Category Archives: Afghanistan and Iraq wars

By the time we got to Phoenix


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One

Yes, that’s all I had of this post as I thought ahead after the AAA Texas 500 to What’s Next, the title of an old country-pop song from my late childhood, twisted by time and the moon’s taxes to fit the moment in the 2010 Sprint Cup season when it could all be over for Jimmie Johnson’s crack at fifth consecutive title.

Johnson’s now slipped into second place, some 30 points behind surging Denny Hamlin yet still ahead of also-surging Kevin Harvick: Still well in contention but fading, his car, his team, perhaps himself not as up to the task as his competitors.

Looks that way at least from this next vantage from which I write, dark and cold outside, summer over, winter coming, elections done, a harder, colder crew moving into the positions of power, in an age with is harder and colder, haunted by old songs on the radio.

By the time we get to Phoenix, it will all be almost over …

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Phoenix is the next-to-last stop on the long season’s ride to Homestead. It’s the last chance for Jimmie to break away and a slim chance at best, his love affair with Wynona, NASCAR’s Trailer-Park Goddess of Destiny, playing out, as it has all season, bittersweetly, a love affair that has lost its wings, grown, stale, lifeless, Her attention seeming to turn to the figures racing always now just ahead of him. I choose to imagine Jimmie Johnson as the lover who knows he’s been jilted but races on the durable wires of hopes which he knows no longer exist but cannot let go of.

By the time we get through Phoenix, it may be clearly over: But for now, we can enter the mood of a Glen Campbell hit and its time, in the knowledge that our own face, this moment, will show in the silver mirror of song, sailing in the cold night sky of what surely to come.

And I choose to include in that reverie American troops having a last night with a beloved before deploying, and in the cold mountain ranges of Afghanistan taking sniper fire, and dreaming in the dark wards of Walter Reed Hospital, limbless, sorely wounded in mind and heart of their long, lonely, and too-forgotten enterprise of killing and being killed in the name of a country they hardly recognize any more.

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Two

Frank Sinatra once called “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” “the greatest torch song of all time.” It is one of the most covered songs in history, with thousands of recorded versions by the likes of Ray Price, Dean Martin, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and an 18-minute version by Isaac Hayes which includes an elaborate backstory on the events of the song. A country song with a black soul could elaborate on: that’s clout.

Glen Campbell was playing guitar as a session musician in a recording of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by Pat Boone when he became so enamored with it that he decided to record it himself, which he did following a tour with the Beach Boys. It turned out to be pure payola of Campbell, with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” earning him two Grammies in 1967 and launching a solo career which would earn him his own hit TV show and role in the 1969 movie “True Grit.”

Webb was 21 when he wrote the song and living in Los Angeles, though he’d been raised in Elk City, Oklahoma. It’s one of three songs he wrote about a broken-hearted love affair he’d had with a woman named Sue (“MacArthur Park” and “The Worst That Could Happen” were the other two).

In this attempt to frame that painful love affair, a man describes his decision to leave his woman. He drives east, presumably from Los Angeles, imagining what she is experiencing and thinking as he arrives different cities in his long and lonely drive:

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before

By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall that’s all

By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.

A fan once told Webb that the geography of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” was impossible – the time it would take to get to Oklahoma from Albuquerque is too short to go from the woman at lunch to being asleep at night. Webb replied, “It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.”

Something about the liminal space of that song –- an imagined journey with imagined affect on a woman who keeps doing one wrong – is like dope to the ears and heart of a torch song. Who doesn’t dream of punishing a harsh mistress with the ultimate payback of finally shoving off and letting go, much to her surprise and, hopefully, filling her with hopeless regrets she will never resolve.

A broken heart for a broken heart: paybacks are hell, but in reality they never work when it comes to love, because an unfaithful beloved won’t wait by the phone for the departed jilted one to call – she just doesn’t care.

“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is pure opium for the wounded heart, traveling long lonely miles through the southwestern desert, it emptiness filled with thoughts of the Beloved who hasn’t yet awakened to the truth that she’s done a man wrong for the last time. Too late for a final reconciliation: he’s gone, disappearing over the eastern horizon.

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The Glen Campbell version of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” hit the pop charts in 1967 when peace and love was in the air, still deep in the romance of Flower Power, the Summer of Love. (Among its companions on the chart was “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Windy” by The Association, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, “Light My Fire” by The Doors, “Groovin’” by the Young Rascals, “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and “Never My Love” by the Association.) The time is enthralled – perhaps bewitched – by the belief in the power of love, like a teen in love for the first time.

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Yet those weren’t truths in Vietnam in 1967, as the sorties of B-52 headed out to drop their tonnage of napalm and explosives over North Vietnam and as 16,000 troops set out in Operation Cedar Falls set out to clear Vietcong operations around Saigon, discovering a massive network of Vietcong tunnels they would call The Iron Triangle. American casualties doubled in from 1966 to 1967 (to around 11,000 killed).

Surely a song like “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” making it to camps in the middle of that jungle had the sort of ennui of “White Christmas,” a fantasy not of sweet returns that every soldier dreamt of but rather the homecoming every one feared, to a woman who had moved on his absence. That would be the ultimate irony, to survive the helicopter battles over Tay Ningh or strafing mortar fire on the ground near the Cambodia border, only to come home and find one’s bed occupied by an other, probably some hip anti-war protester with leather fringe and hairy balls. “By the Time I Got To Phoenix” delivered on that fear, and must have made those lonely boys think of what roads lead away from every bad homecoming.

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Three

Jimmie Johnson finished third behind Jeff Gordon and winner Ryan Newman at the spring race in Phoenix, and though he was not leading in the points, many were flush with his possibilities. Monte Dutton had written this just before the Bristol race (which Johnson won) with something close to effusive ebullience:

… He doesn’t win every race, just three out of five so far. At this rate, he will capture a mere 22 of this season’s 36 races. Richard Petty’s all-time record of 27 in a season (1967) will stand, even though in that magical year, Petty won only 56.3 percent of the races and this year Johnson’s hoisting trophies at a rate of 60 percent.

But, seriously, folks, Johnson can’t keep up this pace. One of these days, someone’s going to step out in the street at high noon with an itchy trigger finger. It’s the Curse of the Gunslinger, and so many want to dare the Fastest Gun in the West (as in Western Hemisphere) to draw.

So far, this year and for the four preceding it, the challengers haven’t even gotten to the quick-draw portion of the competition. Before they can even saunter out into Main Street, Johnson’s twirling his pearl-handled revolvers, shooting the gun right out of the challenger’s hands with the right hand and firing at the feet with the other.

The love affair with Johnson’s fifth consecutive championship season was on. If anyone characterized the jilted lover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” it was at that time probably Jeff Gordon, a 4-time champion who was keeping pace towards the front of the points race but hadn’t won a race since Texas in 2008. He was souring on teammate Jimmie Johnson, the kid he’d taken under his wing at Hendrick Motorsports and then watched zoom off with Wynona into a limelight that must have been galling to a man who surely thought he’d never lose the buzz of that brilliant moonshine. By the time we got to Phoenix in April, Jimmie was on a roll and Jeff was in his shadow.

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But the road from Phoenix in April to Phoenix in November has turned difficult for Johnson as well – true, he won three of the next 26 races, but Denny Hamlin won eight and Kevin Harvick another three. The fabled gunslinger has definitely slowed on the draw, and his Chase mastery is showing tarnish (he’s only won 1 of the 8 Chase races so far, compared to 3 in the same period of 2009, 2 in 2008 and 3 in 2007).

Clearly, Johnson is struggling to hold on to Destiny’s garters. They may have already passed from his grasp. The sense of an age passing is ripe in the air as the haulers make their way now to Phoenix.

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Four

As a follow-up to Campbell’s success with “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” for the  country crooner from Billstown, Arkansas (Campbell was one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents). The idea for song came to Webb as he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma City border and saw a solitary lineman working on up on telephone pole in the middle of nowhere. It struck him as exceedingly sad, making him imagine the lineman as a long-wandered-on lover trying to hear the voice of his lover in the song of the wind working those cables of communication:

I am a lineman for the county
and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

Webb recorded his demo of the song accompanying himself on and Hammond organ, and when Campbell went into the studio in 1968 to record the song, the takes seemed lacking to Campbell, missing the feel of Webb’s demo which had so excited him initially. He got that feel down when he added a Hammond organ to the instrumentation. And the chiming at the song’s fade at the end, meant to represent telephone signals the lineman hears in his head—calls he meant to make but didn’t too long ago—were produced by a massive church organ.

The song was another hit for Campbell, taking his album of the same name to #3 on the pop chart, and the song was two weeks in the #1 spot on the country singles chart and six weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. Glen Campbell’s career was assured. He would go on to release some 70 albums, with 27 of them reaching the Top 10 (12 went 4 went platinum and 2 double platinum), selling some 45 million units in all.

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“Wichita Lineman” has been described as the “the first existential cowboy song,” and there’s something undeniably gooey-eerie about it, haunting in a way that made the song seem timeless from the first spin, a song as old as the ache in the heart in every person to have loved and lost.

You can say that “Wichita Lineman” furthers the narrative of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.” Here the lover who left love behind has settled into a long, lonely existence in Oklahoma, working as a county lineman. Working up there in the wind and cold in the middle of nowhere, he strains to hear the voice of his love up in those wires.

The chorus makes the entire song, layering three lines which pack an infinity of power:

And I need you more than want you, Campbell begins, soft and pained in the plaint of every sorely-wounded lover who can’t stand the exquisite torture of love any more but is powerless to change;

And I want you for all time – Bang, gotcha: no matter how far you flee, the dream of love is just ahead, waiting for you in the next town to remind you how much there is to lost. The wallop of this line comes from its pairing with the first, a doubling which takes you in two directions at once, transversing the entire wilderness of the heart in 14 words;

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line – This completes the trio of lines with an eerie, lonely, permanent image, the fact of the first two lines characterized by a lineman lost up there in the wind and the cold with the wires of memory pulsing with lost messages from the Beloved who has been forever lost.

The Wichita Lineman is a mythic figure like the Wandering Cowboy or the Ancient Mariner, forever out there in the space between memory and heartbreak, unable to form the words overflowing in his heart, searching for  the lines of communication he will never be able to open himself.

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“Wichita Lineman” is also one of those quintessential fin-de-siecle moments which somehow captured the death of the 60’s, a passing of the Flower Age of just two years previous into the nightmarish realities of death in Vietnam (a Vietcong assault on US bases around Vietnam in February 1969 killed 1,400 American soldiers), the shootings at Kent State, murder during a Rolling Stones performance at Altamonte, mass clubbings by Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention the year before, folk song growing hoarse and loud in the electrified howl of acid rock, the looming nightmare of Charles Manson singing “Helter Skelter” as he carved up the body of pregnant Sharon Tate, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the breakup of The Beatles.

The Summer of Love was over.

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There is a palpable ennui in the culture of 1969, a feeling that the passing of the 1960s was like summer into winter, an intensely bittersweet mood of slow but sure dying. “Wichita Lineman” had many companions in this tenor,  especially in a slough of wry, wistful and bloodily grown-up cowboy movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sunset Kid, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy,  and True Grit, all of which ended with death -– Glen  Campbell himself taking the fatal bullet in that last movie. A grand, sad, dayglo-to-sepia fadeout to a wild age.

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Paul Newman and Robert Redford go out with guns blazing south of the Sixties in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

The same fadeout permeated all of Hollywood. The Sand Dollars was the first American movie where the hero – Steve McQueen – died.  Love Story – heroine dies. The animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla – innocence dies. Easy Rider – the quest of the youth culture dies.

A dying which is like the last whisper of a Beloved who turns around once to smile sadly before walking forever out that door in our hearts …

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“Wichita Lineman” has a vibe which persists to this day, soaked in a sweet oblivion that borders on something on the verge of winter, entering longer darker days as the last warm ray fades from earth.

But I’m also sure that “Wichita Lineman” and all those other songs of the late ‘60s are especially poignant to me because it was the eve of my own coming of age–a very bittersweet time, with my parents separating, my father moving downtown Chicago while the rest of the family relocated to a much smaller, rented house in Wilmette before taking a dive to Florida.

Factor in as well that it was also the season of my first hopeless love. Lauren was an 8th grader like me who was (unlike me) impossibly beautiful. For a short while she deigned to smile at me, probably only because she had wounds greater than mine. (She’d smile at any guy to forget that jagged wreck of a man she called Father with cold hostility).

Lauren smiled at me briefly and then turned away, leaving me to curse my ugly fat face in the mirror, beg my God to deliver her to me (He was silent). I’d lay on my lonely bed listening to “Wichita Lineman” on WLS, wondering if those wires carried news of Lauren, too. But it was only the winter wind beating against my frozen window.

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The frozen Chicago River laps against the Marina Towers; my father moved into a 48th-floor apartment on one of the towers after he moved out of our house in Evanston.

The cowboy reaches were not found in cold Chicago, but other cowboy experiences – loneliness, hard realities, wandering, alcoholism, death—were becoming familiar, were painting the age sepia, like the color fade at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

My personal favorite movie that year–give me a break, I was 12 — was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (James Bond is a cowboy of sorts I supposed, with a tuxedo for chaps and machine-gun Astin-Martin convertible for a horse.) It was a movie fraught with losses: Uber-Bond Sean Connery gone; Bond’s polymorphose perverse mojo is lost when he marries Tracy (queen “Avenger” Diana Rigg); and then she gets killed in the end.

The song “We Have All the Time in the World” was composed for the movie by John Barry (the theme song to OHMSS is eerily similar to that of Midnight Cowboy, which Barry also composed. Weird twins, eh?) with lyrics by Hal David (who wrote many songs with Burt Bacharach, including the theme song to Butch Cassidy, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Armstrong’s voice seems sure in his own way – a majestic, old- jazz quaver – as he sings the tune:

We have all, the time, in the world
Time enough or life
To unfold
All the precious things
Love has in store

We have all, the love, in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find
We need nothing more …

But Armstrong was actually sick during the recording, too ill to play the trumpet part (which sounded more like Herb Albert), and would die himself of heart failure a couple of years later.

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Tracy (Diana Rigg) was married — o so briefly — to the Georges Lazenby Bond, who himself wasn’t around long.

The fin-de-siecle irony of the song is drawn out as wide and tall as the Swiss Alps where the movie was filmed when, in the final scene, Bond holds Tracy in his car at the side of a mountain road, his bride dead from a bullet in the forehead shot by his arch-rival Blofeld, a few miles down the road from the church where they had just wed.

“We have all the time in the world,” Bond whispers to the only woman he would marry in the series, looking out at those impassible Alps, nuzzling her cheek with his as John Barry’s elegiac orchestral reprise swells to infinity.

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At the time he spoke those words, Georges Lazenby didn’t know they also applied to his tenure as Bond, as he was replaced by Connery in the next installment, Diamonds are Forever.

I have the soundtrack album and still listen to it from time to time, remembering so sharply that profound, bittersweet time. It’s said that you never forget the music of your puberty, and mine is split between those AM/FM heart-wrenchers of the late 1960s and early 70’s (moving from Glen Campbell to James Taylor and Carole King – all of whom still performing the songs of that age), James Bond movie soundtracks (I collected all of them), and the later erotic-demonic eruption of hard rock bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

One age answers the previous, and my birth, psychologically and emotionally, into adolescence was right at that hinge between the death of the Summer of Love and the Season of the Witch, from hopeless ennui to opiate thrall, still trying to find out whether there’s anyone at the far end of those Witchita lines.

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Five

By the time we come to the next-to-the-last Sprint Cup race of the 2010 season in Phoenix, the air of immanent finality which surrounds this year’s NASACR storylines lends to this race something of the country torch song written 40 years ago.

The jilted lover of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” comes to that town first in his imagined narrative; for us, it’s nearly the last stop on the road, but we’re still trying to imagine what Wynona’s up to. I suspect Jimmie Johnson already knows what we aren’t sure off yet — that he’s being left in the dust to other championship ambitions. A 9th-place finish at Texas last Sunday put him between Hamlin and Harvick, cut loose and beginning to drift away from destiny.

Oh, it’s not over yet –- Phoenix is one of Jimmie’s tracks –- but something tells us that the fatal shot was fired a race ago into Johnson who, if you may, mythically reenacted Campbell’s “True Grit” character who gets shot before the movie’s end, leaving it up to the unlikely pair of Harvick/Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Hamlin/Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to finish off the quest.

A fade at Phoenix this time — failing to rise to the now-desperate, last-chance occasion – would place Johnson back among the ranks of 2010’s also-rans, Chase faders like Jeff Gordon (who was wrecked, and then fought, Jeff Burton lsat week), Kyle Busch (given the boot from Destiny last week after giving NASCAR the finger) and the other boys, Kenseth and Kurt Bush and Biffle and Edwards and Stewart and Bowyer. Hamstrung by a slow pit crew, the blue No. 48 (blue as those hard-blowing Texas skies) can only think about what might have been as he watches the No. 11 and 29 battle it out for what was once the Queen of Trailer Heaven’s Portion but is now big, big, money.

I imagine Jeff Gordon as the mythic Wichita Lineman, soon dismounting from his crow’s nest up in the power lines along the border of racing oblivion, relinquishing the Lineman’s gear to Jimmie Johnson, the next passed-over champion . . .

Still too early to tell, but the wind seems to be blowing that way …

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Six

Something in the bigger news of the day is closely akin to the late 1960s, the sense that an age is coming to an end. Perhaps that is why the Coen Brothers are releasing a remake of “True Grit” for release on Christmas Day, featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Seinfeld playing Mattie, the girl who hires Cogburn to find the murderer of her father. Matt Damon is in Cambbell’s former role as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who has ulterior motives in hunting down the killer of Mattie’s father.  Josh Brolin will play the killer Tom Chaney, who was played originally by Jeff Corey (who would later play one of the backwoods killers in Deliverance.)

Oh, the threads of irony and fate which give current events an eerily familiar feel are many. The True Grit remake is reported to be a shoe-in for Oscar competition, repeating the original’s success in the Academy Awards. Jeff Bridges, playing the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, picks up a piece of the alcoholic country singer he played in Crazy Heart. True Grit is the first film he’s made with Coen Brothers since playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski, a character I brought forth early this season as a metaphor for NASCAR’s 2010 season. The narrator of that film, played by Sam Elliott, is a cowboy known only as “The Stranger,” is a Wichita Lineman-type who comes to check on things back at home in Los Angeles. (Love is not present, but there’s lots of bowling.) One of the Coen Brothers early successes was the comedy Raising Arizona (1987), with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, a movie rich with the Arizona scenery which will surround this weekend’s race in Phoenix. Love was very much present in that film—it is perhaps Cage’s sweetest performance, ripe with an innocence he stripped himself of when he later became a Major Action Star.

And then the Coen Brothers lost their love, opting  instead to follow the Lineman around the United States to scene after scene of desolate Americana with O Brother, Where Art Thou (Depression-era bluegrass Odyssey), Fargo (wasting the locals in frozen Minnesota) and No Country for Old Men (hardcore Texas border noir). That movie was based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, a writer who is about the most forsaken in all of contemporary literature, whose language is as primal as the desert and blood-soaked as an Arizona sunset, and whose heart is about as forsaken as Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican who sponsored the nation’s toughest immigration law, albeit in divergent ways. Pearce becomes the next president of the Arizona senate and means to use his iron-clad Republican majority to side-step the state’s crucial financial problems to get a new law on the books challenging automatic U.S. citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

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Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona” (1987): A dream before the nightmares.

