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The toothbrushes at the Walgreens in my San Francisco neighborhood are on lock-down. The clerk who emancipated my “Comfort Grip” soft-bristled brush from the glass cabinet informed me that the store had been “losing them.”
“There are homeless people in the area,” he said. “They’ve been stealing the toothbrushes.”
This is what the culture of preemptive defense strategies has come to: the corporate regulation of an individual’s access to oral hygiene.
War is everywhere. It lingers on street corners, infiltrates the psyche, and infringes upon the body, robbing the disenfranchised of the most basic entitlements. Commodities are coveted. Boundaries are drawn. The “other” is cast out to ensure the superior positioning of those who hold the seats of power. Then power marches steadily onward toward domination.
The withholding of a toothbrush may not be fatal, but it is one more degrading act of humiliation against the destitute that dispossesses people of the right to care for own bodies with dignity. It reflects the capitalist system that is designed to value goods and resources more than it values the people who use them. A system in which some people deserve goods and resources and others do not.
Yet, this isn’t just about capitalism anymore. It isn’t just about profits. It’s about the principle of capitalism. The elitist and privileged position that there is fairness to the free market. It’s about suited, stone-faced figures staring straight ahead and pretending not to notice the scruffy guy on the street corner asking for help, regarding him with disdain if at all. Because, if we start giving away even the most minute portions of what we consider to be ours to people who have less, then what? Unimaginable chaos would obviously ensue. And our terror of descending into chaos is what leads us into war. This is the ideology that people are willing to fight for. Not only outside of our national boundaries, but within our own nation. Not only within our nation, but within ourselves, as we close ourselves in to maintain our illusion of security.
But, we are already living in unimaginable chaos. Or, at least, we are perpetuating a system that compels others to live in it, while we busy ourselves with polishing the shiny edges of make-believe. We pretend that there aren’t homeless people in the streets, even when they are staring us in the face. We pretend that soldiers suddenly evaporate once they come back from war. We pretend they’re not in need of medical assistance and other care that they’re not receiving; that they’re not injured and traumatized.
Our arrogance and our denial allow us to live as if we will be spared the calamities that befall most of the rest of human civilization. As an acquaintance of mine in New York said to me while we watched the Twin Towers fall on television, “What the hell? This is not Beirut!”
No, no. War is something that happens to people in other countries. Someplace far away.
As U.S. soldiers are deployed and re-deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan by the thousands to serve a country that refers to them not as individual men and women with unique identities, but as “boots on the ground;” as the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rises to over a trillion dollars (a number that I can’t comprehend, though I found the visual aid of numbers ticking frantically upward on the National Priorities Project’s costofwar.com website helpful); as politicians spawn new rhetoric and regurgitate old to cover up what they should be experiencing as searing shame; is it any wonder that the U.S. government has relegated their “war heroes” to the hard concrete cubby holes of the city’s streets? (The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans [nchv.org] estimates that there are 2,400 homeless veterans in San Francisco alone).
We are living in a world of insanity. Of boundaries and violations upon those boundaries and struggles to reclaim and maintain and sustain them. A world in which the demoralization of human beings is standard fare. A world in which greed, and dissociation from that greed, keeps us in a constant state of war that includes our own internalized warfare. A world in which the normalization of chronic aggression is directed nowhere and everywhere. Yet we aren’t even sure why we’re fighting these wars. And we don’t know who the enemy is.
Michael Hastings’ June 22nd article in Rolling Stone magazine, which led to the forced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, took the spotlight a couple of weeks ago as the latest domestic anti-U.S. scandal. (Step aside, Helen Thomas; challenging the legitimacy of the Jewish State has all but lost its dramatic effect in light of McChrystal’s indecorum.)
Granted, Hastings’ article paints Gen. McChrystal and his cohort as a group of beer-swilling adolescent thugs, but what Hastings writes about President Obama is rather bewildering:
“When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he immediately set out to deliver on his most important campaign promise on foreign policy: to refocus the war in Afghanistan on what led us to invade in the first place.”
