Let the Music Play

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

For our exalted leader: a “military-themed” inaugural extravaganza likely to cost more than $40 million. For the rest of us: post traumatic stress disorder.

Blue America looks on appalled as George Bush’s excesses spill fore and aft, boding hell to pay one of these days even for his shockingly loyal supporters. A lot of people are paying for it now. UPI reporter Mark Benjamin, for instance, wrote recently about the phenomenon of homeless Iraq-war vets beginning to show up at shelters, bringing their anger and clinical depression with them.

“They put us in a warehouse. They treated us like cattle,” one of these vets told Benjamin, describing his handling by the military after he got home, nursing a mangled thumb and a mangled psyche. The thanks he received from a grateful nation amounted to $100 a month disability pay.

The more the scandal-that-is-Bush builds without breaking, the scarier it gets. Where’s our tsunami warning system? A compartmentalized media seem unable to remain focused on the danger signs, or even the ironies.

Thus we read straight-faced accounts of how the Pentagon will select a certain number of active-duty troops and their families to take part in the Commander-in-Chief Ball — part of a three-day pre-inauguration shebang dubbed “Celebrating Freedom, Celebrating Honor” — even as outrage still hovers in the air over the secretary of defense’s ersatz signature on condolence letters to the families of the dead.

Celebrating honor? Donald Rumsfeld’s hollow grief is only the latest in a series of insults to U.S. troops, some of whom are now being called on to do duty as photo ops for the war president before they ship out.

Lest we forget, this is the administration that cut $28 billion in veterans’ benefits the day after it launched the invasion of Iraq; that banned photos of the flag-draped caskets off-loaded from cargo planes; that implemented “stop-loss” orders keeping GIs on active duty past their discharge dates; that failed to provide adequate protective armor for the troops and wantonly exposed them to such toxic substances as depleted uranium; that saw no reason for a presidential presence at GI funerals. How many ways does it need to demonstrate that it regards the troops as throwaways, mere fodder to the cause?

Yet some of them will be allowed to dance with their spouses at the inauguration. Ah, glory. Perhaps they’ll be celebrating Rumsfeld’s promise to personally sign all subsequent condolence letters, including, if necessary, theirs.

Forgive the gallows irony. None of this is funny. What we’ve got are powerful people with a callous disregard for anything but their own ideological mission. They have control over the most sophisticated weapons technology the world has ever known, and the arrogance to use it. And they are milking a post-9/11 climate of fear in which, for their alleged razor-thin majority of supporters, they can do no wrong.

Ever get the feeling you’ve suddenly been locked out of your own country? The war on evil is taking hold of the popular imagination, like a Schwarzenegger blockbuster, and America is being appropriated for its purposes. This is the future the media can’t quite bring itself to piece together from the clues.

“I am one to agree with W.T. Sherman that total evil must be stopped by total war,” one of these supporters wrote to me recently. “It is inevitable that innocents will be killed. That is what war is all about. It is how evil is eliminated.”

And thus do human beings turn into collateral damage. It happens only for the best of causes. Far from eliminating evil, we are making common cause with it.

“That was the hardest part,” one of the homeless vets, Lance Cpl. James Brown, told reporter Benjamin. “Not only were there men (who were shot at checkpoints), but there were women and children — really little children. There would be babies with arms blown off. It was something hard to live with.”

Perhaps at some point the folly will burst with sharp clarity and the country will come to its senses. But maybe it will just continue leaking out, in passing scandals — Rumsfeld’s fake condolences, homeless vets trapped in emotional hell — that never get linked.

Meanwhile, the president continues to prove that there’s no failed policy, no moral bankruptcy, with a stench so great that $40 million-plus in corporate donations can’t mask it, at least for three days. Let the music play.