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Friday, June 02, 2006

Tell Me, Captain, If You Know Of A Decent Place To Stand - by Christopher Cooper

If I were wealthy and my family could afford hired minders to tend me instead of letting me engage the world loose and alone, the cute young thing serving the second shift tour would likely advise, 'Maybe you shouldn't watch the evening news, Mr. Cooper; you know how it upsets you.' 'Maybe,' I'd snarl, 'you should bring me a beer.' But she'd be right.
One night last weekend NBC advised us we were about to receive 'NBC news-in-depth.' Perhaps this notice was designed to focus our attention or to impress viewers with the extra effort the network was taking to keep us informed. My temperament being what is is, I asked the rhetorical question, 'And what about the other nineteen minutes of lies, half-truths and misdirections you're giving us tonight' News-of-a-shallow-nature'' In the event, there was no need to sit up and pay closer attention. What followed was, if anything, even less deep or thoughtful or insightful than what followed or went before.
Gasoline prices are high this Memorial Day weekend we were advised. But Americans aren't about to let that keep them off the highways. No, by God, we'll vacation until the last drop. But, as a series of brief interviews with guys readying their motor homes showed, we are concerned enough that some of us will be recreating a bit closer to home this summer, and the average vacation is predicted to be about a half day shorter. 'Man, that's deep!' I cried. 'That is just (several expletives, some repeated) deep!'
And that's how it goes. Consumer news, diet tips, lies and spin passed on without investigation, human-interest stories that are not very interesting and all too predictable. Public Television is better, it's true, but less better than it used to be, so nervous about being branded liberal that it gives the likes of Thomas Friedman respect and air time, and interviews the same administration voices politely and with scant challenge.
And on holidays it gets worse. Have you noticed how all holidays are now militarized' When I was a boy we planted a geranium on our grandparents' grave on Decoration Day. It's true that the cemetery caretaker also renewed the flags on veteran's graves, but everyone I knew thought of the day as a time to remember our dead, in whatever venue and by whatever means they had died. The news coverage now is almost exclusively about war dead, military cemeteries, the 'ultimate sacrifice.'
Thanksgiving and Christmas bring us coverage of 'Americans in the war zone' for the holidays. One expects the Fourth of July to be equal parts patriotism and barbecue, of course, but since we've been promulgating the Never-ending War On Terror, news coverage and commentary has taken on a thicker pro-military veneer.
No one can doubt the loneliness, sadness, heartache, fear, worry, anguish or doubt that infuse the lives of families of soldiers and National Guardsmen sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Does anybody doubt the suffering of parents or spouses or children when a soldier comes home dead, likely in pieces, maybe incinerated' But this isn't news. Interviewing a family whose boy was blown up by a car bomb tells us nothing and uses their grief to sell whichever pill or preparation NBC has contracted to promote during its commercials.
And then we have the obligatory moments at the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier which, it turns out, is suffering deterioration of its marble. That happens, you know. Stone erodes, medals tarnish, the wars run together into the past. The loss only remains for those who knew and loved the children sacrificed by the politicians and abetted by the pundits who do not fight, do not die.
And we do love monuments. The days of the stone or bronze statue of a general and his horse are past. Today we like the big statement, the grand public space. NBC tells me we're going to have a memorial to disabled veterans in Washington, replete with a star-shaped reflecting pool with an eternal flame ('the campfire') in its center. Wal-Mart badgered its customers for change to raise a World War II memorial. Domestic deaths are similarly aggrandized, from Oklahoma City to the convoluted excrescence that will rise in lower Manhattan.
We antagonize the world; we invade here, bomb there, agitate, assassinate, and fabricate the necessity of war. This ensures a continuing stream of American war dead. Fifty-eight thousand dead in Vietnam spooked us. We're nearing twenty-five hundred from Iraq. Is there a threshold we must rise above before we'll want an acre of marble or granite, an obelisk or a wall in Washington' Or is duration a significant enough criterion for memorialization if the death toll doesn't rise to epic proportions'
It's worth a paragraph here, I think, to note that in addition to the American names inscribed on the wall, there were well over a million Vietnamese killed by American troops. And today very few of us any longer think 'Communist Aggression' or the Domino Theory required or validated our prosecution of that war. All we got out of it was our dead, our boys come home in boxes. And a monument.
Public Television broadcast an episode of The American Experience last Monday night that interpolated scenes from a massacre of American soldiers in Vietnam in October of 1967 with a campus sit-in at the University of Wisconsin the same day that turned into a police riot. This, NBC please note, was TV worth watching. I remember 1967, both its foreign war and its domestic unrest.
The rhetoric then was the same as now. To support the troops you must support the war. We're fighting them over there so we won't have to fight them here. And the press, then as now, presented the official press releases and pronouncements as fact, despite the now-revealed truths (in both wars) that the reasons for fighting were fabricated, the 'enemy' had no designs on our peace or prosperity or domestic tranquility, the body counts falsified, our war crimes covered up.
People say Iraq is not Vietnam. I say a careful examination reveals only these significant differences: the Bush administration is more brutally repressive and cynically manipulative than were Nixon and his henchmen; the press is less critical, more biased toward power and authority, more beholden to corporations, lazier, now than then; the public has not yet felt the accumulated weight of enough American dead, been spattered with enough blood, to think beyond the easy symbolism of flag and funeral and tales of heroism and gleam of bright new monuments. Not yet, but someday. This war, too, will be added to the list of America's mistakes. America's delusions.
There is no draft. College kids will not be sucked from their comfortable lives to confront reality. There are no sit-ins, hence no cops gone amock in the administration building, no tear gas, no dead students on the sidewalks of Ohio.
We are a soft and lazy nation. We are obese. We ride rather than walk, accept rather than challenge. If NBC News tells us the deepest story on the nightly news is the revelation that Americans hit the road on Memorial Day weekend, the cost of gas be damned, that tells us much about the quality of NBC News and much more about the degraded state of the American spirit.
Fly the flags, visit the monuments. Soon it will be Independence Day and we'll do it all again, this time with fireworks. 'Oh, say, can you see...'' No, we can't see much of anything any more. Or we don't want to. We don't try.
I was in college in October of 1967. I turned eighteen the day the Madison police broke the heads of those students and 64 out of 142 men were killed pointlessly, stupidly, because their commanders and war planners wanted 'more engagement.' General Westmoreland, of course, lied about the battle, its purpose, its conduct, its result. Washington got its heroes, the war ran on eight years, we have a very nice monument to show for it all.
My son is twenty-two, my grandson not yet two. Will there be room left in Washington D.C. To build the memorials to the wars they will witness' Will the people of this country take back control of their nation' Will we take an interest in what is done in our names' Will four dollar gas slow us down as three dollar gas hasn't' We can find out by watching the corporate news on our video ipods on our way to the beach on some future holiday, I suppose.
Agreeing with Leonard Cohen that "There is no decent place to stand in a massacre," Cooper displays no flags, barbecues no beasts on his holidays at home on the woodlot that has helped preserve him through these increasingly hopeless times. He thanks his small following of regular readers for their encouraging E-mails, and wishes he had useful answers to their pleas for direction. Interested persons may point out his errors and omissions by this route:


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