All this tucks into the closing refrain of “Wichita Lineman” as the composer / artist / wandering wounded lover fades out by repeating those indelible words,

And I want you more than need you
And I need you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman
Is still on the line …

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Seven

Arizona is no country for old men, even though hard-frozen retirees from the Rust Belt savor its dry, hot weather. Except for the weather, Arizona offers is no escape for dotage; their golden days are just as intruded upon there by what’s upsetting the rest of the country these days – high unemployment, housing market in lead-bottomed doldrums, the economy in arrears, foreign wars dragging on, etc.

What makes Arizona a specially barbed taunt against age -– both old and young — is the unique and special hardness of Arizona’s heart against illegal immigrants.

I can’t be too critical. I don’t live close to a border so soaked in blood on the far side. The mayhem of Mexican drug cartels is approaching the tenor of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridean, perhaps the bloodiest novel about the West ever written.

More than 450,000 illegal immigrants are in the state of Arizona, a fivefold increase since 1990. That’s a very fast change in demographics. And where things change fast, fear holds fast.

One bellweather event was the killing of 58-year old Robert Krentz and his dog in March 2010 on his ranch, some 13 miles from the border. Police failed to name a suspect, but they traced footprints headed south toward the border, leading to speculation that an illegal had committed the murder.

Fear surely played a part in the evolution of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 – The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act – which was introduced by Republican State Senator Russell Pearce and signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer on April 23 of this year, just two weeks after the spring race in Phoenix.

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Arizona State Senator Russell, sponsor of the state’s tough new immigration law, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who signed the act into law last April.

The Arizona law adds to federal law which requires illegal aliens to carry registration documents by making it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents. It also bars state or local officials or agencies from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws, and cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting illegal aliens.

Since its passage, Arizona has suffered a firestorm of controversy both internally, from the U.S. government (Obama is fighting the law) and from further out (a number of nations have joined the U.S. in a suit to reverse the Arizona law, claiming it is excessively punitive.)

You can read fear in the Arizona’s immigration law, but as it usually turns out, greed may have played the quieter, larger role in its passage. NPR reported in late October that the bill was largely written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a membership organization of state legislatures as well as corporations and associations which include Reynolds American Inc. (the tobacco company), ExxonMobil, the American Rifle Association – and the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country. Pearce, who is a member of that organization, attended a gathering of ALEC last December in Washington where the immigration bill was proposed. NPR examined Corrections Corporation of America reports and found that their executives believed that immigration detention was their next big market.

In the story, Pearce, of course, said the bill was his idea. He says it’s not about prisons, but what’s best for the country.

“Enough is enough,” Pearce said in his office, sitting under a banner reading “Let Freedom Reign.” “People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation.”

Fear and greed are the perfect elixir of Republican majorities, and so it’s not surprising that the midterm elections increased the Republican majority in Arizona. Pearce is now State Senate President and aims to enact a further measure of the bill, denying U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal aliens in the state.

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Many now fear that the Arizona economy -– especially the housing market -– will take a hard hit from the Hispanic relocation out of the state in reaction to the law. And although the state legislature faces a pile of work dealing with the ailing state economy, Pearce’s agenda is wholly set on cementing a wall of prohibitive anti-immigration legislation. You know, for the good of all American-Arizonans.

But what to do with all those bodies piling up in the Arizona desert? Over the past year, 252 corpses have been found there, the remains of migrants who died trying to cross into the U.S. illegally. Authorities speculate that increased scrutiny at the customary crossing-points are forcing smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances on isolated trails through the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona, where they must sometimes walk for three or four days before reaching a road.

“As we gain more control, the smugglers are taking people out to even more remote areas,” said Omar Candelaria, the special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “They have further to walk and they are less prepared for the journey, and they don’t make it.

This was especially true last summer when a heat wave seared the Arizona desert to a crackly crunch. In July alone, 60 withered bodies were found.

Some of these dead have been in the desert a long while – as long as several years. This makes the task of identifying the remains a tougher job. Some 700 bodies going back to 2000 remain unidentified. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office is ground zero for these dead; when the building’s 200 spaces for corpses became fully occupied, a refrigerated truck had to be rented to store another two dozen of the dead.

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Bodies retrieved from the Arizona desert stack up in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office.

A lonely place to rot, wouldn’t you say? Especially when you consider that a lt of those dead were people fleeing the violence of their home country, hoping for some form of economic asylum in ours.

Fat chance. Though many border businesses love cheap labor, the will of zealots empowered by greed and fear is strong at this juncture in history, this passing of one age into another.

Arizonans themselves are wildly divided on the issue of immigration. Check out the comments section at the end of a recent Arizona Republic article about Sen. Russell Pearce denial of influence by the private prison lobby, calling the NPR article “a lie.” The arguments for and against the immigration bill are as divided as day and night in the Arizona desert – hot as hell, colder as shit — and are about as dry of solutions as that killing field at any time.

For example, in one exchange “Snaptie” commented,

Funny when you have a Racist organization like NPR with George Soros funded open borders socialistic beliefs society. They have absolutely no minorities as on air personalities. It’s proven the have not one conservative on the air either. Yep i believe them [Sarcasm]

To which “Noonetou” replied,

No, this is called reporting. I know that you are not used to that since you watch Faux News which does no reporting at all. It is not so much that the main stream media is liberal, it is more along the lines that the Right has fallen so far off the cliff that anything that the main stream media reports will seem liberal to you. Want proof? Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater would called liberals in today political climate and would not be welcome in the GOP. By the way Barry and Reagan were, at the time, considered very conservative when they were in office. So what does that say about how far the right the Right has gone? In all honesty I wish the REAL Republican party would come back to life, not this shame that we now call T-baggers and Conservatives!

And on it goes, for hundreds of comments. People in Arizona are obviously raw about the issue, perhaps more so because there’s no middle ground stand on any more.

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Daniel Moynihan once said that while everyone is entitled to their own set of opinions, no one is entitled to their own set of facts. As the journalistic center dissolves and the Internet gets loaded with sites playing fast and loose with the truth, the rancor of the divide grow increasingly fetid because no one knows how to properly call things much less what to know.

A caterwauling mess. I’m sure we aren’t standing in the middle of that squawk in Florida. Oh, wait a minute – Governor-Elect Rick Scott is a big supporter of the Arizona immigration law. Guess there’s no escaping a firestorm, not in Phoenix or Albuquerque or Oklahoma or Florida: Because what you run from inevitably becomes what you run smack into.

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Eight

If I were the Wichita Lineman –- and these days, who doesn’t feel somehow a bit like him? -– I would climb up there and put an ear to the whine of cables in full song.  Swinging in the high cold wilderness of winter, I would ask:

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– I want to know how things are going for the family and friends of Lance Corporal Randy R. Braggs of Sierra Vista, Arizona, who was killed last Saturday during combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan –- about the same time Brad Keselowski was celebrating his Nationwide Series championship after the Texas race). Braggs, 21, is the thirteenth member of his battalion to be killed since October 8. Deployed in late September, Braggs had hardly gotten Over There when he began his travels back toward Phoenix in a flag-draped coffin. Braggs joins fellow Arizonans Army Sergeant Aaron B. Cruttendon of Mesa (age 25) and Marine Lance Corporal Matthew J. Broehm of Flagstaff (age 22) among the month’s dead in Afghanistan:

How does it feel to come home too soon yet forever late, son of Arizona? And will you call the ground you’re to be buried in a place you’d call home?

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Lance Corporal Randy Bragg (right), age 21, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Nov. 6, 2010.

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– I would ask for the sound of Lauren’s voice, that girl in eighth grade who was the first person I fell for so hard and woundedly and impossibly. She arrived and left almost in the same gesture, standing at a door which she said but a few words from – a hi, a bye – with a smile whose welcome faded faster than the 1960s when they were done. I would ask to  see her face once again, peeled free of composite imagge of all the other women who lingered too short a while in my embrace and moved on, or were left behind as I kept searching for the one face which cannot exist without killing the quest, the desire, the never-fulfilled, at-long-last kiss:

Say hello once again, Love, just once, that once become  forever …

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– I’d would ask to hear  my kid brother’s voice once again,  Timm who died of a heart attack two and a half years ago after an early-evening jog in Salem, Oregon. It was spring and beautiful that night, according to his girlfriend, surprisingly warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. But my brother had been a wanderer for years, leaving behind his family to soothe old wounds with new ones. He was getting better -– some fundamental forgiveness had happened in his heart -– but he still kept like the wind at his back, a smart, lonely guy who took gorgeous pictures of Oregon and cruised dating sites while planning an eventual wedding with his girlfriend and wrote endless resumes stored on this laptop which I inherited from him after his death. He was just like me in physique and in so many interests, even though he was eight years younger and three thousand miles away. I was just beginning to get to know my kid brother when I lost him, and I listen for his voice at night:

Do still you roam the Oregon coast, looking for the last westwarding boat? Or are you near here, standing out in the garden in this depth of night where final pieces of the previous day fall, like silt, from the black sky? Speak … and know you are loved ….

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– I would ask where my stepdaughter is, separated from her now for 15 years after my divorce to my first wife. She was 18 by then and ready enough for the world, but things, I hear, did not go so well for her as she turned to coke and Ecstasy and alternated between good and bad men, having two children which my ex, I hear, is desperately trying to get custody of while her daughter dances in topless bars and hangs with men with lots of drugs. I had never thought to repeat the terrible wounding of my parents’ separation but I did, and in spades, doubling it by losing all contact with my step-daughter, a girl I had cared for as a father since she was nine:

Do you still hear the voice of the sea we once body-surfed in together at Melbourne Beach as I still do, deep in the reaches of your pillow as you sleep, or has the blasting rap and techno as you slither up and down fate’s cold stripper pole all but eliminated that soft uteral sound of love?

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– I would try to dial up on long-distance PFC Glenn Dick Kerns, killed in the battle of Dak To in Vietnam 43 years ago today, November 11, 2010. Kerns was 19 years old and had shipped over the previous August; like Lance Corporal Randy Braggs who died in combat a few days ago, he wasn’t long in the theatre before going home the hard way. His son Staff Sergeant Derick Ray Hunt—who never had a chance to meet his father–survived his tour of Iraq and learned some of his father from Andy Eiland, who served with Kerns and survived the battle of Dak To. Kerns was posthumuously awarded a Purple Heart Medal for his combat related wounds and buried in the cemetery of Deep Branch Baptist Church in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina. Not much trace of Glenn Kerns today – you can find his plot in the cemetery at Deep Branch, and his name is engraved on the smooth black marble walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, where many have gathered today to stroll and remember:

Letters carved in brass and marble – a name – one grainy picture – so many years silent now: Yet is that you with your ear bent to the radio in the ghostly ruins of Dak To, humming along to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” imagining an eastward heave far different from the one you made after the gunfire and grenades?

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– I would try to hear that low sexual sigh of the woman I left my wife for a decade ago when I was drinking so bad, during that bad winter of ’00 after George Bush became President and my life became a mad horse in a hurricane. I think of those cold nights we knocked back all those beers together, talking all kinds of shit, making every sort of promise I had no intention of fulfilling, abandoning myself to the booze, the desire, he fury of going at it every which way no matter the cost. Then I think of waking in the hungover gloom of that low-rent apartment and laying there wondering what my wife was doing at that moment in our much-emptier house in the small town we once called home far to the north. Not long after I left that woman, quit the booze and slowly found my way home, made my amends to my wife who made room for me once again in our bed. I never spoke again to that frail, so fuckable, so wrong, damaged woman, herself a mother at age 14 and then losing that son when he was murdered in prison at age 18:

How does the music go late at night in whatever trailer and man you’re now with? Do you remember, or is that too much of a poison to withstand, like the death of your son, like all the jobs you botched and lost, like all the other men’s money you’ve spent satisfying their desire? Do you sigh?

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– I would listen for strangely homeless sound inside this very house I now write in, mostly sweet yet never free of bitter … How is that people who know each other most find what’s truly alien about the Other lies in the mere inches which separates every body,  an unbreachable chasm in the tenderest goodnight kiss just before the lights go out, as if there was no true coming home beyond a certain homecoming of accepting one’s impermeable condition.  All else is imagined and impossible gravy, isn’t it my love, our years together molding our lives’ trunks together like two trees wrapped around each other, become one living entity with two sets of sap rising and falling across a distance measured in inches and yet is infinitely far, as far as the sea, as high as the moon?

Can you hear me singing as you sleep, love? Does my voice reach you like the gentlest touch at first light, or is it only more cold starlight, present yet alien, akin or identical to this lonely walk we call a life?

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– And finally I think of Jimmie Johnson on his way now to Phoenix, with all those championships racked up in a place inside that is somehow paling fast, their grains slipping through the hourglass like so much wind in the wires, this next race demanding everything and more from him, his team and crew chief, just when none of whom quite seem up to the task as much as the No. 11 and 29 teams.  So much else presses in now than when he began to tear up the tracks – marriage, fatherhood, charities, the indulged life of the multi-millionaire, fame’s steady spotlight which nearly shadows the rest of the field. All of that makes Her seem distant, and he knows that the moon is a harsh mistress, and will not tolerate such falterings of devotion, will not tolerate much of anything except Victory and Championship, things which have faded from his eyes:

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Are you still gunning, Jimmie, still in the quest? Are you game enough to go hellbent for a change? Are you willing to give everything of your much larger, richer, wider, happier life to Her in that clinch? Or have you heard the cold wind this dark night, and seen the moon through the window of passage- trailer or car or jet -– the moon with its ghostly semaphor and metaphor of separation, itself wrenched from the sea billions of years ago, the first lonely Wichita Lineman, sailing high over the earth, hauling tides and hearts in its silver wake? Do you see the moon, Jimmie, and know?

Are you singing along right now, not to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” or “The Wichita Lineman” but that third, perhaps most indelible Jimmie Webb song of all, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” –- the hardest song of all to sing for anyone who has heard Her voice on the wires for so long ….

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

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What’s it gonna be, Jimmie? Pedal to the metal this one defining time? Or will you at juncture simply drive on, out of the raceway and onto the long road to obscurity, Phoenix to Albuquerque to Oklahoma, driving all night till you come to that stretch of power lines on the freezing, wind-heaved border to winter.

How much colder it is outside your Chevy, Jimmie, standing there in the place where the winds of winter blow forever? Will you call up to the dark figure working above, the one with a big yellow “24” painted on the back of his orange parka: and call him down —  shift change – and when Gordon climbs down, will you know the look in his face because you wear it now, too, knowing at this end of your career that

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

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What REALLY scares me about Talladega


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St. Oran’s Day, 2010

“Talladega is scary enough for me without Halloween.” – Elliott Sadler

“The primary and most beautiful of Nature’s qualities is motion, which agitates her at all times, but this motion is simply a perpetual consequence of crimes, she conserves it by means of crimes only.”  – Marquis de Sade

“… Let me just quote the late great Colonel Sanders, he said, ‘I’m too drunk to taste this chicken’ —  Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

Dover may have the Monster Mile – and a Hulk-like statue representing its resident bugaboo, towering over all who enter the track and, in itsy-bitsy-scale, given to the race’s winner with a scale model of the winner’s caw in its paw – but Talladega is the Beast Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, especially at night — a Hell-house where speed, hubris, mayhem and bloodthirsty fans combine to make it the scariest track in all of NASCAR.

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And, of course, the fall race is usually scheduled around Halloween (this year it falls right on the spookiest holiday of the year), so weirdness is given a full-mooned magnitude.

That this race — the wildest, most dangerous and unpredictable race on the circuit — also happens to be the most crucial of the Chase races, falling at the time when the few true competitors separate from the rest of the Chase pack–it’s enough to make the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick shake in their boots, who are separated by a mere 67 Chase points.

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There is no way to out-drive Talladega; you just go fast and draft, stay out of the way somehow of the Big One always about to happen and then scoot ahead at the last minute, coming out of Turn 4 of the very last lap.

The three leading Chase drivers all have middling records there, but that’s as good as anyone gets in the whirling blades of Talladega-style fate. Kevin Harvick’s average finish at Talladega is 15.5 (he’s won there once in 19 starts, in this year’s spring race); Denny Hamlin’s is 16 (no wins in 9 starts, 2 DNFs); and Jimmie Johnson has a 17.8 average finish in 17 starts, with one win and 7 DNF’s including four crashes.

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Brian Vickers won the 2006 fall race at Talladega by spinning Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson on the final lap.

Perhaps the most masterfully controlled driver of them all, it’s not surprising that Jimmie Johnson hates Talladega. Talent aside, his mojo is small, too, at this track; Wynona is elsewhere, probably hungover in the skankiest camper of the down-and-dirtiest infield partier in the universe.

Talladega is a track with a curse, whispered with variations, the way all ghost stories grow like black vines in the minds of a culture, One story has it that after local Talladega Creeks were slaughtered by warriors of the larger Creek nation in retaliation for their collaborating with the forces of Andrew Jackson, a Talladega shaman cast a curse on Dry Valley as the survivors left.

But legends of curse would not arise had not the track’s history been an oval petri dish for spooky culture, weirded as it has been by corporate skullduggery, freak accidents, Bigger Ones than anywhere else on the circuit and a trick-or-treater’s lusty thirst for all-out, hell-raisin’ partying.

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For the full-mooned lowdown, see my post from earlier this year, Big Bill France and NASCAR’s Temple of Doom. Suffice to say here that Hallow-Dega promises to be true to form – predictable only in mayhem, naughtiness and redline blood alcohol content.

But there is more to Talledega’s story than its story, if you get my drift-—and have the patience to follow my riffs …

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An old Irish saying goes, “Say this three times, with your eyes shut / And you will see / What you will see.”

It helps to see some things with eyes shut. The universe, as the space scientist now come to know, is mostly dark matter and dark energy, stuff which can’t be seen or known but by how it affects the visible universe. They now postulate that an entire universe may be operating inside our own; inside our own bodies the dark elements pass, tiding with news we can’t know, but is. If you have read this far in the post, about a billion of these loosly-arranged particles have streamed through, a billion ghosts emerging from their dark forest to come and go through you, talking of dark Michaelangelo …

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So assume, if you will, that there is an underside to Talladega which has shaped its history, the way dark matter gave our galaxies their spiral whorls. We get to that Other World darkly, through dark portals in the mind, the heart …

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“Hallow-Dega,” as it has come to be known, refers more to nightside spookiness than racin’ – it’s booze-fuelled, costmed revelry casting a strange hangover on the race proceedings of the next day. A pall of excess which casts long blue shadows from the cars, even at high noon.

It’s all in good fun, right? A chance to get loose and wild, forget about the big bad world, the economy, the frantic, manic, ugly polticiking that has consumed the country, and indulge in hard liquor, loud racin’ and bad women. Sweet home Alabama, indeed.

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Yet Hallow-Dega’s vibe cannot help but take on a darker tenor from just how much bad world there is out there. Like the nipple of a greater exposed hooter, the haunting of Talladega is fed by the collective scream-fest of its participants. And there’s a lot to get spooked about. The following itinerary is just a few things which have somehow been thrown into that oval witch’s cauldron –- the bat’s ear and eye of newt foraged from the dark forest of events which convinces me that the Hallowe’en tradition of the dead loosed on earth for a night has, like so many other things, gone 24-7-365.

