The American Dance of Life - A Handful of Unrelated but Connected Notes on the U.S. & War
This past Memorial Day, one vet who wasn't honored by anyone but me was my Uncle Adam on my dad's side. He died only a few years ago, my last older relative. A civilian for god knows how many decades, he was still a corporal at heart. And he had the mouth to prove it. If there was a version of Scrabble for only four-letter words, he would've never lost a game.
But the important thing is this. If you're a vet like he was, when you die the government suddenly appears out of nowhere to describe your death as the passing-on of an American hero, all past crimes absolved. The VA may have scorned your claim that your cancer resulted from your tour of duty at Area 9 of the Nevada Atomic Test Site, or it may have turned a blind eye to the symptoms you suffered after your exposure to napalm in Vietnam, or it may have been aggravated by your claim that you returned from Afghanistan with PTSD, but once you're dead everything's forgotten and the White House bellows —
This man's a hero!
You see, that's how it happens. They bury you as a hero to hide the fact that when alive they treated you like shit.
One event from almost thirty years ago left an indelible impression on me. It illustrated for me how society as a whole, including every institution and product and entertainment that's part of it, increasingly becomes a mass-delivery device for saturating us with the propaganda necessary for keeping us synced to what's psychologically required of us in order for the nation's economic elites to retain power — and grow wealthier. Just think of how often we buy a tee-shirt emblazoned with the name of the company which manufactured it. This shows how the U.S. economic (and cultural) system has conditioned us to do what would have been considered impossible years ago: to fork up our hard-earned cash for the "privilege" of advertising a manufacturer's product with no cost to the company! We've turned ourselves into walking billboards for corporate America's further enrichment.
But that's only the small-fry stuff.
On Super Bowl Sunday 1991, while Frank Gifford and his colleagues announced the game on ABC, their play-by-play commentary was spliced with live war-updates from the network's then-top newscaster, Peter Jennings. After a while, it was impossible for the viewing audience to tell which was the main attraction: the game or the war. But in reality, the question was irrelevant. The truth was that ABC had created a new kind of event, a hybrid form of activity which switched effortlessly back and forth between the "pastime" of real blood being spilled in a real war and another pastime, the football game's highly disciplined athletic violence. An amazing simultaneity had been achieved: the crowd's roar was like a split-personality screaming in 2 voices at once — one voice cheered on Baghdad's obliteration, the other shouted for running back Otis Anderson as he plunged off-tackle toward MVP immortality.
This display of athletics and patriotism was reinforced by a Disney-influenced halftime show that featured a blond child, surrounded by a chorus of other kids, singing, "You are my hero, you are everything I want to be" in honor of US service people in the Gulf. As the boy's sweetly warbled song turned the Florida air into an oozing goo of patriotic emotion, upbeat images of US military personnel periodically flashed on the TV. All this activity soon led to a special message, projected on the stadium's giant screen as well as on televisions across the nation, from President Bush. In his message, the president extolled the virtues of fighting a war in which goodness (i.e., the US) would triumph over evil (i.e., Iraq). As halftime ended and the 2 teams prepared to resume their battle on the field, fans waved flags and a patriotic jolt better than any crack high swept through the stadium crowd and the nation's millions of TV viewers. When the kickoff occurred, somewhere in the Middle East an Iraqi target was undoubtedly leveled, detonated by a high-tech US weapon. The crowd cheered.
In the midst of such patriotism-infused cultural events, with people who are ready to kill for their country bonding everywhere in a euphoria of nation-love, it's difficult to be a nonconformist, which is why the idea of turning the whole of society into a sprawling propaganda machine appeals to the 1 percent.
