Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Exploitation of NineEleven

First appeared at on 5/5/11.

The Exploitation of NineEleven

I HAD two responses to the killing of Osama bin Laden. One was sober--it was about September 11.

I was near the towers that day, working at a UPS facility in lower Manhattan. It was, as you might expect, an awful day. I saw people jumping to their death. I felt fear like I've never known, although it turned out I was never in any real danger.

But in recent years, I almost forgot I was there as the events of that day got lost behind "NineEleven"--the official celebration of American innocence and victimhood.

My memories of that day don't fit the typical narrative of instant unity and desires for collective vengeance. When the second tower was hit, it sparked screaming matches across the city between UPS workers and their managers, who wanted the drivers to stay on the job--in some cases so we wouldn't give up prized parking spaces. In the ensuing weeks, I delivered packages to glum office workers who knew they were breathing in dangerous particles, assurances of the Environmental Protection Agency be damned.

And I remember how Union Square became a 24-hour gathering spot for strangers to cry and sing and debate why the attacks had happened, and what was the appropriate response.

The only aspect of official "NineEleven" that I can attest to was the heroism of the first responders. While most of us fled the chaos and destruction, they drove in the opposite direction to help those in the middle of it. And when the first tower collapsed, and we stood on the Brooklyn Bridge watching--an unforgettably surreal sight--we knew that some of those who had driven past us minutes earlier were now dead.

I don't begrudge the friends and family of those who died that day their feelings of satisfaction or vengeance at bin Laden's death. But I also don't forget that their grief has been used to cause widowhood and bereavement for an exponentially greater number of Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani and Yemeni friends and families, all in the name of finding Osama.

Some of the loved ones of September 11 victims approve of this, and some don't. Either way, it was never up to them. NineEleven is owned by the White House and Pentagon. It's the get-out-of-jail free card for all future American war crimes, and even past ones--starting with taking the name "Ground Zero" from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Recently, NineEleven was losing its mojo. Rudy Giuliani put it up for election in the 2008 elections, and it didn't even make it past its first primary. The eventual winner of that election was a cosmopolitan professor who promised to move us past the globally embarrassing stupidity of "Bring it on" and "They hate our freedoms."

But with bin Laden's murder, the hype machine has been cranked back up again. Reporters are breathlessly telling the story of the amazing commando raid, which could turn out to be a production from the same folks who brought you "The Amazing Adventures of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch."

And on Thursday, Barack Obama is going to Ground Zero (in New York City, not Japan) to enter the pantheon of NineEleven heroes.

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WHICH BRINGS me us to my other response to bin Laden's killing: satire. Here's a speech that I'm offering to Obama to use for use at the World Trade Center site on Thursday:

When I ran for president, I promised to bring back an America that can do whatever we set our mind to--the America that built the automobile industry, put a man on the moon and ended racial segregation.

Today, we can proudly tell the world that America may not be what it used to be, but when we work together and spend incredible amounts of money, we can locate any human being on the planet and kill him! Say it with me, everybody: Yes we can! Yes we can!

Families will remember this day for generations to come--some of us will annually gather around our framed New York Daily News headline: "Rot in Hell." When our children despair of ever finding a job, we'll reassure them: "Now remember, son, what did America do when it looked like we'd never find bin Laden?" And if they say, "Bribe a Pakistani intelligence official," we'll wash their mouth out with soap until they give us the correct answer about persistence and courage.

Today, we celebrate the daring and the heroism of the elite Special Forces units that tracked down and killed the enemy in central Pakistan. But we should also celebrate the sacrifice and suffering of the hundreds of thousands of American troops who have served hundreds of miles away from the enemy--in Iraq and Afghanistan. These young men and women should feel proud to have participated in the largest decoy operation in military history.

Now I'm not going to lie. Our nation has spent a tremendous amount of resources in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, some economists have estimated that the total cost of America's wars since September 11 is $3 trillion. But if bin Laden took comfort in that, the final joke was on him, because much of that money stayed right here in the pockets of American weapons manufacturers and military contractors. All together now: USA! USA!

Perhaps most importantly, today brings closure for the families of those who died in the September 11 attacks. The type of closure that comes not from a criminal trial in which the accused is definitively convicted and punished, but from a secret military operation that leaves no witnesses and breeds conspiracy theories for decades to come.