President Obama essentially admitted that the United States “lost its focus” while it bled its troops and tax dollars into a war? What have we been doing all these years? Where has that money gone? Where have those lives gone? And we are supposed to nod our heads with understanding, blame the previous administration, and patiently wait for our government to fumble through the years, trying to get things back on track? This isn’t eighth grade math class. These are human lives.
Still, in speeches that are meant to restore confidence, Obama has assured the American public that, “Going forward, we will continue to monitor and adjust our strategies to make sure that we’re not just going down blind alleys.”
Ah, good. That’s a relief. He only neglected to add “anymore” to the end of that statement. Looking backward, though, he apparently concedes that the United States has, indeed, been blind, if not catastrophically irresponsible.
Assuming that General McChrystal didn’t set out to get himself fired; knowing that he could have chosen to censor himself, but was either too incorrigible to bother or he didn’t know any better, this situation begs the question: shouldn’t people who hold the fates of millions of people in their hands be—I don’t know—smarter? Perhaps President Obama would do well not to appoint a former West Point delinquent to head-up his wars in the future.
Yet it is General McChrystal whom President Obama reprimands for exercising “poor judgment” and “[eroding] the trust that is necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”
What greater erosion of trust is there than for the Commander in Chief to admit that the U.S. has been experiencing some kind of amnesia regarding its original objectives in Afghanistan while in the midst of a major military offensive there?
And, while President Obama searches the archives to remind himself and the American public of the U.S.’s original objectives in starting the war in Afghanistan so that he can continue to “move forward” with whatever it is he’s doing there, he simultaneously admits that continuing the war is not in our best interest (though sending more troops, and more money, apparently is). Hastings continues,
“On December 1st, in a speech at West Point, the president laid out all the reasons why fighting the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea: it’s expensive, we’re in an economic crisis; a decade-long commitment would sap American power; Al Qaeda has shifted its base of operations to Pakistan…”
Yes, Mr. President, let’s stop dilly-dallying; shall we? It’s time to move on to Pakistan. Our economy and world hegemony are at stake. If we’re not careful, we could end up living like people in Afghanistan.
What’s fascinating is that Gen. McChrystal isn’t being punished for admitting to Rolling Stone that “we shot an amazing number of people,” nor did he face discipline for signing off on forged documents claiming that the Taliban killed U.S. soldiers when, in fact, it was U.S. soldiers who killed U.S. soldiers. Obama was willing to overlook the “mistakes resulting in civilian casualties.” Until McChrystal made the mistake of undermining Obama’s administration. Now, McChrystal’s behavior is an affront to democracy. And the Obama administration seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity to use McChrystal as some sort of an example—an opportunity to manipulate public opinion—drawing McChrystal as a demon and Obama a wounded innocent who is fighting these wars with good intentions.
Of course, these habits of twisting narratives to make the guilty seem innocent are not novel. For example, in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of the people whose family members they are killing, Coalition Forces in Afghanistan are making great efforts to bond with the bereaved families of Afghani civilians by arranging shuras (community meetings in Muslim societies—a word they have appropriated to show their solidarity with the locals), to offer what they call “condolence payments.” According to a report posted by the United States Army Special Operations Command News Service (USASOC), “Since September 2003, the U.S. military has had the ability to give a condolence payment to families suffering a death, injury, or property damage due to U.S. forces. The payments are considered a gesture of sympathy only, given to ease the pain of the family. The payments are not meant as an admission of fault or negligence.”
Perhaps I am misunderstanding the meaning of the phrase “…due to U.S. forces.”
The March 16, 2010 article from Bagram Airfield paints an exotic picture of the village of Kandu-Ye Bala, in which the shura takes place, complete with “strokes of red dashing across the early morning sky,” “lush, rainbow-colored rugs,” fireside huddles, loads of chai, and baby goat vomit. “[It] feels like we’re part of a rodeo…” a Coalition veterinarian said as he treated the village’s goats, donkeys, and camels.
