The future's so much more fun than the past

How to Avoid the Bummer Myth With a Good Plan B

“The elite always has a Plan B, while people have no escape.”
– Ahmad Saadawi

Last month when the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq was the big buzz in the mainstream press I was overcome with the urge to write a we-told-you-so essay in which “we” would be the peace movement. You know, those tens of millions of people who took to the street on February 15, 2003 to tell our government not to invade Iraq because it was a wrong-headed and stupid idea.

That would be the same peace movement that’s now barely on life support while the war movement that so dishonestly brought you the Iraq War — and the Vietnam War before that — is doing just fine, thank you. In fact, it’s looking toward a bright and shining future when human troops will meld with technology. Lethal remotely-controlled drones are only a primitive beginning. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil see us approaching a condition when the rate of technological change will exponentially become a line on a chart going up like a rocket. And we can be sure our military will be on the darkest edge of this change.

 War meets the Singularity MomentPlan B: War meets the Singularity Moment

Kurzweil is an evangelist for such a future. In his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, he writes adoringly about “the law of accelerating returns” and “the singularity” that will be achieved at the top of the rocketing curve of accelerating technological change. We’re now in the “knee” of that curve that, he predicts, will soon turn vertical, as technological change “explodes with unexpected fury.”

Tragically, in this kind of mad rush to the future, history becomes a bummer for losers.

I made two trips into the Iraq war zone in 2003 and 2004 to get an on-the-ground glimpse of the debacle. After the first trip, during which our group of veterans and military family members met with a wide range of people, we rented the Washington Press Club for a two-hour presentation that ran on C-Span. Our message can be summed up this way: We witnessed the results of a very impressive but blundering force eager to kill and blow things up as it flung money around and, without a clue, started up huge misguided projects that very capable Iraqis could have done much better for a fraction of the cost.

The war weary Kurt Vonnegut would have said: “And so it goes.”

I’ll never forget a wonderful Iraqi man who guided me through a bombed out university building and kindly assured me, as if I was a child, “John, Iraqis will always lie to you.” Like most Americans, I seemed to him too assured and too earnest. I realize now he was trying to tell me in shorthand that Iraqi culture was really screwed up and more corrupt than I could imagine. He was right. But the larger truth and what has always haunted me was, when it came to corruption, Iraqis were crude compared to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Washington D.C. and Wall Street — ie. the “elite” Ahmad Saadawi spoke of in the quote above.

The consensus today on the Iraq War was nicely described by the military counter-insurgency guru John Nagl in a New York Times op-ed. “Great powers rarely make national decisions that explode so quickly and completely in their face,” he wrote on the ten-year anniversary. Nagl teaches at the Naval Academy. He feels Iraq was an unnecessary war that cost too many lives and too much destruction — plus a couple trillion dollars of US tax dollars. The best Nagl can say about the Iraq debacle is that he hopes it contributes to “a wiser and chastened America.”

But Ahmad Saadawi, an Iraqi living in Iraq, really gets at the problem in a Times op-ed paired with Nagl’s. His idea of war-making elites always having a Plan B is a perfect way to describe the enduring capacity for American leaders to refuse to learn certain things from history. Of course they do learn things like how to make war more efficient. But what American power refuses to recognize — and what Mr. Saadawi is talking about — is the incredible destruction it causes in misguided wars like Iraq and Vietnam before that.

The use of dishonesty and delusion to whip up the all too willing American people into war goes back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. War for men like Roosevelt was more about a need for national aggression and for asserting US manhood than it was about helping anyone — although that was then, as it is now, the public relations reason given for going to war. By 1898, Native Americans had been pacified and Manifest Destiny had devoured the continental US to the Pacific Ocean. The gold buttons on our swelling chest were bursting to extend our exceptional destiny to the rest of the world. We have not stopped yet. The non-existent or provoked patrol boat attacks on the USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf and the bogus WMD in Iraq were just more of the same.

Historians like Richard Slotkin (Regeneration Through Violence), Howard Zinn (The People’s History of The United States) and many others have told this story over and over again. This kind of talk about America, unfortunately, hasn’t gotten us very far. It only seems to encourage more Plans B.

Instead of recognizing the corruption we’re up to our neck in or the damage we too often do projecting it around the world, the Plan B approach only permits a focus on the honor and bravery of those sent to do the dirty deeds. Plans B are future oriented, not dwelling on that classic American bummer, history. Sure mistakes were made, but the past is something meant to get over, something to move beyond.

A good Plan B effectively quarantines information about damage-done. It declares it off limits. Anyone who wants to speak about damage-done just wants to insult the honor and service of our brave fighting men and women. Such criticism is a contagious disease that must be contained. We might call it The Bummer Myth — or the flip side of that great standby, The Stab In The Back Myth. A well-employed Stab In The Back campaign propagates the assumption that wars like Vietnam and Iraq were lost by the press and the peace movement. In a good SITB campaign, debacles like Vietnam and Iraq have nothing to do with the people who designed and prosecuted them. They were actually the fault of those who didn’t want them to happen.