Let us remember the spirit of community we felt in the days after the September 11 attacks. Firefighters and construction workers thought nothing of risking their long-term health breathing fumes while they conducted search and rescue operations. Yet today, these same workers are unwilling to give up their health care plans to rescue the American economy. Let's put aside such petty self-interest in the service of our country.

We all know that Washington has lost some of the unity of those days, too. It's not right for politicians to ask the American people to do one thing while we're doing another. That's why I'm announcing today that for the rest of my term, I promise to agree to all Republican proposals--no matter how insane--and spare the nation the divisiveness of political debate.

The world is a safer place now that Osama bin Laden is dead. This safety puts us all in great danger from the terrorists who want to avenge his death. These evildoers are still quite capable of attacking us because bin Laden was merely their symbolic leader. In fact, you might say that his murder was the most significant military achievement that has absolutely no military impact in American history.

Let me conclude by saying that Americans did not choose this fight. And, trust me, you won't get to choose the next three being cooked up in the Pentagon either. But today is a day for all of us to unite in celebration, while keeping our eyes peeled for which one of us might be a terrorist.

Thank you and God Bless America.

The Still-Groggy Giant

First appeared at on 3/29/11.

The Still-Groggy Giant

ALMOST EVERY interview I heard from the Wisconsin protests included some version of the line "Scott Walker woke up a sleeping giant."

It got to the point where I was hoping to hear that teachers and nurses rampaged through the capitol building chanting, "Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of a Republican!" When workers in Madison finally stood up after taking years of abuse, they did indeed look like a giant towering over the Tea Party, which was suddenly revealed to be a little man with a big Fox News megaphone.

So what happened when Scott Walker poked the giant in the eye by ramming through his anti-union bill? More than 150,000 workers gathered to let out a mighty roar and vowed to...gather signatures to recall the governor next year.

Wait a second. Walker is trying to get rid of public-sector unions not next year but now--isn't there something more immediate and direct that can be done?

The fact that most protesters agreed with the recall strategy pushed by union leaders and politicians shows that even as workers begin to sense their power, they don't know how best to use it. In other words, the giant seems to wake up the way most of us do--groggy and with eye boogers.

In truth, workers have a weapon more powerful than the campaign contribution or the tri-folded brochure. We don't celebrate the great Flint Phone Bank of 1937 or remember how Eugene Debs organized railroad workers to campaign in swing states. By responding to Walker's passage of the bill with a recall campaign instead of a strike, unions are essentially bringing an online petition to a gunfight.

It's also a step backward from the participatory democracy that thousands experienced in the Capitol rotunda, where for two weeks a "people's mic" was open to all. Imagine if corporate lobbyists had to do their business in the rotundas of Capitol buildings instead of the private offices:

Uh, hi everybody. My name is Phil, and I work for Koch Industries. I think we should support this environmental exemption because it will make my company a boatload of money. Thank you, and God bless America.

On the recall campaign, free expression will be replaced by a script, which will praise the "Fab 14" Democratic senators for standing up to Walker but say precious little about what their party proposes to do if elected.

That's because the major debate in our two-party system today is whether to fund three wars and corporate tax breaks by stealing workers' pensions or to fund three wars and corporate tax breaks by stealing workers' pensions and busting their unions.

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WHAT THOSE weeks of protest in Wisconsin that captivated the national spotlight showed was that tens of thousands of workers in Wisconsin--and presumably millions across the country--reject that non-debate and were looking for a radical strategy to bring about a different outcome.

For the first time in generations, people who raised the idea of a general strike were not considered crazy--or French.

There hasn't been a general strike in this country since a couple of Scott Walker's Republican ancestors named Taft and Hartley passed a law in 1947 that barred workers from striking against anyone other than their direct employer. In other words, you are not allowed to withhold your labor to protest laws or support other workers in the land of the free.

Taft-Hartley denies workers their most powerful form of political expression and forces us to compete--with corporations--in the rigged game of American politics. To paraphrase Anatole France, American democracy, in its majestic equality, allows both workers and CEOs to donate a million dollars to candidates or invite them for rides on their private jets.