Events like the 1991 Super Bowl raise politics to the level of pure spectacle. Such events — with their efforts to induce a trance-like national pride, and their emphasis on the wholesomeness of the military mentality and the moral purity of those in power — are not confined solely to the US and are not without precedent in the past. An example of this is Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 Triumph of the Will, the German film that is a classic of Nazi propaganda and which includes many of the same elements that the 1991 Super Bowl/Gulf war extravaganza included. Riefenstahl's film is alive, not with apparent hatred, but with the apparent power of goodness. Triumph is a feast of the images of such goodness: blond young men smiling and expressing male solidarity, buxom women working hard for the national good, a feel for the middle-European beauty of German cities and countryside, and a night-time political rally at Nuremberg which, with lit torches and an almost churchly atmosphere, seems, not like a mundane political event, but rather like a futuristic mass in honor of everything mysterious and noble in the galaxy. The film's purpose was to create in the hearts of "good" Germans a sense of grand national destiny, a euphoric awareness of their historic mission to reorganize life on the planet in the name of a higher good that only they, among the world's peoples, were capable of comprehending. Nazism's deepest realities — racism, hatred of democracy, its belief in the usefulness of genocide — were hidden in the film behind images of happy nuclear families and individuals devoted to traditional values. In the end, of course, those romanticized traditional values killed 6 million Jews and millions of other people.
Just as Triumph obscured the details of Nazism's character as a hate philosophy, so the 1991 Superbowl spectacle obscured the details of the US elite's political/economic ambitions with regard to the middle east. It also hid some of the war's dirtier details — for instance, the US government's willingness to expose its troops (and then to deny it did so) to chemical and biological weapons, and also the Pentagon's policy of killing Iraqi civilians as a way of trying to force the population into removing Saddam Hussein from power. The burial of such details shouldn't surprise us. Like Riefenstahl's film, the purpose of the 1991 Superbowl spectacle was not to provide us with objective war-related information while the game was going on, but rather to manipulate people emotionally. Adopting techniques similar to the ones used in the pro-Nazi documentary, ABC and the White House employed wholesome-looking images for the purpose of instilling in the viewer a grandiose sense of national superiority. All of this is part of the language (words, symbols, images) of our American identity, our (theoretically) undeniable wholesomeness.
None of us can escape it. It may be only a noise in the distance now, but it's growing louder. As thousands of feet drum the ground, a procession of refugees, most of them from Central America, march toward the U.S.'s southern border.
These are the people who make up Trump's hated "caravan."
But it's wrong to link the caravan issue only to Trump. Doing so not only misses the point, it trivializes the point to the brink of irrelevance.
The point is this: Why are they marching here? Is it simply because they're jealous of U.S. wealth and want a piece of the pie? Or is it out of pure malice; do they get a sick thrill out of the idea of stealing U.S. citizens' jobs?
It's said that those in the know — the insiders with security clearances, the higher-ups, the experts — understand better than we do what's going on in the world. The common wisdom assures us of that. Theoretically, it's precisely such better understanding that has led the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security to increasingly resist immigration from the southern Americas. Similarly, it prompted Obama to deport more immigrants from Latin America than any president prior to him. It's also why Trump, Obama's successor, now talks in reverent tones about a Glorious Wall, which supposedly will protect us from Latin America's unwanteds.
What, though, is this trend's purpose? What do "those in the know" know that has persuaded them this is a good idea? What secret information do they possess that purportedly makes them better able to grasp this issue than we are?
Well, whatever it is, it can't be so covered up that we can't locate it. Why not? All that's required of an efficient knowledge-hunter is a strong stubborn streak, a lot of digging in the dark, a talent for scavenging and a low tolerance for b.s.
From 1980–1992, El Salvador was torn by violence precipitated by its military-led government. Even with all the resources made available to it as the result of U.S. aid, the government couldn't suppress popular dissent over its broken promises to increase economic equity and political democracy. One reason for the government's difficulty was that in response to its previous acts of repression, by 1980 the most important left and progressive formations in the country had formed an umbrella organization, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), whose guerillas fought the elites' armies.
As Washington looked on, the government it propped up resorted to even more violence to restore order. Although some of these incidents — like the rape and murder by El Salvadoran National Guardsmen of four churchwomen (Haggerty 1990 ) from the U.S. who were sympathetic to the rural poor and other oppressed sectors of the population — caused outrage among American citizens, the White House persisted in its support of the regime. As Jeffery M. Paige wrote in an essay on the situation during that period, "It is clear that El Salvador would fall tomorrow without United States military aid." (Paige 1993)
But the U.S. wasn't merely helping out with aid; it was, in fact, participating. One dimension of Washington's commitment to assist the El Salvadoran government was to involve our own military in training Salvadoran units in counterinsurgency. The most prized of these units was the Atlacatl Battalion, which soon after its creation became well-known for its relentlessness throughout El Salvador.
