Tuesday, June 29, 2010

War Prayer Revisited

In 2003 I worked as a staff writer for my undergraduate University newspaper.  My duties were to cover Student Government (mostly because I was a good personal friend of the Student Body President, and thus had unparalleled access to him) and to cover those faculty events that other writers thought were either too boring or too difficult to develop into a story.  While I agreed wholeheartedly with these characterizations, I knew something that most other staff writers didn’t—when the faculty got together to talk they always had the events catered (which at a New Orleans university means crates of wine).  Many would be surprised to hear the honesty that comes out of professors whose lips are loosened with a little Yellow Tail. 

But I digress . . . .

On the day the US launched the war in Iraq my rather eccentric editor printed this lesser known Twain story as a full-page insert.  And, while I’m sure few people actually read it, it was a poignant tribute to the initial (and now long forgotten) popularity of that war in some circles.  Now, as we send in yet another general to quell the violence, clean up the corruption, and, in general, do the fucking impossible, I though it appropriate to remind ourselves of how we got here in the first place.     

The War Prayer
by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came -- next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams -- visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

*God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!*

Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory --

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside -- which the startled minister did -- and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

"I come from the Throne -- bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import -- that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of -- except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two -- one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer -- the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it -- that part which the pastor -- and also you in your hearts -- fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. the *whole* of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory--*must* follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer.

He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(*After a pause.*) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Terrorism on the screen and in our heads

There was a time when “terrorist” was a neat, nuance-devoid category that needed little supplementary explanation.   As Hollywood-contrived eccentrics, terrorists existed as mere foils—a quintessential badness whose abhorrent existence merely reinforced the most elementary understanding of good, justice, and the American way.  Their motives were rarely explored, their background only partly fleshed out. 

Much of this neatness was a product of general American ignorance on the subject of terrorism.  What was a terrorist?  What did they do?  Well, for American audiences in the 80s and 90s, they hijacked planes, blew up buildings, murdered people, and rooted for Armageddon.  But, they did all of this stuff far, far away.  It was this geographical and intellectual distance between the activities of terrorists and life in the US that fostered an image of terrorism that was as readily identifiable as it was patently false—a silk suit wearing, gulfstream-flying, impenetrably nonsensical lunatic like Castor Troy (Nick Cage) in “Face Off”; the cold, expressionless master criminal in “Passenger 57,” the fanatical IRA splinter groups in “Patriot Games.” 

In the eighties—when everyone was luvin’ Reagan, hatin’ commies, and laying roses at the feet of rugged individualism—the Hollywood image of terrorism served to highlight bureaucratic incompetence.  Maj. Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris) knew exactly how to handle a group of sweaty highjackers in “The Delta Force”—go in and kill the fuck out of ‘em!  Without equivocation, without even a hint of grey, the terrorists were evil: pure, concentrated evil.  There was no debate about their character, their one-dimensionality was entirely transparent.  The only question was whether McCoy would allow a wavering president and a group of Posey-panty Foreign Service officers to keep holding up the show and making deals with terrorists, or whether he would paint their asses red, white and blue.  Indeed, what attracted audiences to McCoy-like characters was their ability to cut through the many concentric rings of authority and inaction with a blast of hyper-realism shot through the barrel of a bazooka.    

While vestiges of this attitude lingered on, the post-cold-war world brought with it a new understanding of terrorism.  The world was different, smaller, more complex.  But one thing hadn’t changed; for the American imagination, the battle against terrorism was still being waged internally.  The argument, however, was no longer about which should be done first, ask questions or shoot; it was now a struggle to reconcile the actions of the old cold-war embroiled superpower with the new single dominant beacon of democracy.  In short, the democracy-praising idealism of President James Marshall (Harrison Ford, “Air Force One”) was created to clean up the mess left by the reckless abandon of Maj. McCoy’s Delta Force.   

Throughout the cold war the United States had been fighting for supremacy.  Now that it was the unquestionable winner, it had to make a decision.  Like Connor McCloud in “Highlander,” we had decapitated our enemies and won the prize.  So, now what?  Well, we actually get an inkling of what Connor does with his prize in the terrible sequel to “Highlander.”  He saves the world from ultra-violet annihilation by constructing a synthetic ozone layer to replace the one destroyed by industry.  And, he earns the hatred of billions who now have to live in eternal darkness.  