As countervailing myth, The Bummer Myth implants the idea in unsuspecting Americans’ minds that maybe the war was a lousy, even immoral, idea in the first place. If The Bummer Myth works like it’s supposed to, those who so dishonestly and incompetently sent our young men and women to kill and die and come home wracked with PTSD would have to pay some price for their actions — maybe we could even call them “crimes.”

Everyone knows charging people like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney with war crimes is a silly idea. It’s especially silly to people who have no problem bombing a small nation into the Stone Age or giving an otherwise decent kid doomed by fate to live in a bombed-out ghetto with few life options 15 years in prison for selling bags of cocaine. Like the bumper sticker says: “Kill one person it’s murder; kill 100,000 it’s foreign policy.”

So our leaders avoid The Bummer Myth like the plague. President Obama is no exception. On the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, though he once strongly opposed the Iraq War as wrong and unnecessary, he made sure to honor “the courage and resolve” of those who served in the war and didn’t mention all the bummer stuff. Vietnam vet Chuck Hagel was also critical of the Iraq War, but all he could do as Secretary of Defense was urge Americans “to remember those quiet heroes this week.” No one in government wants to talk about the unnecessary, costly damage-done by the Iraq War or the Vietnam War. That is, except someone like Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, who said this:

“Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”

Here’s Mr. Saadawi again about living in Iraq after our little war. “The worst has been observing the gradual destruction of hope and the encroachment of despair.” Our suffering from the Iraq War can’t compare with that suffered by Iraqis, but there is also plenty of lost hope and encroaching despair in America. Those of us who struggled Quixotically those years against George Bush’s wars now only see Plan B, a sophisticated hi-tech surveillance and police state rising like a malevolent Phoenix out of the ashes of Plan A. Plan B also entails a determined campaign to weed out and crush all forms of whistle-blowing. Anything to crack down on The Bummer Myth.

So our leaders speak in simplistic platitudes and carry really big sticks. Everything our leaders say in respect to American actions must reflect only honor and exceptionalism. It would be political suicide to recognize the 100,000 unnecessary Iraqi deaths, the suffering of millions of injured people, all the shock and awe destruction of important infrastructure, the hundreds of thousands forced to flee our lethal advance or to submit to some 20-year-old American kid kicking in their door at 3 AM and going through their belongings hollering obscenities they can’t understand. And let’s not forget, the ethnic Pandora’s Box our blundering helped open and the demons it released. Or how the war empowered Iran, a nation the US war movement sees as our worst enemy.

In such a climate of imperial shame, a man like Walter Jones is a rare profile in courage.

Congressman Walter Jones endorsing a Veterans For Peace effort against US war in SyriaCongressman Walter Jones endorsing a Veterans For Peace effort against US war in Syria

It’s hard not to get cynical and just give up. The elite, corrupt platitude-speak that sees itself as nation-rallying can only be translated as this: We elites have the power and you don’t. So when Plan A is revealed as a debacle, you have a choice: You can either pump your fist and go along with Plan B or you can stew in your own miserable absurdity as one of “the little people,” the term used repeatedly and gleefully by the CEO of British Petroleum during the Gulf oil spill debacle.

It was a time like this that led Albert Camus — confronted with life following the horrors of World War Two — to write in The Myth Of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The absurdity of life is so great, why not blow your brains out? Later in the book he answers his own question:

“Living is keeping the absurd alive. …One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. …It challenges the world anew every second.” Or as my beloved World War Two vet friend Gene Bloomfield use to tell me and other antiwar Vietnam vets, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

The Military-Industrial Complex Eisenhower warned us about has now fully mastered the art of secrecy and public relations. While many aspects of US life and culture are in decline, the MIC is more powerful than ever. It’s able to do pretty much what it wants in secret, while using PR to misdirect and confuse the citizenry. The influence of money has made democracy a joke. With the ever-more-rapid rise of technology Kurzweil speaks of, it’s not much of a stretch to see all this as an untouchable totalitarian condition.

Many see nation-states as vestiges of the past and fragmented, globalized power as the way of the future. The great Christopher Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites before he died, “The general course of recent history no longer favors the leveling of social distinctions but runs more and more in the direction of a two-class society in which the favored few monopolize the advantages of money, education and power.”

As Kurzweil’s beloved moment of singularity approaches, hi-tech bread and circus will keep a passive, self-indulgent public from asking too many questions about the various Plans B. “People have no escape,” Ahmad Saadawi said. The only honorable solution may be Camus’ sense of individual, spiritually-based human revolt — always keeping a monkey wrench handy to throw into the works.