(Funny story about Taft-Hartley, by the way. Harry Truman and the Democrats campaigned the year after it was passed on a promise to overturn the law. So unions launched a massive turnout effort, re-elected Truman, won Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, and...we still have Taft-Hartley. Truman himself used it 12 times to break strikes in his second term.)

Unions have been fighting a losing battle ever since. Somehow, they managed to find $74 million in 2008 to elect a president who visited the Madison protests as many times as he visited the moon. They're vowing to raise even more in 2012. Jesus Christ, how are workers going to come up with that money? There are only so many binder clips and pens we can steal from the office.

If this strategy wasn't already obviously bankrupt, Republicans like Scott Walker are trying to drive the point home by abandoning the old rules and trying to eliminate unions entirely. You might think that this would be the time to say screw it and fight for survival.

But that's not how most labor leaders think. If one of these guys saw his house in flames, he would dash off to the bank to get money for a Democrat who promised to put out the fire after his election.

It's going to be up to the rank-and-file radicals (new and old) to find each other and figure out how to make this giant rise and shine.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Breath of Fresh Wisconsin Air

The other week Jon Stewart called the Madison protests as “the Bizarro Tea Party.” It’s seems that there’s been so little old fashioned working class rebellion in recent years that even the super-sharp folks at the Daily Show have trouble recognizing it: This is odd. Students and workers are gathering in large numbers to hold signs and march and chant. But they’re saying nothing about anchor babies or false birth certificates. What do you call this strange phenomenon?

Of course, it’s the Tea Party that is a funhouse reflection of genuine grassroots protest movements - - billionaires organizing mad-as-hell rallies against the working class. Getting it reversed is like telling a Kansas City barbeque chef that his food tastes like a Bizarro McRib.

Conservative commentators, meanwhile, saw the tens of thousands of smiling students and teachers as a sinister gang of “union thugs.” That’s actually the term Rush Limbaugh and others have used to describe members of the Wisconsin Education Association. Ooh, don’t cross Mrs. Mendelson at Osh Kosh Elementary. Your body might end up at the bottom of a sandbox.

Actually, the quality that jumps out at anyone who watches any video from Madison is the humor, something I’ve never seen at any Tea Party Paranoia-palooza.

I’ve never seen as many hilarious protest sign, ranging from the nerdy – “There’s Still Good in You (Sky)Walker: to the admirably straightforward – “Dick Move Scotty.”

Wisconsinites taught me two things with their handmade signs. They identify with the Egyptian struggle for democracy. And they really love the Green Bay Packers. I wouldn’t be surprised in some wall in the capitol building now features a Diego Rivera – style mural featuring Vince Lombardi and company marching in Tahrir Square.

There were also plenty of signs reflecting the gallows humor of public sector workers: “My Kindergarteners Are Better Listeners than My Governor.” “Hey Walker WI Ranger. Who’s Gonna Wipe Your Ass When You Have a Stroke?” “I Protect Your Family From the Criminally Insane. Remember That.”

Signs like these helped build national support by showing that the protesters are the regular people we all work with. And yet at a typical union rally folks stand around holding pre-printed signs and listen to speakers with a pre-printed message: “Vote for the Democrats in November.” Doesn’t it seem like a poor use of resources to mobilize thousands of working to assemble in one location just to give them a live version of the emails you regularly send them?

In Wisonsin, the unions had to break this mold because Scott Walker attacked them so hard and so quickly. The same old symbolic protest wouldn’t do; workers and students in Madison had to figure out what they were going to do to try to actually kill the bill.

That’s how “See you in November” became “We’ll see your ass every day until we win.” That’s how “I’m a union member and I vote” became “I’m a teacher and I call in sick.”

Walker’s attack forced the Wisconsin labor movement to re-discovered a long-forgotten lesson: Protests can…like, try to win.

Workers can strike – or at least call out sick for three days like the teachers did. State senators who oppose bad legislation can leave. And the rest of us can stay.

The massive occupation of the state capitol building has mercifully ended a debate that’s raged in activist circles for over a decade: Is it better to have a tame protest with many people or a disruptive protest with few people? Now it’s clear that this has essentially been an argument about the relative merits of peanut butter versus jelly. How about both?

