Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shock And Awe, Five Years Hence

“It is better, to fight against inflation (war only brings destruction)
And to build … build a better nation (war only brings destruction)
Everybody must have a place (war only brings destruction)
All this hate must become a memory (war only brings destruction)” — War In The East, D.O.A.

Shock! It went by so fast, and snuck up with no warning. Suddenly, it hit.

It’s been five years since the Iraq War began.

Five and a half years ago, I was arguing strenuously with those agreeing with going into Iraq – even my own dad (a blue-dog Dem, no less) who thought it was a good idea. Former CIA estimates, Sec. of State Colin Powell’s statements at the beginning of Bush-baby’s presidency, and first-hand accounts of former Gen. Scott Ritter – one of America’s own who was a weapons inspector in Iraq for years – none of it made one good damn bit of difference. There was just enough of a majority for Bush/Cheney to self-justify war, and off we lemmings went.

The months and weeks leading up to the war were like the twilight zone: surreal. I couldn’t believe that so many people, and virtually the entire media empire were bought into this “threat” from Saddam Hussein as vengeance for 9/11. Ironically, the only news that was showing the deceit and duplicity in all its glory, the only news reporting the real story was the Daily Show with Jon Stewart … from Comedy Central! It floored me that no one but the comedians could see truth – similar to medieval days when only the court jesters dared speak truth to the king. And, of course, it was always laughed off by all – it’s from a joker, what could they know?


The week before the War, we held a war protest here in Houston – one of the largest in the country with well over 10,000 joining. Yet, even with this, and the few American cities that actually drew more than us here in Bush’s back yard, nowhere did our numbers come close to European cities which drew totals in the hundreds of thousands – and it wasn’t even their president leading them off a cliff!

“Had a dream, it was war,
And they couldn’t tell me what it was for.
But it was something they could lie about,
Something we could die about ….” — Had A Dream, Roger Hodgson

With all of the delays in the war, I was hopeful that somehow we would just bluff our way around and never follow it into Iraq. Right before the date given for the beginning of the Iraq War, I’d scheduled a trip to Philadelphia for the IFGE conference, with two side trips to Washington DC – one for the National LGBT Health Coalition Lobby Days (NTAC, the group I chaired, was one of its original members) and after a two-day return to Philly, a second trip for the National Policy Roundtable at NGLTF headquarters. Between all the aforementioned, plus an NTAC Board meeting at IFGE on its final day before I flew back home from Philly, I really didn’t have much time to watch the war unfold.

On the night it was supposed to take place, I stayed with a dear friend, Kathy Padilla, and we talked about the war and the general direction this country was headed. Waking up Monday morning, I was hopeful – war hadn’t begun that previous night as was advertised. It seemed I was overanxious over what was going to be nothing after all.

After checking in and parking my rental car at Mara Keisling’s apartment in DC, I grabbed a Metro train and headed directly to the Health Coalition’s pre-lobby day conference at the Press Club in downtown DC. Sitting at the “tranny table” with friends Jessica Xavier, Lorraine Sade Baskerville and Ben Singer, as the day went on I began putting thoughts of this new war further out of mind. It wasn’t happening – we were safe after all!

At 4:15, one of the speakers came up to the podium for a brief interruption: America had just begun the bombing in Iraq. An uneasy numbness set in as the last hour of the meeting wound down. I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only person who’s interest level in subjects at hand dropped a few notches.

After the conference ended, I had an hour to waste before walking the two blocks south to our reception. Just downstairs from the conference banquet room, I stood transfixed before the bank of large-screen TVs. Each was turned to a different network, all were showing the same live shots of bombs blasting Baghdad. I could not believe our country was actually doing this! For all the Republicans specious claims about Clinton imitating the movie Wag The Dog (premise of which was an administration creating conditions for a war for political gain and avoiding scandal), here we were watching Wag The Dog unfold before our very eyes by these very same Republicans!

And in Orwellian fashion, the press bought it hook, line and sinker and helped sell it to the masses! I stood there alone watching the images, knowing what was true, and what apparently very few in the nation saw. I watched America bomb a country that had nothing to do with the reason we were engaging in this same war. And I was watching it in the Press Club – national symbol of the very institution who did a marvelous job helping to sell it to America’s Barnum Babies! No checks or balances, no keeping government honest this time … just peddling the canned message and giving it the hard-sell.

For the next hour or so, watching the bombs on TV then later walking to the Thomas Building for the reception and even the beginning of the reception, I felt very detached.

“Newspaper lies and government cries
Of war in the east and war in the west –
Fighting one another, killing for big brother,
The Mideast and Africa too ….” War In The East — D.O.A.

