Fiction, violence, propaganda = War, war and more war

FEAR

Huffington Post version of blog HERE

Red Letter Christians version of blog HERE


First it was Clint Eastwood and The American Sniper. For the sake of educating myself on all things mainstream I endured two hours of this peculiar Western devotion to fiction, violence and American exceptional-ism. As suspected, Eastwood stayed true only to Hollywood’s profit formula: Omit war crimes, illegal invasions, missing WMD, some 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and any truth that could dilute the endorphin rush of blind patriotism– and, therefore, the almighty moviegoer dollar.

I left the theater nauseous. Eastwood’s candy coating was too much. As film credits and real-life photos of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle crawled heavenward, moviegoers sat motionless or shuffled out in reverent silence. A woman next to me stared wide-eyed at the screen and whispered to her date:

“I didn’t know this was a true story.”

Two weeks later my tongue continues to heal. I bit it that hard.

Now it’s Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his Game of Thrones. More cherry picked storytelling, more simulated violence, more of the same tired narrative depicting Middle Eastern Arabs as Islamic savages intent on eradicating the Good Guys. In this case, Israeli Jews. To hear Bibi tell it, if not for the benevolence (read: fat wallets) of Washington and its Christian-majority electorate, Israel — cast as the best friend Americans have in the Middle East — would be wiped clean off the planet and the West would be further exposed to militant Islam.

At the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, with easy command over a glad-handling GOP, Bibi used the tactics of Hollywood and Washington to omit from his speech an uncomfortable all-important truth: If Israel is the best friend Americans have in the Middle East it’s only because Israel creates so many enemies for the United States.

Israel flaunts international law (e.g., collective punishment of the masses, illegal occupation of lands obtained in war; discriminatory laws based on national origin; to name just a few of the violations cited by the United Nations) by relying on Washington to provide cover on the U.N. Security Council and money militarily. The fact that Israel rides roughshod over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, most Palestinians, and a laundry list of international laws is the largest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It’s also the primary reason my dark blue passport can feel like a liability when I travel there.

This U.S. complicity with Israel’s crimes greatly erodes Washington’s influence for change in the region and helps drive the very thing Bibi crowed about on Capitol Hill:

“Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. … Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the entire world.”

He then evoked the dark violence of a fictitious HBO series with his sloppy blurring of fact and fiction. 

In this deadly ‘Game of Thrones,’” the protagonist Bibi declared, “there’s no place for America or for Israel. No peace for Christians, Jews or (for) Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed; no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.”

I’ve heard it said the best way for Washington to create peace in the Middle East is to stop providing U.N. cover for Israel and eliminate the U.S. money that fuels Israel’s defiant behavior (more than $20.5 billion given just during the Obama Administration). In effect, it’s Parenting 101: Make Israel responsible for its actions.

Before Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was killed Feb. 2, 2013 at a shooting range in Texas he’d said that most U.S. civilians were clueless about Iraqis, a people he painted in one broad brush. Savages, he called the Iraqis. “The public is soft,” Kyle told reporters. “They have no idea.”

And they still don’t– at least not about the true nature of Arabs and Muslims. For that we can thank Hollywood’s greedy devotion to feel-good narratives and the GOP’s propping up of an Israeli “protagonist.”

The Iraqis that Kyle knew from the scope on his rifle were defending a sovereign nation from an invading army. (Would Americans resist or roll over if, say, China stormed across their borders?) The Islamic nation(s) and militants that Bibi depicts as humanity’s biggest threat are, in large part, creatures of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli arrogance.

The other night at an Uno’s bar near Washington, D.C., the discussion turned to movies. I chimed in with “Kingsman” as my recommendation for the best movie I’d seen this year. Another patron voted for “American Sniper” and called it the greatest move ever made. Another patron and another and then the bartender all agreed.

My tongue hadn’t healed. I couldn’t bite it again. So, in an unpopular rebuttal, I argued against it for many of the same reasons I discuss here. I was immediately, politely dismissed.

