Disciples of Yossarian

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

Following on the heels of his flirtation with violent “decisiveness” toward Pakistan, Barack Obama got twisted up even further in the conflicting loyalties that complicate the lives of Democratic presidential candidates and the people who vote for them. Pretty soon the other candidates were in there with him, like cats in the yarn.

After declaring in a speech last week that he might order military strikes on Pakistan border areas to take out suspected al-Qaida camps, he was asked by an AP reporter if he’d use nuclear weapons against al-Qaida in Pakistan.

I pause here a moment to ponder the insanity of this question, or what I might call the “Yossarian moment” it produces, referring, of course, to Joseph Heller’s notorious central character in the World War II novel “Catch-22,” whose everyman sanity stood in constant amazed contrast to the routine insanities of war, like people all the time trying to kill each other. This is a Yossarian moment on steroids, reporter to almighty-deity-in-chief wannabe: When killing thine enemies, sir, would you be inclined to take ’em out 50,000 at a swath? A hundred thousand? A million?

We’ve been thinking the unthinkable for 62 years now, so long that only a dazed disciple of Yossarian, apparently, stumbles today on the idea that “the button” is still — still! — within human reach. Otherwise, our horror over this, or at least the media’s horror, has worn down over the decades to a smooth sense of normalcy.

Yossarian’s . . . I mean Obama’s . . . response was illuminating — a burst of idealism, uncensored, unsophisticated, uncompromised. One might even suppose he spoke as “himself”: “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” he said.

Then, uh-oh, the Presidential Candidate took over, quickly adding the preposterous caveat: “… involving civilians.”

What? Non-civilian mass slaughter only? On its face, this is arguably the dumbest comment to date of the 2008 presidential campaign. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a sudden, stunning glimpse at the Truth About Presidential Campaigns: that the front-running candidates, the big-time players, the ones who might actually capture their party’s nomination, are only nominally running for president of the United States — president, that is, of that unruly mob of 300 million struggling, unpredictable and possibly peace-craving souls out there, including you and me.

In point of fact, they’re running for president of the Establishment — the power structure, the interlocking status quo of economic and geopolitical interests that knows what it wants and sets the parameters of policy: the war machine, in short; the military-industrial-media complex.

“Let me scratch that,” Obama went on. “There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”

Close call! Idealism off the table.

But it didn’t end there. Not quite. The painfully “presidential” Hillary Clinton, who, we can be certain, has been sand-blasted free of every last embarrassing protrusion of “it takes a village” idealism over the last 15 years, was asked to weigh in. “Presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons,” she said, laying out the rules of the game.

“Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace,” she went on. “And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.”

Joe Biden, a second-tier rival for the nomination, had to be more succinct. Channeling the invisible powers a U.S. president must serve, he pronounced Obama “naive,” the ultimate condemnation. Let’s move on, shall we?

Well, no, let’s not. This fleeting moment in the making of a presidential candidate is a sobering reality dunk for every last unreconstructed disciple of Yossarian in the bleachers, or for every disciple of Albert Einstein, who famously observed: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Those of us who believe in a genuinely peace-rooted, nuke-free, disarmed future — who believe that violence doesn’t work and see this confirmed almost daily in the headlines (190,000 AK-47s and other U.S.-distributed weapons missing in Iraq, many of which are almost certainly being used against us) — must take note. No leading U.S. politician is on our side or ever will be until we succeed at crashing the party.

The paradoxes of today’s violence may be strangling the future as we look on, but they’re so easily ignored by servants of the status quo, who will grab any irrelevant historical precedent (the Cold War is over, Hillary) to justify the continuation of the highly profitable myth that peace must gorge itself on blood.