Created in 1981, the battalion was a rapid-response unit which specialized in battling leftist guerrillas. Designed to be an exemplary fighting team, its purpose was broader than merely killing FMLN guerillas. It was also meant to be a sort of living advertisement for proving to folks in the U.S. "how American money and training could transform the Salvadoran army into a professional fighting force." (Wilkinson 1992)
What "professional fighting force" meant in this instance was that the unit's efficiency in the field entailed massacres and other forms of illegal violence (e.g., purposeful killing of noncombatants, etc.). However, since El Salvador's rulers were willing to crush any left-leaning peasant, worker or student demands which might clash with its U.S. patron's financial or other regional interests, Washington continued to consider the nation an ally. The U.S. remained unbudging in this relationship throughout the 1980s, regardless of what happened.
And a lot happened.
One of those things, a mass killing perpetrated by the Atlacatl Battalion in the village of El Mozote, was detailed in the 1993 "Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador." After invading the village, the battalion murdered everyone they found, after dividing them into groups. First, they slew the men, who were mostly agricultural laborers and farmers with meager landholdings, then the women, then the children. Although initial death totals were estimated to be in the 200-plus range, later searches of particular sites in the village — like Santa Catarinain church where eventually more than 135 bodies were found, almost all under age twelve — expanded the verified number too much higher, somewhere in the range of 794-1000. (Tawney 2018, Malkin 2016)
The Truth Commission also cited in its 319-page report many other incidents of war-crime-level brutality, including 118 civilians killed close to Lake Suchitlán, an area supposedly under rebel control, and the 1989 slaying of "six Jesuit priests, a cook, and her 16-year old daughter . . . at the Pastoral Centre of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador."
Further, the UN reports that in total 75,000 El Salvadorans were killed during the 1980-1992 period, with 85 percent of the civilian deaths caused by "agents of the State, paramilitary groups allied to them, and the death squads," with the FLMN causing only 5 percent.
As Michael J. Hennelly's essay "US Policy in EI Salvador" (1993) at the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) establishes, during this same period "the military and political role played by the US government was one of the most significant aspects of the Salvadoran war." He reinforces this point by tabulating the dollar amounts spent by the U.S. on military trainers, specialized interrogation classes, military hardware, etc., plus "over $4 billion in assistance to help ensure the survival of the Salvadoran government. Hennelly calculates that these expenditures amounted to "about one million dollars a day in US assistance" during the period.
His final judgment is that the operation was well worth the investment.
The proof's in the pudding, I guess. 75,000 people dead apparently isn't a debit in his rose-colored-glasses account. Neither was the coincident destruction of much of the economic infrastructure upon which the poorer and working classes depended for survival. It's all part of the game called Empire.
Now it's years later. Some of the children born back then, adults now, are approaching us. They're part of the caravan mentioned earlier, men and women plodding forward, babies crying, a ragged column winding northward. What drives them?
In many cases, as in El Salvador, the refugees are in flight from poverty and violence, residues of the harm done by U.S. policies to their nations. These policies, neocolonial/imperialist in nature, prioritized alliances with dictators while methodically retarding those nations' independent political and economic development as part of a U.S. strategy for making sure no leftist reformers mobilized sufficient numbers of people to jeopardize U.S. plans for the area.
One more example of this U.S. approach is its operations in Guatemala, particularly in relation to that nation's thirty-plus year civil war, which stretched from the 1960s into the 1990s.
In 1999 the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification released a report, Memory of Silence, on human rights violations and mass killings during the Guatemalan government's repression of leftist anti-government forces. In the report's Introduction, editor Daniel Rothenberg described the period as
a thirty-four year conflict forged by the Cold War, strongly influenced by U.S. foreign policy, and so severe that the commission determined that the state committed genocide against its own indigenous people.