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There is an old Irish fairy tale about a king’s storyteller who woke one day without a new story to tell the king. It had never happened before, and he was appalled. What was he going to sing to the king that night?

Puzzling over his predicament, the storyteller walks over hill and through dale until he comes across a beggarman lying on the ground who challenges him to three rounds of dice, the first two which he wins (the beggarman has a secret bag of gold tied to his belt, and gives it up freely after losing), but on the third toss the storyteller loses, and the beggar demands his wife.

To game back his wife, the storyteller plays with his own life at stake – and loses again. His soul belongs to the beggarman now, and he is transformed by that Otherworldly figure him into a hare, tormenting him with various butt-biting pursuits dogs and the like.

He then makes the storyteller invisible and goes calling on King Red O’Donnell, dressed in his beggar rags and conniving all of O’Donnell’s silver from him through a variety of tricks.

At night’s end (which is really the end of day in our world), the beggarman returns the storyteller to his old stature (along with his wife and all of his belongings) and says simply, “Now you have a story to tell the king.” And walks off into mist, whistling merrily.

So, having already supped full well with Talladega’s known horrors, I offer a parallel universe of dark tales from our world which fans and drivers and owners and officials all bring, in varied mixtures of dread and denial, with them to that mad track, begging this question: who—or what’s– truly cooking at Hallow-Dega?

Bone appetit

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The Beast of the Gulf

Out in the Gulf of Mexico, things on the surface are calm, glittery with full moonlight, rocking gently and uteral while shrimp trawlers file out of their late-late-late-night ports, back in business again. Whatever desperately expensive measures taken by British Petroleum to contain and quell the spill of 4 million barrels of oil from the ass end of its exploded Deepwater Horizon well, none of them equaled the quiet (OK, biological) heroics of a heretofore-unknown microbe, devouring most of the oil floating on the surface.

The broken well eventually was capped and coastal damage was relatively slight – spookily so. Still, everyone knows that most of that spilled oil is just floating around in the middle leagues of the Gulf, between surface and abyss. And no one knows what that immense drifting black plume will do in the coming decades.

And whatever that damage to the environment might finally tally up to, the fear — the emotional and psychological damage — may even be greater. A recent poll conducted by Auburn University shows that some 71 percent of Alabamans believe that permanent damage has been done to their Gulf, with 61 percent saying that their own household had been negatively afflicted by the consequences of the spill. Thirty-two percent said they would pack up and leave the area if they could.

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If they could. But movement isn’t an option for so many recession-racked Americans, their mortgages underwater, unemployment forcing them into smaller and meaner circumstances. British Petroleum did a bang-up PR job of getting the heat off of them, but millions along the Gulf Coast know the beast is still out there, a giant black manta fanning its miles-wide wings of oil, waiting, waiting, for its shadow to do the damage, upon sea-life, shores and psyches alike—not tomorrow, or the next, but over the cumulative toll of years.

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A ghost compound in the mountains of Afghanistan

Last week, NPR reported on a foray of troops of Alpha Company of the 3-327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, onto the Ghaki mountain pass in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, in search of Taliban insurgents. Alpha Company had recently been part of the massive search for Linda Norgrove, the Scottish aid worker who had been kidnapped by Taliban insurgents and killed by an American grenade during the rescue operation.

As soon as their Chinook helicopter landed and the hatch opened, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired directly in, killing an Afghan interpreter and wounding four others. The Chinook was disabled. With just one wheel on the ground and half of the wounded helicopter hanging over a 7,000-foot cliff, troops jumped to the ground. Some of them set up guard while waiting for relief to come in, while other fanned out in search of hostiles, warned that “friendlies” were in the area as well. What does it do to the mind of a soldier when any man could be both?

Along their patrol, Alpha Company came across an abandoned base, a bunkered outpost where they found spent carbine shells—signs of a recent battle – as well as fleece jackets and sleeping bags, stuff normally not left behind. They also found vehicles clustered together and burnt and a bunker that had been bombed. Funny thing is, it wasn’t bombed from without; the mystery occupants had destroyed it themselves. Fleeing Taliban? Nope. The soldiers credited it to “OGA’s” – members of the Other Government Agency, meaning the CIA. CIA ops apparently had been defending the pass (the CIA had declined comment on the story), waiting for Afghan milita to replace them; but the Afghans had never arrived and they got the hell out of there before any official American presence was called in.

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A mystery base in a mystery war, with mysterious opponents with murky allegiances, in a war with no apparent end or design, against an opponent more steely in its resolve than found anywhere in the world. A haunted place that drains American will like blood.

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A case of the pot calling the kettle, er, biased: Bill O’Reilly of FOX News and Juan Williams, former NPR journalist now Fair And Balanced, FOX-style.

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Deals with the Devil

NPR, as you know, has been in the crosshairs of the aggrieved and mobilized right over the firing of long-time correspondent Juan Williams, also now an employ of FOX News, for some offhand comments he made about Muslims on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The comments seem innocuous enough — O’Reilly had been looking for support for his own remarks made on a recent episode of ABC’s The View in which he directly blamed Muslims for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (Co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the set in the middle of his appearance.) Williams then responded: “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams – a journalist I’ve admired over the years, whose news analysis seemed sound until he started working for FOX – was fired for what NPR CEO Vivian Schiller says were remarks ”inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR.” She added that Williams had been warned in the past to keep his opinions out of his journalism, something which he was given free reign to do at “fair and balanced FOX,” which has set the low bar for selling opinion as news.

Williams was aggrieved, saying in a piece on FOX News,

They have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Williams is calling for the cutoff of taxpayer funding for NPR, considered one of them most sound journalistic enterprises in all media, and he’s joined by a chorus of aggrieved Republicans and FOX wonks (Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are both) accusing NPR of bigotry and liberal bias.

Williams has signed on a $2 million contract with FOX—jackpot for a journalist, most of whom work for low pay under the constant shadow of having their jobs eliminated to bolster corporate profits.  And he’s free now to say whatever he wants to, because FOX doesn’t have journalistic standards, and has a culture where outrageousness is encouraged.  (As when commentator Liz Trotta remarked in May 2008 that somewhat  ought to “knock off” Osama Bin Laden – and Barack Obama.)

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Williams is free to slug away, Liz Trotta-style, with a network who’s much like NASCAR in its “have at it, boys” opinion-as-news style.

Williams carries with him to FOX journalist cred—-albeit a quickly-fraying one—-which the network will use, in blackface, to pander its hardcore parody of news in the service of GOP PR.

(News Corp., which owns FOX News, donated $1.25 million last year to the Republican Governors Association, a PAC created to defeat Democratic candidates, as well as $1 million to the U.S. Chamber, a $75 million fund which is paying for a sizable chunk of attack ads against Democrats in races across the country. News Corp. didn’t admit to the donations until after it was reported elsewhere in the press. CEO Rupert Murdoch has said that the donations were made because it is “in the interest of the country and of all the shareholders … that there be a fair amount of change in Washington.” Emphasis on those big-business stockholders …)

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Rupert Murdoch is all for pro-business politics in Washington.

Enjoy your new freedom of expression, Williams. And thanks for your new career handicapping the Fourth Estate’s function of keeping government honest and open. And for assuring our next generation that anything you say can be taken for truth in a media where anything goes. Now go and enjoy that big fat paycheck while your peers wonder what the fuck they’re going to do when their 99 weeks of government federal unemployment assistance is exhausted.

You know what a FOX teabagger is? One of the talking heads on that channel who licks the marbles of Rupert Murdoch as he sodomizes America for his shareholders.

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A Truth, Drowned in Dope

I turn to NPR—one of the last bastions of decent journalism–for the next story.

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Tiffany and David Hartley.

The lure was a partially drowned church. Tiffany and David Hartley were on vacation, jet-skiing together on Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas. The church was on Mexican side of the lake; American tourists had often headed over there to take pictures and fish for bass.

It somewhere near that water-mortared church that David Hartley was shot in the head. His wife Tiffany called 911 and said she couldn’t get the body on to her jet-ski and then, with more shots being fired at her, she fled for her life.

Investigators believe that Hartley was killed by halcones – lookouts for drug runners. In a further gruesome twist, the Mexican investigator in the case was killed and decapitated, his head sent to authorities inside a suitcase.

The search for Hartley’s body was soon after called off by Mexican authorities. Tiffany Hartley wants her husband’s body back before returning to their native Colorado, but there’s not much American authorities can do.

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Members of the Los Zetas gang, purported to have a growing presence along the Texas-Mexico border.

“This is a weird case,” a U.S. homeland security official said. The cartels know that killing Americans is bad for business.” Best guess so far is that the halcones were young, trigger-happy recruits who might have wanted the jet skis.

On Oct. 6, Tiffany Hartley and family members were escorted by Texas Parks and Wildlife to the spot on Falcon Lake where David Hartley disappeared, there to lay a wreath on the water.

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David Hartley’s body is probably floating down there in the nave of that drowned church, a fresh soul recruited in the brutal supply of dope (pot, coke and meth) to American addicts. (Ironically, David Hartley was an oil field worker – a tradesman in the traffic of cheap energy, that other American addiction.)

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For Alabamans, the bulk of their illegal drugs comes from Colombian, Mexican, and Caribbean Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs, and those organizations maintain extensive distribution networks within the state. (Motorcycle gangs deal in meth as well, but on a much more limited basis.)

Methamphetamine has become the drug of choice in many impoverished rural areas – in Alabama, the unemployment rate is around 20 percent in those places—and its credited with the rise in thefts, violent assaults, and burglaries in those areas. But heck – street dope dealers can make about $5,000 a week, as long as they can last before getting killed or busted. It’s not so much a choice between safe or dicey as between nothing or everything.

On Oct. 19, a routine traffic stop on Interstate 20 near Leeds–a town about 20 miles away from Talladega–led to the confiscation of some 90 kilograms of cocaine worth about 5.4 million. The driver of the truck, 35-year-old Juan Rios of McAllen, TX, is being held without bond in the Jefferson County jail. (McAllen is about 80 miles east of Falcon Lake along US-83.)

Seargant Dewayne McCarver, commander of the Huntsville-Madison County (AL) Strategic Counterdrug Team, is working hard against the rising tide of drugs in his area. “I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of all crime revolves around the drug culture,” he said. “It’s amazing what a crackhead will do for one rock. If we get the drugs off the street at any level, it saves lives to some extent.” The Talladega County Drug and Violent Crime Task Force carried out warrants at 243 meth labs in the first three quarters of this year alone.

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Meth will fuck you up fast. These crime mugs of the same meth addict were taken a year and a half apart.

The biggest challenge to the illegal drug trade, however, isn’t law enforcement. It’s the growing popularity of contraband pharmaceuticals, especially painkillers like oxycontin and dilaulid. And a lot of those pharms aren’t stolen from drugstores or bought on the street, but rather lifted from Mom’s medicine cabinet. Last year, fatal overdoses from painkillers overtook those from heroin abuse.

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The Daily Home, based in St. Clair and Talladega Counties, reports that prescription drugs have reached epidemic proportions in their school system. “Ninety percent of our problem with drugs is from prescription drugs,” says school superintendent Dr. Bobby Hathcock. There have been fatalities from teenagers taking several medications at once. St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor says they have prosecuted adults who keep their medicine cabinets unlocked under the charge of “chemical endangerment of a child.”

Pharmaceutical cartels aren’t much different from their dirtier brothers across the border who traffic in illicit drugs. They both are invested to the teeth in making sure that the means of fleeing reality are readily at hand.

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Reality – our truth – is the cathedral that’s been swamped by all the means of evading it. As long as fear truth, opiates will abound. And Lord how they abound, like sweet black floodwaters covering the heads of millions for whom letting go to abandonment is far easier than holding on to next to nothing.

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Razor Blades in the Eye Candy

The weekend’s box office king was Paranormal Activity 2, a $3 million, R-rated creep-fest, taking in some $41.5 million in theaters. The entire action is supposedly recorded on home video and surveillance-video footage of Otherworld menace in a hapless middle-class couple’s home.

Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s $50 million Oscar-seeking movie Hereafter –– a more highbrow take on the presence of death in life –- was a comparative yawner, ranking fourth in box-office take and raking in just $4 million in its opening weekend.

Well, as Sam Zell, the rogue owner of Tribune Corporation famously said, “Pulitzers don’t sell papers,” and studio execs know that lowbrow gets the biggest bang for the fewest bucks. That’s why few and fewer of Eastwood’s type of film is getting made in Hollywood, in favor of cheapo grossout flicks which have a short shelf-life in theaters but do big business in DVD sales (which are often unrated and, hence, even grosser) domestically and overseas.

To wit, Saw 3D, the seventh installment of the torture-til-ya-puke gorefest, releases soon on a franchise that has grossed $340 million dollars worldwide.

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Plural victims of a franchise’s singular device.

3D has given the movie theaters a needed shot in the arm, and while there have been some magnificent creations in the medium—-like James Cameron’s Avatar—-you’re more likely to see something like Saw put stuff that’s nobody’s business right in your face. (The premiere of Jackass 3D, by the way, was the box-office winner the previous week, offering more the next 90 minutes of maxiumum grossout in sleazy stunts.)

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The testicularly-abused crew of “Jackass 3D.”

The taste for “ultraviolence” —- as it was called by droogie Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange –- is, it seems insatiable, a pit with no apparent bottom to it. Movies are just part of well-liquors offering shots of ultraviolence -– there are video games, the Internet, and home-grown splatter using digital cams of every description.

Oh, and did I mention porn? … There’s probably only one thing guys like to see than people getting mangled and killed, it’s women getting fucked. Probably horns of the same beast.

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Digital video technology is making horror and porn a socially networked enterprise, available to all.

And for top-lifting nubiles in the Talladega infield, we have only to consider sex tapes released by the likes of divas Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to get a sense of where their permission-—and searingly low-bottom fame—-comes from.

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Paris and Kim show their celebrity-eyed fans what to do – and how.

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True Blood

There’s plenty of blood sport on TV these days. I wonder if the NFL has ratcheted up the on-the-field violence in response to the challenge from televised ultimate fighting bouts. In an especially vicious weekend a few weeks ago, players taking hits to the head by defenders’ helmets were knocked flat, suffering concussions. This came a day after a Rutgers college player was paralyzed by a helmet-first collision, and discussion has been rife all season about the long-term consequences of hits to the head. Now the NFL is stepping in, levying fines of up to $50,000 for what they are deeming illegal hits.

The increasing viciousness of defenders is as much a product of the culture as the sport, as they go at receivers trained fighting dogs. But the NFL has to tread carefully, because they could err the way of NASCAR by draining too much of the danger from the sport. It’s what the bread-and-butter fans pay for, that blood.

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But you can recognize the rock-and-a-hard-place juncture that the NFL stands at. Facing increasing criticism from the medical profession for the consequences of what they do best, they have to set limits. Yet those very limits will just drive fans on to bloodier venues.

In Alabama, heavy-hitting football is a manly tradition – the SEC is one of the most brutal in the country – and Alabamans have much to root for with the Auburn Tigers and the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama, currently ranked first and seventh in the BCS rankings.

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The Iron Bowl.

The big big game for Alabamans is the Iron Bowl, the showdown between Auburn and Alabama on the day after Thanksgiving. Alabama has won the past two contests, with Auburn winning the previous six.

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Crimson Tide alumnus Mark Forester of Haleyville was planning to return for the game after finishing a stint in Afghanistan as a senior airman out of Pope Air Force Base. But on a mission in Uruzgan Province on Sept. 29 he was killed trying to rescue a stricken comrade (who also died) when his Special Forces unit came under fire.

More than 80 members of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron from Pope AFB attended Forester’s funeral in his hometown, and the streets of Haleyville were lined with locals who had turned out to honor their own. A friend said that Forster “firmly believed that his purpose and duty in life was to the United States. He felt like that was what God put him on the planet to do -— literally.  He was just a patriot to the core.”

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Forester had been deployed in Afghanistan two months ago. He was the fourth member of his unit to be killed in action over a two-week period.

405 Americans have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded in Afghanistan since the start of the year. The reality of that conflict has been kept carefully out of our sight until Wikileaks came along. Now in its ninth year, this war grinds on, slowly eating into the American psyche through a slowly spreading network of grief and fear.

For many young Americans, the military is the only work available to them. Whether they go out of patriotism or necessity, there is an increasing awareness among deploying soldiers that they may not be coming back – or coming back missing limbs or some part of their minds. Something tells me that dread of that reality represses itself by means of blood sport – a catharsis, but a problematic one, because you can’t purge the darkness just by pumping up its volume.

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Tea Party jackboot fascist has meaningful discussion with MoveOn.org protester.

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Politics as Satanic Mass

Whatever ultraviolence—-fancied and/or real–is being suckled from bad mama’s teat by young fans I can reluctantly pardon, given the behavior of their political elders. These guys are hammering and screwing everyone in sight in this most-vicious midterm election season ever.

OK, everyone’s pissed at Washington and the stagnating economy. It’s just that no one knows who to properly blame. But if you have failed to cover your ears and eyes whenever the networks cut to a commericial, you have been toxically  exposed to the sewering howl of attack ads.

You will emerge from their bloodbath dripping with the conviction that all polticians are scuzzbags, clowns, cronies, anti-Americans, Bible-stompers, mother-haters, gun-banners, baby-killers, animal-euthinizers, Constitutional hijackers and/or gavel-weilding socialists who would as soon let docs to kill your granddaddy as use the part of the Constitution about the separation of church and state for buttwipe.

Did I miss anything? Of course I did; the assault is endless and reaches its most fevered, bottomless pitch this final weekend before Election Day. The true house of horrors this season springs out every time they cut to a commercial.

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Surely separated at birth: Rick Scott and Freddy Kueger.

I don’t know which race ranks sets the standard of sliminess for our younger generation—-there are so damn many. Here in Florida, I’d have to go with the campaign of Republican Rick Scott for Governor of Florida. Scott was infamously forced out as CEO of Columbia Healthcare back in the late ‘90’s after it got hit with a $1.7 billion dollar fine for Medicare fraud; he later took the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a single deposition attempting to determine his role in the fraud. Flush with cash from his executive buyout package, Scott began numerous investment funds which grew his nest egg to $218 million – a fund which became an inexhaustible political war chest.

Scott spent $45 million of his own money to defeat Republican primary challenger Bill McCollum. Asked in August if there is any limit to the funds he would invest in the general election, Scott said “no”.

He’s effectively outspent Democratic rival Alex Sink with another $25 million in attack ads. He’s fought the obvious criticism from his opponent about his billion-dollar felon status with suggestions that Sink had a hand in a $6.7 million fine paid by the parent company of a bank she was CEO of for allowing an affiliated company to steer bank customers into high-risk securities — a practice Sink says she had no authority over.

In recent days, Scott has pulled ahead in the polls, and if the Republican turnout on Nov. 4 will be as sizeable as predicted, he will prove that any crook with enough dough can build image that doesn’t exist merely by destroying his opponent. It’s an old right-wing talk radio tactic: demonize your opponent’s virtues and then you don’t have but the vaguest stand of your own). Add $60 million from your fraud nest egg and bingo: Big money always wins.

Way to go, Rick Scott.

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To this observer, Alabama politics is about as hard-hitting as its football, with the corruptive lubrication of big money always in the works.

Indeed, Alabama’s mid-term election comes on the heels of a cash-for-votes bribery scandal involving 11 state legislators, lobbyists and businessmen attempting to legalize bingo gambling in the state. (One of the state legislators involved was Jim Preuitt of Talladga.)

