Friday, January 10, 2020

Good Guys, Bad Guys

It's always curious to me how the main-stream media jumps on the band-wagon of war. For the most part, war is good copy (especially in the United States).


War is good for business. Someone is making a buck.

It's good for reaping in advertising dollars (because people are glued to their screens) and for the war profiteers (the stocks for weapons manufacturers rose in the last week - along with shares in energy and oil companies - see this article in Forbes).

War Stocks Rise Amid U.S. Tensions With Iran, Lockheed And Northrop Shares Jump

US Invasion of Iraq, 2003
With that in mind, I tend to focus on the language the government, the media and its pundits use in regard to bombing, killing, and untold destruction.

It's kindergarten language. Plain and simple. The enemy is referred to as "Bad Guys" and anyone who is on "our" side is referred to as "Good Guys." It's the world of old Western movies. White hats and black hats.

I first noticed this infantilization of the language - posing a simple moral dichotomy without any context - during the invasion of Afghanistan back in the fall of 2001. The media was parroting the government  notion that our military action was "dropping food on the good guys and bombs on the bad guys."

I heard these exact words coming out of a screen door of a nearby neighbor's house in Sacramento as I was walking home in October, 2001. 

There was excitement in the voice, the excitement that comes from watching a really good game (if you want a great analysis about war and its psychological effects in terms of giving many a meaning in life, read "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges).

In pop culture, in the news, good guys are constantly battling bad guys for the moral future of society. Because of this simplistic dichotomy, if the other is labelled "bad," that automatically implies that whatever our side does is "good."

Here's Elizabeth Goitein on the use of this language:

The “bad guy vs. good guy” frame is also problematic because it precludes an objective assessment of America’s own conduct in the war on terror. Before it became public that the U.S. had tortured detainees, most Americans believed that only “bad guys” tortured people. Our popular culture reflected this understanding: in the movies, it was the villains who engaged in torture — an unambiguous symbol of their villainy. Public perception shifted quickly after the CIA’s waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” came to light in 2004. Today, a majority of Americans considers torture to be acceptable under some circumstances. The shift is evident in the American pop culture. The face of the torturer is now Jack Bauer, a counterterrorism agent and heroic protagonist from the television show “24.”

Why the switch? Americans have a tendency to judge what we do by who we are, rather than judging who we are by what we do. We are the “good guys”; ergo, if we torture people, torture must not be entirely bad. The truth is harder to swallow: The waterboarding of Guantánamo detainees like Abu Zubaydah — who was water-boarded 83 times in the span of a month — and the torture of an unknown number of other detainees was a fundamental violation of human rights, and therefore we, as a country, have unclean hands.  (From an article in Brennan Center for Justice, December 9, 2013, which can be found here.)

Being the "Good Guy" allows us to get away with any atrocity we wish. 

 I used the term kindgergarten language above, but I have found that children are usually less fundamentalist, less black and white, than adults. Fundamentalism, good-guy-bad-guy-ism is a learned process.

So the language is less child-like than it is immature. The emotional and intellectual growth of those who insist on this language seems to have been stunted in some way. Are there any adults in charge of this dangerous, life-and-death decision-making process? It seems not.

Here's a frightening example: When it was finally proved that a US bomb killed 11 children in Afghanistan in 2018, this is what Secretary Mattis said:

“We do everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. We're not perfect guys, but we are the good guys. And so we're doing what we can.” (See The Bureau of Investigative Journalism here.)

Hey, it can't be bad, despite the murder of eleven children, because the US did it.

Here's a prose-poem from the manuscript "How the World was Made" on this subject. It was written quite a while ago - five years? I believe the skeleton of the poem took shape in 2003, in the months leading up to the US invasion of Iraq.

Good Guys, Bad Guys

A short burst of the freight train’s horn arcs over me. There is a stuffed lynx in a glass box down the road, in a restaurant in Ely. There are photos of actors from nineteen thirties westerns on the restaurant wall. Some wear black hats, some wear white. There are tiny, anonymous graves scattered all over this desert. I am not saying this from inside a dream. Coyotes paw at my door all night long, trying to get in.

Out here, drones hover behind the brilliant sun, practicing for the second coming. There are lights that move across the night sky, soaking up the darkness between the stars. No one knows what those lights are, what they might mean. I have seen the men who search the sand with metal detectors, getting down on all fours, desperate to find pieces of the one, true secret; the hidden center that will destroy all lies. I am not saying this from inside a dream. I can see the vulture’s shadow – a sudden cross – briefly animate the stone in my hand.

From the radio: “They dropped food on the good guys and bombs on the bad guys!” A child’s vision. This is the season of the enemy’s tongue pressed into a scrap book for safe keeping. Good guys, bad guys. This is the season of a lynx fur stole resting on a glass box containing a stuffed lynx. Good guys, bad guys. This is the season of fingers found inside envelopes on the side of the road. I am not saying this from inside a dream. I've lit my car on fire as a beacon.

(Previously published in The Bitter Oleander in the US; and in Planet: The Welsh Internationalist in Wales)

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