Monday, January 12, 2009

Fighting Words: From Cold War to Culture War in the Age of Irony

by Al Falafel

The War in Iraq is officially OVER!

As reported by the Daily Beast and elsewhere, the Iraq war ended unceremoniously with the expiration of authority Congress spinelessly granted Bush in 2002 permitting him to use force against that country. Bush did not bother to ask for renewal of the mandate so it expired at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 2008.

It has been six years since the infamous lie of "Mission Accomplished." With this latest definitive news how about we just let it end now?


The war is over, Bush is done. Let us not allow our very lame duck ex to enlist us emotionally in any kind of Middle East "Cold War" as he is wont to do. 

As the swan song of his disastrous Presidency - and totally true to form - Bush has signed the "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) with the Iraqi government in blatant defiance of the US Constitution.

Isn't that just SOFA-King Bush-like?

It is imperative, lest we repeat the mistakes of the past, that We the People now do all we can to resist buying into the language of a new "Cold War" between us and an imaginary enemy from the Arab world who also exists among us at home. 

History tells us that going along with such a concept can only derail the burgeoning movement away from the Bush-era war obsession and engender a long-term festering of a belligerent national attitude that will consume us, both domestically and in our international relations.

It happened once already - after the end of World War II with the unprecedented selling of the cold war concept which we adopted, hook, line and sinker. 

In no small measure, our wholesale buying into the first cold war is what eventually enabled the poisonous "Culture War" that has been ripping at the spiritual fabric of our nation in recent years. With hopes running high on the eve of President Obama's inauguration, our future is still very much threatened by such underlying reactionary forces.

I believe we can do a lot to nip a new cold war in the bud by simply refusing to adopt any such language, no matter how fitting it may seem. 

Even if they cannot keep the Iraq war going for a hundred years as they had hoped, the cold war concept will be meted out to us in some form by those right wing hawks and politicos newly in retreat. Now more than ever, they only stand to profit by exploiting such internecine conflicts in our hearts and minds -- if we let them.

If we can keep that from happening, however, we would also very likely see a de-escalation in the current "Culture War" raging in the minds of many today.

Consider history.

By all accounts it was Herbert Bayard Swope (1882-1958) who coined the concise term "Cold War" to sum up the relationship between the world's two emergent superpower nations following WWII in 1947. Immediately, this deceptively simplistic concatenation was absorbed into the American vernacular. Its endurance to this day stands as a testament to Swope's mastery of his craft, which had also earned him earlier distinction as the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting (1917). It is hard to imagine a more succinct, emblematic and readily fathomable summation of America's deep trepidation about the M.A.D. standoff that had quickly developed between rival nuclear powers, the USSR and us.

When Swope, a war corespondent and political speechwriter, first stuck the word "cold" (frosty, frigid, inhospitable, cold-blooded, unsympathetic), together with the word "war" (conflict, strife, bloodshed, hostility, combat), he could hardly have known how durable his neologistic invention would prove to be.

Nor how potently malignant would be the mind frame he induced with it into the 20th Century American psyche, impressionable as it was.

As with most known carcinogens, the deleterious effects of this advancing linguistic tumor would remain undetected for decades as life went on as usual.

Even at the end of World War II, when the US Department of War was officially abolished in favor of the new improved Dept. of Defense, We the People continued to indulge in the usage of the all-too-convenient oxymoronic "cold war" as part of our casual discourse ("melts in your mouth; not in your hand")

The "Age of Irony" having not yet arrived, we had little means of appreciation for what the concept of a cold war meant... nor for how much it mattered.

What did it hurt?

It was just two little words, a nifty turn of phrase: just words really... that hit the nail right on the head, it seemed ("builds strong bodies in 12 ways"). So what if  hostilities had cooled down and treaties were signed? So what if we still sucked up and regurgitated this bit of militaristic jingoism after the end of the real war? 

