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The Fog of War (You Want Freedom Fries with That?): From 9/11 to Afghanistan & Iraq

Last year, when the chief target of U.S. military might was Afghanistan, and not yet (again) Iraq, we predicted that the response to George W. Bush’s overtly announced plans for what he bluntly termed a “year of war” would be a year of renewed political activism and intensified dissent, both within the United States and around the world, by people who reject the notion that war is normal (P&C 2001:3). We were right. But we never dreamed that in the wake of 9/11, when America might have been expected to glean a certain degree of quotidian good will for its suffering, Bush & Co. would turn the sympathy of the world so far around so quickly, by launching precipitously the kind of unilateral assault now underway against a country that had nothing to do with the infamous attack on New York City.

Yet the Orwellian cultural climate is such that many Americans polled, and even many GIs interviewed at their posts, say they see the current invasion of Iraq as justified in response to September 2001. This state of ideological confusion, which goes beyond ideology to something more like propaganda, is one indication of the profound cultural costs of a military-driven foreign policy. The “fog of war” has descended not only on the battlefield but at home. A superpower operating with the consciousness of a victim–prosecuting the injured party’s conventional desire for revenge, but without any of the weakened capacity for action associated with losers–risks breeding the worst kind of resentful, self-justificatory, paranoid nihilism in segments of its own population, even while wreaking havoc abroad in an unending quest for talion justice that can never be satisfied.

With low-beams on then, the articles in this issue navigate the cultural politics of our–rather dismal at the moment, all-too-foggy–political culture. Some of our authors directly confront the post-9/11 climate and the situation regarding Iraq, while others explore the historical roots of the sort of ambitions symbolized by Herman Melville’s quintessentially American figure, Captain Ahab. Some examine the consumer/media culture and the tourist vision that form part of the domestic complement, in the present, to the culture of neo-imperialism and the militarized vision of plans for the next “American century.”

Rather than suggest that such dangerous aspirations to a more vigorous hegemony may come to ruin for all concerned, or that this will be, in response, a “century of protest” (a sad prospect in itself, when radicals and dissenters, and even ordinary citizens, used to aspire to so much more), we prefer to ask: What kind of America are we in danger of becoming this century?

On the one hand, words like “freedom” and “justice” are becoming associated more and more with distorting phrases like “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Operation Infinite Justice.” (In this regard, certain precise word-choices may be partly dictated by contingencies on the metaphoric axis of sentence-formation: Someone pointed out that Operation Iraqi Liberation would have spelled OIL. Condensation and displacement, indeed.) While on the other hand, in a reciprocal gesture that seems ironically fitting, many depoliticized Americans appear almost to be singing along with the old Talking Heads song, “We don’t want freedom. We don’t want justice. We just want someone to love.” If this is what “freedom” and “justice” look like, it’s not hard to understand why. Or perhaps it’s that we in the U.S. now only want these things for others and not ourselves, when definitions turn bloody. In any case, it can only be easier, under immediate as well as longer-term circumstances of political corruption, for some disillusioned citizens to turn away from genuine concern for public life altogether–in gestures of sentimental cynicism (cynical about possibilities of collective life, sentimental about chances for personal happiness as the rest of the world goes to hell), all-too-familiar in their over-valuation of private goods at the expense of public ones. In this regard, see especially our essay on “Fetal Art,” by Scott Davis.

A final note: Following current politicized usage in the case of terms such as “French Fries” (changed by our Congress to Freedom Fries, in harsh rebuke to France’s refusal to help invade, and, by one of our local eating establishments here in Santa Cruz, the Saturn Cafe, to “Impeach Bush Fries,” in a rejoinder to their elected representatives), we, the members of the Santa Cruz Editorial Collective, vow no longer to refer to what has been traditionally known as the “Turkey Sandwich” (and which is still called so by jingoists and war mongers). In view of Turkey’s limited cooperation with Washington’s current aims, we prefer the honorific term “Freedom Sandwich” (although some Kurds may disagree with our reasoning). And since the Swiss are always pleasantly neutral, how about a little mayo, mustard, and a slice of “Freedom Cheese” on top? We’re not sure what position Hungary has taken, but, just to be on the safe side, don’t say you’re “hungry.” At least until this is all over, support the troops by saying, “I feel free.” In fact, I feel so free, I could eat two countries at once and fight a war on three fronts simultaneously.

Gabriel Noah Brahm teaches at UC Santa Cruz, is a founding Associate Editor of P&C, and a member of the Santa Cruz Editorial Collective.

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