Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Three Perspectives on the War

It started, as it usually does, in the board room, with power points of growth projections and visions of expansion to new brands, new locations. There was no pre-merger discussion, but all present were softened by nostalgia for earlier operations like the memory of a perfect golf game. This gauze gave everything about the plan a certain half-thought-out quality: the capital expenditure was more than their budget, it offered the competitors an opening, even the marketing was an afterthought, but I'll say one thing for the powerful, they know they can get it done with only a look of displeasure, and they knew, deep down knew this was their time, and legacy. Who, after all, could see inside them, could doubt their shareholder concern?

It only took a few people, and most of these would be whisked out of the country. First they purchased the buildings, equipped it with insurance, and agreed to remove the deadly asbestos. Their security unit, with its flawless reputation, got the contract at all three airports. The state-of-the-art remote control guidance system from their technology division was inserted for a double-blind test in the actual planes. Their partners at DOD, as usual, were small-minded and held their ground, but their contacts inside had infested the place like ants with money and secrets and shameless flattery, they knew when and how the war games were planned, and what software was used. As for marketing, their strategy was simple and effective—massive media buys that tied that nagging consumer problem to be solved with the end corporate goal (which, as always, was destroying the competition)—just like Walmart used the problem of high prices to drive all U.S. manufacturing away, or Microsoft made the lack of compatible programs a way to force customers into their operating system, or Pfizer used depression to get themselves into the customer’s wallet and mind. Here, they used a bunch of stolen IDs of some Saudi trouble-makers, and relied on their strong distribution network to do the rest. They hired a few actors to make noise, use phony credit cards, and leave in an easily found place a few bad Arabic flight manuals. At the advice of compliance, to limit their own liability, they gave them boxcutters and plastic knives instead of actual weapons. The international department that handled this was kind of sloppy, as they often are—some of these people were already dead, some popped up later alive (even Atta, the appointed "leader"), these so-called religious fanatics were "seen" drinking at a strip club the night before, the one designated to pilot impossible maneuvers had flunked flight school—but they got by because foreign names and cultures are always unfamiliar to customers.

Operationally, it was a thing of beauty: the towers were powered down for the first time ever for "routine maintenance" and expertly wired by people who believed they were, in the end, saving lives; the right phone calls were made beforehand; no one asked why the security cameras didn't work; enforcers paid visits to air traffic controllers; NORAD fell for the war games diversion and then evaded blame expertly like the bureaucrats they were; the steel was carted away without a question asked, every piece of evidence was put under the protective seal of high-level company men.

But with all plans with such large logistics, there were a few glitches: the shorted futures couldn't be cashed because the markets closed too quickly; they had to pull the building that was hit second because the fireman gave the all-clear signal; a lot of people felt explosions, saw missiles, heard other jets; there was more than one expert to bribe; the "owner" admitted on national TV he pulled the third building; a kid on a "cell phone" from 30,000 feet called his mother and introduced himself by name; the follow-up anthrax attack was completely botched, when the scapegoat said too much; enough anomalies to keep the auditors busy for decades.

Despite the product flaws, it was a triumph, in the end, of public relations. The public simply willed it to work. There was the willing suspension of disbelief, like a good action movie, with victims and dark-skinned, inexplicable psychotics, unlikely heroes and shocking twists, and, also like a good action movie, it was followed up by the video game. People were entertained, and an entertained customer is one who spends money: even newspapers sold, weak leaders were turned into kings, the whole world saw them as winners to emulate, investment exploded, new entrepreneurial industries flourished—people were united with a purpose, to "kick the ass" of the corporation’s competitors. The best of all investment worlds: the product sold itself.

Granted, there was more than one competitor, imposing a little more scrutiny into alliance-building than would be optimal. It was not something simple for the common man to follow, but give him credit, he could handle sophisticated plot-lines, he knew about conflict and rising action, he could envision many happy endings; so they came up with a brilliant plan—pick em off one at a time, from weakest to strongest: Afghanistan pipeline, Iraq oil fields, Lebanon squatters, Iranian treasure, and so on. Like an epic with sequels, base the conflict on something that would never end, like, say, terror, something you couldn’t even fight, with no armies, no enemies, just any old excuse to keep the meter running on all the expensive equipment.

The plan didn't need much else, but there were a few rules of thumb: when you destroy, always re-build, but make sure the construction side always falls way short; don't forget antiquities—easily an afterthought, they could be sold to private dealers, mostly friends, after all, it's the entire record of the birth of writing, laws, religion, marriage, politics and other quaint but profitable concepts; and, most of all, don't share the spoils with anyone—just because someone gives something up to go along, doesn't mean he is a financial partner.

By bottom-line standards, this launch was a success, but, on a long-term investment, you still have to show quarterly results. This made things more delicate: the accountants keeping the books needed some poetic license; the advertising expenditures needed to be competitive to keep the product fresh and in demand; then there’s the labor issue, always tricky, with a lot of workers lost through attrition and severance cuts; competitors on their home turf had small company flexibility and reduced infrastructure expenditures, all of which raised costs; suppliers will always overcharge if given half a chance, and this far-flung enterprise did not provide much transparency at the local level. These hidden costs all filtered down to the customer, who signed a long-term contract but thought they could get their money back. It's a perception management issue that was addressed by pointing out this new and improved perpetual war cannot be won but it can be lost—unless one gives, and gives generously.

Even today, some on the street lack confidence in the management, but there's a transition plan in place. They've left the franchise stronger than it was, maybe they can work on that golf swing after all! At the end of the day, who has a better product for the market? Something people crave more than the sweetest, darkest chocolate.