Turns out that mass occupations of public spaces have lots of other advantages too. Having a hard time to decide what time to call the rally? Make it all the time! Are you worried that some folks are going to be out of town? They can join us when they get back. Tell them to bring postcards to put up in the rotunda.

Another logistical task that the Madison protesters have simplified is the follow up meeting, which is now defined as when you get tired of chanting and sit down over some internationally-donated pizza. When should you have the next rally? When there’s no more pizza.

But occupations and daily protests can’t last forever because most people have to go back to work. That’s one of Scott Walker’s big advantages – he and the Koch Brothers get to plot against us while they’re at work– because that’s their job.

Now that most of the protesters have gone back home and the union officials are back in charge, the main slogan seems to be, “It’s not about the money.” This slogan hopes to portray union workers are reasonable folk who will pay more for their benefits but just want to keep their bargaining rights.

Actually, it tells Scott Walker to stand firm because the unions are already starting to cave. And it may tell other workers that the unions will fight for their own “special” rights but not against the cuts to everybody’s health care and education.

At the capitol building protests, workers were doing a fine job of portraying themselves in ways that no political consultant would have approved. Let me great this straight. You want to compare yourselves to to Egyptian protesters – to angry Arab young men? You’re worse than the one with the sign about wiping Scott Walker’s ass!

So the big question is if Wisconsin workers and students are going to be able to take the spirit of mass participation back to their hometowns, campuses, and union meetings. Hopefully over the next couple of weeks we’ll be hearing not only from the people who make the pre-printed signs but from the ordinary Mubarak-hating, Packer-loving, ass-wiping workers of Wisconsin.

Exodus II: Let the Pharaoh Go

First published at on February 17, 2011.

And so it came to pass that thousands of years after God helped Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, the Egyptians toiled under a new Pharaoh who lived in extreme luxury while they slaved away creating vast pyramids of textiles and oil barrels.

Pharaoh Hosni seemed to be even more powerful than Ramses because he had turned the tables on history. This Pharaoh had the Israelites on his side, as well as their new god in Washington DC.

Until January 25, when the Egyptians gathered in the square to declare, “Let the Pharaoh go.”

But the Pharaoh just laughed and unleashed some of the plagues with which his American god kept him well supplied: tear gas, rubber bullets, water canons.

But the Egyptians persevered and came back in even greater numbers to the square three days later. So Pharaoh offered them a deal:

“Ok, I get it. You think I’m working too hard and you’re worried about me. Tell you what: I’ll appoint a vice-Pharaoh and I promise to take more vacations and stop being such a perfectionist.”

But the Egyptians were unmoved. Again they said, “Let the Pharaoh go.”

So the Pharaoh unleashed a plague of digital darkness, cutting the Egyptians off from their cell phones and wi-fi. But still they were unbowed.

And so the Pharaoh’s god issued a statement from the White House:

“I am the god not only of Pharaoh but also of democracy. This may seem like a contradiction to you guys because he’s your dictator and all. But if you only knew him like I do you would see that on the inside he really wants to do the right thing. So let’s keep it peaceful, ok?”

But then the Pharaoh issued a plague of violence with police and thugs who rampaged the square, beating and shooting the Egyptians. And for two days and two nights there was great death and suffering.

But the Egyptians did not give up. They returned to the square and vowed that this time they wouldn’t leave before the Pharaoh. Now the American god was angry, for Pharaoh had made him look bad by trying to crush the Egyptians and failing.

And so the American god decreed that Pharaoh Hosni had to start leaving “now.” And the Egyptians rejoiced.

Then Pharaoh called the White House and said, “My god, why have you forsaken me? Have you forgotten that all of your imperial plans in the Middle East and Central Asia depend on people like me? Have you thought about what impact a revolution in the largest Arab country might have? Besides, I assume you think you can replace me with someone from the military. Where do you think I came from, Goldman Sachs? Let’s just say I know a little more about military coups than you and I’ve taken some precautionary steps.”

Pharaoh’s words had their effect and the next day his god issued a retraction.

“Um, maybe Pharaoh should stick around and help with the transfer to democracy. Technically, he’s already ‘started’ to leave in the sense that every day that passes is another day towards when he leaves. See what I mean?”

The Egyptians were puzzled by this god’s changing positions but steadfast in their own: “Let the Pharaoh go.”