“Okay, maybe the whole thing wasn’t entirely true and accurate and all of that,” a kindly woman offered, helping to ease me from the discussion. “But Kyle is still an American hero. You cannot argue that fact. He was over there protecting us!”

Oy vey.

Toward the end of his diatribe to the GOP, Bibi offered up a simple remedy:

“If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”

Presumably, that would include following international law.

Great plan, Bibi.

Heed it.

Washington Politics: ‘It’s all a game.’

You can read the Huffington Post version of this blog by clicking HERE


To anyone who thinks American politics will rise to meet the threat of debt default with any sort of genuine compromise serving the best interest of normal folk, think again. Washington politicians are not particularly loyal to the U.S. or to us (unless “us” is a major campaign donor and corporate player). They are loyal to political parties. Washington is Republican versus Democrat, Red versus Blue, Delta Tau Chi versus Omega Theta Pi. In the Belly of the Beast it’s about teams and games and political hazing.

In effect, the once-gilded streets of American democracy are run amok by the pledges of, say, Delta Tau Chi Capitol Hill.

True story: In May 2008 my wife and I were invited to a dinner hosted by some visiting Republican friends. We met at a fancy D.C. restaurant where we were seated with well-heeled donors from both sides of the political aisle. Two months earlier Sen. John McCain had defeated former Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Democrats were still deciding between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The election was six months away.

Arriving late to the table was an affable, well-dressed guy introduced to everyone as “Romney’s right-hand man.” He’d come to the dinner straight from Republican headquarters where he was campaigning for the party’s nominee.

Conversation turned inevitably to the upcoming 2008 election when Romney’s guy shared a GOP confession: McCain scared the daylights out of him. The senator’s infamous quick temper was real, he assured us. Republicans, such as himself, were concerned about what McCain might do if elected to the White House. Hotheads and nuclear codes make for a dangerous mix.

“It’s truly frightening,” Romney’s right-hand said. “The guy is scary.”

But as a Republican loyalist he was now charged with helping elect McCain.

“If McCain is so frightening, what will you do on November 4?” I asked.

He didn’t immediately understand the absurdity of my question.

“When you enter the voting booth, close those curtains behind you and choose between a hothead being named Commander-in-Chief or a Democrat being elected, how will you vote? Isn’t it more important for my children and yours, and for the future of the nation, if you make a responsible decision to vote outside the Republican party? Isn’t it best if you vote to keep someone hotheaded and dangerous out of the Oval Office?”

He looked at me as if I’d thrown back far too many beers.

“No way!” he responded immediately. “I’m Republican. I’m voting McCain.”

I shook my head and feigned shock (I wasn’t surprised.)

“You gotta understand, man,” he said, shrugging and sounding flippant, “it’s all a game.”

Ten reasons why (more) war is inevitable

Damascus, capital of Syria. Photo credit, James Gordon, Los Angeles, Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Seems like just yesterday the United Nations and the world population appealed to the good sense of Washington … and then learned it had none. Good sense, that is. Today I feel as if we’re watching a sorry remake of Groundhog Day, except, unlike Bill Murray’s character, there is very little we can do to alter the foretold consequences. We’re trapped in a badly broken political system.

If not Syria this week or this month or this year, it will be next week or next month or next year. And if not Syria, it will be Iran, Lebanon or North Korea, or some other “threat” that needs eliminating.

Why am I so jaded and cynical about Washington and its motives? As a journalist who’s traveled through the Middle East a half dozen times in pursuit of interviews, perspective, news stories and books, I can immediately think of ten reasons:

1. Washington does not listen and respond to the general tax-paying public or world at-large. From my experiences and reporting it listens and responds foremost to deep-pocketed political donors and their lobbyists, e.g., Wall Street and K Street.

2. Wall Street and K Street are motivated primarily by self-interest and cannot be trusted by the general public in the United States or abroad. Why? The U.S.-Congressional Military Industrial Complex produces profits for the wealthy and jobs for key political constituencies. With those come job security for politicians and beach homes for the wealthy.

