Tuesday, August 23, 2011

September 11

This September marks the tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. One can scarcely imagine how many articles and blog posts will begin with similar sentences during the next few weeks. We'll see different angles, hear different tones, and be exposed to all manner of insights and illusions on the subject of 9/11. After all the words, though, and after this much time, will we be any closer to understanding what happened? We all share certain emotions about those traumatic events. What kind of understanding do we share?

9/11 was initially seen as a great unifier and quickly became one of the most divisive events in recent memory. It was a declaration of war, and as Chris Hedges points out in his book of the same title, war is a force that gives us meaning. Unity wasn't just a result of the attacks. It was an imperative result. Any disruption of that unity was seen as a threat to our security, certainly, but it was also more than that. It was a threat to our sense of duty, honor, and courage...because war is what promised to restore all of those things.

For these reasons and others, objective analysis of the conflict, the enemy, and the respective strategies was generally unwelcome. Any attempt to understand Bin Laden's motives, for example, was said to be "too soon" for the still grieving American psyche. Moreover, any such attempt was probably itself motivated by sympathy for terrorists and a desire to justify their cause. Our own president put it very simply. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Granted, his statement was addressed to other nations who might have considered harboring our enemies, but in many people's minds the distinction between foreign enablers of terrorism and domestic critics of the War on Terror was slight, at best.

But it's been ten years now. Osama Bin Laden is dead, which means that at least one of our goals--and ostensibly one of the most significant--has been achieved. We've had time to recover, to plan a strategy and set it in motion, and to see at least some of the results. A few questions seem appropriate to consider. What did Bin Laden accomplish before his death? What have we accomplished? Who is the enemy now, and where do we stand with respect to them? To those interested in the factual background of what follows, I recommend Adam Curtis' documentary The Power of Nightmares and the books Why Nothing Works by Marvin Harris and Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges.

As of the year 2000 or so, Al Qaeda historically had had limited appeal among the Muslims Bin Laden aspired to rule. The group's extreme fundamentalism made it fractious and prone to violent infighting, such that it's questionable whether they even had a coherent philosophy to offer. Intolerance of disagreement, however, was a constant. It extended especially to other Muslims, who have always been the principal targets of Al Qaeda's wrath. In the fundamentalist view, Muslims who demur in the smallest detail are no Muslims at all, and in fact are worse than infidels who never knew the truth. This has led Al Qaeda to practice extensive campaigns of violence against other Muslims.

For the most part, predictably, Al Qaeda's efforts to terrorize their coreligionists into submission backfired, bringing their popularity to a low point before 9/11. Their one reliable sales pitch was opposition to American policy, particularly American military action in Muslim countries. On this it seemed everyone could agree. That is not to say Bin Laden was a freedom fighter. On the contrary, he was thoroughly anti-democratic, power-hungry, and unscrupulous about the use of financial and drug crime as well as wanton violence to expand his field of domination in any way possible. He was, in other words, the mirror image of the American interests ultimately responsible for his training when he was our ally against the Soviets. But even if he was a thug, to Arabs and Muslims he was their thug. In the face of American hegemony, this lent him a certain credibility.

In their desperation, and with the inspiration of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda devised a plan to take advantage of their one remaining strength. They would launch an attack on the US itself, an action of such boldness and scale that it would become a symbol and a rallying point for anti-American resentment throughout the Muslim world. In doing so they would win the widespread support of Muslims who felt oppressed by American power. And there was a second element to the strategy. Al Qaeda calculated that while the US couldn't be defeated on the battlefield, we also couldn't sustain an extended war without drowning in debt. By drawing us into full military commitment in the Middle East and using cheap guerrilla tactics to prolong our expenditures, they would finally drive us out once and for all. They would defeat us not militarily, but economically.

How then does Bin Laden's plan look, ten years out? There was a brief surge in his popularity after 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The results were short-lived, however. This part of the strategy seems not to have succeeded in the long term. On the second point, it has been far more successful, though it's not clear that Congress or either of the post-9/11 presidents have recognized it. The cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has officially passed the 3 1/2 trillion dollar mark. Meanwhile our metamorphosis into a Third World nation, already well underway before 9/11, has strikingly accelerated. Inflation, if it were measured by the same Consumer Price Index that was used in the 1970s, would probably be around 10 percent. Unemployment, including those who have stopped looking for work or settled for part-time jobs, is around 15 percent and rising. In 2010 the ratio of national debt to GDP passed the 90 percent threshold. In 2011 it passed 100 percent, and this month the United States' credit rating was reduced to subprime for the first time ever. Representative Barney Frank, the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, cited war spending as the primary reason for the downgrade.

