I have known, up close and personal in my own family, what the impact of war is on human beings. And I have watched over the last 15 years as my own nation strafed, bombed, kicked the bedroom doors in, and salted the river bottom valleys and fields of country after country of little brown people with depleted uranium that will remain radioactive there and make healthy living for humans and all other creatures essentially impossible until the end of time on Earth.
Some people find this photo of my father glamorous and admirable. I do too, in my own way. But I also know the man, and I know the cost to a human soul of inflicting fire, death, and destruction on innocent women, children, men, and the other creatures who live alongside them.
I wake today more disgusted by, more deeply ashamed of, my country than I have ever been in my life. And I wake in full anticipation that the havoc we have wreaked on the world in our history — that which caused Dr. King to say half a century ago, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own country,” a statement which is still and has never stopped being true — will pale next to what is to come under the depraved, insane, morally indefensible jackanape just elected President in this mad land.
This is the Afterword to my translation of “The Art of War”, written in 2009 for just one man, Barack Obama. He’s on the cover, along with Sammar Hassan.
Look her up. Many more of her are to come.
THE DEGRADATION OF AMERICA AND THE WORLD BY WAR
This version of “The Art of War” comes to light in a particular time and place, the United States of America in late 2009. The country in which I was born and have lived almost my entire life is mired in the longest war in its history, now in its ninth year, with no end in sight. That war and another were touched off with a Barnum’s blast of treasonous lies from President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their fellow chickenhawks. In the years since they intentionally manipulated and misled Congress, the United Nations, and the American public — for empire, gain, and revenge, if truth is told — these conflicts have stolen the blood and lives of thousands of American sons, daughters, and allies.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and Afghanis have died. In all of the nations involved, vastly greater numbers are crippled and disabled for life. Huge portions of the Middle East and Southwest Asia are covered in depleted uranium from American and Allied weapons, with catastrophic implications for the health of innocent men, women, and children that will linger for decades at least. (Enter into a web browser the terms “Dr. Jawad al-Ali”, “photographs”, and “depleted uranium”, but don’t do it at meal time).
Besides devastating America’s reputation and long-term security, these wars have consumed our treasure and enriched the military and its contractors to the tune of trillions of dollars at a time when the infrastructure and social services of our country are frayed and disintegrated beyond description. They have saddled a promising new president with a staggering burden. They have by torture taken from us our sense of our own decency, by blood and treasure taken from us our well-being, by a thousand different torments taken our reputation in the world.
What they have given us is infinitely vaguer and harder to locate. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the nauseatingly misnomered neo-conservatives are enamored of crowing at every opportunity how their activities “kept America safe” after 9/11. They do this while simultaneously — and preposterously — overlooking the fact that on the day America suffered the most stunning and deadly attack on its soil in our history, they were the people directly charged with protecting us. They were not new on the job that day, nor uninformed, nor short of tools; they were the people who had been tasked with our security for nearly a year, who were privy to every jot and tittle of intelligence about it, and who had their hands on the keyboards, arming buttons, and nuclear powered aircraft carriers of America’s defense systems.
And they were the people who were absent without leave and well-nigh impossible to locate on that awful day. As we’ve since learned, they were busy confabulating falsehoods to trick the American people into attacking a nation that had absolutely nothing to do with the events of 9/11. They were preparing to hand out billions of dollars in no-bid contracts so their cronies could get rich(er) off war. And they were conspiring to reveal the identity of a very high level undercover CIA agent and director of intelligence operations, Valerie Plame, in a twisted bid to bolster their fraudulent rush to bloodshed. That conspiracy and the perfidy done unto Ms. Plame was treasonous by any lucid accounting, and treason is customarily punished in America by either death or life imprisonment. Instead, somehow the betrayers of Valerie Plame, the CIA, the USA, and in fact the whole world continue to be regular cast members in the open running sewer that is Fox News.
I am not a politician, a military strategist, an expert in foreign affairs. I am, more or less, a writer raised in hillbilly environs, haphazardly educated, somewhat disorganized, occasionally deranged, disinclined to the holding of a regular job, a tripping-and-stumbling spiritual seeker of the crazy wisdom or heyoka sort. However. I am 51 as I write this, and while I have knocked my noggin a few times, I have not knocked it off. I’ve been watching the news, reading the papers, getting all the way through a few books, writing one occasionally, and thinking things over. And I am a writer charged by my late friend and lifelong teacher Edward Abbey with this Writer’s Credo:
It is my belief that the writer and freelance author should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives. It is easy enough, and always profitable, to rail away at national enemies beyond the sea, at foreign powers beyond our borders, and at those within our borders who question the prevailing order. Easy. And it pays.
But the moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home, to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture. The more freedom a writer possesses the greater the moral obligation to play the role of critic. If the writer is unwilling to fill this part then the writer should abandon pretense and find another line of work: become a shoe repairman, a brain surgeon, a janitor, a cowboy, a nuclear physicist, a bus driver. Whereof one fears to speak thereof one must be silent. Far better silence than the written word sent to shore up the wrong, the false, the ugly, the evil.
Therefore I cannot in good conscience release a book entitled “The Art of War” without telling you one very direct and plain fact. I have read the teachings you came here to read, the ones known as “The Art of War”, and the rest of the Taoist canon of which they are a part for decades. I have read them forward and backward, in more than one language, read the commentaries upon them, which are legion, and read the commentaries on the commentaries. And the fact is this: every single awful and terrible and destructive-to-self-or-others thing that these teachings warn that an inept or unethical leader can do, or that can befall a nation fond of war, has been done by our leaders and is befalling us now. Every one.