Regarding the genocide accusation, in 2013 the Guatemalan courts found General Ríos Montt, one of the dictators who led the government during the conflict, guilty of genocide against the Mayans, Guatemala's indigenous people and the hardest hit of all the population sectors attacked by government forces and death squads. Although sentenced to 80 years in prison, his conviction was later overturned. He died in a helicopter crash before he could be retried. (Kinzer 2018)
The question here is why, as documented by Memory of Silence, did the U.S. under the Reagan administration advise, train and provide international cover for Guatemalan units that killed over 100,000, mostly Mayan, people and disappeared countless others? Although Reagan was advised by the CIA of Guatemalan President Ríos Montt's approval of such killings at the height of the death squads' massacre spree in the early 1980s, Reagan nonetheless lauded Montt in a Dec. 4,1982 statement following a meeting with him in Honduras. "I know," Reagan pronounced, "that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment" whose "country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas." (Reagan 1982)
The "brutal challenge" mentioned here by Reagan was a lie. As Memory of Silence points out, 93 percent of all deaths during the Guatemalan government's war against its own people were perpetrated by Guatemala's government-supported death squads, not by Reagan's fantasy of an evil enemy's brutality. The report also stressed that U.S. involvement in the conflict "had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation."
No wonder, given the amount of money we poured into the country. The quickest way to indicate the level of support given by the U.S. to the Guatemalan government in the latter part of the last century is to view a small slice of that assistance. From 1980-1986, U.S. aid to Guatemala grew from $11 million to $104 million (Grandin 2013). But U.S. involvement in Guatemalan politics didn't begin in the 1980s. It began long before.
Yet such is the power of our government's culture of non-transparency that it is able to excommunicate such information from our nation's official histories. Which is why historically the U.S. looks with distaste at serious investigative journalists and out-of-the-box analysts in the mold of Angela Davis, I.F. Stone, and Alexander Cockburn.
But even when buried information is unburied in the contemporary world, the media reburies it under so many pundit interpretations of what it supposedly means that the information is once again lost. What's left afterward is society's background noise: the ghostly echo of many simultaneous specialist monologues dissolved into a soup of endless chatter, not one detail of which makes sense anymore.
Given this context, it's no surprise that as a nation we know so little today about Washington's relationship with Guatemala. A relationship that also includes an issue not mentioned here yet: the CIA overthrow in 1954 of a democratically elected Guatemalan government led by President Jacobo Árbenz, an event believed by many to have precipitated decades of U.S.-provoked death and ruination in the country.
Philip Rothenberg, Memory of Silence's editor, described the overthrow and its aftermath this way: "In the mid-1950s, a successful ten-year democratic process that challenged the status quo was overthrown with support from the United States." He then further states that from the coup onwards the U.S. exerted significant control "through overt and covert means" over Guatemalan politics for decades. This control includes the so-called civil war, which was actually a clash between a succession of U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictatorships and the people of their own country, people fighting to recapture some of the freedom and hope they'd experienced during the Árbenz period of leftist democratic reform. A period which we, the U.S., brought to a violent end.
The story of this violation of international law is one more tale that, if told in the U.S. in combination with the story of our intervention in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America, would help us to better understand the caravans of refugees which periodically march toward our southern border.
Whether we understand the reason for them coming or not, they keep coming. The reason for their coming is no surprise. It's not because the caravans consist of rabid mobs foaming at the mouth to steal our livelihoods. It's not because, as Carson Tucker suggested on Fox TV on July 17, 2018, that there's a plan afoot for assimilating darker-skinned refugees from Latin America for the purpose of "changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country."
The caravans head here not for these reasons but for others. They migrate in significant part because over the decades U.S. policies have left (and often still leave) disaster in their wake: fractured economies, austerity budgets shaped by the IMF and World Bank, giant gulfs between poor and rich, and drug lords and street gangs filling the gaps left by corrupted political leadership.
Today, fleeing violence and poverty at home, many Central Americans head north to the U.S. This is irony in the form of the darkest black humor. In-flight for their lives, asylum-seekers quit homelands wrecked by U.S. neocolonialism, then migrate toward the U.S. in hope of a better future! Such is the life of the international poor under advanced capitalism. Constantly caught between a rock and a hard place, they must accept help even from those imperial outsiders responsible for much of the hardship they've suffered.