Not to be outdone in dastardliness, the mid-term races in Alabama are showing what contemporary politics can lower itself to:

– In the Alabama Fifth Congressional race between Democrat Steve Raby and Republican Mo Brooks, the two seem like bizarre inversions of the other. Raby, the Democrat, is a lifetime member of the NRA, a deacon in his Baptist church, is pro-life and has farmed since high school. Brooks, his Republican opponent, is an attorney, well-educated, is a member of the Sierra Club and prefers tennis to hunting. And yet the two accuse the other of the stock-in-trade epithets of the season, the more conservative Raby glued to Nancy Pelosi’s agenda by Brooks, Brooks hung with the Tea Party mantle of “silliness” by Raby. None of it makes sense to me, but the epithets somehow stick.

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Bizarro World, Alabama Style: Democratic candidate Steve Raby is the gun-toting, right-to-life conservative farmer, and Republican Mo Brooks is a tennis-playing, Sierra-Club supporting attorney.

– Black voters in Alabama are receiving recorded phone calls saying that blacks risk “going back to the cotton fields of Jim Crow days” unless Democrats Ron Sparks and Jim Folsom are elected. The robocalls were placed by state Sen. Hank Sanders, a Selma Democrat who made the calls for the Alabama New South Coalition. Democrats likely need a strong turnout among black voters in Alabama to elect Sparks to the governor’s office and Folsom as lieutenant governor.

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right: Democratic incumbent Bobby Bright of Alabama is facing withering attacks from both Democrats and Republicans in his re-election bid.

– Some candidates are taking flak from both sides. The left-leaning Blue America PAC is spending some $50,000 to run attack ads against Rep. Bobby Bright, a Democrat congressman running for re-election in a very conservative district. Bright had distinguished himself as a right-leaning Democrat, distancing himself from the party’s agenda and saying he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the house. He’s also under attack by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the conservative American Future Fund for being, well, a Democrat.

– Republican Robert Bentley holds a 20-point lead over his Democratic rival Ron Sparks in his bid for the governor’s mansion. That despite the gaming scandal under the former Republican governor’s watch; he’s even suggested that voters be allowed to have a say in the bingo issue. Sparks has said it’s not so simple, since gaming requires state regulation; and even though both Republican and Democratic legislators were caught up in the scandal, the ire of voters seems to be pointed against Democrats, and Sparks looks to be one of those victims.

Why? Because Alabama politics is rife with corruption, and that seems fine with Alabamans as long as there’s money in it for them. Indeed, in addition to the bribery scandal under the former Republican governor’s watch, many jobs were created. Five Alabama metro areas were among the top 10 American cities posting the most significant declines over the past year.

That has translated to a 9.1 percent unemployment rate for the state – good news, especially for Republican gubernatorial hopefuls – though rural areas lag far behind at around 20 percent. (Ironically, demand for cotton by Chinese mills is at an all-time high, raising cotton prices to levels not seen since 1870; however, draught in Alabaman has local farmers looking to just break even on this year’s crop.)

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Alabama cotton farmers can’t get a break for nuthin’.

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The Curse

Talladega Speedway, as most of you know, is said to be cursed, built on an Indian burial ground, or cursed by a departing Talladega shaman after the tribe was crushed by Creek enemies for collaboration with Andrew Jackson’s white soldiers.

Curses cuts several ways.Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done well racin’ at Talladega – he’s won it six times – but that seems to have cursed his latter career, as he has not won now since 2008. Jimmie Johnson has won only once at Talladega and crashed frequently, but he’s won four consecutive Sprint Cup championships. Fate is topsy-turvy at Talladega, an equivocation which is fair and foul at once.

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A Cleveland DJ by the name of Rover hired a witch doctor recently to put a curse on LeBron James, Miami Heat player recently deserted of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Something tells me that James will continue to play at a stellar level, while Cleveland will remain cursed by lousy sports teams.

Women who hate their monthly menstruation rituals – known, in most circles, as “the curse” – can opt now for medications which shorten or even eliminate menstruation. The meds are really for birth control, preventing ovulation. It’s another fix for a sexually obsessed culture, joining the ranks of breast augmentation and mood pills to keep our gals shining and young and ready to hook up at a whim’s notice. And yes, I’d want the same thing too if I had to endure the discomfort and embarassment of bloody thongs every month; the male correlative is certainly Viagra, a physic for droopy-dick-in-the-clinch syndrome. Perhaps our curse is not found in our on-again, off-again bodies but rather in our minds, which are cursed with the mania of perfection, hairless bodies with six-pack abs and enormous boobs, primed penises and clot-free vaginal gullies pistoning in endless abandon, babies and age be damned.

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Curse is the conviction that one is being preyed upon the by ill will of another – God or Devil, bad Mommy or really bad Daddy, bullies at school, a vengeful ex, even stepping on an invisible tripwire on a spree anonymous bum events, psychologically or spiritually accident-prone, invoking a comedy of tortured errors.

Our response to curse is to find cures; they are perhaps two faces of the same thing. Lord knows the physics and compulsive rituals meant to rid oneself of the freezing jail of the cursed life – psychotropics, pain meds, booze, sex addiction, gambling, extreme sports, binge-and-purging, shopping, blogging. Of course, cures eventually become the curse, snarling the cursed in a web of accursed cures, the obsessive repetition of the nightly blackout drunk, the manic rituals of endless hand-washing and gripping fear of stepping outside into the big bad world, the eternal pursuit of oblivion inside (or penetrated by) the next dick or pussy in the nightly parade.

For most who have fought their way through their cures – through therapy or recovery or whatever manner of travailing through the dark forest to morning – there is often a sense that the curse was a blessing in disguise, forcing movement through all the false remedies, come to a grown-up recognition that the world never centered enough around you to bother with curse, that your affliction was in a sickened mind to begin with, that cure meant in some way coming to love the curse. Ranier Maria Rilke, the great German poet of the early 20th century, famously refused analysis by Sigmund Freud, stating, “If you rid me of my devils, you will surely banish my angels as well.”

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The Marquis de Sade.

Perhaps Marquis de Sade, that badboy rogue of the 18th century, was right when he wrote, “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice … It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.” Problem is, it’s just so damn easy to get lost in the forest of cure and stay there. For all the avenues of recovery that have become available to alcoholics, still about 95 percent of them die drunk. The cure is too damn sweet to let go of, or rather the fantasy of curse is too strong.

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The Talladega curse afflicts fans as well and drivers alike, if you buy the premise of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, where Bobby (loosely an incarnation of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) loses his track mojo in a wreck at Talladega and goes mad, unable to drive without becoming  convinced that his head is on fire. He spirals down from the heights of NASCAR fame, divorced by his wife (who only wanted to be married to a NASCAR champion), moving in with his mother and delivering pizzas on a bicycle. And then his absent father Reese (loosely Dale Earnhardt Sr.) re-enters his life, teaching him to translate his fear of driving into reckless abandon once again. That, and love of a woman – a waitress who surely plays the role of Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of fate – gets Ricky Bobby behind the wheel again, racing at the Talladega 400. He wrecks on the final lap racing his arch-nemesis, running to the finish line (the way Carl Edwards did when his car wrecked on the last lap of the 2009 spring race at ‘Dega). He doesn’t win the race, but the champion chump is back in full glory and ignorance, having overcome the curse of his own fear.

Could this weekend’s Amp Energy 500 be such a test for Jimmie Johnson, flagging in the points, about to be passed by Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick, a restrictor-plate-race master who won the spring race at Talladega this year?

Many fans believe that Jimmie is too beloved by his NASCAR elders, a favored son given favored treatment. Last week at Martinsville, a drive-shaft cover for the No. 48 Chevrolet was confiscated during inspection, although officials merely asked the team to replace the part. Coming off the draconian points-dock and suspension and fines of Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevy a few weeks ago for a seeming infinitesimal excess of chassis height discovered in a post-race inspection following his win at New Hampshire on Sept. 19, the free pass of the No. 48 made many fans believe his legend is engineered not so much by Hendrick Motorsports or Wynona but rather NASCAR Corp. To me it seems silly – NASCAR knows that Johnson’s seemingly permanent lock on the championship isn’t popular with fans, why wouldn’t they try to level the field away from him?

Maybe they simply trust Talladega to do that work.

This weekend’s Amp Energy 500 will feature the premiere of The Legend of Hallowdega, an Amp Energy-sponsored short film directed by Terry Gilliam (a founding member of Monty Python and the creator of films like The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys). David Arquette and Justin Kirk star in the 15-minute film which purports to delve into the spookier lore of Talladega, like the story that Talladega was built on an Indian burial ground and Bobby Isaac had actually pulled out of one race because he’d heard a voice tell him to boogity off the track.

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The movie will be played in mobile theaters around Talladega this weekend, and a 2-minute version of it will be televised during ESPN’s race telecast. (The full version will be available for viewing after the Oct. 31 race at http://www.legendofhallowdega.com)

Apparently the folks at Talladega Speedway are looking for some image cure. “The great folks at AMP Energy Juice have developed a new and innovative idea to research and debunk some of the myths surrounding HALLOW-DEGA,” said Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch. “We anxiously await the release of the film to see what Terry Gilliam and AMP Energy Juice have come up with.” The staged exorcism of Talladega’s curse by an Indian shaman back in 2009 must not have been successful, but then it may have been falling track attendance rather than trackside mayhem the track’s ruling elders were truly concerned about.

The folks at Amp Energy seem to have more personal, poisonal ambitions than that, given this final paragraph in an announcement of the movie in The Sporting News:

Amp Energy expanded its marketing budget for the Talladega race in order to develop the film. To measure the return on its investment, the brand will monitor paid media and earned media impressions.

Oh, right–it’s a commercial. Something tells me that humoring the fans with a commercial isn’t going to rectify ‘Dega’s resource issues.

Well, it’s a paycheck for Gilliam. He could sure use it: the once-successful director’s recent work has been cursed by all manner of project-ruining disasters. In 1999, while attempting to film The Man Who Killed Don Quioxte, the leading actor suffered a herniated disc on the first day of shooting, and then the set was severely damaged by a flood, causing the film to be cancelled at a $32 million loss. A decade later, he was filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in New York City when lead actor Heath Ledger died. He himself was struck by a bus while filming and broke his back.

Fateful choice wouldn’t you say, to be the man chosen to direct a comic movie about the curse of Talladega?

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Well, a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. And a brand’s gotta keep the franchise hoppin’.

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It’s All About Speed

I doubt Amp Energy expects to get much actual mileage out of Dale Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevrolet they sponsor has been a middle-of-the-packer all season long. The Earnhardt Jr. franchise has lost a lot of its lustre, but Dale Jr. fans are die-hard believers, standing by their man through thick and thin. (Last week, Earnhardt led in Martinsville for an entire lap, and the stadium came alive with hooting, roaring applause.)

Speed and energy drinks seem to have a comfortable, if disastrous relationship. Kasey Kahne finishes driving the season with Team Red Bull after jumping ship at Richard Petty Motorsports. Energy drinks are liquid speed, anyway, legal speed which emulates amphetamines the way crushed Oxycontin rivals herion. Down enough Amp Energy drinks and you can drink all weekend, watch the races and survive the drive home. (Try your luck, boys. Last spring Alabama State Troopers arrested 127 for driving under the influence over the race weekend.)

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The new fun badboy drink on the market is Four Loko, a fruit-flavored malt beverage with an alcohol content of 12 percent (beer runs at about 6 percent) and laced with enough caffeine as a cup of coffee (156 milligrams), collapsing the beer-can / energy drink conundrum in one convenient container.

It’s potent stuff, and with its colorful packaging and flavors like watermelon, blue raspberry and lemon-lime, it’s especially popular with underaged drinkers. And it has very potent effects: last month, six students from Ramapo College in Mahway, NJ were taken to the hospital after drinking it. One of those admitted said he’d had three cans of Four Loko and several shots of tequila in just under an hour; he had a blood alcohol level of .40, which is almost fatal.

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Elroy McConnell (2d from left) with his three sons.

Last August, 51-year-old Elroy McConnnell of Orlando and his three grown sons were on vacation at Redington Beach in St. Petersburg, celebrating the birthday of the youngest son along with their wives and children. One night father and sons were returning from a movie when their Ford Fusion was broadsided by the Chevrolet Impala of twenty-year-old Demetrius Jordan, who had run a red light going more than 80 miles per hour. McConnell and his sons were killed on impact, but Jordan and his passenger survived. Jordan told police he had been mixing Four Loko with liquor and smoking pot. A can of Four Loko sat behind Jordan’s seat after the crash.

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Elroy McConnell’s Ford Fusion after Demetrius Jordan plowed into it running s red light at over 80 mph, high on dope and Four Loko.

The following Monday, four McConnell wives drove back to Orlando as widows.

Eighteen attorneys general are urging the Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved adding caffeine to alcohol, to determine whether the drinks are safe.

Of course, it’s not the fault of Phusion Projects, who manufactures Four Loko. Co-founder Chris Hunter says the company is being unfairly singled out and that they take steps to prevent its products from getting into minors’ hands.

“Alcohol misuse and abuse and under-age drinking are issues the industry faces and all of us would like to address,” he said. “The singling out or banning of one product or category is not going to solve that. Consumer education is what’s going to do it.”

Rigghhhhhtt. The same way that consumer education is effectively teaching college students about the bum effects of “smart” or “attention” prescription drugs like Adderoll or Ritalin. These drugs are like essays you can buy on the Web – shortcuts to peak performance, steroids for the brain.

They work, but they don’t, because they work too well. My younger brother died at age 44 a couple of years ago, his heart blown out by taking too much Ritalin. He had a legitimate reason – he’d suffered attention-deficit problems for years as the result of a near-fatal car accident when he was 18. Ritalin helped him focus at work, but it also helped with other things. He cut about 25 pounds of overweight in a year; it helped him go at life at twice the normal speed. He took way more of it than prescribed (in fact, no doctor was overseeing him), and it killed him pretty quick.

For those who are cursed with a jones for speed, the Talladega cure is like putting out fire with gasoline. Pour  in the nitro of booze and energy drinks and Four Loko and energy pills and well, it’s have at it and how, boys. That’s NASCAR’s mantra as it tries to survive on the cultural radar, one which began with Big Bill France dream of speed which caused Talladega to be built in the first place, steam-rolling over every bit of truth that stood in the way of sculpting a Galatea whose wings would become real enough, though in every cursed way you can imagine.

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All Hard Roads Lead to ‘Dega

So it is with all of these back- and under-stories at play that the crowds begin to make their way to the camping areas of Talladega, ready for another howlin’, hootin’, hooterin’ bash of fast cars, beer bongs, drugs by the fistful, costumes and wimmen.

Talladega will be one the nation’s party centrals this weekend, having been passed over by a vicious weather system which closed schools in town on Tuesdsay afternoon and delayed their opening on Wednesday morning. It will be cooler this weekend, more Halloweeeny; bared nipples will be perkier.

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Atten-shun!

Elsewhere the system served up hurricane-force winds, heavy rains, tornadoes and snow. Record low pressure was to blame, with millibars sunk to a level comparable to a Category 3 hurricane. Wind gusts of up to 81 miles per hour affected residents from Illinois to Tennessee. More than a dozen tornadoes were reported in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. At one point, at least 31 states were under a thunderstorm watch or warning.

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But I guess we can count ourselves lucky. In Indonesia, a 7.7 magnitude quake on Monday struck near the Mentawai Islands, causing a tsunami whose 10-foot surge moved 2,000 feet inland. Some 272 locals were killed and another 412 are missing as of this writing. And then yesterday, 600 miles up the coast of Indonesia on the island of Java, at least 30 people were feared dead after the eruption of Mt. Merapi, one of the area’s most volatile volcanoes.

Talk about living between a rock and a hard place.

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Volcanic ash covers everything in the village of Kinaherjo in Indonesia.

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Here in Central Florida, a high of 92 degrees is forecast, breaking all previous records. Hot, still, stricken, the remnants of the front aren’t expected our way for a couple more days. I guess we should count ourselves lucky, too.

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All week my wife and I have been watching 80’s and ‘90s-vintage horror flicks on AMC like the Friday the 13th and Halloween series. The stuff looks tame compared to the gore-fests now pandered on DVDs. Back in our innocence, perhaps, but I remember how spooked I was watching Nightmare on Elm Street and Aliens and Silence of the Lambs.

(Perhaps the scariest movie I can recall is seeing Phantasm in 1979, on a film projector in someone’s home – this was before video – while on LSD. The drugs probably made me more susceptible, but I remember being scared in four dimensions — all those doors to Hell opening up down endless halls.)

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The Tall Man — Hell’s El Dudo — plays ball with prospective lost souls in “Phantasm.”

Now, it all looks so pedestrian. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I think I have supped full with enough horrors to leave me somewhat numb to scary movies – or maybe I just avoid them, needed no more such stimulus. Indeed, horror movies may be the wholesale property of the young, who haven’t suffered enough consequences to stay clear of imagined ones.

Now, I’m no advocate of those “realistic” haunted houses put on by fundamentalists to convince kids that they’re going to hell if they don’t convert IMMEDIATELY – c’mon, let the young have their fun. But I am haunted by the news, as you have seen in this post.

The thing that haunts me the most -– short of the growing fear that the economy’s going to fall apart to the point where my wife and I will find ourselves living out of a car -– is how the hidden war now in Afghanistan with its hidden house of horrors is seeping up, like swamp gass, from floorboards of our American psyche.

I’m really disturbed about the news (some of it from Wikileaks, but also by admission by military leaders) about how rampant drug abuse, crime and suicide is among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, more than 100,000 soldiers are on prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and 40,000 are thought by the Army to be using illegal drugs. Since 2002, some 1,100 Armed Forces members have committed suicide, an average of one every 36 hours.

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Why is it that when these guys aren’t getting slaughtered by hostiles, they’re doing it to themselves? And what do these vets bring back stateside with them, along with their medals and prosthetic legs?

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Oh, there are so many hard roads to Talladega, each infected with enough mental pollutant to make any fan indecently crazy: slow death in the Gulf, a bad economy, violence everywhere you look, bum politics, a digital omniverse replacing real people, obsessional cures for a fearful world flooding in through every door and window, bad weather … all of those are bad roads, but I’m going to bet that the nightmare of what’s going on in Iraq and  Afghanistan hovers over young male fans en route to Talladega more than all of the others. Because it’s nearly invisible and yet everywhere at once. The Otherworld will be present at Hallow-Dega not in the revelry of its costumed participants so much as the dark universe of our common soul, belabored by hell of our common existence.

All of those roads of excess and hubris lead to Talladega, making that track and its events a bellweather of a breaking state of mind. It’s going to take a lot of partying and faux HallowDega boo-ing to dispel the gooseflesh of those nightmares.

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But I don’t know. Talladega fans—especially party-hearty young men—have grown up in such an extreme culture, nothing may penetrate their steel-girdered, eternally adolescent abandonments.

And Talladega may not be the place any more for so harrowed a folk. Restrictor plate-racin’ in the no-kill Car of Tomorrow may not provide enough of an extreme buzz to engage such scattered, thrill-seeking attentions, even at NASCAR’s wildest track. Maybe that’s why attendance at the spring Talladega race was down 15 percent from the previous year and 22 percent from the same race in 2008.

Could it be that NASCAR’s Temple of Doom has gone the way of “Friday The 13” and “Hallowe’en,” become a tame and lame and dated blood sport where there is so much more thrilling eye candy available almost everywhere you look?

