Why We Don’t Fight: Ike, Henry Miller and the America that Never Was

By Christopher Ketcham

Petra and I left “Why We Fight,” the Eugene Jarecki film, in tears. It’s because we are ashamed, I offered. The shame that comes to any thinking American who realizes what is perpetrated in his name, on his behalf, for his benefit, across the planet. Dead bodies in a dusty street, mothers looking for children in rubble – as many as 100,000 Iraqis killed by the hand of the occupation in Iraq. The real question of “Why We Fight” is why we, citizens, do not fight the beast we see clearly before us in the shape of the government that we continually re-elect, that kills people for profit.

There was no shock in the facts of the film. We knew about Eisenhower’s warning of the perils of a “military-industrial complex” unanchored from the democracy, a phrase Ike had originally written as “military-industrial-congressional complex” – homegrown axis of evil – but which he edited, probably for reasons of dishonest decorum, in delivering that prophetic farewell address of 1961:

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel—”

There the problems start. An alert and knowledgeable citizenry? This we knew too.

We knew that our Congress was a bevy of bought whores, every one of them in some manner or another purchased by a massive armaments industry funded to the tune of $400 billion a year, 52 percent of federal spending, a vast homicidal loopback machine that helps keep the economy chugging and incumbents in office, keeps America dominant, prosperous, stepping on other nation’s faces. We knew that systemically, in the large order of American affairs, our society has been brutalized and sickened by the influence of the military-industrial-congressional complex. We knew that the tragedy of Iraq is symptom and not cause: it is the direct result of a society that is diseased with militarism and burdened by an entire infrastructure built for war. Which is to say, a society built for murder, a psychopathic society.

I think we were crying, however, not because we were sad for the victims in other countries but because we still believed in American exceptionalism – in short, we were, like true Americans, navel-gazing. We believed that America as a proud people was better than the fat, addicted, indulgent, lazy, stupid, amoral, sheepish, intolerant, wishful, prudish, uncultured, uninstructed, and incurious creature it had become. Of all the western democracies, near dead last in voter turn-out, last in health care, last in education, highest in homicide and suicide rates, mortality, STDs among juveniles, youth pregnancy, abortion and divorce. Americans, in keeping with their degenerate morals, wreak one-quarter of the damage to the planetary ecosphere every day with their stupid indulgence. Such a population of overgrown infants deserves a government built for mania overseas, the natural extension of a child on a rampage.

We hope, we want to hope that it was not always thus. I read Henry Miller’s “Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” a travelogue of Miller’s ten thousand miles criss-crossing the fair fields and deserts and mountains of the great country. The book was written in five years from 1939 to 1945. Here’s what Miller has to say of his native land after being chased out of France by Nazism: “We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudice and hatred….Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under [the] delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?” In the 61 years since Miller published those words in acid, what has changed? Superabundant loot? Check. Reckless plundering? Check, a hundred times over. The demagogues and newspaper men and agitators and religious quacks mobilized us for the war in Iraq; we fell into the trap like blindered hogs. We are told by our mendacious government that Iran is now a problem, an imminent threat, a danger. And a majority of Americans believe it. George W. Bush asserts that he is free to violate the 4th Amendment, commit high crimes and treason against the sacrosanct laws of the country. He believes that a “state of war” – a figment of war – provides him extralegal powers of governance. The purchased Congress doesn’t much bridle at this extraordinary criminality. Instead, we are told by our lawmakers to trust the White House, which has for its only manufacture of consequence a steady stream of well-wrought lies designed, as in all American affairs, along the lines of product placement. So what has changed? I read Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle,” 1906: “…you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with…the great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country – from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie.”

I read more Henry Miller, 1945: “Most of the young men of talent whom I have met in this country give one the impression of being somewhat demented,” he observes. “Why shouldn’t they? They are living amidst spiritual gorillas, living with food and drink maniacs, success mongers, gadget innovators, publicity hounds.” An exact description of my filthy home town, New York City, circa 2006. Nothing changes. We are a people whose nature is writ in mud. Only the mud remains.

Self-loathing, shame, a wanting to hide one’s face – that’s what it’s like to be a thinking American today (and, apparently, in 1945, too). From self-hatred, and hatred and contempt for my country, comes a disappointment bordering on suicidal depression – the aftershocks of realization that the exceptionalist dream is just that.

Severe neurosis, with signs of psychotic tendency – like the nation itself.

My father, who I increasingly come to believe is a Black Panther disguised as a white man and traffic engineer, suggests an alternative in turning this malevolent energy outward: young men of my generation, he counsels, should train as snipers and systematically assassinate the captains of the defense industry and the elected officials who abet the predations of this industry. He goes a step further to the nuclear option: a small atomic device detonated on Capitol Hill while Congress is in full session, the cabinet in attendance too, as the country’s president delivers the state of the union. “That’ll get the message across,” my father, who is 66 years old and growing wilder at heart by the hour, tells me. It’s just talk and a lovely image – the swine of government, every one of them, burnt to a crisp – the kind of crazed “solution” that Americans, trained to accept psychopathology as a political means, like to revel in (coin-opposites of the great Islamist enemy?). But the system is larger than its figureheads. Industry prevails, not politicians.

Hence the wanting to hysterically weep after seeing “Why We Fight,” for this is the tragic subtext of the film: America as the Founders envisioned it, as we citizens idealize it, is over. It’s finished. It’s gotten too big. Too many interests have gotten their greasy little hands on the treasure and they will not let go until the treasure’s all gone. Our system of governance is broken. Or perhaps it’s working perfectly, in the sense that an out-of-control locomotive in all its roaring and grinding of gears is working perfectly, at peak performance, as it approaches a cliff.

“Go West, young man, they used to say,” Henry Miller wrote of his beloved America. “Today we have to say: Shoot yourself, young man, there is no hope for you.”

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