There is no denying that we were being force-fed this cold war guck through the news in print, heard over the radio waves and, not insignificantly, experienced in a new dimension through the innovative medium of broadcast television. It was just too convenient a short hand slogan, going hand in hand with other catch phrases of the time like "baby boom" and "truth, justice, and the American way."  

Sure, you could "See the USA in your Chevrolet," but this "cold war" phrase was more than a misnomer. It was a lie, actually, that we, as a nation, bought into part and parcel with that conglomerate of terms that branded our postwar identity. 

Whatever the mood, temperature or climate, the truth is that WWII really was over when it was over. If we had known where it would lead us, the cold war may have ended as well, before it ever got started.

"A little dab will do ya..."

Like all wars before it, World War II had a beginning and it did have an end.

We have never, in fact, experienced a real war that did not have an end. Even World War I - the so-called "War to End All Wars" - had been given its last rites at Versailles in 1919. Maybe we were so chastened by that gross overestimation that it would be too embarrassing not to remain on a war footing long after. 

But in the case of WWII, the shooting stopped in 1945. The bombing had stopped. Troop movements and strategic battle planning ceased at last when the US wiped two Pacific Islands off the map that year.

The nationalistic feelings whipped up during WWII were like nothing seen on this continent since the American Civil War. Exploiting those intensities was obviously irresistable to the red-baiting McCarthy-era hawks. To their misfortune and to our temporary relief, however, they pushed too hard too fast - tipping their hand too early in the game and losing big.

It is understandable, after what the world went through during those horrible years from 1939 to 1945, that the powers who brought a close to such a planetary nightmare may have felt the need to distract the public while they stayed on guard in case the truce among nations failed to hold. It is even forgivable that the gullible public, the millions of Americans who had suffered so many personal losses during the war, would still feel the need to fortify themselves, emotionally, against any chance that it could happen again while basking in the glory of being part of the alliance that had saved the world.

Keeping the war alive in our minds kept our lost loved-ones alive but that is just one effect of the complex mental conditioning that redefined our world from top to bottom. Another is the unprecedented American internalization of war, driven so deep into our imagination that it was hard for a long long time to have another actual war in the traditional sense.

Any military actions we engaged in during the cold war were called maneuvers, skirmishes or "peace-keeping missions." It was a "police action" in Korea and a "conflict" in Vietnam. We invaded Grenada and intervened in Kosovo but never officially engaged in war. 

There was also that long, drawn-out hostage crisis in Iran. 

All of these bloody involvements could have easily turned into wars, and in other times probably would have. But the word "war" was cautiously never applied in any official reference to those bloody crises. 

Our political leaders often went to great lengths, in fact, to deny that there was anything warlike about dropping bombs, shooting up villages and getting up to more than a million of our own troops slaughtered and leaving even more of them maimed and shell-shocked in the process. It was as if war had been removed exclusively from our real world experience into the realm of imagination. It could not exist in two places at once.  

The napalm that laid waste to Vietnamese jungles and burned many people alive was most definitely hot but by then we had been led to believe that war could only be cold. The only real war was the one smoldering in our hearts. 

Maybe we were reserving the label "war" for that inevitable conflict with our number one rival on the planet and every other act of armed aggression was considered a prelude to that feared eventuality. Or perhaps other conflicts just did not merit such an estimable reference, no matter how many of our young people and foreigners were killed in the fighting.

The cold war hawks did shoot themselves in the foot early on with their outrageous commie witch-hunts as the 1950s came to a close. Unfortunately, however, there was no disciplined alternative to their extremism. 

What emerged in that cultural vacuum was the 1960s "flower child" era soaked in the drunkeness of our sudden liberation from those out-moded mindsets, hyper-powered by the new phenomenon of recreational drugs. The Peace Movement was quickly subsumed into that giddy experimental culture, thanks to our escalating involvement in Vietnam's civil war and, moreover, by the concurrent existence of a military draft in the US.

Against this backdrop, it was the effort of a well-intentioned Democratic President who gave the still subdued movement toward the coming "Culture War" an inadvertent boost. At the height of the Vietnam folly that had once again given war a deservedly bad name, Lyndon B. Johnson announced his "Great Society" program, a large scale campaign to address the inequities of race and class in the United States: a noble undertaking indeed.