For his next plague, Pharaoh summoned the sprit of Glenn Beck to spread a tale through his state-run media that the protesters were secret agents of those well-known allies Israel and Iran.

But the Egyptians were unmoved. Thousands more gathered in the square.

Pharaoh announced he would sacrifice his second-born son, Gamal.

But the Egyptians in the square continued to grow. And now some of them left the square and went back to their jobs, not to stop the protest but to lead their co-workers out on strike. And Pharaoh’s God took notice.

And so the next day word spread that Pharaoh would soon announce his departure. The Egyptians gathered in the square in larger numbers than ever before to wait for Pharaoh’s speech. But instead of resigning, he proposed yet another compromise:

“Ok, how about this? I’ll only be the all-powerful ruler on Mondays and Thursdays and on the other five days you guys can have a democracy? What do you think?”

But this only made the Egyptians furious and they raised their shoes and vowed to gather and strike the next day in their largest numbers yet. And the Pharaoh’s god said “enough is enough” and was unconvinced even by Pharaoh’s warnings of a global conspiracy led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Justin Beiber.

So it came to pass than on February 11, Pharaoh departed, and Egyptians celebrated with their brothers and sisters around the world.

Nobody knows what the next chapter of Egypt’s revolution would be.

And across the ancient Biblical lands, other Pharaohs are suddenly vowing to hold elections, claiming that they wanted all along to spend more time with their families, and that their sons are actually poets and accountants who have no interest in succeeding them in power.

The Egyptians have spread a powerful message across the world. Pharaohs aren’t all-powerful. And neither is their god in Washington DC.

Billionaires Take a Stand for the Working Man

First published at on January 24, 2011.

Who says the corporate media doesn’t care about the opinions of ordinary people? There have been lots of articles lately about what workers think, written by the people who study them the most - bosses.

As a vice president of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and a Wall Street Journal columnist, William McGurn naturally has his finger on the pulse of the American working class:

"The notion that Wall Street and Main Street are fundamentally at odds with one another remains a popular orthodoxy. So much so that we may be missing the first stirrings of a true American class war: between workers in government unions and their union counterparts in the private sector."

According to McGurn, a true American worker doesn’t mind having his 401Ks cut by a CEO looking to increase his year-end bonus. But he’s fighting mad at his daughter’s teacher because she has a union that’s been able to keep her pension fully funded. This analysis truly does go against “popular orthodoxy” – i.e. what most people think.

But McGurn’s observations must have merit because they are corrobrated almost word for word by Mort Zuckerman, real estate billionaire and owner of US News and World Report:

"We really are two Americas, but not those captured in the stereotypical populist class warfare speeches that dramatize the gulf between the rich and the poor. Instead there is a new division in America that affronts a sense of fairness. That division is between the workers in the private sector and the workers in the public sector."

In Zuckerman’s vision, government workers are different than you and me. They live in gated communities like Fireman Estates and flaunt their wealth on shows like “Lifestyles of the Defined Benefit Plan” and “Who Wants to Marry a Child Services Case Worker?”

In Public Sector America, unionized postal workers and crossing guards pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for exclusive private schools while the rest of us - Starbucks baristas, bank presidents, etc. - send our kids to overcrowded public schools.

This obscene inequality is apparently spurring a backlash from ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Mort the Media and Real Estate Mogul.

In New York, these plain folk have formed the modestly named “Committee to Save New York”. (Presumably they couldn’t get the rights to “The Super Friends.”)

The Committee calls itself a “voice for the general public.” Go to their website to see what they mean. All around the edges are pictures of us, the general public, in our hard hats and our various skin colors. And right in the middle you can see our voice! It’s a list of names and titles reflecting New York in all its diversity: some of them CEOs, some presidents, and some “presidents and CEOs.”

The plan to save New York is similar to the ones being proposed across the country: Cut public sector jobs to pay for lower taxes on business, who will use that money to create new jobs – maybe even as many as they just got rid of!

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t make much sense, but economic logic isn’t what’s motivating the attack on public sector unions. It’s about fairness.

Our bleeding heart bosses are bothered that private sector workers – their workers – are suffering from layoffs and falling wages more than government workers who are often protected by union contracts. They don’t think it’s right that only some workers should be made to pay for the government’s bailout of the banks. Nor is it right for a few privileged workers to have access to government representatives via their unions. If most workers are shut out of having a political voice, then all workers should be.