She lifts up ecstatic, her reason for living exhausted,
Her children extinguished, her neighbors turned to ash...
So many together, holding hands like they couldn’t in life,
Ascended from the hell of twenty-five years, if only they knew it was
as easy as this,
That the reward would be so sweet.

In Iraq, new lost generations of maimed and heartsick curse God
they didn’t die:
When the date trees were bulldozed from their land;
When they were spread naked, guns to their heads on the floor before
their families;
When the soldiers who raped them gave them children with organs
on the outside;
When they were forced into bestial and homosexual orgies to be
When they saw what they saw, remembered what they once had,
allowed themselves the right to feel…
No power, no water, no safety, no food, but revenge can keep one
alive indefinitely.

There's no Allah, there is no Rapture, but the mind goes on
in paradise,
To remind us our cause was even larger than we knew
Defeating the greatest power in the world simply by saying no…

In the U.S., the blood spews out of the TV as they eat dead flesh for
She can't stop buying things. He wants to kill something.
It's better to live in a dream than this, and there are 200 dreams
available every night,
Against which telling the truth from a lie is so very small…

Dying’s just part of the job,
The cigarettes of this man's army.
The griefs are silent, unresolved,
No one made responsible.

We drop bombs on the garden of Eden,
Spray "USA" in DuPont graffiti on a ziggurat
Chase an alien God through the red clay of Babel, Karma, and Hit.
In Najaf, city of cemeteries, rag-wrapped soldiers defend the graves
Against the U.S. eating machine that builds freedom like a shark
one meal at a time.

There's a deep need in the Earth to disappear.
This war is not much. More die from the U.S. health care system.
Millions simply vanished in the tsunami—they had to leave.

The cowards who set roadside bombs against the cowards who wear
full flak regalia.
Both terrified as chickens on an assembly line.

Heroes made out of those who do what any person would:
Save a buddy’s life, plow a road, harvest missiles from heaven

While the true heroes, those who grow cold enough to watch a person
die without regret
Sink invisible among those who would never get it.

Though I may appear to be dead for today, this year or this century,
I am watching you always, and will come back to plant another
crop of rice
Knowing all that I know now, and all that I will see in the future
From these eyes locked as the last light leaves them.
I will water your bones with my tears,
For the vanquished get redeemed through their forgiveness,
the victors get much less.
Your tears will run in our rivers with all you left behind:
Your innocence, your virtue, your peace-of-mind,
Which nourish our future in ways you'll never know
As you sit on a porch swing thinking about me.

War is social, death is individual.
I must live to chronicle the inhumanity,
To compile the list of the lost buried with the flagged bodies,
To project the wreckage further to the future,
To explain why something that should be known to anyone
With a human brain and heart
Is not.

Maybe this time when I jump off the wheel, I will smile…

"It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech." —Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, Sergeant, US Marine Corps

Nothing more beautiful than a beach full of Marines
Their skin as red as their colors
Hair like crisp lawns as far as the eye can see,
As they lay with families on holiday forgetting
The thousand negotiations between honor and slaughter
Or between the Marines and everything else.

Their wives are lathered with the ubiquitous smell of banana oil,
Reading the news of the day in magazines like Self and Us,
Celebrity recipes for great sex and drunk driving arrests,
One eye on kids in a forward position at the water’s edge.
The shovels that dig the sand to build their castles
Are also used to annihilate them before the ocean can.

Beyond the beach, there’s the wildlife preserve, the recycling center,
The pottery kiln, the commissary with its discount on organic food
Then the Quonset huts and white concrete structures
Like something out of the Soviet Union circa 1958.
The maintenance vehicles are as slow and noisy as lawnmowers
But at the gate they still salute you with white gloves.

To some, it's all that matters, to hear the country’s call,
Like the small voice of God saying “leave the ugliness to me”;
As if they were born for this work
Of ignoring consequences.
To others it's for money, education, discipline, career direction,
For a chance to be a hero instead of in the way,

But most of these boys were already broken when they got here,
They’d been prisoners at gunpoint their whole lives
Strong-armed from trailers to bars by vengeful, ravenous mouths
That struck if they opened theirs. What a relief to get all that here
Without the demand for love. A soldier only has to love his rifle.
He is allowed to exist if he does what he is told.

Objective, Obstacle, Strategy, Bravery, Victory
And other ludicrous fantasies
Come down to this: who fears annihilation enough
To transform murder into a duty?

And so they say "the bad people with the false God deserve to die"
When they mean "I am afraid my God will abandon me"
And they say "they hate us for our freedoms"
When they mean "I don’t deserve the freedom I’ve squandered."
For them, any symbol will do, for righteousness is a crutch,
The cold, inescapable wound is in the mirror.

While we – unthinking – are marched with slogans and drums, to war
Tugging at the tribal obligation, are you with us or against us
With the basso profundo, the causis belli, la musique terrible
of envy and fear,
The 30-year Marine laughs: "The source of this war is always the
Human heart, what's missing, the cause of all human suffering."

The flag snaps like a snake at sunset,
The sky is still streaming with colors:
Red stripes of battle, a gaping pink gash,
The purple smoke of gunpowder,
The indigo arm of comfort,
Liquid fire orange, a welder's flower of warning and glory,
Then a heavy carpet of gold-tinged black
Laid over the narrow band of sun,
Lighting the camp as if from below
And bringing out the red in the pines
And then, suddenly, the frail light was gone,
Gone out for taps, and darkness in the barracks.