I mean, when all else fails, there’s always the next tour of duty overseas, carousing with death and its dark horsemen of terror, fear, brutality and IEDs on some lonely Afghan mountaintop …

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Postscript: Hallowing the Harrowing, or, How I Came to Love the Curse

Today is St. Oran’s Day, a Catholic feast day still celebrated in the Hebrides. The story of Saint Oran is a real Hallowe’en story – or a myth which has endured as one of the best tales of the event. It also encloses an important message which, I think, gives me license to keep opening new doors and seeing things in new ways. For any writer, St. Oran would serve as patron saint of the next clean white page to fill.

The story of St. Oran goes like this:

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Oran may may have already been on the Isle of the Druids (Iona, off the coast of Scotland) when Columba and his 12 companions arrived in 563 A.D. to found a monestary. (Columba had been exiled from Ireland for copying a psalter in secret and then refusing to give up the copy when it was discovered. He’d gone to battle over that book, killing many of the king’s men with his loyal troops; as punishment he was excommunicated for a short time and then received the heavier penance of exile, told that he could not establish himself until the coast of Ireland had disappeared over the horizon. Iona was that place.)

At first, the abbey’s construction fares badly. Each day’s work is leveled overnight by some disturbed spirit. Columba sets up a watch to observe what happens at night, but each person set to the task is found dead the next day amid the fallen timbers.

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Columba decides to do the vigil himself and sits alone at the site in the howling cold dark. In the middle of the night, a being in the shape of a half-woman, half-fish comes to Columba from the booming waves. Columba asks the apparition what is repelling his efforts to build at Iona. The fish-woman tells him that his cutting of the sward has disturbed a great water being (the deity Manannan), and that the nightly destructions of his work would continue until one of his men offered themselves to be buried alive in a grave seven times as deep as a man’s length.

Lots are cast and Oran is chosen (other accounts say he volunteered) and he stepped down into the footers on October 28 and was covered with dirt. No wind rises up that night to spoil the work and the construction proceeds without incident.

After three days and nights Columba became curious to know how his friend had fared in the Otherworld, and to look upon his face one last time. So on All Hallow’s Eve (Oct. 31), the abbot orders his monks to clear away the dirt until Oran’s head has been exhumed. The monks do so. Columba leans down to look into Oran’s face when suddenly the eyes pop open, burning blue with sights of wonders no sane or dry or Church-bounded man has seen.

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Staring right at Columba, Oran declares, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!”

Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying “Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain” or “Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!” (The saying “chaidh uir air suil Odhrain” or “Earth went over Oran’s eyes” is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides as a reminder to unruly children to keep their mouths shut.

Despite the frightful encounter, Columba dedicated the monestary’s graveyard to Oran (Reilig Odhrain) and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying, “No man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” The bones of many Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings were sent to Oran’s graveyard; Duncan and Macbeth are interred in the St. Oran chapel at the center of the graveyard.

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The Saint Oran Chapel at Iona with the abbey’s graveyard just beyond.

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In Celtic, pre-Christian tradition, All-Hallows – Hallowe’en – is the Eve of their New Year, Nov. 1 being the New Year festival of Samhain. As a door between times, All Hallows is the night where the veil between this and the other world is thin, and all the dead are freed from their graves to walk the lanes of the living for a night. It is a night for treats or tricks, as encounters with residents of the Otherworld sometimes went well, others badly, depending less on the gumption of the spirit than the goodness of the mortal.

Most of this post has framed a tale of hauntings by real events, a sum of bummers and dirty deeds caused, mostly, by self-centered greed and lust and gluttony and fear. Contemporary culture is tormented by ghosts because we have built this modernity recklessly, our knowledge of the past covered over, the ancient foundations bulldozed to make room for high-rise condos and franchised shopping centers.

As Talladega is rumored to have been built on an Indian graveyard – incurring a curse which has always been evident in its trackside mayhem and infield bedevilment – so too have we built our contemporary life heedless of our past, a deed which invokes disturbed and angry deities (and fishy women).

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Wynona’s sea-sister.

Sacrifice is called for, but of what? My guess is a change of attitude, casting aside one way of fixed thinking for the vast and  ever-changing truths of a sea wilderness. Remember what St. Oran said, up from three days’ journey into the dark universe around and inside us all: The way you think it is is not the way at all.

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For all of us. Which means I have to take this post and bury it in the footers of a work, so that something living and fresh and renewed can begin again come first light. If the angels of Iona could not be accessed through except by the sacrifice of Iona, then it we’ve all got to get down and dirty with the past, maintain a living connection with tradition by letting mud cover our minds and allowing the dark truths to be free to flow from our mouths. Or nothing that lasts will be abandoned at last to the crashing wave and howling winds.

We’ve got to bury our cure if we would be free of our curse. No longer bound to it, we might come to love the dark truths hidden within.

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Note: for a related post about the military’s relationship with NASCAR, see “Over There.”

Over There


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O-ver there, o-ver there, send the word, send the word, o-ver there,
That the Yanks are com-ing, the Yanks are com-ing,
The drums rum-tum-ming ev’-ry where
So pre-pare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to be-ware
We’ll be o-ver, we’re com-ing o-ver,
And we won’t come back ’til it’s o-ver O-ver There!

–“Over There,” 1917 song popular with United States soldiers in both world wars

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Saving Abel lead vocalist Jared Weeks absolutely butchered the National Anthem before the CARFAX 400 at Michigan on August 15. Monte Dutton wrote about it thus in one of his after-race columns: “Imagine ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ by Leon Redbone. Drunk.”

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Saving Abel. Singer Jared Weeks, center.

Yecch. This blogger opined more darkly:

In a time when NASCAR is keenly aware of protecting their image and that of the whole sport, even to the extent of fining drivers who speak negatively about it, maybe it’s time they took matters into their own hands and instituted an approval process by which anthem singers were screened, auditioned, and voted worthy of the honor that it is. If that means the people singing each week are names we’ve never heard of, who cares?

Ironically, Saving Abel, a hard- alt- southern-rock band (is there no permutation—-cowpunk, gangsta Nashville, salsa Tex Mex??–that can’t be squeezed into country musics’s vast crossover mainstream?) are just off a solo USO tour, playing in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as on board the USS Carl Vinson.

Singer Weeks said about the tour,

The soldiers actually requested us to go over there and play. Usually with a USO tour, they do a whole set, like Kid Rock will come and they’ll have a comedian come out. Robin Williams was there in the past. Usually they bring a whole bunch of people and it’s like a whole show. This time the guys just wanted us to come play for them, so we just went out there solo and played by ourselves.

I mean, these guys wake up everyday and protect us. It’s the least we could do. We always talk about supporting our troops and it was always talk. We wanted to do something big and we got on a plane and went over there and we laid it all for those guys. Just some of the looks on their faces, I guarantee – I’ll speak for the guys – we could’ve been up there in our underwear playing banjos and those guys wouldn’t have cared. They were definitely appreciative of what we did.

It was awesome and it kind of opened my eyes to what these guys do. You don’t have to be a political person. In my book, you have to support the men and women that protect everybody else. So mainly that’s why we did it, because we love those guys.

Well, maybe Weeks had the right spirit, but he sure didn’t have the pipes to match. The obligatory military flyover by three Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolts of the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan National Guard (jets which have flown missions out of Kirkuk into Iraq and Afghanistan) came as some relief to his yowls about the bombs bursting in air. It was an odd pairing of civilian and military expressions of patriotism which left those of us both earthbound and stateside appearing sorely lacking.

Any vet will agree that I don’t know jack shit about war. My tale is typical: my dad was in WWII, but then everyone was. Knew a kid down the block who’s older brother went off to ‘Nam and didn’t return while we listened to Beatles albums. The mother of a friend of my younger brothers was said to slow dance alone at night holding empty hands while her husband, a ‘copter pilot, languished in a Hanoi prison for years. I missed the draft by a couple of years, never thinking, in my grand intellectual and then rock-wastrel youth, to volunteer. Watched the first Gulf campaign on cable news, that eager 24-hour eye for events gobbling up all the bombing sorties taking off from the decks of aircraft carriers. Watched bombs go off in the mountains of Afghanistan and watched American liberators in Iraq blitz the a country which turned around and rioted full-scale. Have heard the news of the conflict and its toll for years as I dove in to work at jobs wholly unaffected by war.

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Watched it all from afar. War, for an American, has been since the Civil War, Over There, as distant from my suburban nest as a bridge or bunker is from the air when the smart bombs get loosed. No wonder Americans have loved fighting from the air, free of all the hell Down There, leaving the dirty work to grunts on the ground. Now the winged emissaries of death don’t even require pilots, those expensive bombers with human freight replaced by drones piloted by men in command centers hundreds of miles away from any action.

 

What does any of this sum for a guy who’s done three or four tours of duty, maybe sporting a prosthetic leg or a fake eyeball, whose memories of war are necessarily body-baggged into a dark place so he or she can go about the business of work and marriage in a country which doesn’t understand war, whose dark place unzips in sleep and crawls out in the form of nightmares — who dreams at night that everything is exploding and he is trying to fight back with no weapons and no ammunition other than a bucket of old bullets, or seeing his wife and friends in a cemetery surrounding a hole into which he is suddenly falling. The disconnect between civilian life Right Here and the military experience Over There has become so wide that a military flyover before a race is like Pentacostals speaking in tongues: the sound is human (louder than the collective throat of the Sprint Cup pack as it goes green) but the speech is foreign, lost to the ear, darkly angelic and gleamingly demonic. It just doesn’t make sense as we stand there listening to a butchered rendition of the National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” written in 1814 a poem written by Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 and set to a Redcoat drinking song.

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The Ft. Henry bombardment which was the inspiration of our National Anthem. The caption reads: The caption reads “A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet taken from the Observatory under the Command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn on the morning of the 13th of Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours & thrown from 1500 to 1800 shells in the Night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch but were repulsed with great loss.”

Originally there were four stanzas to the song (a fifth was added during the Civil War, including the lines, “Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile / The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!”), only the first is sung in the Anthem proper:

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

A proper salute to a battle-harrowed flag, punched through by shot, tattered by bursting shells, unrepentant and holding the line despite withering fire. And so we all stand and take off our ball caps in deference to the song and our country, silence eerily whipping the flags atop the speedway as one person alone sings for all of us the anthem, each time someone different—kid wonder, gossamer country girl, noble black baritone, or this, this, this stretch-of-a-license-to-sing punk, strangling the Anthem almost as badly as Roseanne Barr did in her rendition during the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game back in the ‘90’s: Call it art or call it mockery, but thank God for the 107th and those three A-10s shrieking over, symbolic a military which has gained superpower status, ensuring that no bombs burst in our air any more, keeping the fight Over There, on someone else’s back yard barbecue. We citizens who have been privileged (in the backhanded sense) to have grown up without the faintest whiff of sulphur or cordite not generated by our own gun-happy angst do not and can not understand how much it costs to keep the U.S. of A. in an airtight seal of defense by meeting the enemy abroad; and because we don’t understand that cost, can’t understand how the tab is bankrupting us along with spiraling healthcare costs and an economy which has been engineered tt profit only the rich and richer and richer.

But more on that later. Over there. Down this deep, war-ravaging page. So that we rescue the National Anthem from its latest shellacking by a shattered baritone and an indifference which creeps over the land like mustard gas.

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At the other end of the race I watched Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane after his win, shouting and exultant, his entire crew assembled along with team owner Richard Childress and wife Delana in her matching firesuit, Delana supporting her man, the leader in Sprint Cup points and the one who appears to be poised to run away with the season and wrest the championhship cup from Jimmie Johnson’s hands at Homestead in November. Something about that jazzy image of kick-ass made me think of winning and losing’s bigger human picture. NASCAR wives like Delana Havick may kiss their spouses and say a prayer that their beloved race successfully and safely, but they do so with all confidence that they will manage the latter quite well. Military spouses have no such comfort, not even today with the best medicine available.

I know, I know – NASCAR is engaged in a far different battle – yet it and the military are united in the same war in ways so fleeting you can’t see them until you realize that NASCAR’s fan base is smack dab in the middle of the recruitment demographics for today’s professional military: 85 percent male; bottom two-thirds of the high school academic class; economically from the ranks of the lower middle class to the working poor.

NASCAR fans are a patriotic bunch – that investment of passion may be due to the large numbers of families which see both military service and NASCAR attendance. It must pain these fans when a top recording draw gets up and butchers the National Anthem. Another slap in the face, another instance of NASCAR’s growing distance from its fans.

This comes at a time when American support of—-and any interest in–the war in Afghanistan is on the wane, The latest Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the country favors Obama’s announced 2011 withdrawal timeline. Gen. David H. Petraeus has begun a campaign to convince the public that the American-led coalition can still succeed there though the timeline will have to be longer. In this current war without boundaries against an enemy without a face, the lack of any tangible goals – no cities to capture, no battles to be won except in the hearts of a stony local people – it’s hard to muster much support. Besides, the costs are astronomical, and the losses keep piling up, and it’s over there, so far, far away …

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There’s a 40-year gap where you find no driver involved in any of the Gulf War conflicts or Vietnam or even Korea. Why? Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. are said to have dodged the draft to race.

It was before big money began to make an impact on racing that we see vets in NASCAR. Joe Weatherley served in the Army in the Second World War. He had a long scar down the left side of his cheek, which was said to be from a German sniper in the second world war, but it was actually the result of a 1946 street race in Norfolk, VA, that nearly killed him and injured five passengers.

Car owner Bud Moore served in the Army, landing at Utah Beach during D-Day. He recalls a shell hitting a man next to him who “just disappeared.” Over the next nine months he engaged in five major battles and was awarded five Purple Harts and two Bronze Stars. Moore had 63 wind and 43 poles as an owner, winning two Championship titles, one with Joe Weatherley and the other with Buck Baker. Moore is among the 25 nominees for the second annual NASCAR Hall of Fame, to be announced in October.

Driver Red Byron began racing in 1932 and saw rising success into the 1940’s until he volunteered for the US Army Air Force as a flight engineer during the WWII. His B-24 was hit by enemy fire and he suffered a serious leg injury. It took two years to rebuild his leg but he managed to recover, walking with a limp. Returning to racing in the late 1940’s, Byron had a special clutch fitted in his cars for his gimp leg but he went on to win two NASCAR series championships in the late 1940’s. Byron is also among the 25 nominees for the next class of five to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.

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Driver Red Byron’s leg was shattered when running a bombing raid during the Second World War. The docs fixed his leg back up OK, but he had to have a specially-rigged clutch to race after coming home.

The gap is pretty amazing. I guess rich guys can buy their way out of the draft and have no financial inducement for volunteering for a professional military.

But hey — Joey Logano may have been a Cub Scout.

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August 14 was the 65th anniversary of V-J Day – the day on which Japan surrendered to the Allies, just days after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About

750,000 people had gathered in Times Square in New York City in anticipation of the news. At 7:03 p.m., the words finally blazed in a news zipper: “OFFICIAL – TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER.” August 14, 1945 thus became V-J — “Victory over Japan” — Day.

Times Square burst into celebration. Shortly after the announcement the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt  saw a sailor running down the street kissing every girl. The photographer turned and caught the sailor bending a nurse over for a kiss, and he shot the picture.

By 10pm, the crowd had swelled to more than 2 million, as New Yorkers flooded the Square, a generation uniting to celebrate the conclusion of the 20th Century’s most devastating conflict. A week later Eisenstaedt’s picture appeared in Life magazine, and The Kiss, as it became known, became an icon of victory.

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“The Kiss” (1945) and The Kiss (2010).

On August 13 of this year, a 26-foot statue titled “The Smootch” was installed in Time Square in preparation for a mass reenactment of the kiss by the Times Square Alliance. For the celebrations on August 14, hundreds of couples donned sailor hats and nurse’s caps and kissed, The Kiss-wise, around the 26-foot statue of The Kiss in Times Square.

NPR.org reported,

World War II veterans and their children on hand for the kiss said they want today’s generation to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in the war.

“I want to keep that day alive,” said Rocco Moretto, 86, a retired infantry staff sergeant now living in Queens.

Moretto, who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and arrived in Times Square in his uniform, kissed his friend Margie Zwick, who served in the Women’s Army Corps.

“It was terrific,” he said of the kiss. “It’s been a long time coming.”

August 14, 1945, was a long time coming, too. Although the U.S. didn’t enter the conflict until 1941—two years after hostilities had broken out—it suffered some 418,000 deaths in the war with another 617,000 wounded. There had been some major losses along the way: 7,000 lost during the D-Day invasion; 3,000 at Pearl Harbor; 80,000 killed during the Battle of the Bulge; a total 114,000 casualties during the Italian campaign; 62,000 at Okinawa, 20,000 at Iwo Jima and 5,000 during the Bataan Death March.

So its no wonder that anticipation was running at a fever pitch on August 14, 1945. Word of Japanese surrender was immanent but it had been torturously slow in coming. The Germans had surrendered earlier in the spring after the fall of Berlin and the united campaign against Japan by the U.S., the Chinese and the Russians was crushing the island nation. The U.S. firebombed 62 Japanese cities that spring and early summer to no avail.

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Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Then came the nuclear bombing of the cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, killing some 200,000 civilians. (Many more would die in the ensuing years from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia). After the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman issued a statement demanding Japanese surrender. In it he announced the use of the new weapon, and promised:

If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.

More nuclear attacks were planned, with the next one on August 18, three more in September and another three in October. The Manhattan Project—begun as an attempt to beat the Germans to the creation of the world’s first nuclear bomb and eventually becoming a full-scale bomb-making facility, employing more than 130,000 people and costing some $2 billion in 1940’s valuation—was in full deadly swing.

On August 14, Japanese Emperor Hirohito recorded a surrender speech which was broadcast the following day to the Japanese people over the radio. In it he referred to the nuclear bombings:

Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.

On August 15 the Japanese officially announced their surrender, signing the surrender documents on the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, officially bringing to an end the Second World War.

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A woman named Edith Shain claimed to be the nurse in Eisenstaedt’s famous picture and says that after the kiss, she and the sailor went their separate ways, never seeing each other again. She died last June at the age of 91. According to a recent account in The New York Times, Gloria Delaney, 84, claims to have been a few feet away from that famous kiss and that it actually occurred some hours before the announcement became official at 7:03 p.m. The streets were milling with people excited about the announcement, and the sailor had simply jumped the gun in a moment of premature exultation.

The nurse didn’t seem to mind. “She wasn’t really struggling,” Mrs. Delaney said. “It looked to me like she was trying to keep her skirt down. I got the impression she was enjoying it. Maybe that was because I was enjoying all the excitement, so I figured she was too.” When Miss Delaney turned away from the spectacle to catch up with her friend, “They were still kissing.”

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Still kissing in August 2010.

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Nothing more American than a good, jubilant, jive-jumpin’ smooch to button – and silence — the horrors of war. Still, other nations suffered far worse. Japan: some 2.7 million deaths, including 500,000 civilian deaths. Germany suffered more than 8 million deaths, including 160,000 civilian deaths (10 percent of the ’39 population). There were 5.5 million civilian deaths in Poland including nearly 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims (military deaths totaled 240 thousand); Chinese citizens suffered worse in the hands of the Japanese, with some 17 million deaths. But the biggest punching-boy of war was Soviet Russia, which suffered almost 24 million deaths, including 1 million civilian deaths–14 percent of its 1939 population. In all, it’s estimated that about 60 to 70 million people were killed in the war, a number which bloated considerably afterwards due to war wounds, disease, and starvation due to famine.

