The Beast that Kills the Beauty

The heat was intense. I stood on the side of some highway in Kansas. I was heading east. Behind me were uncountable acres of farmland covered in corn. The stalks were mostly above my head. In front of me were miles and miles of flat land covered in more corn. The farmer’s son who had just dropped me off had talked about how before the farmers had taken over most of the land, much of the acreage had been covered in prairie grass. In fact, he told me that prairie grass had covered much of the Midwest from Oklahoma to the Dakotas. It was nature’s way of preventing the topsoil from being blown away in the wind and thunderstorms that crossed the region. Corn did not perform the same function, especially since it was harvested and mowed every year. In fact, the farmer’s son told me, it was the destruction of the prairie grass that had been partly responsible for the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl; you know, he said, the one Woody Guthrie sang about.

It was the summer of 1982. Ronald Reagan had been president for a little more than a year. The immediate future was obvious and it wasn’t something I was looking forward to. I saw the recession deepening while the bulk of voting citizens blamed the growing number of poor for their fate. The number of middle fingers being shown to me while I hitchhiked on interstates and country highways was on the increase. My beard was as dirty as my jeans and the peace I had found on the road was rare compared to a mere three years previous. At least I wasn’t in Central America, where it looked like Reagan and his fascist crew were preparing to seek some serious revenge.

A truck pulled over to the shoulder behind me. I grabbed my bedroll and pack and ran to the passenger door. The driver wore a straw hat and was as red as a dead lobster in the pot. He told me to hop in and grab a beer from the cooler. I took his advice. Lefty Frizell was playing on the radio. The song was “Long Black Veil.” I remembered because a boss I had when I worked at the military commissary in Frankfurt played it all the time on his cassette player. I liked his voice. We rode into Kansas City, drinking and talking shit. He dropped me off near where the Kansas City Royals play. There was no game going on. The Royals were on the road. We sat in the stadium parking lot and finished off the remaining beers. It was early and he was heading into town to see a girl. I wished him luck and he said goodbye. I spent the night sleeping in some bushes. I was awakened by a couple stadium security guys who bought me breakfast and sent me on my way. Life was good. Reagan could go fuck himself.

There’s a certain beauty to the Midwest. The open vistas with roads straighter than Christian pastors pretend to be inviting the traveler to continue into the horizon. Of course, it’s a horizon one never reaches but then again never cares that they don’t. The birds appear in huge flocks above the earth and in singular stature when one comes upon a pond or lake. The heron looks beyond the human intruder, a fish in its mouth and an eye out for danger. Then they spread their wings, flying off as beautiful as any eagle or hawk. Their predation is subtle unlike those cousins of theirs. The sudden buildup of storms that dissolve in a cacophony of lightning and thunder. Even the amber waves of grain.

I got back east eventually. The rides were many but short in nature all through Ohio. In Maryland I worked on and off painting houses for a friend of mine. I also sold a little bit of grass, as we called it back then. When I could, I caught a band at a bar or other venue. It was summertime in the USA. Those of us who thought about such things saw the storm clouds gathering in certain places around the globe. The corpses of those murdered by the Salvadoran military in the El Mozote massacre were still decomposing. Another 150 corpses had been discovered outside the capitol in Puerta del Diablo, Panchimalco—more victims of the bloody union between the Salvadoran military and right wing death squads operating out of the ARENA party. While I was hitching across the United States, Salvadoran troops massacred over 600 people in a “clean-up” operation in Chalatenango province. The United States sent the El Salvadoran government around two million dollars a day, much of it for the military. Ronald Reagan ranted about communists invading the US through Mexico. It was a disingenuous repeat of the idiotic domino theory. Many citizens fell for it just like they did when the Pentagon built up its forces in southern Vietnam. It was bullshit and many of us knew it. Later in the decade, the head of the El Salvadoran military, General Adolfo Blandón, was reported to have said, “Before 1983, we never took prisoners of war.” Low estimates of the killing believe that the military killed over eight thousand civilians a year during the years 1982 and 1983. Friends in California were joining the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a rapidly growing organization founded in 1980 that was determined to end US support for the Salvadoran regime.

The FBI was taking notice of the group, assigning agents to infiltrate and snitches to cooperate. In Nicaragua, the CIA was working together with elements of the overthrown Somoza regime and various right-wingers in the United States to destroy the newborn revolution there. Their efforts ultimately involved the creation of an illegally funded military force composed mostly of mercenaries and soldiers of the old regime called the Contras. This counterrevolutionary force was a 1980s rebirth of the Bay of Pigs invaders and a wet dream for every anti-communist in the USA.

Meanwhile, another US intervention in Asia was beginning to bear its twisted fruit. Washington’s provocations and subversion of the Moscow-friendly government in Kabul, Afghanistan had reached a point that convinced Moscow to send in the troops. The invasion began on Christmas Eve of 1979. The US involvement remained mostly covert as it watched Soviet troops get bogged down in an Afghan civil war. Washington armed and trained various warlords who controlled different parts of rural Afghanistan and historically had no use for a central government. These fighters became known as the mujaheddin.

Although they were funded by several governments, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China, the lead organizer and primary source of funds was the United States under the direction of CIA director William Casey. Casey, who was an extremely conservative Catholic who shared some of the socially reactionary views of the Islamist mujaheddin, especially when it came to women, arranged a scenario whereby the US would have Israel transfer US-provided weaponry to the Mujaheddin and then send replacement weaponry to Tel Aviv. This was a scenario similar to that used in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The support itself was another front in the so-called Cold War, just as the US support for the diabolical Salvadoran military and its death squads was.

Ronald Reagan and his criminal cohorts had the nation in their thrall the summer of 1982. His cheap Hollywood act bamboozled the lot of them. The growing number of broken men sleeping in boxes in front of the buildings that make up the Smithsonian Museum in DC gave lie to Reagan’s proclamation that his rule would be a “morning in America.” However, it didn’t seem to matter to those tourists and office workers who walked past these men—many of them veterans of a previous imperial adventure—and held their noses. Despite their belief, it wasn’t the body odor of the discarded men they were smelling. Nor was it the smell of cow manure from dairy farms a half hour drive away in Maryland and Virginia. It was the stench of death; the death of millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and US troops left to rot in their graves here and over there.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: