THE VEGAS VET
Vegas in the summertime, a few weeks back. It was 103 degrees on the Strip, where my sons and I walked in shorts and flip-flops outside the MGM Grand, through the mist machines set up on the sidewalks every few hundred feet, past the doorways of shops gushing air-conditioned air, stepping over the confetti-litter of thousands of business cards advertising girls who promised to come to your hotel room and fuck you (some of them take credit cards). Men lurched by with 3-foot-tall plastic containers filled with strawberry margaritas, contemplating who knows what: what they were going to do now that they'd been cleaned out at the Bellagio, or if what happened to them in Vegas last night would really stay in Vegas, or who that woman was they'd just told their whole life story to at the bar?
And just to our north loomed the great big fake Statue of Liberty nestled among the buildings of the great big fake Manhattan skyline that serves as the outer skin of the great big energy-sucking mecca of greed called the New York New York hotel. Whose architects, incidentally, were lucky or prescient enough not to have included as part of their original design any fake World Trade Center towers.
Now I know Vegas is Vegas, and it's way past moral commentary—it drowns out anybody's attempt to make a moral point by dint of its audacious blare, the cheerful parading of its own bad taste, its upfront premise that, while you're there, you can forget about anything that doesn't involve the promise of entertainment, money, sex, or inebriation. You're in Vegas, right? So shut the fuck up and enjoy it. And that fake Statue of Liberty? Kitsch. Or, hey, it's for people who've never made it out to the other coast. It doesn't mean anything: just a clanky note in the general cacophony.
Still. There are moments even here to make one pause—like when we were sitting in a food court off the Strip trying to get ourselves rehydrated and a woman came in pushing a wheelchair inhabited by what was clearly her husband. They both looked to be in their late 20s, weather-beaten, blue collar, an afternoon of booze in their eyes and the look of people with a solid history of Vegas partying behind them. Only now the husband's legs had been blown off: the stumps—one cut below the knee, the other much shorter, closer to the thigh—were wrapped in heavy gauze and came off his torso at angles that were slightly askew. His upper body was well-built, though, and there were a couple of military-man tattoos on his biceps. So I thought: here's an Iraq War vet who'd lost half his body to one of those roadside bombs that are a favorite way for insurgents to kill and maim American soldiers, and now he's home, and his wife is trying to help him forget about his—no, their—troubles by taking him to their old stomping grounds. Since 9/11 prompted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I'd heard, there were thousands of guys like him. And here one was.
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Whatever the wife's plan to cheer her husband or herself up, it didn't seem to be working: their faces were drained, and they didn't look like they'd forgotten much of anything. Which fact became clear to me when my boys and I headed off to the bathroom at the same time the woman rolled her husband up to the restroom door. There, he mumbled to her something like, "Guess I'll take it from here," and pushed himself miserably into the john, rolled himself toward the handicapped stall, turned around and awkwardly maneuvered backwards into its confines, shut the door, and proceeded to get himself into position to do his business. It all seemed like a hell of a complicated operation conducted by someone quite new to the idea of not having a lower body, and given the fact that he wouldn't look at or speak to anyone while he was in the head—he refused any of my help—it seemed like a humiliating operation as well.
My sons are young, and when the vet wheeled himself out of the restroom 15 minutes later, they stared at him over their Cokes, which I had to tell them to try not to do. But this was also the moment when I realized that nobody else in that crowded food court was looking at the guy, that in fact everybody seemed to be working hard not to even notice the vet with the blown-off legs in the wheelchair. He was, to put it bluntly, ignored, and it wasn't because people were being discreet. Granted, people don't go to Vegas to be confronted with this kind of stuff, but as our president has reminded us often in the five years since 9/11, we are at war, and it might be nice for people who are enjoying the blessings of liberty in ways that probably piss off Islamic terrorists the most (the fornicating, the debauchery, the ritual sacrifices to Mammon)—well, it might be nice if they noticed the soldiers who were getting themselves blown up so we can all keep sinning in Sin City.