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VJ Day celebrations in Times Square, New York; Hiroshima victim, both from August 1945.

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Far different the scene on August 6 of this year in Hiroshima, site of the 20th century’s most complete devastation (though some argue that firebombed Dresden or Staligrad after its siege rival for so dismal an honor). V-J Day is an American B-J; in Hiroshima, the Peace Ceremony was celebrated with high-ranking ambassadors from some 67 countries, including, for the first time this year, the United States. As a crowd of about 55,000 gathered near the city’s center in a memorial park, there was a gong from a Buddhist temple bell and a release of a pack of doves. The American presence renewed debate of whether the United States should apologize for the use of nuclear weapons in the war. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who attended the event for the first time, called on the international community to eliminate nuclear weapons, saying it was time to move “from ground zero to global zero.”

The days are long past when the fear of global nuclear annihilation was an icy thread in daily life – it was, back in the late 60s when I was growing up; and although the Cold War has become mostly a thing of the past, the terrfiying idea of rogue nations like North Korea and Iran armed with nukes and attitude, or even worse, a nuke in a shipping container parking in New York Harbor, sent there by Bin Laden & Co., is all too real.

But let’s go back to America’s exultation over the war’s end on August 14, 1945. Perhaps the effervescence of American celebration – symbolized, quintessentially, by The Kiss — could find no rival because our homeland had come out of the conflict almost unscathed by enemy fire (except for the bombing of distant Pearl Harbor). Owing to our country’s relative geographical isolation, there hadn’t been any local consequences of war either in World War I or the Spanish-American war. Experience of war in our back yard can’t be found until way back to the Civil War, and it wouldn’t be for another 55 years after V-J Day that it would come again, when domestic airliners were hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, Molotov cocktails brimming with screaming passengers.

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On Sept. 11, 2001, a series of suicide attacks by al-Quaida in hijacked passenger airliners upon the United States resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a section of the Pentagon. In all, some 2,995 were killed, including the 19 hijackers.

The sense of bewilderment and violation we experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, was real and harrowing, yet it was only a small taste of what London experienced during the Battle of Britain or Stalingrad in its siege or Berlin after Hitler finally committed suicide in a bunker on a cold spring day in 1945. What two cities in Japan experienced as the only populated areas in the world to be targeted by nuclear bombs.

That’s not to say the jubilation of The Kiss wasn’t real, just a bit more exuberant for winning a war with so much of the homeland intact. That had a deciding affect on all of our military scrapes since—Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, including our current counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

After Hiroshima, Japan became a decidedly un-militaristic society, cauterizing that impulse with the images of nuclear devastation. America became a military superpower, armed past the teeth. War-ravaged countries suffered depression and an agonizing rebuilding after the Second World War, while America floated up out of its Depression into the dream-years of the ‘50s, GIs flooding colleges on the GI bill, everyone attaining the middle-class dream of house in the ‘burbs with wives in perky dresses cooking up all that food lonely GI’s dreamt of in the frozen forests of The Bulge, with kids who all looked like the Beaver as said “aw Geez” as they walked back from sandlot baseball games.

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Happiness on the post-war home front.

America’s halcyon 50’s were a product of the Kiss—for better and worse. I was born in the month which was the apex of the baby boom – August 1957 – back when the military-industrial complex was becoming the economic engine of our country. My Boomer generation is the one which is watching the middle-class dream created by that engine deflate due to bloat and excess—the Iraq conflict alone is estimated to have cost some $2 trillion off-the-budged bucks, and our health care system is spiraling out of control as we try to live forever, at least long past any semblance of life. Perhaps if we had been more ravished by war the dream of the 1950’s wouldn’t have become such a nightmare. We are as removed from the facts of war (our fighting is now outsourced to a professional-class army) as we are from the butchering of our chickens.

A lot was silenced by that Kiss–or seduced the wrong way.

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A congressional resolution widened the scope of festivities earlier this month declaring August 14 “The Spirit of ’45 Day” in honor of the sacrifice of 400,000 American soldiers in the war, as well as the “the courage, dedication, self-sacrifice, and compassion of the World War II generation” – an example which saw us through the Vietnam conflict and into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Did you know about this event? The first I heard about it was on August 15, researching the events of Times Square Kiss Day 2010. But then, like most Americans these days, I live far from the reach of war. I follow the news, which doesn’t much cover the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts any more as they drag on through their first decade of engagement (longest continuous war in U.S. history, you know). I know of a few guys who have deployed overseas. I’m sure the pre-race festivities for Nationwide and Sprint Cup series races  at Michigan International Speedway had a nod to the official day. But except for bubbling about Kiss Day in Times Square, I couldn’t find a single mention online of commemorative festivities.

V-J Day was 65 years ago. That’s a long, long time for American memories which have a hard time recalling who was last year’s ‘American Idol.” Most of the surviving veterans of that war are in their eighth decade-lots of ‘em still around thanks to contemporary healthcare, but Alzheimer’s obliterates a lot of the mnemonic landscape. Not that the WWII generation cared to remember the events of their war. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” roots back to the attitude of GI’s who were so ready to volunteer for service and came back with their lips sealed tight, never speaking of what they saw on the battlefield. Impregnate The Kiss with that silence, a shared pact to bury the past and get on with things.

That unwillingness to tell the truths of World War II was nowhere more evident than in Hollywood, which didn’t get around to attempting to re-create the actual conditions of battle until 1998 with the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” The moment is the landing of American soldiers on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and for 24 minutes sheer hell erupts in total chaos as soldiers leap from landing craft to be strafed by withering machine-gun fire and grenades from dug-in German defenses. The absolute mayhem and reckless turns of fortune’s wheel – this one shot, the next saved, the water churning red with blood, men screaming where they lay with limbs missing – was captured in maniacal perfection by Spielberg, who eschewed Technicolor presentation for the desaturated look of color newsreel footage, grainy and shaky as the operators of hand-held cameras were fighting for their lives as well. (The image I most remember from the sequence is that of a GI who gets pinged in the helmet by a bullet; he takes the helmet off in amazement to look at the dent and is promptly shot between the eyes.) Esquire magazine called it the “greatest battle scene of all time”; for GIs of the era, it was the first real attempt by Hollywood to tell their truth, the one they had not spoken of for decades.

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Stephen Spielberg’s 24-minute opening sequence of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” was heraled by Esquire Magazine as “the best battle scene of all time.” It’s awful hard to watch because it’s awful real.

Literature had been going at World War 2 for some time, but books like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead (D-Day) Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (fireboming of Dresden), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (bombing missions against Germany), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (German rocket program) and Elie Wiesel’s slim Night (Jewish Holocaust) did not make it that far into the mainstream. Perhaps its because we know our sacrifice in the war was much smaller than we boasted, and our complicity in its greatest horrors was far greater than we care to admit. The ever-buoyant American dream takes a load of carbine-fire to think of good American boys become scorched-earth killers.

But I’m not here to pick on soldiers, those ever-lovin’, eternally-bloodied pawns in a game whose benefits serve the interests of Powers that Be—corporations, governments, banks. The shared humanity of soldiers surviving a conflict is readily shown by the friendships which sprang up between former aggressors -– Japanese, Germans and Americans all shaking hands once the fight was declared over. I’m not sure that nations share that humanity with each other, derringers concealed behind waistbands and big Bowie knives strapped to their shins as they meet and greet in the great commercial square of the present.

The great tragedy of war is the endlessness of it—-to steal a saying from the working world, it’s always been same day, different war. Since earning our independence from the redcoats during the Revolutionary War, the United States of America has been involved in 23 extraterritorial and major domestic employments lasting some 60 years—about a quarter of our entire existence.

James Hillman writes in A Terrible Love of War (2004),

Achilles was in Vietnam and the U.S. Marines were in Try. The normalcy of war’s madness does not change. All wars are the same war because war is always going on. As Clausewitz implied, peace is merely a superficial and temporary hiatus, an armistice, in the everlasting war. In its elemental nature, war is Freud’s repetition compulsion enacted, Vico’s recorso confirmed, and it validates Thucydides’ thesis that history demonstrates the general consistency of human nature: we can imagine what will happen by studying what has happened.

“War is always going on”: so much so that the news from the Afghanistan conflict is barely heard because it’s been going on for so long, and being fought not by draftees but volunteers (albeit economic volunteers, there not being many opportunities for young people elsewhere these days). It’s old news. The release last June of the Wikileaks papers (revealing, with some substance, the difficulties and hidden crimes of our occupying military in that eternally conflict-ridden country) barely roused a yawn from Washington and public alike. Well duh: war is bad.

The more disturbing truth in Hillman’s statement, “war is always going on” is that it’s always going on in our heads, at some level or another.

Perhaps its because Americans haven’t seen their homes and cities destroyed by war that the fantasy of war is so easy to come by, so separate from daily realities unmarred by war. The disconnect has strange effects. As the public bullhorns of this political season shrieks about tax increases—in a country which has one of the lowest taxation rates in developed countries—so the bandwidth for gun rights is weirdly wide, given we’ve never had occasion since the Revolution to arm up local militias.

Violence is rife in American life, wherever you look, from those home armories of assault rifles to violent video games and movies, on to the pornographic “eye candy” of images of rotting headless corpses and burnt-beyond-recognition buddies in blown-up Humvees on laptops and cellphones of GI’s on deployment. (Count the damning evidence of abuses at Abu Ghraib upon Iraqi prisoners by American MPs as not that much different from the storied horrors of that jail under Saddam, where torture was de jour and an executioner named Sword would leap onto the bodies swinging hangropes, assisting the damned to their deaths).

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Fast Times at Abu Ghraib High.

Fascination with the horror of “ultraviolence” (as the droogie Alex put it in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic meditation on violence in a rotting society) – the “eye candy” of violent fantasy — is part of the juvenile male psyche, I think, rooting way back to the primal horrors of the predatory male simian waving, with such relish, a bloodied bone-club in our deepest brainstem.

When I was a kid – I must have been seven years old or so – I remember a coffee-table book at someone’s house we visited occasionally of paintings and lithographs of battle scenes from American history, from the Revolution through the Second World War. Every time we went there I headed straight for that book and laid it on the floor, turning the pages slowly, my eyes filling their awakened thirst for the mayhem of battle, gunfire everywhere, grim men thrusting bayonets into pleading men, hats and helmets askew, blood patching on cannon-split tree-trunks and staining the snow of midwinter. Most indelible the images of after-battle scenes, thousands of dead at Gettysburg and the Somme and Okinawa, the ultimate sacrifice of so many accomplished, left behind like so much trash after a concert as the theater of war moves on to the next inevitable explosion of cordite and guts. I’ll never forget those images, nor the wide-eyed, terrified relish I had in soaking in them, imagining the unimaginable.

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Civil War Battle of the Wilderness, 1864.

It is one thing to imagine hell – our literature is most livid and gothic and thrilling with those accounts – yet it is another thing altogether to live it, to harrow the hells of battle, to come home with a brain full of horrors which have no ground or roof in our obese, superficial, trash-talkin’, hedonistic and opinionated free society. War’s wounds gash deeper than whatever implements furrowed them – knife or AK-47 round or IED, more than the fragmented milliseconds of a firefight in which enemy or comrade or both were killed. Back in the Second World War, you went home and never talked about it and suffered the night sweats and nightmares with a culture-wide stoicism; in the Vietnam War you took lots of dope; in the Gulf War, the Army discharged thousands of soldiers for what they called “personality disorders” when they were actually suffering what just about any soldier who gets dipped in hell for a night becomes sick with, post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of the disorder include intense anxiety, persistent nightmares, depression, uncontrollable anger, and difficulties coping with work, family, and social relationships.

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David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009) is about U.S. Army lieutenant Ralph Kauzlarich and the battalion of some eight hundred soldiers he led into Bagdhad as part of George w. Bush’s 2007 surge. They were on a peace-making mission of sorts, crushing resistance on the one hand while trying to gain the good will of the people so essential in counterinsurgency efforts in the other. It meant facing the daily truth the people they were trying to help were as likely to shake their hands and detonate a roadside bomb under their Humvee.

One incident from the book—on May 7, 2007–conveys the perfectly ripe ingredients of PTSD inherent of the mission: the constant sense of impending danger and doom, the sudden irruptions (and eruptions) of enemy fire and bombs, the wholly random nature of war—lucky today, snake eyes tomorrow—all the while having to check one’s own trigger finger, erring on the side of trust with often disastrous results.

Wynona’s sister Morrigan– war’s own goddess of fate–smiles at the luck of racear drivers before turning her eyes back on this scene:

As usual, before leaving, Nate Showman gathered other soldiers in the convoy to brief them on the latest intelligence reports. He had been awake since dawn, when an IED had blown up outside the FOB on Route Pluto as soldiers from another battalion rolled by in a tank. Badness circling, closer and closer – that’s how 2-16 soldiers were starting to feel. Now they watched Showman trace a road on a map he was holding. “First Street is closed off because of an IED. First Street is black. We’re not going that way,” he said. Next he pointed to a spot on the edge of the FOB. “Two days ago, on the fifth, this guard tower on the very northernmost section of the FOB was engaged. One round went right through the ballistic glass, impacted on the right side of one of the guard’s heads. All it did was hit his Kelvar,” his helmet. “He received minor scratches from it, will be all right.”  Next he pointed to a spot on Route Pluto. “Hey, that thing that woke us up this morning was One-eight hitting an IED just north of Checkpoint Five-Fifteen.

“On Pluto?” a soldier said.

“No shit?” another said.

“It hit a tank. The thing blew up, and they just burned right on through. The tank didn’t even stop rolling,” Showman said. “The bigger thing for us is the fact that in the last three days there have been about six EFP’s on Route Predators, right up by Kamaliyah.”

“Right where we’re heading,” another soldier said.

“Yeah.”

They decided to bypass Predators and take Berm Road, the only other route to Kamaliyah, (an) elevated dirt road … No road frelt worse to travel than Berm Road. There were only so many points to climb onto it and drop off of it, and once up there, the feeling was of being utterly exposed and vulnerable, that the places to hide a bomb were limitless, including in the soft dirt underneath. The surrounding landscape didn’t help, either: pools of fetid water, dead animals, vast piles of trash being picked through by families and dogs, grotesque pieces of twisted metal that in the dust clouds kicked up by the convoy reminded some soldiers of pictures they’d seen of the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11. On Berm Road,, Iraq could not only seem lost, but irredeemable.

But on this day it was the better way. As the convoy inched along, reports were coming in of yet another IED explosion on Predators; on Berm, meanwhile, the worst of it was some kids who paused in their trash-picking to throw rocks at the convoy as it passed them and coated them with dust.

Kauzlarich, looking out the window, was uncharacteristically quiet. He had slept badly and woken uneasily. Something about the day didn’t feel right, he’d said before getting in the Humvee. Once he saw the COP, though, his mood brightened. In a week’s time it had gone from an abandoned building with nothing inside of it other than a family of squatters to a company of 120 soldiers. Cots stretched from one side end to another. Genreators chugged away so there was electricity. There was a working kitchen, a row of new portable toilets, and gun nests on the roof behind camouflage netting. The whole thing was enclosed in solid perimeter of high blast walls, and even when Jeff Jager mentioned the isolating effect this was having regarding the relationship with the adjacent neighborhood, it was clear that Kauzlarich’s confidence about what he was accomplishing in Kamaliyah had returned.

“I’d say about forty percent of the people who live around here are gone,” Jager said.

“Forty percent?” Kauzlarich said.

Jager nodded.

“They’ll be back,” Kauzlarich said.

“Maybe,” Jager said.

“Six weeks, they’ll be back,” Kauzlarich said, and soon after that he was again in his Humvee, now passing the spaghetti factory, now passing the little house that showed no signs of life, now climbing back up onto Berm Road to leave Kamaliyah – that that’s when the EFP exploded.

And was he in the midst of saying something when it happened? Was he looking at something specific? Was he thinking of something in particular? His wife? His children? The COP? The shitters? Was he singing to himself, as he had done earlier, when the convoy was leaving Rustamiyah and he sang, to no reocognizable tune, just sang the words he had been thinking. “Oh, we’re gonna go to Kamiliyah, to se what kind of trouble we can get in today?”

boom.

It wasn’t that loud.

It was the sound of something being ripped, as if the air were made of silk.

It was so sudden that at first it was a series of questions, none of which made any sense: What was that flash? Why is it white out? What is that shudder moving through me? What is that sound? Why is there an echo inside of me? Why is it grey out? Why is it brown out?

And then the answer:

“Fuck,” said Kauzlarich.

“Fuck,” said the gunner.

“Fuck,” said the driver.

“Fuck,” said Showman.

The smoke cleared. The dirt finished falling. Throughts slowed. Breathing returned. Shaking began. Eyes focused on arms: there. Hand: there. Legs: there. Feet: there.

All there.

“We’re okay,” Kauzlarich said.

“We’re good,” Showman said.

It had come from the left.

“Stay put,” Kauzlarich said.

It had come from the left, where someone had stood watching while holding a trigger.

“Look for secondary,” Kauzlarich said.

It had come from the left, where someone had stood watching while holding a trigger and pressed it a tenth of a second too early or a tenth of a second too late, because the main charge of the EEP passed through the small gap in between Kauzlarich’s Humvee and the one in front of it. And though there were flat tires and cracked windows and a few holes here and there from secondary effects of the explosion, all of the soldiers were okay, except for the shaking, and blinking, and headaches, and anger that began to rise in their throats.

“Fucking dirty cocksucker,” one soldier said as the convoy moved off of Berm Road and into a place safe enough for the medic to check for signs of concussions and ears for hearing loss.

“When it blew up, everything turned black,” another soldier said.

“I just saw a bunch of dust.”

“Everything was like fucking crazy.”

“I was shaking like a fucking …”

“We’re alive, guys. That’s the name of the fucking game.”

“ … like a fucking …”

“Trust me. The situation could have been a lot fucking worse.”

“It’s luck. It’s fucking luck. That’s all it is.”

“I can tell you I’ll be glad when these days are done fore me. Fuck this shit.”

“All right. We’re going to stay focused. We’re in a war,” Kauzlarich said, but he was shaken, too, and now, as the convoy limped away from Kamaliyah through a maze of dirt trails and more trash mounds, everything was anger, everything was fucking, everything was fudk.

The fucking dirt.

The fucking wind.

The fucking stink.

They passed a fucking water buffalo.

They passed a fucking goat.

They passed a fucking man on a fucking bicycle an didn’t give a fuck when he began coughing from the fucking dust.

This fucking country.

They neared a child who stood by herself waving. She had filthy hair and a filthy face and was wearing a filthy red dress, the only bit of color visible at the moment in this entire place, and as she kept waving at the convoy, and now at Kauzlarich himself, he had a decision to make.

He stared out his window.

He raised his hand slowly.

He waved at the fucking child.

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“Going Back In” by Steve Mumford.

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Support of a war effort engaged overseas – far out of sight and almost out of mind, given the surface normalcy of life-as-usual U.S.A. – was something different years ago. Wartime production all but eliminated the unemployment of the Great Depression.

Civilians were heavily engaged in the war effort, making what sacrifices they could to support the troops overseas. A Civil Air Patrol was established, which enrolled civilian spotters in air reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, and transport. Towers were built in coastal and border towns, and spotters were trained to recognize enemy aircraft. Blackouts were practiced in every city, even those far from the coast. All lighting had to be extinguished to avoid helping the enemy in targeting at night. There was little actual threat; the main purpose was to remind people that there was a war on and to provide activities that would engage the civil spirit of millions of people not otherwise involved in the war effort.

