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I'm Afraid of Americans

I am sitting on my patio in mild shadow under the blades of a broad-leafed banana tree and late-spring sky washed with high clouds like feathers, angels wings, and fish bones. It won’t be long before those clouds gather in the east, the thermals of August congealing them on the horizon above the mountains and desert beyond. In the garden of the back yard bordered by jacaranda in full violet bloom and smelling of infant flesh and women is a kumquat tree, a monkey’s paw, and bird of paradise. It is not difficult to imagine that I am rich, successful, and living in an exotic natural utopia, a peaceable kingdom — so little imagination is required. I live in a beautiful place. And my thoughts are of Memorial Day, though I am writing this some weeks before the fact.

Ostensibly it is an occasion to reflect upon fallen soldiers from this country’s wars; in reality, it is occasion for the first summertime activities of the season — outdoors usually, beach or park picnic settings, family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. It is a social occasion and one of the better national holidays (in my opinion) linked to the three-day weekend. Like several Memorial Days past, I have carved out the three days to work on whatever book I am currently involved in writing, and so it is, historically, for me, not terribly social; if any outdoor activity arises it is coincidental. The book I am writing is fiction, and among its characters are men who have been to war and survived. Other books I have written, over different Memorial Day weekends (I am not suggesting I write entire books in three days), have also involved veterans.

I have known, at various periods of my life, veterans of at least four American wars. My father served in WWII, as did three of my uncles. I have known, even worked for, veterans of the Korean War (called a “police action”); and cannot count the number of soldiers I know or have known who served, and some of whom died, in the Vietnam (never declared) War. Nowadays, like most of us, I know a few men and/or women who are serving or have served in Iraq.

Tempted as I am to go on here about war in general and especially the current one, I will not. I will content myself with observing only that knowing the number of war veterans that I do and from the number of wars (four) in my generation alone, it strikes me as far too high a figure. Four wars in one generation may have been unremarkable to ancient Spartans but says something about us that I wish were not true. I long ago accepted the reality that this country was neither founded nor freed by the well-behaved; but the idea that Americans are congenitally violent is much harder to swallow. I know too many who are not. The fact remains, we are feared and hated today as in no other time in history. Even pop singer David Bowie (hardly a gauge of world opinion, but certainly an indication of how pervasive the sentiment may be, considering his popularity) gives voice to this in his single “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

I have a theory about that song. I believe David Bowie likes Americans very much (he may very well be a citizen these days, I don’t know), but he very badly wants to tell us something as he did in his ’80s song, “This Is Not America.” He wants to hold a mirror not unlike a friend who feels it incumbent upon him to point out an out-of-control tendency of a close friend.

Again, not unlike the Vietnam War after 1970 or so, the current war is terribly unpopular in this country. And so we join the world, at least in a populist way. Catching on too late. We brought the Vietnam War home: to our hearts and heads, to Linda Vista, and we are already bringing Iraq home as shrapnel in our kids and in the national consciousness and conscience. No longer will Baghdad have fairy tale, Arabian Nights connotations for Americans. The name will no longer trigger images of flying carpets and Ali Baba, but the words “shock and awe” and everything that followed from that first spring day five years ago. The phrase “on the ground” has entered our lexicon in what seems to me to be a kind of illiterate jargon for simply “there.” And “there” is rapidly becoming “here.”

Yesterday I spoke to a woman working at the Old Town information booth and snack bar. I struck a conversation because I remembered her from another concession at 12th and Imperial. She was pleased I remembered her. She is from Iraq and became almost adamant that I understand she is Chaldean and not Muslim. That the distinction should be so important momentarily depressed me. I told her that Chaldeans were famous as religious scholars, the Sumerians the authors of written language itself since Gilgamesh, and this seemed to not only please her but relieve her greatly of some daily underpinning of fear.

War seems remote under this early summer sky with its arcs of angel wing clouds that seem for all the world, if only for a moment and only to the imaginative, like the insubstantial brush-stroke renderings of some unwieldy stone memorial growing larger by the moment.

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I am sitting on my patio in mild shadow under the blades of a broad-leafed banana tree and late-spring sky washed with high clouds like feathers, angels wings, and fish bones. It won’t be long before those clouds gather in the east, the thermals of August congealing them on the horizon above the mountains and desert beyond. In the garden of the back yard bordered by jacaranda in full violet bloom and smelling of infant flesh and women is a kumquat tree, a monkey’s paw, and bird of paradise. It is not difficult to imagine that I am rich, successful, and living in an exotic natural utopia, a peaceable kingdom — so little imagination is required. I live in a beautiful place. And my thoughts are of Memorial Day, though I am writing this some weeks before the fact.