So maybe a moral—or at least a metaphor—will nudge itself in here after all. Let me suggest quietly how odd and sadly ironic it is that a maimed vet gets ignored in Vegas—which it takes no imagination at all to realize is the American symbol of excess par excellence, emblematic of a country that consumes such obscene amounts of energy in the service of frenzied and ephemeral entertainments and distractions that we need to fight wars against energy-rich nations to keep up our "way of life." And that if a wounded vet is invisible in Vegas, then maybe that says something about how this country is in mass denial of the violence and death that's required to make it possible to live "free" the way we do?
And maybe that fake Statue of Liberty means something after all.
TOTEMS AND TABOOS
What that scene in Vegas signifies to me is that if Americans don't want to take a good look at that vet, then, post-9/11, they don't want to take a good look at themselves either. The vet is us, yet we can't look. The national psychic trauma of September 11 sent many of our feelings about it underground—the ones that didn't have to do with anger, rage and revenge, anyway. (Anger, rage and revenge we let Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld handle for us.) What did we suppress? Irredeemable sadness, for one: the kind of sadness that's seemingly without end, without closure, without hope. Tragic sadness. Sadness that makes you want to die yourself, or at least makes you want to change your life: stop watching Will Ferrell movies, or buying crap on eBay, or wasting time at the mall, sadness that might make you re-evaluate your relationship to your country, to the material dictates of your life, if not to religion or family. A reassessment of one's relationship to America in the wake of the towers' fall seems like a wholly healthy way to deal with that kind of sadness. But it didn't happen, not at any recognizably national level. George W. Bush, just days after 9/11, told people to go back to the malls. Hollywood cooed that the manifestly stupid Zoolander would cheer us out of our depression. And instead of sustained mourning and thorough analysis, the national news media pretty quickly abandoned its status as the Fourth Estate and joined in lockstep with the bellicosities of the Bush administration. (Most famously, this from Dan Rather, more or less the dean of the "liberal media," on Sept. 17, 2001, on the Letterman Show: "George Bush is the president," he said. "He makes the decisions." Referring to himself as simply "one American," Rather added: "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call.")
Furthermore, within weeks the national media agreed to stop showing footage of the towers being punctured by the planes, or of the buildings falling. It was too much, we all collectively agreed, and so the media rendered the images taboo. Now, insofar as the mass media functions as the nation's "mind," it was as if the country were deciding to bury its own memory, engaging in a desperate act of mass repression. And everybody knows what happens when we repress. The repressed material will stay buried for a while, and then it will re-emerge as "return of the repressed," and its re-emergence will usually come in the form of an explosion.
But sadness and a sense of complexity weren't all that we repressed. We repressed guilt, too, I think. Now, American guilt is a touchy subject, because to even bring it up in the context of 9/11 opens the door to ideas that we were somehow "at fault," that "we'd brought it on ourselves," or that, to put it in the words of the hysterical left, "we deserved it." (When I went to my office at Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 12, I heard the "we deserved it" line as soon as I got out of the elevator.) It goes without saying that this is horseshit of the very highest order—to think that innocent Americans deserve to die in a terrorist attack is itself terrorist thinking.
Nonetheless, Americans felt guilty—for the country to refuse (so collectively and violently) to consider our complete enmeshment in the violence of global politics and economics, or to refuse to even try to understand the terrorists' views (as if terrorist thinking were a contagion we might "catch" if we're not careful, as if we're too stupid to be able to resist their ideas if we hear them) is the sign of a national psyche so fragile it can't ask questions about itself. Walter A. Davis, in his radical book Death's Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9/11, reminds us that the term "ground zero," which the media adopted with a sense of its absolute aptness right after the towers dropped, was originally "the term coined in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to identify the epicenter where the first atomic bomb was detonated." Why use that term? Davis asks. "On 9/11, did many Americans perhaps realize, if only for a moment, that we were experiencing, in diminished form, what it was like to be in Hiroshima City on August 9, 1945 . . . ?"