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Women staffed millions of jobs in community service roles, such as nursing, USO, and Red Cross while the men were at war. And they were in the workplace, helping to fill millions of new jobs created in the military manufacturing machine. In 1943, almost 30 percent of the workforce was populated Rosie the Riveters.

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“Rosie the Riveter” working on an A-31 “Vengeance” dive bomber. Tennessee, 1943.

Rationing in the U.S. during World War II was widespread: tires, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were all on the list by 1943.

War bonds were a major source of funding for the war, and everyone got into the act of selling them. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars of advertising art was donated. Norman Rockwell created four paintings in 1943 titled The Four Freedoms, and the exhibition raised some $132 million in bonds. A total 85 million Americans bought war bonds equaling $186.7 billion dollars.

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Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series.

Try to imagine that sort of civilian effort after 9/11/2001. The mood was there—who wasn’t affect, enraged and/or engaged after the horrible images broadcast on that fair sunny morning in New York City as one Trade Center Tower than the other was hit by passenger planes, burned a good while, saw people leaping in desperation from the 90th floor and higher and then fell, one after other, in an imploding collapse of death and dust?–but “go shopping” was the only word of sacrifice and patriotism uttered by the Bush Administration. Meaning, keep the economy flush with consumer spending. An outsourced military would handle all of the dirty work, and every effort was made to keep that work invisible from everyday life stateside. (Remember the ban on photographing coffins being unloaded stateside from transport planes?) Unless you had a family member overseas, the ripples from 9 years of Gulf War – the longest sustained U.S. conflict ever – have been tiny, almost imperceptible.

So try to imagine what a civilian life would be like in a country getting torn apart by war, as Londoners were during the Battle of Britain. There the burden of sacrifice was real and tallied in nightly death tolls from bombed houses and schools and churches.

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Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) offers one of the best accounts of what civilian life is like in a war-ravaged country, just barely off the map of battle and engagement, suffering casualties almost greater than the men and women in uniform. It’s set, primarily, in England in the final months of the war, after the bombers of the Luftwaffe were all shot down in the Battle of Britain and then were replaced by A-2 bombs of the fledgling German rocket program (whose brain trust was appropriated by the Americans following the end of German hostilities and put to work making all of those nuclear missiles which proliferated into the Cold War). The book’s main protagonist, if there is one (a meta-narrative in early-postmodernist style, there are multiple stories and personae which weave through each other) is Tyrone Slothrop, part of U.S. intelligence operations in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) stationed in London; the American presence there allows the author to play Samuel Clemens observing Life Abroad – Over there. The book travels then into Germany after the war—a Zone of desperation, yes, but also of wild yet temporary freedoms which blossomed while the Powers decided how to carve Germany up. A wonderful, massive, maddening, harrowing, delightful book, written at a desk in Mexico while the Vietnam War raged on with no end in sight and the sum of nuclear firepower stored in siloes and subs around the world so great that the world could easily be destroyed hundreds of times over.

Anyhow, I present the following passage from Gravity’s Rainbow to catch the deep inner chill and savage beauty of war as experienced by the collaterals, or rather, an American imagining that strange, uber-local, un-rootless- American experience of war on the homefront:

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Advent blows from the sea, which at sunset tonight shone green and smooth as iron-rich glass: blows daily upon us, all the sky above pregnant with saints and slender heralds’ trumpets. Another year of wedding dresses abandoned in the heart of winter, never called for, hanging in quiet satin ranks now, their white-crumpled veils begun to yellow, rippling slightly only at your passing, spectator . . . visitor to the city at all the dead ends. . . . Glimpsing in the gowns your own reflection once or twice, halfway from shadow, only blurred flesh-colors across the peau de soie, urging you in to where you can smell the mildew’s first horrible touch, which was really the idea–covering all trace of her own smell, middleclass bride-to-be perspiring, genteel soap and powder. But virgin, in her heart, in her hopes. None of your bright-Swiss or crystalline season here, but darkly billowed in the day with cloud and the snow falling like gowns in the country, gowns of the winter, gentle at night, a nearly windless breathing around you. In the stations of the city the prisoners are back from Indo-China, wandering their poor visible bones, light as dreamers or men on the moon, among chrome-sprung prams of black hide resonant as drumheads, blonde wood high-chairs pink and blue with scraped and mush-spattered floral decals, folding-cots and bears with red felt tongues, baby-blankets making bright pastel clouds in the coal and steam smells, the metal spaces, among the queued, the drifting, the warily asleep, come by their hundreds in for the holidays, despite the warnings, the gravity of Mr. Morrison, the tube under the river a German rocket may pierce now, even now as the words are set down, the absences that may be waiting them, the city addresses that surely can no longer exist. The eyes from Burma, from Tonkin, watch these women at their hundred perseverances-stare out of blued orbits, through headaches no Alasils can ease. Italian P/Ws curse underneath the mail sacks that are puffing, echo-clanking in now each hour, in seasonal swell, clogging the snowy trainloads like mushrooms, as if the trains have been all night underground, passing through the country of the dead. If these Eyeties sing now and then you can bet it’s not “Giovinezza” but something probably from Rigoletto or La Boheme–indeed the Post Office is considering issuing a list of Nonacceptable Songs, with ukulele chords as an aid to ready identification. Their cheer and songful ness, this lot, is genuine up to a point-but as the days pile up, as this orgy of Christmas greeting grows daily beyond healthy limits, with no containment in sight before Boxing Day, they settle, themselves, for being more professionally Italian, rolling the odd eye at the lady evacuees, finding techniques of balancing the sack with one hand whilst the other goes playing “dead”–cioe, conditionally alive–where the crowds thicken most feminine, directionless . . . well, most promising. Life has to go on. Both kinds of prisoner recognize that, but there’s no mano morto for the Englishmen back from CBI, no leap from dead to living at mere permission from a likely haunch or thigh-no play, for God’s sake, about life-and-death! They want no more adventures: only the old dutch fussing over the old stove or warming the old bed, cricketers in the wintertime, they want the semi-detached Sunday dead-leaf somnolence of a dried garden. If the brave new world should also come about, a kind of windfall, why there’ll be time to adjust certainly to that. . . .But they want the nearly postwar luxury this week of buying an electric train set for the kid, trying that way each to light his own set of sleek little faces here, calibrating his strangeness,  well-known photographs all, brought to life now, oohs and aahs but not yet, not here in the station, any of the moves most necessary: the War has shunted them, earthed them, those heedless destroying signalings of love. The children have unfolded last year’s toys and found reincarnated Spam tins, they’re hep this may be the other and, who knows, unavoidable side to the Christmas game. In the months between-country springs and summers–they played with real Spam tins-tanks, tank-destroyers, pillboxes, dreadnoughts deploying meat-pink, yellow- and blue about the dusty floors of lumber-rooms or butteries, under the cots or couches of their exile. Now it’s time again. The plaster baby, the oxen frosted with gold leaf and the human-eyed sheep are turning real again, paint quickens to flesh. To believe is not a price they pay-it happens all by itself. He is the New Baby. On the magic night before, the animals will talk, and the sky will be milk. The grandparents, who’ve waited each week for the Radio Doctor asking, What Are Piles? What Is Emphysema? What Is A Heart Attack? will wait, up beyond insomnia, watching again for the yearly impossible not to occur, but with some mean residue-this is the hillside, the sky can show us a light-like a thrill, a good time you wanted too much, not a complete loss but still too far short of a miracle . . . keeping their sweatered and shawled vigils, theatrically bitter, but with the residue inside going through a new winter fermentation every year, each time a bit less, but always good for a revival at this season. . . . All but naked now, the shiny suits and gowns of their pubcrawling primes long torn to strips for lagging the hot-water pipes and heaters of landlords, strangers, for holding the houses’ identities against the w inter. The War needs coal. They have taken the next-to-last steps, at tended the Radio Doctor’s certifications of what they knew in their bodies, and at Christmas they are naked as geese under this woolen, murky, cheap old-people’s swaddling. Their electric clocks run fast, even Big Ben will be fast now until the new spring’s run in, all fast, and no one else seems to understand or to care. The War needs electricity. It’s alively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes, gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands. Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are. But over the sea the fog tonight still is quietly scalloped pearl. Up in the city the arc-lamps crackle, furious, in smothered blaze up the centerlines of the streets, too ice-colored for candles, too chill-dropleted for holocaust . . . the tall red busses sway, all the headlamps by regulation newly unmasked now parry, cross, traverse and blind, torn great fistfuls of wetness blow by, desolate as the beaches beneath the nacre fog, whose barbed wire that never knew the inward sting of current, that only lay passive, oxidizing in the night, now weaves  like underwater grass, looped, bitter cold, sharp as the scorpion, all the printless sand miles past cruisers abandoned in the last summers of peacetime that once holidayed the old world away, wine and olive-grove and pipesmoke evenings away the other side of the War, stripped now to rust axles and brackets and smelling inside of the same brine as this beach you cannot really walk, because of the War. Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower, of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the unheated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King. “Eia” — strange thousand-year sigh-”eia, warn wir da!”,  “were we but there”. . . . The tired men and their black bellwether reaching as far as they can, as far from their sheeps’ clothing as the year will let them stray. Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it’s been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn’t true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell-or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they’re counting the night’s take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat-oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn’t it swoony, it’s still going. . . . Everybody you don’t suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let’s not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty’s wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell-what do you think, it’s a children’s story? There aren’t any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 6o miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one-something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody’s around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who’re naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they’re wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping … and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it (“You forgot Roosevelt, padre,” come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: “Wendell Willkiel” “How about Churchill?” “‘Arry Pollitt!”) for a baby to come in tippin’ those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin’ he’s gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined. . . . But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, some how, save him caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

0 Jesu parvule,
Nach dir ist mir so weh . . .

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age, men fattening despite their hunger, flatulent because of it, pre-ulcerous, hoarse, runny-nosed, red-eyed sorethroated, piss-swollen men suffering from acute lower backs and all-day hangovers, wishing death on officers they truly hate, men you have seen on foot and smileless in the cities but forgot, men who, don’t remember YOU either, knowing they ought to be grabbing a little sleep, not out here performing for strangers, give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threeand fourfold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church-no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward — praise be to God! — for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the past you must create for yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home …

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“Baghdad ER,” Steve Mumford

4,440 Americans have been killed in action over in Iraq since hostilities began in 2003 – another 1,227 in Afghanistan; with a total number of wounded of about 32,000 (10 percent with serious brain or spinal injuries). However, the total number of brain injuries (including PTSD) is estimated at 320,000. About 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Credit medical advances that the death toll isn’t higher, but it puts a disproportunate number of severely handicapped soldiers back into the mainstream.

(And for a little more perspective, what about the other  guy in this conflict. One statistic puts the total number of Iraqis killed in the conflict so far at 1.3 million, with about 2.6 million displaced and another 1.9 million refugees)

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“Dying Insurgent,” Steve Mumford (2006).

About 1.6 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent report by a special Pentagon Task Force found that 38 percent of soldiers and 50 percent of National Guard members coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan have mental health issues, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to brain injuries. Only 27 of the VA’s 1,400 hospitals have inpatient post- traumatic stress disorder programs.

In May, President Obama signed legislation that expands mental health and counseling services to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including National Guardsmen and reservists. It also allows the Veterans Administration to use hospitals outside the VA network to treat more returning soldiers suffering from brain injuries, eliminates co-payments for “catastrophically disabled” veterans, increases housing and transportation assistance for veterans living far from hospitals in rural areas, and expands health care services for women veterans, including maternity care for newborns. The bill will begin a pilot child-care program for veterans receiving intensive medical care and expand support for homeless veterans — “because,” Obama said in a White House signing ceremony, “no one who has served this nation in uniform should ever be living on the streets.”

Unfortunately, decent care of our servicemen has a high price tag. A dead soldier is worth about $500,000 in government survivor benefits. Projected total healthcare benefits for disabled veterans range from $422 billion to $717 billion.

The annual defense budget is around $700 billion. The war currently costs about $300 million dollars a day, with a total cost so far of as high as $2 trillion.

Yet, as usual, some of the only bright spots in our dismal economy are places where military spending is in full swing. According to an analysis by USA Today, 16 of the 20 metro areas with the largest jumps in per capita income had military installations nearby. Better pay and the weak economy has helped the Pentagon meet all of its recruiting goals since 2009.

And the cost of one dead or mutilated or nightmare-ridden soldier back stateside?

Priceless.

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Last night before heading to bed I watched two enormous ghostly thunderclouds just to the west, their billowy heights still visible in the last of the day’s light, flashing with lightning here and there in their towering sails of cumulus, rumbling low and faint, too far away to be of much import for us (though we did get a brief shower after days of impotent, mid-90’s heat). It made me think of a battle between two big-gunned man-o-war’s, fighting old-school-style: side by side and just blasting away, ripping each others bulwark of oak and flesh to shreds.

Courage was of a different order in wars past, when soldiers were expected to walk in ranks into withering lines of buckshot and bayonet: the sum of battle was tallied by force, always of arms (the great battleships had row upon row of cannonade) but also torsos and legs and fragile brainpans, I mean the men who were expected to stand and deliver at whatever cost. Civilian populations too: it wasn’t until the Gulf War that great pains were taken to limit collateral damage with “smart bombs” and “precision raids.” War was much more total engagement, and as I watched those two thunderclouds last night I was gripped by the wide-eyed terror inherent in bravery, of that moment of madness where the former decides (or is whipped into deciding) to fight rather than flee, stare down all those fire-spouting cannon mouths and the shriek of incoming 40-lb lead balls that could splinter a main mast or catch a man in the chest and blow him through the opposite side of the ship.

There is the engagement-either between two ships or a sortie of both sides or between entire fleets—whose name is enshrined in the bloody book of war (Salamis, 480 BC; Lepanto, 1571; Trafalgar, 1805; Hampton Roads, 1862 (in the Civil War, between the new ironclad Monitor and Merrimack); the engagement of the British and German fleets off Jutland in 1916; Coral Sea, 1942); and there is the aftermath, victor steaming away to jubilant cheers, the loser thrashed or trashed, adrift or sunk, left like a stripped whale to be feasted upon by the tides.

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So James Russell Lowell wrote in “On Board the ’76” in 1864 about that long sad drifting farewell:

Our ship lay tumbling in an angry sea,
Her rudder gone, her mainmast o’er the side;
Her scuppers, from the waves’ clutch staggering free,
Trailed threads of priceless crimson through the tide;
Sails, shrouds, and spars with pirate cannon torn,
We lay, awaiting morn.

Awaiting morn, such morn as mocks despair;
And she that bare the promise of the world.
Within her sides, now hopeless, helmless, bare,
At random o’er the wildering waters hurled;
The reek of battle drifting slow alee
Not sullener than we.

Morn came at last to peer into our woe,
When lo, a sail! Mow surely help was nigh;
The red cross flames aloft, Christ’s pledge; but no,
Her black guns grinning hate, she rushes by
And hails us:–‘Gains the leak! Ay, so we thought!
Sink, then, with curses fraught!’

I leaned against my gun still angry-hot,
And my lids tingled with the tears held back:
This scorn methought was crueller than shot:
The manly death-grip in the battle-wrack,
Yard-arm to yard-arm, were more friendly far
Than such fear-smothered war . . .

Indeed, it is the scenes of the results of war – battlefields stewn with the dead and dying fixed in odd postures or crying out incoherent fading nothings, cities in smoking ruin, bloated corposes picked by crows and vultures – it is these scenes which the eye knows it must not look upon but cannot help peeking, supping on the full horror of war with visions (and nightmares) to last a lifetime.

So Stephen Crane writes in media res of a Civil War skirmish in The Red Badge of Courage:

The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.

… Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky.

Though many of the rules of engagement have changed, not a single note of the same bugle-taps is present when another Humvee in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is caught dead-on by a perfectly-timed IED while on patrol in the early morning hours of April 6, 2007 (my sister’s 48th birthday).

A wire ran from the trigger to another shadow, this one at the edge of the road. Almost certainly the man couldn’t see the actual IED, but he’d line it up beforehand with a tall, sliding, broken, otherwise useless light pole on the far side which he could use as an aiming point. The first Humvee arrived at the aiming point, and, for whatever reason, the man didn’t push the trigger. The second Humvee arrived, and again he didn’t push. The third Humvee arrived, and, for whatever reason, now he did push, and the resulting explosion sent several large steel discs toward the Humvee at such high velocity that by the time they reached (PFC) Cajimat’s door, they had been reshaped into unstoppable, semi-molten slugs. At most, the IED cost $100 to make, and against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace.

In went the slugs through the armor and into the crew compartment, turning everything in their paths into flying pieces of shrapnel. There were five soldiers inside. Four managed to get out and tumble, bleeding, to the ground, but Cajimat remained in his seat as the Humvee, on fire now, rolled forward, picked up speed, and crashed into an ambulance that had been stopped by the convoy. The ambulance burst into flames as well. After that, a thousand or so rounds of ammunition inside the Humvee began cooking off and exploding, and by the time the Humvee was transported back to Rustamiyah  toward sunrise, there wasn’t much left to see. As the battalion doctor noted on Cajimat’s death report: “Severely burned,” and then added: “(beyond recognition).”

Nonetheless, there were procedures to follow in such circumstances, and (Lieutenant) Kauzlarich now got to learn precisely what those involved.

They began when the Humvee was unloaded at Vehicle Sanitation, a tarped-off area with decent drainage just inside the gate. There, hidden from view, photographs were taken of the damage, the holes in the door were measured and analyzed, and the soldiers did their best to disinfect what was left of the Humvee with bottle of peroxide and Simple Green. “I mean, it’s clean. It’s cleaner than when it comes off the assembly line,” the officer in charge told Kauzlarich of what his soldiers usually accomplished – but in this case, he said, “You’re more consolidating it and getting it ready for shipment, because you can’t really clean that.”

At the same time, Cajimat’s remains were being prepared for shipment behind the locked doors of a little stand-alone building in which there were sixteen storage compartments for bodies, a stock of vinyl body bags, a stack of new American  flags, and two Mortuary Affairs soldiers whose job was to search the remains for anything personal that a soldier might have wanted with him when he was alive.

“Pictures,” one of the soldiers, Sergeant First Class Ernesto Gonzalez, would say later, describing what he found in uniforms of the bodies he has prepared. “Graduation pictures. Baby pictures. Standing with their family. Pictures of them with their cars.”

“Folded flags,” said his assistant, Specialist Jason Sutton.

“A sonogram image,” Gonzalez said.

“A letter that a guy had in his flak vest,” Sutton said, thinking of the first body he worked on. “This is to my family. If you’re reading this, I’ve passed away.”

“Hey, man. Don’t read no letters,” Gonzales said.

“It was the only time,” Sutton said. “I don’t read the letters. I don’t look at the pictures. It keeps me sane. I don’t want to know anything. I don’t want to know who you are. I want the bare minimum. If I don’t have to look at it, I won’t. If I don’t have to touch it, I won’t.

Meanwhile, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was finishing its report about the explosion:

“Blast seat measured 8’ x 9’ x 2.5’ and was consistent with 60-80 lb of unknown explosives.”

The platoon leader was writing a statement about what had happened:

“PFC Cajimat was killed on impact and was not able to be pulled from the vehicle.”

