Periscope Depth

and they brought prosperity down at the armoury

The Dispossessed: One of those novels I wish I’d found sooner. Le Guin has a beautiful economy of language not often found in fantasy writers: making the terse but poetic choice, rather than bombarding a scene. The Dispossessed feels like an epic, though it comes out fairly slim.

And like all good science-fiction, the story focuses less on a naturalistic depiction of how a What-If would come to pass than what such a What-If would mean. Le Guin rejects the notion of a true utopia, depicting the lunar colony of Anarres as an anarchist state slowly ossifying into a socialist oligarchy. Anarres is poor, while its neighbor Urras is rich. But it’s the richness of cloying food and it makes the protagonist – Shevek, an Anarrean physicist visiting Urras, the first person to do so in over a century – literally ill.

Le Guin has always excelled at making the alien seem truly alien, and her depiction of how a true anarchist would react to a capitalist society reads very true. She doesn’t use Shevek as a platform for anti-capitalist polemics: people on Urras are wealthy, happy and comfortable with their station in life. But to someone who doesn’t want property, life on Urras is mystifying and weird. Adequately conveying the stilted weirdness of a capitalist society is no mean feat – considering that Le Guin, her audience, and the publishers who made such a novel possible spent their whole lives in one.

(As an economist, I always read anarchist fables looking for solutions to the calculation problem. The Dispossessed doesn’t provide one, although a good portion of the book deals with a famine on Anarres. Maybe it’s implied)

Why We Fight: A meticulous recounting of the history of American presence in the Middle East would be enough. Start with the Iranian coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; continue through the U.S.’s efforts in training, arming and bankrolling the Taliban in the 70s, our installation of Saddam Hussein in the 80s and the troops in Saudi Arabia in the 90s. Why We Fight accomplishes all that.

Documenting the growth of the defense industry in the United States since the Eisenhower era would be enough. Begin at the end of the second World War; continue through Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, etc. Add the nature of American representative politics and the inextricable link between defense contracts, jobs and votes which guarantees escalations in defense spending.

Taking a look at the aftermath of the September 11th attacks would be enough. The world went from universally supporting America (there were marches of solidarity with the U.S. in Tehran and Pakistan in the days after the attacks) to distrusting and fearing America. What changed in that time?

A movie that did all that would be enough.

Where Why We Fight triumphs is twofold. First, the documentarians interview several prominent conservative voices to answer these questions. And not in an attempt to bait them. And not cherry-picked fringe cases either: William Kristol, Richard Perle and John McCain are among them, as well as several Naval pilots. The movie’s prejudices are obvious, but these speakers don’t get the sneering dismissal that (say) Michael Moore would give them.

Second, the way the movie manages to weave together disparate threads into a single story. The narrative begins with a retired NYPD cop who lost his son in the September 11th attacks. A Vietnam veteran, he decides that an appropriate tribute might be to get his son’s name written on a piece of munition – like an aerial bomb – to be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This story weaves in and out with several others, like the story of a Boeing weapons technician who helped invent the “bunker buster.” Only later in the film do we hear that this technician, Anh Duong, fled Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War – a war that the retired NYPD Officer fought in. And only much later do we learn that the bomb with his son’s name on it – like all bombs dropped in the first 60 days of OIF – missed its primary target.

Why We Fight was the name of a series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra during World War II. The U.S. has established a military presence in over 130 countries around the globe since that time, and fought a variety of police actions, covert operations and wars in that time. This documentary seeks to answer the same question Capra’s films did, albeit with a more critical tone. And it finds no definitive answer. The documentarians interview an eager young recruit, two Naval stealth bomber pilots, a retired Lt. Colonel from Pentagon intelligence, Dwight Eisenhower’s son, Gore Vidal, a few military historians and a CIA consultant to get an answer and finds nothing. It’s no one person’s fault – certainly not President Bush’s. But when you combine a perpetually growing defense industry, a global military presence, a first-in-class hunger for resources and a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, the question becomes not why we fight, but why wouldn’t we.

“It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever.” – Chalmers Johnson

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