Ostensibly it is an occasion to reflect upon fallen soldiers from this country’s wars; in reality, it is occasion for the first summertime activities of the season — outdoors usually, beach or park picnic settings, family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. It is a social occasion and one of the better national holidays (in my opinion) linked to the three-day weekend. Like several Memorial Days past, I have carved out the three days to work on whatever book I am currently involved in writing, and so it is, historically, for me, not terribly social; if any outdoor activity arises it is coincidental. The book I am writing is fiction, and among its characters are men who have been to war and survived. Other books I have written, over different Memorial Day weekends (I am not suggesting I write entire books in three days), have also involved veterans.

I have known, at various periods of my life, veterans of at least four American wars. My father served in WWII, as did three of my uncles. I have known, even worked for, veterans of the Korean War (called a “police action”); and cannot count the number of soldiers I know or have known who served, and some of whom died, in the Vietnam (never declared) War. Nowadays, like most of us, I know a few men and/or women who are serving or have served in Iraq.

Tempted as I am to go on here about war in general and especially the current one, I will not. I will content myself with observing only that knowing the number of war veterans that I do and from the number of wars (four) in my generation alone, it strikes me as far too high a figure. Four wars in one generation may have been unremarkable to ancient Spartans but says something about us that I wish were not true. I long ago accepted the reality that this country was neither founded nor freed by the well-behaved; but the idea that Americans are congenitally violent is much harder to swallow. I know too many who are not. The fact remains, we are feared and hated today as in no other time in history. Even pop singer David Bowie (hardly a gauge of world opinion, but certainly an indication of how pervasive the sentiment may be, considering his popularity) gives voice to this in his single “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

I have a theory about that song. I believe David Bowie likes Americans very much (he may very well be a citizen these days, I don’t know), but he very badly wants to tell us something as he did in his ’80s song, “This Is Not America.” He wants to hold a mirror not unlike a friend who feels it incumbent upon him to point out an out-of-control tendency of a close friend.

Again, not unlike the Vietnam War after 1970 or so, the current war is terribly unpopular in this country. And so we join the world, at least in a populist way. Catching on too late. We brought the Vietnam War home: to our hearts and heads, to Linda Vista, and we are already bringing Iraq home as shrapnel in our kids and in the national consciousness and conscience. No longer will Baghdad have fairy tale, Arabian Nights connotations for Americans. The name will no longer trigger images of flying carpets and Ali Baba, but the words “shock and awe” and everything that followed from that first spring day five years ago. The phrase “on the ground” has entered our lexicon in what seems to me to be a kind of illiterate jargon for simply “there.” And “there” is rapidly becoming “here.”

Yesterday I spoke to a woman working at the Old Town information booth and snack bar. I struck a conversation because I remembered her from another concession at 12th and Imperial. She was pleased I remembered her. She is from Iraq and became almost adamant that I understand she is Chaldean and not Muslim. That the distinction should be so important momentarily depressed me. I told her that Chaldeans were famous as religious scholars, the Sumerians the authors of written language itself since Gilgamesh, and this seemed to not only please her but relieve her greatly of some daily underpinning of fear.

War seems remote under this early summer sky with its arcs of angel wing clouds that seem for all the world, if only for a moment and only to the imaginative, like the insubstantial brush-stroke renderings of some unwieldy stone memorial growing larger by the moment.

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Comments
1

I'm no war supporter, but is it fair to say that the tendency to get violent on the nation-state scale is unique to Americans? Seems to me that every society has people who object to war, people who look the other way, and people who load up their gats and roll out. Our invasion of Iraq was the first war I've lived through as an adult, and it has certainly crushed my hope for a Star-Trek-the-Next-Generation-type universal peace -- after all, if Americans in 2008 can't say no to war, with all the information and freedom at our disposal, who ever will? But long-term history suggests to me that we Americans just happen to be the current suckers for war. When we're long gone, and even while we're still around, there'll always be some country or society or tribe that periodically gets goaded into picking up the pitchforks and chasing after the "enemy" du jour.

May 30, 2008

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