To demonstrate the receptivity of the tribal leaders to the generosity of Coalition Forces, the report gloats that a village elder, “flashing a smile” to Coalition Forces said:
“We are grateful you have taken the time to be here with us today…”
to which the Coalition Forces commander responded,
“We are here to help you.”
The villagers were then “invited to receive humanitarian assistance, consisting of multiple items, from toothbrushes, to shirts and sneakers.”
Toothbrushes were mentioned twice in this article as items included in “humanitarian” packages. As if the turbaned, teetotaling people of Afghanistan are so simple and naïve that they would accept toiletries in exchange for their loved ones. Perhaps the reckless distribution of this extravagance to the people of Afghanistan is what’s driving up the value of the product in our troubled U.S. economy.
Following the distribution of condolence cash, “halal meals,” and soap (as well as medical care), the commander, “…[e]choing Gen. McChrystal’s speech to the people of Afghanistan…offered his condolences…and calmly explained the events leading up to the death of civilians from this village in Oruzgan province.”
“Although I didn’t know them, I will always remember them,” the commander said.
Devastatingly, the mainstream American public is swallowing this goat vomit. And they are just uneducated enough about what is happening in the world outside of the narrow margins of their daily routines to accept what they are being fed: that U.S. Coalition Forces are the valiant, kind-hearted saviors of the Afghani people.
“It’s heartening,” a colleague said to me at work, after listening to NPR on her morning commute. “It sounds like the U.S. is doing a lot to support the Afghan people.”
After biting my lip for a few moments, I said, “You know the U.S. is over there killing people, right? Lot’s of people.”
“Well,” she said, “there are so many conflicting reports. It’s hard to know what to believe.”
Given that the U.S. is a nation that has bombed, sanctioned, invaded, or occupied countries too innumerable to list (it may be relevant to note that the bomb-list includes Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), maybe it isn’t surprising that mainstream Americans (at best, fed corporate, mainstream journalism; at worst, fed little more than fast-food and Starbucks coffee) have difficulty taking it all in. Confusion is uncomfortable. Trying to make sense of the nonsensical can lead one to despair. Better to leave it to the politicians we’ve voted in to office. Let democracy run its program. They’ll figure something out.
But they are not figuring anything out. And mainstream Americans are so overwhelmed that they have stopped asking questions. Even when they are asking the right questions, they are deliberately made to feel ignorant and naïve by calculated pro-war, “anti-terrorist” agendas. By myths about their security (or, rather, their insecurity; though it might interest U.S. citizens to know that the murder rate in the U.S. is significantly higher than it is in many Muslim countries, including Pakistan). But, as questions continue to go un-answered, or they are answered unsatisfactorily, people in the U.S. have lost their voices.
Until the next scandal comes to replace this one, McChrystal’s blundering voice resounds. Yet, as embarrassing as General McChrystal’s comments in his interview with Michael Hastings may have been, as unfortunate as its contents were, as pathetic and disastrous as its implications are, the story actually gives me hope. Because McChrystal told the truth. He expressed his disappointment with the Obama administration. He said what top officials are not saying about the war. And this kind of truth-telling is the only thing that can lead to a much-needed change in consciousness.
If people can move beyond the disorienting debacle of how or why this top military commander offended the president, they might start asking more poignant questions. Or repeating, with louder voices, their questions that have been repeatedly silenced.
Although a change in the militarized consciousness of the U.S. government may not be likely, I have to have hope in the possibility of awakening the consciousness of people who ordinarily walk blindly through the streets of a city like San Francisco on their way to work each day. People who can drive to the corner store, ask a clerk to unlock the cabinet, choose from an array of hygienically-packaged toothbrushes, watch clean water pour forth from a steel tap, and mindlessly brush their teeth. These are the people who can begin to wear down their own boundaries of delusion.
SOHA AL-JURF is a Palestinian-American writer. She works as speech-language pathologist at the UCSF Voice and Swallowing Center in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com