Korea and Vietnam. By the time the last helicopters had left Saigon in 1975, the United States had lost tens of thousands of lives in conflicts marked by naked imperialism, indiscriminate bombing, chemical warfare, massacres, torture, and, perhaps most traumatic of all, defeat. Millions of Americans mobilized in demonstrations to stop a war that most of the world considered criminal. It certainly wasn’t liberating Dachau or raising the flag on Mount Suribachi.
The decade following the Vietnam defeat saw a crisis in the American character as the nation tried to square its self-image as the personification of virile heroism with the tawdry brutality that marked the decade of blood and frustration in Southeast Asia. This lead to a temporary skepticism of American exceptionalism, and a more general weariness of military force as an inherent good. This ambivalence is demonstrated by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in Washington D.C. in 1982. Maya Ying’s design focuses not on the glory and iconography of battle, but on the human cost of war, a cost counted on an individual basis. Ignoring the Three Soldiers statue, which was added later on to placate traditionalists, the Memorial simply consists of the names of every American solider killed in Vietnam. Loss, not heroism, stands at the fore.
Of course, America has never fully assimilated the reality of what really happened in Vietnam, and the Memorial reflects that. After all, a wall of black granite listing the names of every Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian civilian killed by American bombs and bullets would encircle the entire Washington mall in a coil of moral indictment. Instead of acknowledging the Vietnam war as a vast crime committed against the people of Southeast Asia, it is remembered instead as a tragic mistake, with American soldiers as the primary victims. Vietnam as tragedy squares much more neatly with the intoxicating memory of World War Two heroism.
The temptation to return to that simple and vitalizing national self-concept was just too strong to resist, especially when the crimes committed in Vietnam happened so far away from the eyes of the American public. The process of forgetting Vietnam while simultaneously remembering World War Two was aided by opportunistic politicians like Ronald Reagan and a foreign policy establishment always looking for the next chance to demonstrate American hegemony. Quick, relatively painless victories in Grenada, Panama and Kuwait helped banished those pesky Vietnam ghosts.
In the aimless foreign policy world of the Clinton era, Americans increasingly cast their eyes backward to the time before the Fall for their fix of national aggrandizement. Even the Korean war, a conflict marked by dissent, catastrophe and failed objectives that nearly led to Harry Truman ridden out of Washington on a rail, got a sepia-toned makeover. On June, 14, 1995, a new addition was unveiled on the national mall. The Korean War Veterans Memorial echoes in some details Maya Ling’s Vietnam design, notably a black granite wall. Instead of names, however, it’s surface is etched with the figures of soldiers, reflecting the centerpiece of the Memorial: a company of soldier statues ascending an incline. The pictures and statues emphasize sacrifice and hardship, but also courage and marital prowess. It’s a monument built by a country rediscovering the greatness of its military tradition.
The Project for the New American Century position paper Rebuilding America’s Defenses, written in 2000, pined for a “new Pearl Harbor” to prove a catalyst for infusing American foreign policy with force and purpose. Pearl Harbor is the primal scene of modern American exceptionalism. A sneak attack conducted by a malevolent enemy that draws the nation into a stark, black-and-white battle between the forces of democracy and justice on one hand and fascism and genocide on the other. Fortunately for neocons and oil industry vampires, the September 11th attacks gave Americans who came of age remembering the purity and determination of Greatest Generation as nothing more than a distant myth a chance to live out their own cosmic battle of absolute good and evil. The horrors of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks justified any conceivable military response, and the Bush administration took advantage of the mood to pursue their own base objectives, with the U.S. military as their blunt instrument of realpolitik. In those first few years of idealism, rage, fear and triumph, many Americans could feel themselves reenacting the holy warfare of that fabled World War Two generation. Just as the bloom of victory was beginning to tarnish in Iraq, a new, gargantuan monument to that conflict was unveiled in Washington, directly across the reflecting pond from the Lincoln Memorial. The National World War II Memorial does away with the mournful simplicity of the Vietnam memorial or even the poignancy of the Korean memorial statuary in favor of a collection of massive pillars and triumphal arches fit for Albert Speer. The personal and the experiential are obliterated by an abstract paean to national greatness and untrammeled power. There are sculptures of actual soldiers and sailors stuck in various nooks and crannies, but they are dwarfed on all sides by unforgiving stone geometry. It’s a monument built by a nation longing to forget 50 years of what John Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War and the purposeless drift of the post-Cold War era. At the World War Two memorial, combat is not a destroyer of youth and innocence or a heavy but necessary burden, but the ultimate expression of a nation’s spirit. A nation filled with scared and confused citizens looked to the “Global War on Terror” as the new Big One, a global confrontation with the forces of darkness that would reaffirm the essential goodness of the American character. In case you haven’t been reading the papers for the past five years, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead of revealing virtue, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have revealed the same merciless drive to conquer that turned Vietnam into a howling wilderness. The impact of this decade of terrorism, occupation, torture and wiretapping on the american psyche can’t yet be calibrated, but it does make one wonder just what that inevitable Iraq/Afghanistan War Memorial will look like. If the Chinese feel like lending us the money to build it, of course.