3. Washington has become a country club for Wall Street and K Street, and it is today a (willing) tool for repeated schemes of greed and deception.

4. This latest deception is no different than many others, e.g., the invasion of Iraq. The script depicts good-guy Washington standing on moral ground threatening to bomb an “evil” dictator because of unproven allegations. Yes, that’s redundant. For a reason. I’m stressing this point: These charges are unproven.

5. After dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs and ammo (many with depleted uranium) onto Iraqis (see HERE a declassified military count of just the first 30 days of the war), the only place Washington can successfully pretend to be moral is in the eyes of the U.S. media and electorate. The rest of the world knows better, especially citizens of the Middle East. To a person, every Middle Easterner I’ve ever interviewed is dumbfounded by Washington’s ability to fool its electorate again and again. (Remember, Dubya was reelected after botching the invasion/occupation of Iraq.) Yet, here we are. Again. Hooah! Go ‘Merica. Support the troops! We’ll be watching on CNN.

6. Twelve years ago when Washington ramped up its role as Middle East protagonist the stock dividends of the top five U.S. “defense” (aka war) contractors ballooned, e.g., Lockheed Martin’s per-share stock dividends increased 680 percent between 2001-2011; General Dynamics’ 336 percent; Boeing’s 250 percent; Northrop Gruman’s 250 percent; Raytheon’s 190 percent. (Those numbers are from my reporting in “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”) And, evidently, the war biz is still thriving. Read (HERE) a September 2013 report on record high profits and stock prices for U.S. military contractors.

7. In the United States there is an insane disconnect between the civilian population and its military, i.e., less than one percent of Americans served in uniform during the last decade, which was the nation’s longest-ever stretch of sustained conflict, according to Defense Department and Pew Research Center reports. In effect, if working class kids (in general) want the opportunity to go to college or find well-paying jobs they must first serve four years in the Washington-Wall Street-Israeli Military Industrial Complex because there are so few manufacturing jobs left in the United States. This arrangement serves the U.S. middle and upper classes (where I reside) very well. Our kids don’t have to put their lives and mental well-being on the line fighting the Crusades in the Middle East while trying to secure Israel’s “right” to ignore international law. (Anyone who thinks U.S.-Israeli politics do not travel hand-in-glove in the Middle East needs to climb off their Judeo-Christian air-conditioned tour bus and walk around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc.)

8. This comfy arrangement will remain intact indefinitely because it enables the rich to get richer (aka Wall Street and K Street) without the majority of the U.S. electorate having to worry about their sons and daughters dying in a far-off desert or coming home with PTSD. Meanwhile, the 99 percent of us who didn’t wear a military uniform during the last decade are too busy paying bills and/or managing our beach homes to give much attention to the Washington-Wall Street profit schemes.

9. Unless the United States reinstates a military draft — thereby forcing the overall electorate to examine the real motives that drive Washington’s warmongering — American military aggression will continue to spread regardless of the opinions/advice of the United Nations and the world at-large. Congress knows this. Therefore, I don’t anticipate the reinstatement of military conscription. Washington hasn’t used it since 1973.

10. I suspect Washington’s outrage about chemical weapons isn’t about dead Arab civilians or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have been killed by the U.S. military. In Iraq, the Pentagon claimed it wasn’t even keeping score. Washington’s shock and outrage over Syria is more about theater. War’s theater, specifically. (Ever read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine“?) Washington wants to get at Iran, Hezbollah, etc. To repeat, these allegations leveled at al-Assad’s regime are just that– allegations. It seems plausible that outsiders (the Mossad? Rebels? Terrorists?) could have deployed the Sarin gas in order to draw history’s mightiest and most gung-ho military deeper into the conflict.

Of course, all of this is from the admitted jaded perspective of a cynical Washington journalist. Me. So to add balance I sought the input of a more optimistic world traveler, a wise Catholic priest working on the gritty side of the world’s widening economic divide. Rev. Joe Maier was the subject of my first nonfiction book, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions & Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok.”

