The Eyes Wide Open exhibition, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, came to Capitol Park in downtown Sacramento recently. I live right across the street, so it took me about three minutes to walk to the traveling presentation on a gorgeous California spring day.
Over 1500 pairs of combat boots were arrayed on the lawn, symbolizing the number of reported U.S. military dead in Iraq. Some of the footgear belonged to the deceased; the rest was donated by a surplus store. An adjacent grassy area held about 1,000 pairs of neatly-arranged shoes, a memorial to the estimated 100,000-plus Iraqi citizens killed since America, unprovoked, attacked their country.
As people quietly wandered through the display, many pausing to read the occasional newspaper article or note accompanying a pair of boots, the names and ages of the dead, soldiers and civilians alike, were read aloud by volunteers one by one, each name punctuated at reading’s end by a woman dinging a chime. One by one, that is, except for the periodic Iraqi appellation followed by “and 29 family members, ages unknown” or some similar ghastly number.
And quietly, that is, except for the woman who was obviously upset, spending several minutes loudly telling another attendee and anyone else within earshot that her loved one was in Iraq defending our freedom. I chose not to wander closer; her views were clear. Since I couldn’t disagree with them more, I erred on discretion’s side.
No doubt she feels genuine distress over the danger her family member faces; everyone present at that moment stood amidst numerous reminders of that too-real peril. But no matter how strongly she argues, the hard truth remains: this war is a disastrous, barbaric sham, and her relative’s life is on the line solely to sate the power and greed addictions of the fascists who now control America.
As I walked about, I was struck with an unsettling thought: the boots appeared to be covering a much smaller area than I’d imagined they would. As shame coursed through my brain, I cursed the man without one, George W. Bush, and his crooked clutch of capos, for further despoiling America’s soul and thus, my own.
Was what I had feared might happen, finally happening? Was I somehow becoming inured to the slaughter, despite my hyper-vigilance against just such an occurrence?
Certainly, it’s easier, consciously or not, to shunt aside thoughts of war’s rank atrocity when bombs aren’t smashing through the roof or one’s family is not being raked with .50 caliber body-pulverizing rounds, no matter how staunchly one opposes the fiasco that is Iraq. And, of course, there are also millions of Americans who either support the war or couldn’t care less about its consequences, and for whom it appears second nature to give none of it a second thought (if even a first), a disgustingly monumental non-effort that has all along been enthusiastically abetted by criminally complicit corporate media.
Donning the blinders of contempt or disinterest carries far greater risk than merely being labeled xenophobically compassionless, however. Citizens who condone their rulers’ continuous manifested bloodlust also play Russian roulette on the grandest, gravest scale imaginable.
The Captive Mind (1953) was the first book from the late, brilliant Czeslaw Milosz to be published in the United States. Its section entitled “American Ignorance of War” carries a warning for Americans about “life” in a war-torn, occupied country, a message as germane today as it was five decades ago:
“Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural…His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the ‘naturalness’ of his world…[H]e stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes -- the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds -- cut open to public view…His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies…
“He finds he acquires new habits quickly. Once, had he stumbled upon a corpse on the street, he would have called the police…Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions. The man who fired the gun must have had his reasons; he might well have been executing an Underground sentence.
“Since these conditions last for years, everyone gradually comes to look upon the city as a jungle, and upon the fate of twentieth-century man as identical with that of a caveman living in the midst of powerful monsters…
“The nearness of death destroys shame. Men and women change as soon as they know that the date of their execution has been fixed by a fat little man with shiny boots and a riding crop. They copulate in public, on the small bit of ground surrounded by barbed wire -- their last home on earth…
“The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are…Because [Americans] were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be ‘unnatural’…But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword. In all probability this is what will occur; for it is hard to believe that when one half of the world is living through terrible disasters, the other half can continue a nineteenth-century mode of life, learning about the distress of its distant fellow men only from movies and newspapers…”
Milosz writes from brutal experience: he fought in the Polish resistance during World War II and defected to France from Stalin’s Poland in 1951. His two-alarm message of war’s hell and the amazing ease with which humans slide into accepting that which before seemed unimaginable would be well-heeded by anyone living under a regime that, let’s say, has demonstrated zero compunctions about invading and occupying a foreign land and killing thousands in the process to help ensure the future of unfettered crony capitalism.
Admittedly, there’s a tremendous difference between being underwhelmed by a combat memorial and scurrying past bodies lying in cratered streets. But the two are not unrelated, either. The terror-mongering warmakers seek to make the unacceptable, acceptable, to gradually erode the home populace’s resistance to behavior that would normally, or “naturally,” be untenable. This primary aim of the Bushies underlies their incessant blathering about the “war on terrorism,” as they remind us ad nauseam to beware of the terrorists who lurk everywhere, thereby securing sufficient cover through trumped-up fear to continue their vile imperialism unchallenged.
What, though, comes without price? Whether one believes in karma, percentages, or plain old-fashioned retribution, our government’s grim assault on both humans and humanity increases the possibility daily that, at some point, America itself will endure a hellishness guaranteed to make believers of even the most skeptical of Milosz’s counsel.