Creditor’s Ledger Payments Book detailing creditor payments between 1958 and 1977 by companies commissioning work from Holmes McDougall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.
Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)
President Donald J. Trump is greeted by Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, for their second summit meeting. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Donald Trump’s fizzled summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is yet another occasion for commentary on this president’s unfitness for office, particularly in matters of foreign affairs. The failure in Hanoi was Trump’s greatest blunder so far, according to Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian. It was another “Trump vanity project.” His “self-reverential style of personalized, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants diplomacy” is irresponsible in nuclear talks, per se, and ineffectual more generally.
Tisdall’s summary of Trump’s failed leadership is stunning: (more…)
“Christ at the Column” by Caravaggio, oil on canvas, circa 1607. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The torture-house run by Gina Haspel in 2002 was code-named “Cat’s Eye” (Adam Goldman, New York Times, March 13, 2018), evoking images of the Orwellian poster that haunted Winston Smith in 1984 (“Big Brother is Watching You”) and of the Ministry of Love and Room 101. At this site (before Haspel ran the prison), a Qaeda suspect by the name of Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times. A medical officer recorded the beginning sessions of Zubaydah’s “water-cure”:
“The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling [slamming prisoner against wall], and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far…. He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.[i]
A common thread in discussions of “enhanced interrogations” by our politicians is the widespread assumption that the times after 9/11 were a “dark period” in our history, an aberration, an exception to our usual humane treatment of prisoners of war, political prisoners and even common prisoners.
The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”
We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”
I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)
“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog, TomDispatch.com, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.
Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.
In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo. (more…)
Photo of the Sunday, August 22, 2010 Cordoba House protest. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)
Inspector Malcolm Fox—the protagonist of Ian Rankin’s Scottish crime novel, The Impossible Dead (NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2011)—reflects upon the ever-presence of fear, whether in news reports from 1985 or today:
When you’d stopped needing to fear a US-Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place. Fear of crime always seemed to outpace the actual statistics. Right now, people were fearing for their jobs and pensions, fearing global warming and dwindling resources. If these problems were ever resolved, new worries would fill the vacuum. (pp. 329-30)
Fear fills the vacuum of resolved problems. Fear engenders problems. Problems are a figment of fear, the chimera of exaggeration—or at least can be. Exaggeration, whether of crime levels or threats to national security, perpetuates the perception of crisis. The status quo remains on the verge of CRITICAL. (more…)
Official portrait of George H. W. Bush, former President of the United States of America, circa 1989. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I am not sure what to make of the prepublication report of Jon Meacham’s new biography of George H. W. Bush’s presidential “odyssey,” Destiny and Power. I am intrigued by the mythic overtones of calling the 41st president’s term an odyssey, a wandering, but I’ll have to wait to read the book to decide how that actually plays out.
The hype for the book is interesting both for what it reveals and what it implies. News reports (I saw them in the Guardian and the Washington Post)—serving as book advertisements—offer a tantalizing appetizer. I usually don’t order the appetizer at a restaurant because it ruins my appetite for the main course. In this case, the appetizer may be the meal. (more…)
Cartoon published by James Gillray in 1803 showing Napoleon in a fury over relations between France and England. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore conveys the essence of America’s war on terror under the sign of addiction. War is a drug, and the US is addicted, metaphorically speaking.
In the realm of reality-defining language, terms intermingle and entangle. Thus, we declare a war on drugs while high on the drug of war, seemingly without noticing the irony. And while we are at it, we declare war on poverty and crime, anything actually. It’s a totalizing mindset that constitutes what Astore calls “America’s omnipresent war ethos.”
Addiction is a useful metaphor because it readily conveys how being high on war shuts down deliberation on foreign and domestic policy and replaces reflection with rage. (more…)
Memorial set up by fans of Pat Tillman outside Sun Devil Stadium where he played football for the Arizona State University Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals. (Credit: James Fee / Wikimedia Commons)
The disturbing facts of Pat Tillman’s story are well-known, and yet we go over them repeatedly—in the face of the hagiography—in search of answers to unsettling questions. Pac-10 defensive player of the year as a senior at Arizona State; a record-breaking safety for the Arizona Cardinals; he left a multi-million dollar contract on the table to enlist with his brother in the U.S. Army (he became an Army Ranger): “My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars… and I really haven’t done a damn thing” (ESPN Classic).
In this, Tillman was one of those young Americans who enlisted in the armed forces following the attacks on 9/11. What was unusual was that he was a professional football player and a millionaire.
There was a time in the country’s history when the children of the rich and the offspring of powerful politicians felt compelled to defend the U.S. in times of peril. Theodore Roosevelt’s sons served during World War I and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sons served during World War II. George H.W. Bush and John F. Kennedy were decorated World War II veterans. Professional baseball players enlisted in droves during WW II. Ted Williams interrupted his career at its peak to serve during the Korean War.
But in our times, Pat Tillman was an oddity because he volunteered to serve. Even more, he was a notable exception who embarrassed us, who revealed, by his committed patriotism, the flimsy nature of our own. (more…)
Protester holds a “War is Not the Answer” poster from the Friends Committee on National Legislation at the March 20, 2010 anti-war protest in Washington, DC. (Credit: Rrenner / Wikimedia Commons)
The slogan “War is Not the Answer” is occasionally spotted by alert bumper-sticker watchers. It is a nearly extinct species, especially in Red State America. Almost all sightings are in the small remainder of Blue States, or so it seems. The slogan’s shrinking habitat is a bad omen for the cause of peace. It’s a warning sign of war’s irrelevance. Few care, and fewer can imagine an alternative answer to war.
Warmongering is commonplace in contemporary America. It is a ritual that sustains the mythic vision of the war state. One does not have to look long or far to find recent examples of the ritualized call to arms. On March 13, for instance, Joshua Muravchik editorialized in the Washington Post under the headline “War with Iran is probably our best option.” (more…)