The platoon sergeant was writing a statement, too:

“PFC Diaz came running out of the smoke from the explosion. Myself and CPL Chance put him in back of my truck where CPL chance treated his wounds. I then saw to the left of the HUMV three soldiers, one being pulled on the ground. I ran to the soldiers and saw it was CPL Pellecchia being dragged, screaming that he couldn’t get PFC Cajimat out of the vehicle.”

The battalion doctor was finishing his death report:

“All four limbs burned away, bony stumps visible. Superior portion of the cranium burned away. Remaining portion of torso severely charred. No further exam possible due to degree of charring.”

The Pentagon was preparing a news release on what would be the 3,276th U.S. fatality of the war:

“The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

And Kauzlarich, back in his office now, was on the phone with Cajimat’s mother, who was in tears asking him a question.

“Instantly,” he said.

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My father served as a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy at the end of the Second World War. After hostilities ended, he served out his tour at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Lake Forest, IL. He worked at “repatriation” of GIs who had been imprisoned in Bataan and Corregidor as well as other wounded. He told me of dealing with “guys who came up after their ships were sunk, and had their features burned off because of all the burning oil. They looked like something out of a horror movie. They’d ship back the bad ones. I remember one man in an oxygen tent who was having a hard time breathing. I went in to check on him and he asked me to hold his hand. So I reached over, took his hand, and he kind of pulled me toward him. And then he died just like that, holding my hand.”

He also did morgue duty at the hospital, working 12-hour shifts with the eventual dead, fingerprinting deceased sailors and Marines for reports to be sent to Washington. “Cherry Coke” was their handle for all the blood they had to mop up from the floors after autopsies.

My dad was 18. To keep his spirits up, he and one of the other guys he was doing morgue duty with began discussing Augustine’s City of God. He says the experience – of working amid so much death and dying, at the same time reading one of the most celestial texts ever written – is what led him to become a minister, attending Northwestern University and then Princeton Theological Seminary on the GI bill. War ended up being good for my dad, though there was a certain hell to be paid.

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Stateside, the Maui News ran in April 2007 the following story about the death of local son PFC Cajimat:

Jay S. Cajimat dies of injuries from vehicle-borne I.E.D.

LAHAINA – A 2005 Lahainaluna High School graduate who was described as a “loving son,” a “role model” to his siblings and the “unspoken leader” among friends died last week while fulfilling one of his dreams.

Pfc. Jay S. Cajimat, 20, died Friday in Baghdad of wounds suffered when a roadside car bomb exploded near his unit. He was with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan.

“He was a good soldier, and he loved to serve his nation,” said his mother, Lilibeth Cajimat, holding back tears.

“He always said he wanted to be in the Army,” added his 16-year-old sister, LC.

Cajimat is also survived by his father Dionie Cajimat and two other sisters Kaya, 18, and LJ, 3.

Dionie Cajimat said his son always set a positive example for his three younger sisters.

“He was a good son, always talked nice about his sisters and always advised them to be good,” he said.

LC said her brother had a “positive personality and was always easy to get along with.”

“He was really funny, lovable and just a fun person to hang out with. He loved to play and joke around,” she said.

Jay Cajimat was born in Manila, the Philippines, and his family moved to Maui when he was 3 years old. He enlisted in the Army immediately after graduating from high school.

Anne Goff, an 18-year English teacher at Lahainaluna, recalled Cajimat as being “very sweet, hardworking, very respectful.”

“His dream was to go into the military to serve his country,” she said. “He could hardly wait to graduate to join up.”

On a MySpace Web site page apparently set up by Cajimat, the soldier expressed his admiration for soldiers and other service workers. He wrote on the site that his heroes are “Past and Future veterans of the United States Armed Forces and all police officers, firefighters, and anyone who puts their lives on the line to save lives every day.”

… Even after his death, Cajimat seems to be helping his friends cope with this tragedy, Saribay said.

“We still confide in him and still go to him, even though he’s not here,” he said.

… Lahainaluna classmate Eileen Domingo, a 20-year-old sophomore at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., said Cajimat seemed to have a premonition about not surviving the war.

“He knew that it was going to happen,” she said. “He knew he was going to die for his country . . . It was brave of him going in (to the military) knowing that.”

Taccuban said that when friends saw Cajimat in December on Maui they asked him if he was scared to go to Iraq.

“He said, yeah, but he was excited,” she said. “I guess he had mixed feelings about it.”

Classmate Tuan Pham, a 19-year-old student at Maui Community College, said Cajimat called him about a month ago in tears, saying he was worried about his family.

“He had an emotional breakdown, and he asked me to watch over his family if anything ever happened to him,” Pham said.

Another longtime friend who knew Cajimat since elementary school, 19-year-old Walter Batarina, said Cajimat “had his good and bad days” while serving in Iraq, but that he was very proud of the work he was doing.

“He was definitely proud of it,” Batarina said.

He added that Cajimat regretted being so far away from his 3-year-old sister, LJ, because he was afraid that he wouldn’t be home to take care of his baby sister as she grew up.

“She was attached to him, and he would always take care of her,” said Batarina. “I guess he was scared he wouldn’t be there as she got older.”

Cajimat’s sister Kaya Cajimat agreed that he wanted to be there for LJ.

“I think he regretted going because he wouldn’t get a chance to see her grow up,” she said.

LC said she kept in contact with her brother through a MySpace networking site on the Internet. The last time they communicated was last week, she said.

“He told me that Iraq was getting to him . . . It was getting hard for him, but he said don’t worry about him,” she said as she fought back tears. “I just told him to hang in there, and that we all love him.”

“He’s a hero to all of us,” said Kaya Cajimat.

“He’s such a loving son, I know he loved everybody so much,” added his mother.

She said the family will bring her son’s body back to Maui to be with friends and family. On Sunday, family members were undecided whether to bury Cajimat in the Philippines, where he was born, or in Hawaii.

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The cemetery of Tyne Cot in the Ypres salient where 325,000 Allied and Axis soldiers lost their lives in five fruitless battles during the First World War.

Where can we find closure for the monster post (again, yet again, my apologies my dim distant friends) but in the graveyards for war’s dead? There is the multi-national cemetery of Cassino in Italy where 16,000 WWI and 107,000 WWII dead from 32 nations are buried. There is Tyne Cot in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, where 325,000 Allied and Axis soldiers were killed in five fruitless trench offenses during WWI (nearly 12,000 soldiers are buried there, with another 35,000 commemorated on rear walls). In 2000, Russia opened a war cemetery for some 80,000 German soldiers who had lost their lives during the 900-day siege of Leningrad (now called Sologubovka) in WWII. (Russia has a total of 89 cemeteries for foreign soldiers, containing the remains of an estimated 400,000 people.) In France there Etapales (12,000 WWI graves) and in Germany there is Halbe (22,000 WWII graves). And in the United States there is Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where some 300,000 veterans and military casualties from each of the country’s wars ranging back to the Civil War are buried over 600 acres.

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Arlington National Cemetery.

To walk in these graveyards – imaginatively here yet surely over there with feet on such soft, tended grass – is to experience the odd peace of great death, the receipt of battles of such ferocity and magnitude and senselessness and cruel certainty that men and women swore never to forget, else such massive sins be repeated again. Yet the dead fall off the deep shelves into oblivion, the past quickly forgotten, the earth heals over and is covered with serene fixtures of the present so ably that even gravesites are beautiful, row upon row of crosses bleached white against blue skies, anchoring a fading sound of thunder and mayhem as wind and earth continue on as they have for billions of years.

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Some 370 miles to the southwest is the tiny cemetery of East Hill in Bristol, Tennessee, created in 1857 to serve the needs of the community and the final resting place of some 300 Confederate soldiers brought in to the hospital hub at Bristol from battles in Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, Spottsylvania, the Wilderness, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Atlanta. The final races toward the Chase loop through these bloodied fields – Bristol this weekend, then Atlanta, then Richmond – we complete the first circuit of the NASCAR season in the heartland of Dixie’s swelter and haunting.

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East Hill Cemetery in Bristol, TN.

Bloodied and dying Confederate soldiers rolled in by rail to Bristol too from the Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia close to the Tennessee border, a Confederate victory of sorts and the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War – 34,000 losses out of the combined force of 120,000 over two days in September 1863. The name of the battle comes from West Chickamauga Creek, which the Cherokee, in local legend, had nicknamed “River of Death” for earlier conflicts. A bloodthirsty river, drinking the entire cistern of Union and Confederate dead.

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The Battle of Chickamauga.

The battle lines moved on – though technically a Confederate victory, the South suffered sufficient losses to enable Ulysses S. Grant to take Chattanooga and from there, enable William T. Sherman to march into the deep South, burning Atlanta. Victories at too great a cost are Pyrrhic, named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who defeated the Romans in 280 BC but said of the victory one more such victory would utterly undo him. War is costly, and the price of victory can bankrupt a nation’s will and treasury. Certainly a view of the battle-lines of Chickamauga after war is proof enough, but the only things Americans seem to have learned from their local destructions is that its smarter to fight your battles Over There, because we have done so ever since.

In the decades after the Civil War, a literature was born, that of the Civil War memoir; the wounds remained raw and such tales of battle from the survivors were a strange specie of horror tale, reliving a nightmare succored by civilian and veteran alike.

Walt Whitman, who served during the war as a wound-dresser and witnessed the full brutality of war’s ends—medicine was rough back then, without anaesthesia and amputation the simplest method of treating a ball-shattered limb (imagine heaps of legs and arms outside a medical tent where inside screams mix with the grinding of a saw-blade on bone). Harrowed by his visions, the man who loved the world found it difficult to walk on green pastures composted with the dead:

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

– “This Compost”

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Horeshoe Ridge in Chickamauga today.

How does the earth do it? The beauty of springtime seems obscene against the backdrop of death’s wintering pall. I remember the day after my younger brother died back in April 2008; I had driven down to my mother’s house to be with her a few hours before flying west to Portland, the first of the family entourage to head that way to gather up my dead brother’s ashes and effects. I remember sitting on my 80-year-old-mother’s couch holding her while she cried, absorbing her disconsolate, racking, hopeless sobs and watching out the window over her shoulder at a tabebouia tree in full bloom, its yellow blossoms so brilliant and gossamer and obscene given the freight of our loss. How could there be such beauty amid the blowing ashes of loss?

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Whitman, same poem:

The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,

The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

“Innocent and disdainful” – so too the self-enthralled tides of the living who go on so blithely while PFC Clijimat lies in his grave along with the 4,000 or so other U.S. soldiers who were killed in Iraq. How is it that dead last only as long as the memories of the living, that their fate is always to lapse into oblivion and disappear forever?

There is an impulse by the aggrieved to hold on to their memories; that is why memorials are built, even for the utterly forgettable (I’m thinking here of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in almost every war cemetery, holding the remains of lonely bones of a fallen soldier which could not be identified—such a huge chasm between that death and next-of-kin who spent the rest of their days wondering what happened to their son or brother or husband). That is why at places like Chickamuga battles are re-enacted, and Confederate flags wave from trailers in the infield, and collectors display vintage swords and rifles and tattered uniforms and glass cases of bullets pulled from rolling green pastures beneath which split cannon-axles and severed limbs and dead horses continue to sink deeper and deeper into forgetfulness.

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Playing Civil War at Chickamauga.

Grief slows the pace of time – the hours and days grind out so slowly, especially that first year – and renders the paradox of the living and the dead into a strange love affair, like Orpheus reaching after his wife Eurydice’s fading hand as the are forever separated at the threshold of oblivion. They never come back from Over There, and our mortal hours extend weirdly, as if there is in guilt in surviving, as if the real campaign becomes living out the rest of our days.

Grief too may help to keep our all-too-ready-swords in their scabbards. Two atom bombs were enough to make Japan renounce militarism; perhaps four thousand American dead in Iraq will slow the march to war next time. If the wounds are fresh enough, if they are remembered vividly enough.

As James Hillman pointed out, love is not the antidote to war, or, it is not enough of an antidote. Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, shunned battle, but is the passionate lover of Ares, god of war. Opposites attract—that’s why good loves a fight with evil, and the sex is never better than between victor and booty. (For the victor, at least.) In Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a graffiti on a torn wall in occupied France: “An army of lovers can be defeated.” War trumps love every time: soldiers always take their leave of home and head Over There, and return on successive deployments because there is a part of them that loves the ultraviolence of war more than the happy monotonies of home and hearth.

Instead, the true deterrent to war may be war imagined too well. Shakespeare was said to pen “Macbeth” as a tale of horrors so great as to cause the viewer to renounce violence. It is not the sexual passion of Aphrodite but her aesthetic passion – with its power to harrow and balm the psyche – which, as Hillman puts it in A Terrible Love of War, “provides multiple fields for engagements with the inhuman and sublime certainly less catastrophic than the fields of battle.” We don’t have to go Over There to “sup full well with horrors,” as Macbeth put it. Metaphor – and metanarratives – may cool the choler of the lynch mob just enough to ease back on the red button which destroy us all.

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Otto Dix, “The Triumph of War” (1934)

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As with every NASCAR Sprint Cup race, as goes the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol on August 21 so goes the world. Thunderstorms have continuously dumped heavy rains over the grounds near Bristol Motor Speedway, bringing flash floods to nearby camping areas. Friday the storms will break for a bit—bringing temps soaring into the 90s—but the storms are forecast to return on Saturday morning. Recent flooding in Pakistan has made about 2 million homeless and without food or water, and in southwestern China, torrential rains have triggered massive mudslides, leaving scores of people missing and feared dead.

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Flash floods in Bristol echoed flooding in Pakistan (l) and rain-induced mudslides in China (r).

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A special military salute is being planned prior to the Saturday night race at BMS. This from a release on the BMS website:

… Military anthems from all branches of the armed services – the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard – will be played as flags of each branch are flown in, via parachutists. Fans in the military who currently serve, are veterans, or who have family members who are serving or who have served in the past, will be asked to stand and be recognized.

Bristol Motor Speedway’s fans will play a key role in the patriotic salute. Upon entering BMS that evening, they will be given a red, white or blue towel, which also commemorates the 100th Sprint Cup race at BMS. Once the flags have been flown in, fans will be asked to stand and wave their towels in unison to honor America and our military members.

Two CH-53E helicopters from Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. will then fly over Bristol Motor Speedway, followed by the playing of God Bless the USA, at which time a parachutist will fly in, carrying the American flag. A pair of Harrier jets from the USMC VMFA-223 unit in Cherry Point will then perform a flyover…

This comes just two days after troops from the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2d Infantry Division, crossed the Iraqi border into Kuwait in heavily-armored vehicles, the last U.S. combat brigade to head home, seven and a half years after the United States invaded Iraq.

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A U.S. Stryker armored vehicle crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait on August 18.

In Afghanistan, the 14h U.S. combat death for August occurred on August 13 when Staff Sgt. Micheal A. Bock, 26, of Leesburg, FL was killed by small-arms fire while supporting combat operations in Helmand province. Bock was on his first deployment in Afghanistan after serving two previous ones in Iraq. According to a story in the Orlando Sentinel, Bock was planning to purchase a home with his wife, Tiffany, where they would raise his son, Zander. “He was such a wonderful husband and an excellent father,” Tiffany was quoted. “Family was always the first thing on his mind.”

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Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Bock of Leesburg, FL–just up the road from here–with his wife Tiffany and their son Zander.

Also dead this week is Bill Millin, age 88, the Scot who played the bagpipes amid heavy gunfire while his fellow British troops came ashore at Sword Beach on D-Day. Piper Bill, as he became known, played the aire “Highland Laddie” as his friends fell all around him. “When you’re young, you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing when you’re older,” Millin told the BBC in a 2006 interview. “ I enjoyed playing the pipes, but I didn’t notice I was being shot at.”  Some of the men cheered as he strode up the beach—others yelled “Mad Bastard!”—a sobriquet normally reserved for the commanding officer. Millin continued to play Highland tunes as the brigade advanced about 5 miles inland under intense German infantry and sniper fire, to relieve the airborne troops at the Pegasus bridge over the Caen Canal and the Ranville bridge over the River Orne. A madman or hero, who knows?  His battle’s done.

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Piper Bill Millin of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who piped the Commandos ashore and signalled their arrival to “D” Company as they drew near to Bénouville Bridge.

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July 2010 was the deadliest month of the Afghan war for the United States, with 63 killed in action. The Afghan Surge gruels on in a dicey counterinsurgency which gets rattled every time a U.S. airstrike kills civilians in harm’s way or locals are wakened for after-dark house searches for insurgents.

The BMS release continues,

A 60′ x 90′ American flag will be displayed on the BMS front stretch as the anthem is sung and fireworks will go off around the track. At the conclusion of the anthem, the Washington D.C. Air National Guard’s 121st Fighter Squadron from Joint Base Andrews will perform the final flyover …

And the war’s dead sleep on in the fitless graves, no longer troubled by the world’s, as freshly interred as Private First Class  Jay Cajimat or Staff Sgt. Michael Bock or laid to rest in churchyards dating back to the American Revolution, in tiny groves of graves with their brothers-in-arms or massed in places like Arlington, Virginia, or far away in Cassino, Italy.

They sleep while the haulers work their way into Bristol Motor Speedway and unroll the siege engines of a formerly Southern frenzy, rebs fighting for the right to be wrong, fighting on long past the cessation of all hostilities, fighting on because fighting is the gold ore of the American temperament, a metal more precious than love or money, fighting the good fight, going down in glory.

Who knows if the cruel carnage of the Civil War has fallen far enough into oblivion that Tea Partiers and Tree Huggers will take up arms against each other, the Red and the Blue tearing the USA back into bloody halves, better armed now and just as insanely possessed of the old narrow black-and-white literalisms of the past which have always split countries into civil war. It’s been a long, long time since Atlanta burned to the ground and New York City was shelled by Union federales to convince the local boys that it was a good idea with conscript into battle; a long time since blood so soaked the fields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville and Shiloh and Antietam and Bull Run that flesh was harvested by the silo. Does the old unresolved angst simmer in oblivion til it wakens once again, like Dracula up from a long day’s sleep, ready to feast again?

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Diplomatic angst in the Ypres salient, ca. 1915.

Who knows if our lack of imagination about war’s horrors will drain our minds of all Technicolor, desaturating blood into news copy. Who knows if our distracted and self-engaged American sensibility flattens the flashes of bombs into two-dimensioned comic-book startles that go Blam! and Kapoom! where instead blast-wakes and the horrid smell of burning flesh should steer us clear of the next war’s ugly thunderclouds massing to east and west, be it North Korea or Iran, the Great Wall of China or the mountains of Pakistan. Not that we ever flee from any fight, but that we engage it only with only the greatest care, knowing that in the march to war that every attempt to preserve the peace is far more valuable than the casual and shallow venting of human spleen which in the end only swallows lives to prove no point greater than prove that war is like space – an endless, cold vacuum.

But such meditations are not common or much desired on Race Day. The Sprint Cars are safe now, and the racing at Bristol will be a high-banked sustained roar: Yet fans who have come hoping for blood pine and whine loudly for BMS racin’ of old: If only the wreckin’ could restore some of its old, Civil-War era glory, the ghosts of Chickamauga coming down from the mountains around BMS, bony hands gripping Springfield and Enfield rifles, gaping mouths of dirt and cobwebs crying for more, more of that good old daring and daunting daredevil’s charge to the front, holding the line, fighting off all comers, going down like a man should, for God and for good.

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On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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