In short, folks like Mort Zuckerman and the Committee to Save New York would like to see a reverse civil rights movement, the kind where MLK would have fought for whites to also not have the right to vote.

You might think that this situation presents unions with opportunity as well as danger. After all, bosses are giving them free advertising about the advantages of collective bargaining. Unions could pass out flyers to Walmart workers that read, “Want to be a part of that powerful special interest group the governor’s been warning you about?

Instead, most public sector unions have meekly responded to the attacks with calls for “shared sacrifice” among business and labor. I’ve never taken a class on negotiations but I thought you weren’t supposed to announce your willingness to make concessions right from the start. Not only that, calling for workers and bosses to share the sacrifice during this recession gives the false impression that we shared the loot during the boom – or the bailout afterward.

There’s only one way government workers will win the support of their private sector neighbors. Fight and win. Show them that having a union can provide you with things that you can’t have without one.

Not an easy plan but at least it’s simple.

Review of The American Way of War

First published at on January 11, 2011.

Last week the Obama administration ordered over a thousand more Marines to Afghanistan to “solidify progress” being made in the Kandahar campaign. Last year Obama sent more troops because the war wasn’t going well. This year it’s because the war is going well.

Tom Engelhardt, creator of the TomDispatch website, has been following this trend for years. Before Obama’s first troop surge in 2009, government officials had an unusually public discussion about whether to send more soldiers or to increase the training of Afghan army. In the introduction to his excellent The American Way of War, Engelhardt comments on the inevitability of the outcome"

"The essence of this “debate” came down to: More of them versus more of us (and keep in mind that more of “them”…. actually meant more of “us” in the form of extra trainers and advisers.) In other words, however contentious the disputes in Washington, however dismally the public viewed the war….the only choices were between more and more."

This September will mark the tenth year since the September 11 attacks launched the U.S. government and society into a permanent state of war. The initial years of this era saw major protests against the invasions of Afghanistan and, especially Iraq. Today, although the Afghanistan War is less popular than ever, there is little public opposition. Most Americans seem to have resigned themselves to its inevitability.

One reason the prospect of “bringing the troops home” seems more remote than ever is the growing realization that the problem is not one mistaken war or dimwitted president but something more deeply rooted. Engelhardt doesn’t use the term ‘imperialism’, but he perfectly captures what it looks like in the U.S. today:

"Because the United States does not look like a militarized county, it’s hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere (usually, in fact, many places) at any moment."

Anyone who wants to rebuild an anti-war movement that understands this imperial reality should read The American Way of War. Engerhardt explores the profound changes that have taken place since the launching of the Global War on Terror. His aim is not so much to explain why these changes have taken place as to understand their effects on American society.

Reading this book feels like poking around with a flashlight in the unexamined corners of the post-9/11 American imperial mindset. Each chapter poses questions that many readers will wonder whey they never bothered to ask: Why do reporters “embed” with ground troops but not with Air Force units, the strategic heart of every American war of the last fifty years? What will the world look like when aerial drones proliterate and the Pentagon’s precedent of cross-border aerial assassinations becomes the international norm? How can politicians and pundits claim we are teaching good government around the world even as they declare that our own in Washington is broken?

A skilled writer, Engelhardt is especially drawn to the ways the changing shape of American imperialism is reflected in its language:

"If war is now our permanent situation, it has also been sundered from a set of words that once accompanied it. It lacks, for instance, “victory.” …[which] no longer seems to matter. War American-style is now conceptually unending, as are preparations for it."

He makes a chilling comparison to the official language in George Orwell’s 1984 - “we live in a world of American Newspeak in which alternatives to a state of war are not only ever more unacceptable, but ever harder to imagine.” At the same time, he understands that the rulers of American society are vulnerable because they are often fooled by their own propaganda. Imperial hubris can blind American leaders to some basic facts of life outside the Green Zones.

"[The CIA reported the death of] Abu Layth al-Libi, whom U.S. officials described as ‘a rising star’ in the group.” “Rising star” is such an American phrase, melding as it does imagined terror hierarchies with the lingo of celebrity tabloids. In fact, one problem with Empire-speak, and imperial thought more generally, is the way it prevents imperial officials from imagining a world not in their own image. So it’s not surprising that, despite their best efforts, they regularly conjure up their enemies as a warped version of themselves – hierarchical, overly reliant on leaders, and top heavy.