I saw an interesting fellow last night in Philadelphia on the corner of Chestnut St. and 2nd Ave., only a block or so from the Indian restaurant where Suman (my wife) and I ate earlier.
He was one of those guys you can find in any city, a bearded character who knows how to attract a crowd with his shenanigans. Dressed cleanly, although, in faded loose-fitting clothes that looked like they'd been in an out of a thousand laundromats on the wrong side of the tracks over the years, he wore a kid's party hat, the kind shaped like a cone and secured in place by a rubber band under the chin. Playing the buffoon, but nonetheless showing his smarts, he glanced merrily at his growing number of listeners. An artist of the nonstop soliloquy, complete with punchlines and melodramatic facial expressions, his oratory soared like an MC who never saw an audience he didn't love. I couldn't keep up with everything he said, but at one point he mentioned a neighborhood called Star-Spangled Estates, then a while later joked, "If you're gonna pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you best buy a new pair of colorful Nike laces first, so when you get where you're going they'll know you're the man!"
The crowd loved him. A marvel of streetsmart articulacy, he was on a roll. Later, as he brought his spiel to conclusion, he did a sort of bump-and-grind to punctuate his words, then twirled in a circle and suddenly stood still, holding his hands, palms upward, in the air, with a plastic statue of liberty on one palm and a toy automatic weapon on the other —
"Oh yeah, folks, let me teach you the American dance of life! Let me show you how to let it all hang loose!"
The swarm of onlookers, which had grown much larger by then, roared their approval for his performance. It was his appearance that made their hearts go out to him. For them, for all of us, he was the spitting image of an old Uncle Sam down on his luck.
The government must have fired him years ago, then outsourced his job to god knows where.
Rather than expressing a truth, the phrase "The land of the free and home of the brave" impersonates a truth.
The phrase is a lure like the lure on a fishing line. We are meant to bite down on it in a gluttonous spasm of patriotic hunger, only to have a hook rip open the roof of our mouth, then anchor itself unbudgingly in the wound.
This is how we're caught. How groupthink triumphs.
Revolting against such a reality makes sense. But to revolt doesn't mean lecturing people about what they should do. It means working alongside people so we can learn together how to transform ourselves into a relentless mass force for a revolutionary reorganization of the nation and a reinvention of values.
The wars are everywhere. Wars at home. Imperial wars overseas. Our struggle may be complex, but our goals aren't. We must fight injustice and inequity wherever we find them within the U.S., and stop exportation of violence, murder, and oppression to other lands. We don't need reform, we need revolution.
Note: Diego Rivera's painting at the beginning of this article is called "Gloriosa victoria" ("Glorious Victory") and was done by him in 1954 as a protest against the U.S. overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected government that same year. At the painting's center, U.S. Sec. of State John Foster Dulles shakes hands with the new (Washington-approved) president of Guatemala while behind them other U.S. officials hand out money to Guatemalan soldiers.
Grandin, Greg. 2013. "Guatemalan Slaughter Was Part of Reagan’s Hard Line." The New York Times, May 21, 2013.
Haggerty, Richard A., ed. 1990. El Salvador: A Country Study. Library of Congress, Federal Research Division.
Hennelly, Michael J. 1993. "US Policy in EI Salvador." Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC).
Kinzer, Stephen. 2018. "Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemalan Dictator Convicted of Genocide, Dies at 91." The New York Times, April 1, 2018.
Malkin, Elisabeth. 2016. "Survivors of Massacre." The New York Times, May 16, 2016.
Paige, Jeffery M. 1993. "Coffee and Power in El Salvador." Latin American Research Review, Vol. 28, No. 3. 1993.
Reagan, Ronald. 1982. "Remarks in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Following a Meeting With President Jose Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala." UC Santa Barbara: The American Presidency Project.
Rothenberg, David, ed. 2012. Memory of Silence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tawney, Joseph. 2018. "The Long-Game." International Policy Digest, Jan. 12, 2018.