The US of the post-cold-war nineties was in a comparable situation.  The Soviet Union had been vanquished for good.  The United States had won the prize.  And with the prize came the unfettered condemnation of much of the world.  Despite its best efforts, the US could neither quell the bitterness nor distance itself from the world it had spent decades creating.  In this new light, the terrorists became human.  The soldiers in “The Rock” wanted justice; the nuclear bomb carrying Yugoslav in “The Peacemaker” wanted to avenge his fallen wife and daughter.  These people had to be stopped, yes.  But they also had to be understood.  We wanted to know what made them tick.  We wanted to ask them, “why all the bitterness?”  “Why don’t you forget about those things and take our hand as we walk into the bright new future?”

Yet, no matter how they might have tried, the US could not keep the ghosts of the Cold War in their graves.  Osama Bin Laden, a creature of the American desire to spend the USSR out of existence, was back on the scene following the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.  In the wake of that rude awakening, America’s imagined terrorist lost much of his humanity (though not all of it).  Interestingly enough, however, this did not bring about a revival of the Maj. McCoy archetype.  In fact, these events merely escalated the post-cold war struggle for direction in a Uni-polar world.  Now the battle between the ideal US and the ghosts of the past could be fought out in real time and in earnest.  In “The Siege,” FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) struggles to maintain his composure as he battles both the terrorist cells and the extra-constitutionality of American troops on US soil torturing US citizens.  It’s the FBI verses the US military; the symbol of national order verses the symbol of global domination; the clashing interests between the metropole of a reluctant empire and the inevitable byproducts of empire building. 

In this instance at least, the ideal US wins.  Denzel Washington waves The Constitution in front of Bruce Willis, the soldiers put down their guns, and the president comes back to his senses.  Problem averted, order returned, the march toward the future continues.  September 11, 2001, however, directs the American gaze back to the mean, mean, complex world.  In response to the newly realized international turmoil, Hollywood dispatches Ben Affleck and Morgan Freedman to chase international, nuke-holding terrorists around the world.  Samuel L. Jackson decides to think outside the box and hire Vin Diesel to infiltrate a group of well-dressed, curiously wealthy terrorists in Prague.  And Arnold Schwarzenegger took matters into his own hands by traveling to Columbia to squash the terrorists’ heads between his large Austrian paws.

But, as always happens during moments of rabid, self-righteous indignation and flag-waving super patriotism, we carried this crusade a little too far.  Toward the end of the decade we were being dragged back to our senses by Tommy Lee Jones, Jake Gyllenhaal, and George Clooney.  Granted, the “Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” and “Syriana” all lacked both the hypnotic special effects of a Schwarzenegger film and the cool composure of Morgan Freedman.  But the point was made.  Fighting terrorists had become a nasty business.  It was no longer about just cutting through the red tape to do what had to be done.  Things weren’t that simple anymore.  We were left asking ourselves, “Was Maj. McCoy even relevant anymore?”  Or was he actually the reason we were here in the first place? 

The answers to these questions haven’t been filmed yet.  But, If the low-budget production, “Unthinkable,” is any indication, we’ve now entered a world of nuanced introspection.   In this film about torture and deniability, the terrorist is still human and the threat is still real.  But the enemy is no longer so clear or even so tangible.  Unlike the final scene in “The Siege,” there is no FBI agent risking life and limb to preserve civil authority.  Rather, the tenuous sometimes antagonistic relationship between CIA, FBI and the military has been replaced by an eerie cooperation.  Denzel and Bruce have merged into a single character that is not only convinced of what he must do, but he’s tormented by the idea of it, and unsure of where his actions will take him. 