That the horrors of 9/11 might call up our own historical guilt—after all, Hiroshima was mostly inhabited by innocent civilians, 80,000 of them dead in a split second, 77,000 more than in New York, and we did that—doesn't seem that far-fetched, especially if we remember how the nation responded to more recent evidence of American shame: the pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib. After a brief flurry of horror, you might recall, we managed collectively to contain the torture scandal as the work of a few low-ranked malcontents, a few bad apples, and then those pictures of Americans smiling as they humiliated and tortured the Iraqis were rendered taboo as well. We couldn't afford to look anymore, so we collectively repressed it. (If you need more examples of this sort of collective repression, think of the fact that hardly anyone even remembers the American bombing of a large pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1998, a bombing that resulted in hundreds of immediate deaths and thousands of deaths later, since the bombing deprived the country of half its vital medicines for months. Or that middle America expresses zero interest in the human rights violations at Guantanamo, and that we seem perfectly happy to accede to the Bush administration's bizarre prohibition of media coverage of the funerals of dead American servicemen.) Repression's become a collective habit of mind—the taboos we've created are a crucial way for us to preserve our national sense of innocence.
REPRESSION AND ITS DISCONTENTS
A certain kind of reader will have stopped reading by now, will have dismissed this as the work of "the blame-America-firster," will get disgusted and go back to the safe preserves of patriotism provided by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. And for good measure, before they go, they'll want, as the Toby Keith song about 9/11 says, to "put a boot in [my] ass, it's the American way."
And I'll just say that I think that's understandable. "Repression," as Don DeLillo puts it in his great novel White Noise, "is the natural language of the species." It isn't easy to be a wide-awake American. It isn't easy to take in, in a thoroughly conscious way, that the great deals we get at Wal-Mart (where, incredibly, Americans spend one out of every five of their consumer dollars) come courtesy of methods of draconian economic exploitation right out of the 19th century. It isn't easy to take in, in a thoroughly conscious way, that this country, with 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of its energy and accounts for an equal amount of its pollution. It isn't easy to take in, in a thoroughly conscious way, the fact that much of the rest of the world is terrified of us not because they hate our freedoms but because we bully them in search of profits.
Most of us can't afford to hear it. Most of us can't afford to admit into consciousness what amounts to the burdens of empire. Most of us, as they say, just want to be happy, and that's a laudable, very human thing to want: we read somewhere that it's our natural right to pursue happiness, and so that's what we do, and it's not easy. Every day is hard: there are bosses to please, children to raise, tons of information to process, whirling changes to constantly endure, and lots of leisure time to consider (or to repress) the manifold mysteries of what it all means. Most Americans are, within the tiny scopes of their private lives, pretty good people—kind, hard-working, honest and empathic. But most of us also work like hell to ensure a disjunction between our pursuit of happiness and the misery that pursuit creates for much of the rest of the world. Most of us, in other words, work like hell to sustain the belief that we are innocent.
The effort that Americans put into sustaining their innocence is probably unprecedented in world history. It's uncanny: we never lose it, no matter what happens. My whole life I've been hearing that Americans have "finally" lost their innocence: we supposedly lost it when Kennedy was assassinated; we lost it in Vietnam, during Watergate, during Contragate, when the Challenger exploded on TV, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted, when Clinton diddled Monica, and on and on. And then, of course, on September 11. But we always get it back, as if our banishment from Eden were one of God's little jokes that He didn't really mean. It's not going too far to say, in fact, that we need our innocence, that it's the keystone to America's entire self-conception.
ALTERNATIVE HISTORY, ALTERNATIVE PATRIOTISM
Now, nobody is better at isolating and exploiting an idea that's key to a nation's self-conception than a politician. The neocons in Bush's White House are masters of the art of sustaining the idea of American innocence after 9/11. They do it by dividing the world up squarely into evildoers and innocent victims—which in the weeks after 9/11 was a fairly easy thing to do—and then marshaling the specific rage of 9/11 victimhood into an all-purpose assault on every enemy the neocons could—by hook, by crook, by supremely bad faith and mass manipulation of intelligence—link to our sense of violated innocence.
