Cold War

The Tautology of War

Graf Krokodil best

Yuliy Graf in Krokodil, 1953 no. 4, p. 8.

War culture is an insidious presence in the ordinary life of the imperial citizenry. The subtle entrapment in its daily rituals is a treacherous seduction of political will that sacrifices democracy on the altar of militarism.  The profane is endemic to politics as usual, the self-indulgence of a public alienated from its founding ideals.  Mundanity is a spiritual death knell just below the threshold of critical awareness.

The war mentality is a self-sustaining redundancy that renders critical reflection tiresome and seemingly futile.  The apparent inevitability of war induces acceptance and rationalization.  The public refuses to see its imperial reflection in the mirror.  The face of war is too ugly to unmask.  Better to suppress it.  Repression and projection are the psychological alternatives to critical reflection.  (more…)

Last of the Cold War Warriors

Senator John McCain, 1936-2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the tempests of Caliban’s island must pause at the passing of John McCain.

Writing about the three great Liberators of the Americas—Bolívar from Venezuela, San Martín from Río de La Plata, Hidalgo from México—José Martí once taught us:

Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it heats. The sun has spots. Ingrates talk only about its spots; grateful ones talk about the light.[1]

As a resident of Arizona, I have had occasion to witness John McCain’s services to his constituency with punctilious efficiency and graciousness. The tag of “maverick”—an unfortunate banality that often diminished the complexity of the man—has led commentators in the last few days to praise his memory as follows: “I disagreed with him on many issues, but …,” usually followed by a lengthy encomium. I will add my voice to this chorus of praise and condemnation. I will write, reducing “a person’s entire life to two or three scenes,” not only about my disagreements with John McCain, but also about the good that should not be interred with his bones.[2]


An Allegory of Heroic War


Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)

Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.

Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.

This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them. (more…)

Failed Empire


(Credit: Veterans for Peace)

Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”

Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.

What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part III: The Gimmick)


USS Iowa (BB-61) fires a full broadside of her nine 16″/50 and six 5″/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The “gimmick,” Juan Manuel García Passalacqua (aide to two Puerto Rican governors during the 1960s) wrote in a newspaper column over a decade ago, was as follows:

To produce jobs here so that our population could be kept domesticated to prevent social disorder to protect law and order in the archipelago that was essentially and only a very important naval and military base for the United States. We all ended that in Vieques.[i]

Passalacqua was warning of economic disaster given the impending end of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, which gave “mainland United States companies an exemption from Federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico, whether it comes from operations or interest on local bank deposits.” In the aftermath of the closing of the naval artillery range in the small contiguous island of Vieques, and of the closing of the impressive Roosevelt Roads naval base, Passalacqua relayed the conclusion of several economic reports from the US mainland: “Tax exemptions to multinational corporations are not needed anymore” (The San Juan Star, July 9, 2006). (more…)

Land of the Dollar

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf," oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Adoration of the Golden Calf,” oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he saw the people of Israel dancing and worshipping the golden calf. “Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:9) During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)

And yet in the land of the free we have created the “Land of the Dollar,” and we worship Mammon and build temples to the Golden Calf. (more…)


Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. (Credit:  Ofol / Wikimedia Commons)

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. (Credit: Ofol / Wikimedia Commons)

I.  Great Wall of China


Last year we made war for the Mulberry Brook’s springs,

This year we make war for the Garlic Stream’s bed,

We have washed our swords in Antioch’s waves,

We have grazed our mounts on the Pamirs’ snows,

For thousands of miles our expeditions go

Till the Three Armies’ men are worn and old,

But the Huns look on killing like tilling their fields,

White bones all they grow on their yellow sands! (more…)

Thomas Merton on the Amoral Mindset of War

U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike, 31 Oct 1952, on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb), 1952. (Photo courtesy of US Atomic Energy Commission)

U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike, 31 Oct 1952, on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). (Photo courtesy of US Atomic Energy Commission)

Writing in the context of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry, Thomas Merton argued that the US had a right to self-defense but a moral obligation to work for peace. He opposed the policy of massive retaliation and advocated nuclear disarmament. He warned against something he called “demonic activism, a frenzy of the most varied, versatile, complex and even utterly brilliant technological improvisations, following one upon the other with an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation” (Peace in the Post-Christian Era, p. 103).

The problem of war, Merton maintained, was first and foremost a matter of attitude. Even at the risk of nuclear annihilation, Americans succumbed to a truculent and suspicious state of mind that precluded any solution other than violence. Such a mood undermined confidence in negotiation. Yet, he insisted, “we can no longer afford to ignore our obligation to work for the abolition of war as a means of solving international problems” (p. 5).

Merton’s critique of US war culture as an amoral state of mind that yields to the hegemony of power remains relevant to the present challenge of peacemaking. We still lack the motives required to build a peaceful world, to resist fear and hatred and to restrain our savagery, which is “a fatal deficiency” (p. 19).   (more…)


"Spartacus' Death" by Hermann Vogel, 1882.

“Spartacus’ Death” by Hermann Vogel, 1882.

In 1960, just before a new administration under John F. Kennedy was taking office, heralding the vision of a “New Frontier,” Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus premiered in Hollywood. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, written in 1951. Both writers had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the national persecution of writers and artists with past communist associations (Trumbo was one of the original group of the Hollywood 10). Both had been imprisoned during the Cold War era. (more…)

Wall of Jericho and Woody Guthrie

"The Taking of Jericho" by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Taking of Jericho” by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city….

And it came to pass, when the people … shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat.

Joshua 6: 16-20

A recent article in USA Today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall characterizes the event with this headline: “Presidential words helped bring down Berlin Wall.” The sub-headline of the article declares that speeches at or near the wall by JFK and Ronald Reagan “proved the power—and the limits—of rhetoric in putting Cold War on ice.”

The article reflects the conventional narrative that has been adopted by U.S. political culture: Kennedy acquiesced to the building of the Berlin wall with words that seem quite sane: “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” (more…)