Operating on a cost-plus basis, the defense industry has long been generating monstrous inefficiencies that have spilled over into other industries. This is to the extent, of course, that other industries continue to exist. Since WWII, the manufacturing base for productive goods has virtually disappeared in the wake of war socialism, Soviet style. Of course, not all our economic ills result from the War on Terror. But the fact remains that we now spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined. We spend ten times as much as the first runner-up, China, and this is only counting programs in the Pentagon budget itself. War-related spending in other agencies probably brings the total near a trillion dollars annually. President Obama recently challenged the Afghans to develop an economy not based on war. The comedian Harry Shearer quipped that this sounded like a wonderful idea...and when would it be our turn?

As we go on competing with extremists for control of the Middle East, the people of that region continue to be caught in between. The great majority want to be dictated to neither by the US nor by Muslim fundamentalists. This attitude seems as unfathomable to us as it is to Al Qaeda. Obama has basically stayed the course, yet Afghanistan remains without a viable government other than the Taliban. The Russians learned that you can't conquer Afghanistan, and lost their empire in the process. We're now learning that you still can't conquer it even when you pitch the operation as something other than conquest (a most salesmanly and most American expedient that was supposed to make all the difference).

Those who wrote Bin Laden's obituary this year mostly described him as a failure, a man whose unrealistic ambitions made him foolish enough to trifle with a superpower. There is some truth to this narrative. Bin Laden failed to build significant support for a new fundamentalist caliphate in the Middle East. This is a good thing, so far as it goes. But he may well have succeeded in his ancillary goal of bankrupting the American empire. Even though he is dead, the endgame he set in motion has played out more or less successfully. Each day we are two billion dollars further in debt and that much further from claiming the upper hand.

Michael Scheuer's indispensable book Imperial Hubris, published anonymously in 2004, essentially narrowed our realistic options down to two. We will either have to annihilate the Muslim nations or learn to do business without using coercion. Neither is likely to happen any time soon. The only remaining choice is to steel ourselves for future conflict and loss. Scheuer has some advice that seems especially appropriate on the tenth anniversary of the attacks:

Stop Celebrating Death and Defeat

Since the 11 September attacks, many Americans have engaged in an almost nonstop celebration of the massive US defeat suffered that day. Purportedly sorrowful commemorations of the dead, these endless, well-planned and -scripted effusions of grief, international contests for memorial designs, and, most of all, rivers of stilted, never-forget oratory serve no purpose save to recall our utter defeat and allow us to wallow in dread of the pain to come. In my own organization in 2003, we celebrated "Family Day" by treating visiting relatives to this sort of celebration of defeat. In the main corridor stood a shrine erected to the debacle of 11 September. Beautifully matted photos of the twin towers burning and collapsing, framed artist renderings of architects' plans for memorials to the dead, photos of pseudo-Diana flower piles placed in front of US embassies abroad, and--the macabre centerpiece--a glass display case holding metallic shards from the World Trade Center. All these are, to use an old-fashioned phrase, unmanly. Americans are made of sterner stuff--or, at least, better be, for, as Robert D. Kaplan wrote about our current foes in the
Atlantic Monthly, "In a world of tribes and thugs manliness goes a long way."

9/11 memorials have always been a heady mixture of arrogance and self-pity. The tenth promises to be the most extravagant orgy yet, but as Scheuer observes, such things serve no real purpose. After ten years, perhaps it's time to move on. Perhaps we might stop reminiscing on our brief moments spent basking in the world's sympathy and start reflecting on why so much of that sympathy has been lost. We might take a cold look at our response to what happened and judge carefully whether it has helped or hurt us. It remains to be seen whether America is "ready" for such a course. But if we can't be smart about it, let's at least be manly.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Life During Wartime

The sequel to Todd Solondz' Happiness was released on DVD last month, just a few weeks before the scheduled premiere of his latest film, Dark Horse, at the Venice Film Festival. Life During Wartime is a worthwhile if not entirely satisfying update on the lives of the three sisters Helen, Joy, and Trish. All the principal characters from Happiness, as well as some from Solondz' earlier film Welcome to the Dollhouse, are played here by different actors.