If polls are any indication, most Americans have finally come around to realizing they've been manipulated—most people no longer think, for instance, that Iraq is part of the War on Terror. But the damage has been done, and God knows, liberals haven't helped. The moderate liberals who have commandeered the discourse of the left—and I'm thinking chiefly of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—have basically accepted the neocon strategies about American innocence and the need to preserve it at all costs . . . and then backed off them a tiny bit. Which makes them look irresolute—representatives of diluted pink states to Bush's bold red. Hence Kerry's voting for the war and then voting not to fund it. Hence Kerry's embarrassing appearance at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, saluting and saying he was "reporting for duty" (which was a sort of weak imitation of Bush in his flight suit declaring "Mission accomplished"). Hence Madame Clinton's savvy triangulation of supporting the Iraq War until she knew Americans began to realize what a mess the administration was making of things.
The attitudes of both right and left have been disastrous. The right has squandered the good will of the world after 9/11 by invading a country that had nothing to do with the attacks, resulting in the loss of 2,634 American lives (as of the day I'm writing this), 20,000 American wounded (thousands like the Vegas Vet), and more than 50,000 Iraqi civilian deaths—all to get rid of Saddam Hussein and install a government of Shiites sympathetic to Iran and one that has refused to condemn Hezbollah. Not to mention straitjacketing American foreign policy by making it impossible to fully confront Iran or North Korea, who are greater threats than Iraq ever was.
The soft left raises a finger of objection as to tactics once in a while. The harder left—moveon.org, etc.—says it's time to get out, but can't answer the question of what to do if, when we leave, Iraq falls headlong into civil war.
It's a hell of a place to be five years after the attacks. It's sad and sickening, and the more you love your country—its ideals, its people, and, yes, its innocence—the sadder and sicker it feels. It's tempting to say fuck it and go play on your Xbox or surf websites on home decoration ideas. Yet it's also tempting to imagine an alternative history, one where the love of country in the past five years got expressed in a different way.
Here's what I think: one of the ways Americans maintain their sense of innocence is by ignoring the Vegas Vet, by turning away from the consequences of our enmeshment in the larger world. But we can't wholly ignore this larger world, so we render up to our country's leaders the responsibility to deal with that world for us. This is what the right calls patriotism, which gets hammered home every time Dick Cheney chides any critics of American policy for "being on the side of the terrorists." Patriotism thus understood means that the people are children and the "nation" is the father. (The root word of patriot is "pater," or father.) Thus, the people get to preserve their innocence, and government officials, who run the nation, get to act unfettered.
This way of looking at patriotism—this ignorantly innocent interface with the complexities of the larger world—has been catastrophic for a humanist politics, and it needs to be radically reconceived. Rather than look at America "patriotically," as a father or fatherland that commands and demands our allegiance so that we can remain children, it might help to conceive the country as our child and ourselves as parents. I don't mean to bring any sentimentality into this, believe me. A people that thought of the nation as its offspring would have to take responsibility for it, the way parents do children, and wouldn't think of ignoring it (the way we ignore the Vet) or of signing away responsibility for it to people in power. They would also think of their nation as possessing a future, which would mean they would treat its resources in such a way that would as much as possible guarantee the future health of the child. It would mean transforming but not abandoning our ideas of innocence. No longer would we think of ourselves as innocent—no, we're the parents now, and though we've done a lot of things right, we also committed Hiroshima, My Lai, Abu Ghraib. But we could work in good faith to create a nation that was better than we are, the way parents want their children not to make their mistakes, and to live better than they have.
It's only a metaphor—nation as child rather than parent—and you can say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. This country in the five years since 9/11 has worked itself into cul-de-sacs it can't find its way out of. The Vet is wheeling himself in circles all over the streets of Vegas, and it's time we stopped being afraid of who he is, and gave him a hand.