This is what he had to say on Monday about the “wisdom” of Washington bombing Syria:

“Pope Francis said (yesterday?), ‘Never has the use of force brought peace in its wake. War begets war. Violence begets violence.’ … One might write a piece about fasting and penance and prayer, and that the present solutions of the kingdoms of this world ain’t really working too well. … If you read or see the latest Hobbit movie, notice that when the dwarf king tells Gandalf that there is a terrible evil force lurking, and that they (the good guys) need a huge force to combat and conquer, I believe Gandalf tells the Dwarf king, ‘No … what we need are countless acts of goodness and kindness.’

“The world needs to make a huge statement about helping the (Syrian) refugees and starting schools and hospitals. I think that might do far better than bombs, etc.”

Speaking to my own cynicism about Washington and Wall Street, Father Joe added, “That’s what happens when you can no longer trust your sacred institutions such as government and church. Therein lies the crux of the matter.”


FOR MORE PERSPECTIVE ON WAR & PEACE, see the last minute of Greg’s speech in Boston HERE.

On 9/11, Remembering the Enemy Within

A Kindred World

Four years ago during the homestretch of the U.S. presidential election the Democratic and Republican nominees were asked about the existence of evil by an evangelical Christian pastor who supported the 2003 military invasion of Iraq.

At his super-sized McMansion church in Orange County, Calif., Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren quizzed Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain separately and in front of a live TV audience. Among other things, Warren asked each this question:

“Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? [How] do we defeat it?”

Two weeks ago, during another presidential homestretch, I sat on a 9/11 panel at a social-justice Christian festival in Oregon. Four other authors and speakers and I were asked to discuss, in effect, how our political and religious leaders could have better responded to the terrorism of 9/11. Of course hindsight, like insight, has its advantages. At least it should. But in listening to how our 2012 presidential nominees plan to fix an ailing economy I’m not convinced that Republican Mitt Romney has learned squat from history. Obama is reducing our gargantuan military budget and is making a light-hearted attempt to tame our Wall Street military. Romney, on the other hand, promises 12 million new jobs and an expanded military budget. (Mix those two promises together and see what explodes.)

So on Sept. 1 at the Wild Goose Festival in Corvallis, Ore., I recalled the very different and revealing responses given to Warren at the Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, 2008. In context and possible consequence it is important, I argued, because Obama’s perspective possesses a global breadth that eclipses any nearsighted nationalism expressed by hawkish Republicans.

Obama to Warren: 

“Evil does exist. I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. … [But] one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we’re trying to confront evil. … One thing that is important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.”

Then came McCain and the right-equals-might posture of the GOP.

Warren: “How about this issue of evil. I asked this of your rival. … Does evil exist and, if so, should [we] ignore it, negotiate [with] it, contain it or defeat it?”

McCain: 

Defeat it. Couple of points: One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow [Osama bin Laden] to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one — no one — should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. … My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century — radical Islamic extremism.”

The churchgoing crowd that had crowded into Saddleback Church exploded in applause for McCain. Woot-woot. It sounded like a Christian war cry (a contradiction in terms?)

You see, to McCain and profit-driven hawks, evil is the dark force that exists only as something out there. Something to call out, point at, condemn. Like gay marriage and atheists. Or religious extremism called by any other name than Christianity.

It’s this sort of spiritual myopia that keeps humanity locked in its primitive cycle of violence. Like an alcoholic who sees no problem with his drinking, Washington, Wall Street and our military industrial complex will never defeat evil because it lives and breathes on willful ignorance. Until we see the evil in capitalism infected by corporate greed and economic conscription we will continue to kill and be killed and sow nothing but violence for our children. Live by the sword, die by it.

Read the responses again. Now watch video of the nominees answering Warren’s question on evil: first Obama and then McCain.

One party’s candidate expresses an evolving perspective on evil and the role we all play.

The other party is doomed to repeat history.

This blog was originally published by The Huffington Post and on Patheos on Sept. 11, 2012 and Sept. 17, 2012, in that order.

Column published Sept. 11, 2012

Column published in Patheos, Sept. 17, 2012