Incidentally, I don't necessarily agree that the timeline of Solondz' universe is skewed, as some reviewers seem to think. Judging by the ages of the characters and the various pop culture references in the films, one could plausibly assume that Welcome to the Dollhouse takes place around 1990, Happiness in 2000, Storytelling around the same time, and Palindromes during a span between 2000 and 2006. Life During Wartime would most likely take place in 2008. Each film is then set roughly at the time of its release, with Dollhouse happening several years earlier and Happiness slightly later. None of which is very important, but I had fun with it while spending a weekend in Solondzville watching the newest chapter and revisiting the old ones.

While all of them are good, it was the underrated Palindromes that really made me sit up and take notice. The subjects of the satire in the earlier films are solidly bourgeois, making them easy targets for a hip audience. Palindromes' treatment of the abortion issue and the main character's rebellion against "liberal" values made it a somewhat riskier film. It was the work of an artist who clearly didn't give a damn whom he offended. And it was all the bolder considering that its concessions were sure to be lost on pro-life viewers, few of whom would have the sensibility for R-rated (or unrated) movies about pedophilia and rape. This is always the exciting thing about Solondz, though. He goes where the subject leads, without any apparent concern for who's following.

The newest work was originally called Forgiveness, which is a good statement of its theme--or half of it. The cliché "forgive and forget" is stated several times in the film, and for some of the characters at least, the second part of the admonition seems much easier to deal with. Trish, whose ex-husband Bill has been in prison for child rape, has left New Jersey and found what she considers a new life in Florida. She understandably refuses to dwell on the past, but by the same token she also denies its troubling effects on her family, a denial that skews her son Timmy's emotions and ends up hurting them both. For Helen, forgiveness is a weapon. She has picked up on the idea that it makes one a "better person" and interpreted this to mean that forgiving puts her in a position of superiority. She deploys her new-found tactic aggressively and, to her sister Joy, somewhat confusingly. For her part, Joy sees forgiveness as something to be passively received, an easy gift to which she is entitled. Her ghosts, however, see it differently. Bill's struggle with the idea may be the most complicated. When he gets out of prison and goes to visit his older son, now at college, he asks for forgiveness and is denied. He's obviously crushed, but he may also be reassured to know that Billy can't put himself in his father's shoes.

The choice of new actors for the roles, though sometimes dismissed as a gimmick, is indeed revelatory in many instances. As portrayed by Jane Adams in Happiness, Joy was a character whose flaws could almost be overlooked. Shirley Henderson makes a caricature of Joy's childlike qualities, and in doing so reveals their falseness. Trish, the priggish housewife who was paradoxically the most interesting and human character in Happiness, is the center of attention here. Allison Janney brings out a desperate vivacity behind the fear and neurosis. Ally Sheedy plays Helen, a character whose impressive drive and intensity are ever more focused on self-loathing. She's awesome to watch, if only for one brief sequence. Helen's treatment is actually rather perfunctory, which bears on the real shortcoming of the sequel. It seems unfinished, as if the storylines needed more attention. What's there is great, but there's not enough of it.

Perhaps the most problematic re-casting is that of Michael Kenneth Williams as Allen, the role played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the first film. As one critic put it, "[T]here's no way that a chunky, blond white guy and a dark-skinned black man with an eight-inch scar down the middle of his face could've had the same life experience growing up in America." Considering similar issues with other roles, the reviewer concludes, "These are just not the same people."

Is this true? In a strictly literal sense, it is. Probably no two people of different colors have exactly the same experience growing up in America. But does this mean that no chunky, blond white guys are ever involved in street crime? Or that no muscular black men ever lead lives of pathetic, self-loathing solitude? I confess that I found the new Allen difficult to accept, probably because of assumptions like these which I didn't even know I had. But they are interesting assumptions, and deserving of the questioning to which Solondz subjects them. Janney's Trish is also problematic, but here again the difference seems designed to test our biases. Is it possible that a stuck-up, judgmental suburban housewife could have a real lust for life and even, perhaps, some sense of irony underneath it all? Surely not...yet Solondz asks us to rethink.

Despite a certain thinness to the narrative, Life During Wartime again shows Solondz doing what he does best, as he would say, challenging preconceptions instead of flattering them. Possibly the trick casting started as an adaptation to necessity, but if it was an accident it has proved to be a happy one. These characters were always full of complexity and contradiction, and the sequel only explores a bit more of what was already there. There's a lot of potential in Solondz' strategy of freeing his characters from the limitations of particular actors. He took full advantage of it in Palindromes. Let's hope he does so again.