When I was a kid, we Americans lived in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Sometimes it was just “the war,” although that term has generally been reserved for World War II. But “Vietnam” was synonymous with “war,” and in our minds it anchored all war to that one country in Southeast Asia. Complication crept in during the last years, as U.S. bombing in Cambodia and Laos spilled war over borders, threatening to turn war into “wars.” With the U.S. retreat from Vietnam in 1975, though, war was put to rest. It was over and we were “at peace.”
The Vietnam War had galvanized at least one generation of young people. It presented American culture and American politics with a gravitational center: Television shows, songs and performance art that referred to the war—that attempted a tight orbit of that massive body–became charged with reality, broke down the fourth wall of antiseptic American escapist entertainment, and mattered. National politicians could not avoid discussing the war: we would fight to victory, or we would pull out. The choices were war and peace.
After September 11, we were put on notice. There would be no end of war. For reasons the frightened American people mostly accepted, we invaded Afghanistan. A year later, for reasons fewer Americans accepted, we invaded Iraq. And we stayed. We toppled two countries’ governments and destroyed their militaries, and having done that we became embroiled in guerrilla warfare against “insurgents.” At home the people saw no body bags on television. No dead American soldiers, no flag-draped coffins. The information reaching the American people was tightly controlled, with tractable reporters “embedded” in military units (a brilliant propaganda device used in the First Gulf War). In Afghanistan there was a name for the insurgents—they were the Taliban. In Iraq, matters were more confused. Were U.S. soldiers being ambushed by pro-Baathists, “al Qaeda in Iraq” or by ordinary Iraqis who wanted their country back? In each war, the number of troops committed to the occupation rose and fell, rose and fell. And although by 2006, the British The Lancet estimated that the U.S. occupation had cost perhaps one million Iraqi lives, politicians in office and on campaign trails spoke in more nuanced terms than their Vietnam-era counterparts about withdrawing troops. An end of war itself—peace—was not held out as an option. The war against terror would, must, go on.
By 2010, the students in my high school classroom had little idea what even the official narrative of September 11th was, and no understanding of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were in Iraq, I was regularly told, because Iraq had attacked the World Trade Center. Perhaps it was the absence of a draft, the absence of an immediate threat to their own lives, but young people were not galvanized into an anti-war movement. On television, the complicit media had taken the leaked information that the U.S. was now a country that tortured its enemies and responded with programs that validated and glorified torture. Programs that encouraged the public in its perception of the Middle East as an undifferentiated sea of Muslim terrorists. Whereas the U.S. war in Vietnam had been challenged by countless recording artists, and films and television shows like M*A*S*H and All in the Family, dissent and critique were almost nowhere to be found in the U.S. media of the new millenium. A member of a pop group, the Dixie Chicks, made an unkind remark about President Bush, and the group became a media pariah, with orchestrated burnings (attempted burnings, as CD’s don’t burn easily) of their albums.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Americans were appalled at the sight of war, and appalled at the thought—the slow realization—that we were the aggressors and oppressors in the war. The public brought that war to an end. In the 2000’s, Americans were not permitted the sight of war, with the exception of bombardier’s-eye-view of images of flashes above tiny buildings. For the most part, network images from Iraq and Afghanistan were of heavily armed and armored American soldiers interacting kindly with the locals. But the 2000’s had a renegade medium that challenged the official story being told on television screens. The Internet.
Suddenly there were two news media, the “mainstream” media and the “alternative” media, and mainstream media was not intended as a flattering term. It was on the Internet that one could linger over the vast number of photographs to have escaped Abu Ghraib prison, and feel revulsion and shame and outrage. It was on the Internet that one could be sickened watching the video entitled “Collateral Murder” that had been leaked by Bradley Manning. And it was on the Internet that one could find voices of dissent, many of them the voices of ordinary folks sitting at their laptops. But sitting up late in one’s bed and finding that one is not utterly alone in one’s rejection of U.S. wars was and is a far cry from massing in the streets and shutting down universities. And we have seen that, when Americans do go into the streets, they are now met with a fully militarized police. Manning is in prison. The authorities have bugged our phones, email and internet use. So while bombs have not been dropped on Ann Arbor, piece by piece the wars are coming home, and the stakes of dissent are high.
As the alternative media has kept us informed, we have watched the U.S. extend its military attacks to Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The U.S. war machine, which includes the immensely lucrative U.S. war industry, is unchecked and is run so amok that it has become simultaneously bellicose with Russia and China, two nuclear powers. And although the American public appears to have no appetite for more war, no candidate for president repudiates this political and economic commitment to permanent war, and no coherent citizens’ movement offers resistance.
Looking at all of these developments with a cold eye, it is difficult to say whether we must act now in an extraordinary way in order to prevent our capitulation to totalitarianism and unending war, or we must acknowledge that such a capitulation has already taken place. But those of us old enough to remember a different time have an obligation at least to pass the knowledge on to the next generations that it was not ever thus.
Photo credit: https://lercordel.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/twin-towers.jpg