Arriving at the Thomas Building, I was vaguely aware of where it was located – just a block east of the White House. One block east was the very man who had his finger figuratively on “the button”, and who was “stable” enough to push for this elective war. Who knew what he was capable of doing?

After an hour, the gathering at the reception had loosened up a little with the snacks and wine. We half-joked about not being able to catch flights back home and shared our disbelief at what had just happened. One of our hosts grabbed our attention and asked if we were enjoying ourselves at the reception – polite applause afterwards. It was a nice distraction, all considered. Then he replied, “good, I hope you really enjoy it because you can’t leave.” Polite laughter.

Again he reiterated, “No, you really can’t leave – they’ve locked down all traffic in and out of downtown Washington. It seems we have a bomb threat in the reflecting pool just south of us and they’ve requested everyone to remain in place.”

Over the uneasy murmurs, I swear you could’ve heard my heart splattering on the floor at that moment. Here I was, right as the Iraq War starts, a block from the White House! Miles from my rental car, over a hundred miles from where I fly back home from, and over a thousand miles from home … what great fortune. I could get blown to bits with the same jerkweeds who decided to start a war “just because,” and I couldn’t even get away from these bozos to save my own life!

What little humor there was died at that moment. Lorraine Sade Baskerville and I just stood there staring at each other with the same stunned look on our faces. We put on our brave faces, but I could see the fear there … and would imagine my own was showing as well. It’s hard to describe that moment in time. Surreality isn’t even close to an apt descriptor. To those of us at that reception, we immediately knew this war would have stark consequences – even if indirectly so.

As it later turned out, that the bomb threat just happened to be a crazy coincidence which had nothing to do with the war – it was a disgruntled farmer pissed off about his tobacco farm subsidies being cut, and decided at that moment in time to drive his tractor into the reflecting pond in front of the White House and make empty threats of having a bomb. The next day, those stunned lobbyists did as I did: we worked our congressional offices in machine-like fashion, professional but emotionless. In every congressional office, the TV’s were on and tuned to the war. We’d watch along with the staff for a few minutes, shake our heads collectively, then break and head for the next appointed rounds – the strangest lobbying foray I’ve ever worked.

“I don’t care what the future brings,
Give a damn about anything,
I’d be fine if they’d only leave me alone.
But it’s time, gotta take a chance
‘Cause I won’t get a second chance.
And I know now I’ll have to make it alone.” — Had A Dream, Roger Hodgson

So now we find ourselves five years hence. Iraq is better than it has been the previous year, but it’s much worse off than it was shortly after the war began – or even before it. The war has created a geopolitical vacuum that’s created new threats unforeseen and largely not possible before it.

America’s additionally exacerbated our armed forces with over 100,000 on disability due to injuries and nearly 4,000 dead. Our fighter planes, artillery, vehicles and other materiel are wearing out much faster than expected, and certainly much quicker than for what budgets prepared. And oil, though stabilized and secured in Iraq, didn’t remain stable but has instead skyrocketed.

This has created much quicker need for fuel additives to stretch oil further, such as corn for ethanol. What wasn’t planned was the escalating cost to corn, causing a corn-growing boom that began supplanting previous wheat growth as corn became the new cash crop. With wheat farming reduced at the same time drought and global demand rose, wheat became both scarce and prices also began their climb.

In the midst of all of this, we had our own economic woes domestically. War in this iteration was outsourced as much as possible to maximize profit. Meanwhile, interest rates rose as did costs on virtually everything else while domestic wages went flat. As more people lost their homes and went bankrupt, the vast consumer base began fearing the future and holding onto their paychecks. And we now see the beginnings of the layoffs as Americans stop spending on anything but essentials.

While the Bush Administration struggles to search for a way out of this corner they’ve painted us into, there’s one fact that can’t be avoided. We can’t afford to bail ourselves out any more. Our money goes to Iraq for the war. Any stopgap loans like those to pay for the $600 economic stimulus tax rebates get borrowed from our dear friends, China. And all the borrowing America does only helps devalue the dollar further, making those same outsourced-job-produced imports even more expensive.

Five years. I’m in awe. I’m awestruck at how comprehensively this war has changed us all. I don’t look at our country the same way, I damn sure don’t look at our leaders the same way, and I’ve even learned not to simply dismiss conspiracies the way I did after hearing the conjectural rants in the previous decade. Maybe conspiracies aren’t there, but one thing that is for certain is the level and the stunning depth of manipulation has increased dramatically in the new millennium, and how deftly it’s played and how well it succeeds.

One might consider it … shocking. Shock and Awe indeed.

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” — Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a speech given exactly one year before his assassination

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