What “The Art of War” teaches us, among matters martial and philosophical, is this: War is expensive in every sense of the word. It can bankrupt a nation by consuming its treasury. It can tear out its heart by robbing families of the love and companionship of sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and friends. It can starve it by sending its resources not to its own dinner tables but abroad to fuel colossal military adventures. It can despoil its good name in the world. It can even end its viability completely as the nation disintegrates at home while dying abroad. Those are chickens of the most serious sort, and they are coming to roost in the United States of America.
Don’t trust my view. Read the book once or twice. Try another translation if you don’t admire this one. Then take a good look around. Contemplate what you’ve beheld. Then, if you’re moved, write your representatives, or perhaps storm their offices. Change your nation, the world, your own mind, someone else’s. Act.
Act as if your life depends on it, because it does. We have nuclear weapons on this planet, and in the country where the vastest number and very much the most powerful of them are ticking and humming and idling away, why, just a few minutes ago during a Presidential campaign, one of the two chaps proposed to be in charge of them all suggested to us, and thus to the world, that the person most qualified to assist him in that endeavor, and to succeed him in it should he, a multiple-occurrence survivor of malignant melanoma, a highly lethal form of cancer, perish, was Sarah Palin — Princess Poptart herself, a woman who has never had a thought in her head about anything other than her own vacuous yet vigorous megalomania, her delusions of grandeur, her “religious” ramblings, her festering resentments, her grandiose persecution complexes, her petty revenge fantasies.
Sorry to remind you. But it matters. Diagram, if you dare, a Sarah Palin sentence. Ask a linguist, if he is not barking at the moon after reading it, to explain to you what it tells us about her mind. He will tell you, blanching the while, that it is a confused, chaotic, unstructured, unsound place. A profoundly unwise place.
The point of this is not that an unhinged lunatic empty of everything but ambition aspired to power — that is as common as dirt. What is uncommon is the kind of power to which so colossal a clown came so perilously close: the nearest thing to absolute power humans can know, the power of nuclear annihilation of the Earth and its inhabitants. What is uncommon is that one of the two viable political parties in the most powerful nation on Earth saw fit to chance that — saw fit to seat at the right hand of the most powerful man on Earth, a man in his eighth decade, the grumpy geezer with control of the by-a-very-great-measure most awesome military machine and arsenal the world has ever known, this woman Sarah, this Palin person.
Saw fit to try to sell to us as potentially our next leader this documented evangelical nutcase, this cheerleading member of an “end times” church, this garrulous aw-shucks huckster who promoted her wilderness state as a goshdarn good place for folks to reconnoiter after Armageddon, this feeble-minded fool whose mutated and mutating sense of her own manifest destiny nearly became America’s, and thus the world’s. What is uncommon is that when it came time for people to go to the polls, nearly half of the United States of America was on board this bizarre, barmy, bugged-out bandwagon.
Well. In this, the 21st century, if America loses its mind, the world must fear. The consequences can be (and at the moment certainly seem to be) so far-reaching as to be endless. But let’s focus on what the worst of them can be: Once a nuke flies, a second will almost certainly follow. After the second, a handful, surely, so that India and Pakistan can finally settle scores, China stake a flag or two, Israel assert itself. Then the skies will grow dark with them, the skies will grow darker than we can even conceive, the lights will go out on the beautiful luminescent blue pearl we call our Earth.
That’s where we are. As this 2,500 year old book teaches us, war has ever been a high-stakes affair. But today the stakes in armed conflict are so unutterably high that our minds cannot begin to grasp them. Like they cannot begin to grasp the breadth of the universe, the breath of the universe, the mind of God, the vast and mysterious tao. Humility, then, yes? Humility is in order. Calm is called for. Wisdom in leaders has never mattered more. If they cannot cultivate it, if we do not call for it, we are condemned. That is all.
I don’t lightly attach words like these to a set of ancient teachings beloved by so many, nor do I do so to press any agenda other than good sense and as much decency as we Americans and Earthlings can muster. I’d like people of all political stripes to have the benefit of the wisdom found in The Art of War in whatever way they can. While translating the words and ideas, I had no thought of directly denouncing the craven and contemptible of the world — generally I reckon they denounce themselves with the facts of their lives (hello, Cheney, hello, Bush) — nor of bending these words to one particular use or another. That said, I have found in The Art of War remarks that, when related to the modern moment, reach back to what is recent with deep disdain and reach forward to what is immediate with terrible trepidation. As Americans, as citizens of the greater Earth, we surely ought to attend, and attend closely, to what this slender scroll says to us.
May we learn, may we prevail over our worst selves, may we somehow join what D. H. Lawrence called “the only true aristocracy” — that of the conscious. May we escape with our hides and souls and daughters the perilous times in which we live. May we evolve to a good and positive condition. May the road rise to meet us and the stars light our way. May we find God, Allah, Buddha, Tao, the great mystery — whichever appeals to us — above and below, within ourselves, within each other,
Good luck, leaders, soldiers, citizens, Mr. President. Good luck, America. Good luck, beloved world.
Brian Browne Walker
15 November 2009