But there is one major difference between the old world of terrorists in foreign, dusty countries and the new world of terrorism inside our heads; terrorism is no longer a temporary emergency.  Before, fighting terrorism meant stretching the rules and kicking some ass.  But when the fighting was done and the terrorists were hauled off, the sun came out and life went back to normal.  This is no longer the case.  There is no single person that can be killed, tortured or locked up that will restore order (magically or otherwise).  Terrorism is, unfortunately, the new normal.   Like domestic abuse, herpes and crack cocaine, terrorism is a problem without a solution; it’s a blister without an ointment.  For better or worse, the image of terrorism has been grafted onto our collective consciousness as a permanent, immutable force.  We’re stuck with it forever . . . or at least until the next movie.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dear Mr. Smith,













Dear Mr. Wally Smith (Director of Human Resources, Cocksuckers Inc.),

I hope you don’t think it too presumptuous of me that I write you at this moment.  But I thought we left our last meeting with more to be said.  And, I believe my actions required some explanation.  Lord knows I was in no state to give explanations of any kind at the time.

Let me begin by apologizing to your lovely wife.  I hadn’t intended to damage her home; but I would have never thought that you’d have such an ironclad security system.  And, you really should thank the installation outfit; I nearly left in frustration.  It was only when I noticed that open second story window that I endeavored to persevere.  This is how, I’m afraid to say, your beautiful lattice work was destroyed.  Though, in my defense, you must understand that there was really no other way up or in.  Had I decided to smash a window or kick in the door, the damage done to your home would be no different.

Also, please send my most sincere apologies to your teenage daughter.  It must have been quite a shock when I crawled through that window.  Yes, we can all laugh about it now—how she bounced from the bed to the dresser in frantic panic, how she pleaded with me to spare her life, and how she finally fainted on the floor.  But neither of us thought it was funny at the time.  Hell, she just wanted me to leave; and I just wanted her to shut up.  I hope it brings her some solace to know that I had no intention of harming her.  And, with the therapist's help, I’m sure she’ll get over it in time.    

I should also apologize for all the black marks I left smeared on your walls, banister, and furniture.  Regardless of how easy it may appear in the movies, applying shoe polish to your entire body is no mean feat.  It took hours.  And, it took a lot of shoe polish.  So, during the application process I managed to get quite a bit on my clothes, hands, shoes, and wherever else.  But, if it makes you feel any better, you should know that my bathroom (at my former address that is) was absolutely destroyed in the process.  That security deposit is gone for good.

I mention this not because I enjoy boasting.  No!  I say this only to correct the record.   Those marks were not, as was said in court, my own feces.  I would never do such a thing.  Yes, as the prosecutor stated, I did have a bag of my own excrement in my back pocket.  That much is true.  And, I should confess, I really don’t know what I planned to do with it.  Cheap vodka will make people do funny things.  I really don’t think I can be held entirely responsible for my actions in that condition.  But, and this is my point, I never once opened that bag.  It stayed right there in my back pocket the entire time.  I’m certain the prosecutor was quite conscious that he was embellishing the truth.

I’m not really a bad person.  In fact, I want to let you know that I’m praying for your complete recovery.  I got a little ahead of myself when I kicked you down the stairs.  It was really a product of my frustration at the moment.  There were so many things I wanted to say to you face to face; and nothing was really coming out right.  But, I think you must admit as well, that you weren’t exactly being a model listener at that point.  All that screaming, all that kicking!  I can only be expected to tolerate so much. 

This is not, however, an excuse for my behavior, mind you.  I was in the wrong.  That much is certain.  When I sobered up, I realized that quite quickly.  So what if it seemed like you were advertizing positions that you had no intention of filling?  So what if you didn’t want to look at my resume?  So what if I had spent days crafting the perfect cover letter?  I had no right to make you eat them in front of me.    

Nor did I have any right to say all of those terrible things to you as the police dragged me away.  You are certainly not the most evil, heartless sonofabitch the world has ever known.  During my sentencing, as each of your family members excoriated me in the most brutal of terms, the fact that you are a strong, well-loved family man was plainly obvious.  Heartless, evil sons of bitches don’t get that kind of praise.  And, I should never have called you a pig fucker.  I’m not one to make unsubstantiated statements; and I had no reason to make one then.  The fact is, I have no idea what your attitude is toward pigs; and I certainly have no evidence to support my wild accusations.   

So I hope you’ll accept this humble apology.  Who knows?  In a few years, assuming the parole board looks favorably upon me and my attempts to rehabilitate myself, I might try submitting my resume to your company again.  No hard feelings?   I still think I’m the man for the job.

Sincerely,

Logan Row 
Federal Prisoner #32-765-5654