Spiritual Death

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

The easy violence of empire washes over everything. It washes into our psyches.

I’m thinking about this in connection with the juxtaposition of anniversaries this week: Martin Luther King Day; President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in 1961, in which he sounded the warning about the military-industrial complex; and George H.W. Bush’s bombing campaign that launched the Gulf War in 1991, pounding not only Saddam (our kill ratio was 1,000-to-1) but also the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” and America’s post-modernist aversion to war, thus re-energizing . . . the military-industrial complex.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King said in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech a year before his death, sounding a warning that converged with Eisenhower’s. Poke any dark corner of American life and a warning will emerge.

One memory I have about that 1991 war – that “easy” war, featuring yellow ribbons on the home front and self-congratulatory victory parades afterwards (and the war was easy only at first, of course; hundreds of thousands of vets have been battling an array of neurotoxic illnesses, known as Gulf War Syndrome, ever since) – was spotting a Xeroxed little racist cartoon posted in the employee break room at the newspaper where I was then working. The cartoon depicted U.S. fighter jets flying over caricatured Arabs riding camels. The caption read: “I’d fly 10,000 miles to smoke a camel.”

Amazing, I thought. Racism is alive and well. It was driven to the margins of civil society in the 1960s, but war harbors the skulking impulses of hate and legitimizes them anew.

How could it be otherwise? Behind a smokescreen of glory, war does its business. It kills people – in huge, indifferent clumps. This can only be done by first dehumanizing them, a shockingly simple process, requiring nothing but ignorance. We hate our enemies, even if their status as enemy is sheer public relations. Once dehumanized, their right to life is subordinated to our fears and “interests.” This is war. This is the politics of empire. And it asks little of its citizens beyond their racist worst.

Bush Senior’s quick, depleted-uranium-laced slaughter of 100,000 Iraqis – that is to say, his yellow-ribbon-festooned victory over a beret-sporting tyrant – was just, of course, the beginning. It created a splendid new long-term enemy, the Muslim terrorist, who replaced the “communist” as the mortal threat to our interests and way of life, and necessitated remobilizing the military. The Defense budget, slashed after the end of the Cold War, began bloating up again, doubling, as Gareth Porter recently noted, between 1998 and 2008, “and now accounts for 56 percent of discretionary federal spending.”

We now have troops in 177 countries around the world and, as Porter writes, we “have completed the process of creating a ‘Permanent War State’ — a set of institutions with the authority to wage largely secret wars across a vast expanse of the globe for the indefinite future.”

The U.S. military is sacrosanct in many ways, shielded by the media and government from all advanced forms of human and social responsibility. For instance, though it is the largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest polluter on the planet, it is not held environmentally accountable even at the minimal level that private-sector industry is.

And, as returning vets repeatedly point out, the culture of the military is racist, with a significant part of the training aimed at dehumanizing (not “understanding”) the people whose country the troops would soon be shipped to.

There was lots of testimony about this at the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, D.C., three years ago. Iraq vet Mike Totten, for instance, noted that the religious term “hadji” became the Iraq war’s gook equivalent: “The military turned it into a disempowering word. . . . ‘The hadji is an obstacle. Get him out of the way.’ Denying a person their name gave us permission to separate ourselves from the people of Iraq.”

And here’s how it played out. Jeffrey Smith, describing a house raid and a screaming woman in the courtyard: “I butt-stroked her in the face, zip-tied her and took her out. We ransacked the house. We had everyone in the house, including children, zip-tied on the front lawn (when we) realized we were in the wrong house. So we went to another house.”

As each vet told his or her story at the hearings, they emphasized that these were not isolated incidents, but the norm. “You remove the humanity from (the Iraqis),” said Carlos Mejia, “and in doing so you remove humanity from yourself.”

And this is how we approach spiritual death. We bleed our humanity as we perpetrate war and empire, and it has a way of backing up on us. What goes around, you know, comes around. We pretend that evil is out there, beyond our gated world, but it’s all around us and within us, and our only defense against it is our own humanity.

And so I think about the tragedy in Tucson, still fresh, which gave way in the news cycle to Martin Luther King Day and the juxtaposition of anniversaries and warnings. “Where did Jared (Loughner) get the idea that killing those who oppose your politics will solve political problems?” asked Robert C. Fischer.

Where, indeed? Our state of permanent war keeps finding its way home.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.