What is hard for Washington to grasp is this: “Decapitation,” to use another American imperial term, is not a particularly effective strategy with a decentralized guerrilla or terror organization. The fact is a headless guerilla movement is nowhere near as brainless or helpless as a headless Washington would be.”

This sharp wit runs throughout the book. The section about the lack of media coverage of air campaigns, for example, is wonderfully titled “On Not Looking Up.” Not only does this humor make The American Way of War a surprisingly entertaining read given the subject matter, it reminds us of something all great anti-war movements have known: the war machine is not just evil; it’s often absurd.

Absurdity is the theme of the Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22, a dizzying ride through the twisted logic of the Air Force in World War II. The book’s title, for example, refers to a rule that airmen can be declared insane from the stress of fighting and sent home but that anyone who asks to be sent home is clearly sane and therefore must continue flying.

It’s hard not to think of Catch-22 when reading accounts from Afghanistan like this one from the New York Times.

“Please don’t walk on my fields, they are newly sown,” a farmer, waving a packet of seeds, called to the soldiers as they patrolled.
“Hajji, you know the deal,” an American sergeant answered. “The Taliban put mines on the paths, so we have to walk in the fields.”

The farmer’s concern presented a quandary for the soldiers, who would like to keep villagers on their side. “I think the farmers are laying the I.E.D.’s because we are walking through their fields,” said Sgt. Michael Ricchiuti. “They get paid to do it.”

The reporter, Carlotta Gall, doesn’t seem to notice the circular logic of soldiers walking in fields to avoid mines planted by farmers because the soldiers walk in their fields. Or at least she doesn’t comment on it. All in all, a pretty apt metaphor for a pointless war whose very pointlessness has become a nonstory.

Of course, there is a point to the occupation of Afghanistan, a country located near both the world’s greatest concentration of natural gas and the United States’ main future rivals China and India. Likewise, Engelhardt is clear that for all its madness, the War on Terror has succeeded very well in obscuring this truth and many others in a cloud of fear"

"Opinion polls indicate that terrorism is no longer at the top of the American agenda of worries. Nonetheless, don’t for a second think that the subject isn’t lodged deep in national consciousness. When asked “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism,” a striking 39 percent of Americans were either “very worried” or “somewhat worried,”….

People always wonder: What would the impact of a second 9/11-style attack be on this country? Seldom noticed, however, is that all the pinprick terror events blown up to apocalyptic proportions add up to a second, third, fourth, fifth 9/11 when it comes to American consciousness."

In other words, we face the opposite dilemma than the one faced by Yossarian of Catch-22. Yossarian is considered crazy because he’s upset that anti-aircraft gunners are trying to kill him and doesn’t care that this homicidal behavior can be explained by the context of war. Today, on the other hand, it’s proper to be upset that terrorists are trying to kill us but crazy to look at the context of wars that might explain why.

We’re not the ones who are crazy. But if we want to build an effective opposition to these endless wars, we can’t be afraid of being called crazy – or unpatriotic or soft on terrorism. Flag waving “support the troops”- style activism has been proven ineffective. It does nothing to puncture what Engelhardt calls the “almost religious glow of praise and veneration, what might once have been called ‘idolatry,’” in which the Pentagon has been embraced since 9/11.

The American Way of War shows what a different anti-war war movement could look like: one that clear-sightedly calls out the murderous nature of our war state and holds up in contrast the warmth and humor on the side of humanity.


The Senator snorts at the City Councilwoman’s
ignorance of how things really get done.
She shakes her head
at the impracticality of the Professor who
pities the working conditions
of the Non-Profit Executive Director who despises
- in his weaker moments
the fanaticism of all of us
who do it for free after work
- or during work.

When the call to march finally takes hold
and we go from shouting slogans on our laptops
to finally meeting face to face

we’ll have lots of support
from those who know so much about these things
that they’ve made it a career
and that will be helpful.
Still it’s worth remembering that
ignorant, impractical,
pitiable, fanatical
though we may be,
we are learning.