In an unfortunate linguistic miscalculation, LBJ chose to invoke the language of war in order to distract attention from Vietnam while instilling a sense of urgency and generate headlines for his effort to eradicate the injustices due to poverty. 

Notably, Johnson's "War on Poverty" was the first in a progression of instances when our national leaders would apply the three-letter word to any large-scale non-militaristic social policy.

Too bad Johnson could not have made his analogy to something more humanitarian, like an urgent reclamation effort to clean up after a devastating natural disaster: an earthquake or flood, for example. At best an incomplete analogy it was the first war declared by this nation that did not indicate an actual enemy. Decidedly avoiding any call to "spread the wealth around" Johnson's war on poverty was not a war on the rich. The war on poverty was the first war on an fundamentally abstract human condition.

It was not without its successes, among them ushering in at last, the golden age of irony. 

With a deadly and expensive conflict raging in Vietnam, where we butted against a proxy for our Super Power enemy, we were asked to buy into a more palatable idea of a war at home with no enemy at all. 

Later, in 1971, an embattled Richard Nixon would put his own spin on the idea of conceptual war turning it against something more frightening than poverty to middle class Americans - the "war on drugs." This was seen as based in a moral judgment against the deviant hippie drug culture as much as against the supplier cartels of South America.

By 1979, Vietnam was remembered as a tragic mistake but Jimmy Carter would make an even worse miscalculation than his Democratic predecessor Johnson had by urging us to adopt the "moral equivalent of war" during the energy crisis: explicitly linking morality and nationalistic pride, still in the absence of any named enemy (Ironically, a few months after Carter's speech, Iran stepped up to claim the title of enemy by taking 52 Americans hostage just months after the "moral equivalency" speech and held them long enough to doom Carter's re-election bid).

By then, the idea of war as a concept rather than reality had taken root so deep in the American psyche that we had grown much more accustomed to it than we were to any real war. But some of us had also become frustrated being constantly ready to do battle but lacking any real enemy. 

The only step left, then, to set the stage for a "Culture War" with a real home-grown enemy was to regain political power and credibility in a well organized campaign that would exploit the existing inclination to engage in conceptual warfare.

Finally they could name an enemy - something they had not dared since pinpointing commies back in the 50s. Lavender became the new Red as queers and their sympathizers would draw the bulk of fire in this culture war. And now they could label it a "war" outright. No more need to disguise their intense loathing of this detestable bunch of deviants. After all, their very existence threatens to destroy the fundamental building block of society, according to the movement's propaganda. 

By 1992 the reactionary Republican right had found religion big time and on drummed up fear and hatred toward marriage-seeking homos, they won back power after a 40 year exile, taking over both houses of Congress on the strength of their subversive "Contract on America" 

With 9/11 and a new Republican President squarely aligned with the cause, The Age of Irony was over and all Hell was let loose.

With the installment of a Republican President hell-bent on restoring war as a ruinous reality on the world stage we would eventually come to realize more than ever the horrific effects of sustaining battles on multiple fronts, both real and imaginary.
In the waning days of this calamitous administration, with the reactionary forces who would thrust us into a new cold war defeated, we are apparently fortunate enough to have a great deal more discipline than we did heading into the 1960s. 

With a bit of luck and determined caution against repeating our linguistic mistakes along with other errors from history, we have a much better chance today to finally dispel the notion of perpetual war - beginning with how we talk about it.

With a bit of luck and determined caution against repeating our linguistic mistakes along with other errors from history, we have a much better chance today to finally dispel the notion of perpetual war - beginning with how we talk about it.

Here's one more thing you can do - totally symbolic if you are into this sort of thing: take Yoko up on her invitation in memory of John: take the vow of non-violence at the Alliance for a New Humanity Website. It doesn't cost a dime and it only takes a few seconds.

"You'll wonder where the culture war went when you brush off Bush as President."

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