Dropping bombs is the purest form of capitalism. A Tomahawk missile costs 1.87 million dollars. An AGM-114 Hellfire costs 110,000 dollars. The price of a GBU-44/B Viper Strike is currently unlisted but is likely somewhere in this range. And the moment they hit the ground, the moment they detonate, the money is gone and you must buy new ones in order to do it all over again. A computer lasts between three and five years. A car lasts eleven. But a bomb, when you use it, lasts a split second and it’s gone. A bomb that kills many and a bomb that kills no one costs the same amount. It is not like throwing good money after bad or watching money burn. It’s like watching money detonate, watching money explode, like a Hollywood film in which the many explosions make up for the shortcomings of the script, filling in for absences of meaning and purpose.
The term planned obsolescence is generally attributed to the industrial designer Brooks Stevens who used it as the title of a 1954 talk. Wikipedia says: Stevens defined it as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” His view was to always make the consumer want something new, rather than create poor products that would need replacing. But you do not need to wait for a bomb or missile to wear out or become obsolete, or for a newer, better one to arrive on market. Instead they incinerate themselves as an expression of their use. Profit and obsolescence melding into one indistinguishably violent act.
I’m ashamed I decided to take this trip. The moment I got on that first plane I already knew it was a mistake. That by simply deciding to make this excursion I was more part of the problem I hoped to solve than the solution I hoped to become. I paid taxes in a country that was involved in between seven and nine wars, depending on who you asked. My tax money went to pay for a miniscule degree of the aforementioned bombs. In each of these seven to nine declared and undeclared wars, hundreds if not thousands of such bombs were being detonated ever year.
There was a certain feeling of powerlessness, that I could only read about these wars, only imagine them, but had no idea what they were actually like, what it might actually feel like to be there, to put ones life on the line. For some reason, despite my severe depression, I did not have the courage to kill myself. But if a bomb my tax dollars had a very small part in creating were to by chance fall on me, there might be a strange kind of justice to it, as if something were coming full circle. And, if not, perhaps I would still learn something about a situation which, against every ethical desire I held dear, I still played some small (well, miniscule) part in funding.
The depressing nonfiction book I was reading on my first flight was also about war. I had planned to read it as research for my trip. More specifically it was about a shadowy historical figure known only as The Connection, a war profiteer who allegedly had a career lasting almost a hundred years. In this nonfiction book there is much speculation. Little of it is factually confirmed. It is difficult to know why it is a work of nonfiction instead of a work of fiction, except for the aspect that The Connection did, most likely, exist. He most likely sold weapons to both sides in many of the most famous historical battles and conflicts. There is some evidence that, if he existed, he became almost unimaginably wealthy through such activities.
The story of The Connection starts just before the First World War. He was only a child, at least that’s how so many had heard him tell it, and there was a family friend. One day the family friend came by for a visit but his parents were not home. The friend came in anyway, he was visibly distressed, and absentmindedly began telling this child, who only much later would become The Connection, all of his worldly problems. There were revolutionaries on just the other side of the border who needed weapons, who had money to pay for them, but this family friend didn’t know how to get the weapons across. This was a story, an origin myth, The Connection had told many people, many times over. There was apparently no evidence that it actually happened. But after listening to the family friend’s endless complaints for far too long, the precocious child eventually said: I’ll smuggle the guns if you give me a cut. And ever weekend for the next year, this child went to visit his grandparents, who of course did not exist, at least not on that side of the border, smiling sweetly at the border guards who pinched his cheek and told him what a big boy he was to be traveling all by himself. He was hooked.
I put down the book in disgust. A child gunrunner might be some kind of mascot for our times. In some countries child labor laws still hold but in so many others they never arrived or long ago slipped away. Did I have anything in my small suitcase made my small hands? Did I know? For some reason I picture giving all the children guns, then giving them permission to shoot as many adults as they like. Why does this idea appeal to me so much? It appeals to some aspect of my humor, which seems to always prefer the blackest, most nihilistic jokes. In humor I desire the worst, but in reality I hope only that things might improve, even just a little bit. This book is not reality. I think of reading a few more pages about The Connection, but the plane will be landing soon. I wonder if I can sleep a few minutes before it does. I look around, almost everyone else is asleep. I’ve always envied people who could easily sleep on planes, always thought they were less tormented than me. But I suppose most people are less tormented than me. I do not believe this is a contentious statement.
Going through customs, they look at my passport then ask the purpose of my trip. I say tourist. They look skeptical, replying that no one comes to sightsee war. I think: that’s probably not even true. Every time there’s a war I’m sure all sorts show up just to have a quick look. To risk their lives in search of adventure. But that’s not what I say. With no idea whether it is wise or unwise, I make a spontaneous decision that it is better to lie, so I say that some of my ancestors had lived here, and I wanted to see what it looked like before it was all completely destroyed. From the expression on his face I cannot tell if he likes this answer, or if he believes me, or if he wanted a bribe. I rarely lie, and after I get through I ask myself long and hard why I had chosen this particular moment to do so. In retrospect, it seems stupid to tell a border official that his hometown will be completely destroyed. And needlessly cruel. Perhaps even ignorant. The best lies are also those closest to truth and, much too late, I realize the lie I should have told: that I was here to work on a book. At that moment I still didn’t really believe I would live long enough to do so.
I have one friend here. (Perhaps another reason for my trip.) She kindly picks me up at the airport. I am exhausted after the long flight. In the car we drive through bombed out streets. The amount of destruction is almost breathtaking. I realize I’ve never seen anything like this and don’t know how to react. I stare out the window of the beat up car. You had to be a complete asshole to come here just because you wanted to see all this for yourself, but I thought it was even worse to ignore it, to pretend it wasn’t happening or that it didn’t exist. I realized I could have come as part of a humanitarian project, to help people, feed them or rebuild their houses, but it hadn’t actually occurred to me until now. I wonder if I had ever actually helped anyone in my life other than myself. In the car we don’t talk, I just stare out the window in shame. For no specific reason, I begin to cry.
In her small apartment we begin to make dinner. We haven’t seen each other in a long time. She moved back here to look after her ailing parents. Now both her parents are gone but she has stayed. When I wrote to tell her I was coming she was obviously surprised, so surprised I might even describe it as shocked. In her reply, she said she remembered me as someone who never travelled except for work. This is still basically true today and yet now I’m suddenly making an exception. A misguided exception. In that same reply she also said something now burned into my mind. She said that every single day she thinks of leaving. Of becoming yet another name on the list of an ongoing refugee crisis. That every day she’s afraid for her life. But, at the same time, she feels there are things she can do here that are more important than what she can do anywhere else in the world. How she never completely realized home was home until its daily reality was under threat.
Over dinner we talk only about surface things. People we used to know, where are they now, what are they up to. Books we’ve read, movies we’ve seen. We’re both dying to talk politics but neither of us dares. I don’t have many friends. When I was younger I had friends, but so many of them have moved away and I then never managed to make new ones. I have stayed in touch with almost everyone who moved but only in a perfunctory, minimal way. When we see each other we catch up, much like we’re doing now. I wonder, if I were to die here, how long it would take anyone to notice back home. Eventually someone would notice, but it might take awhile. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this. No one knows but me, the border guard, and my old friend sitting at the table across from me.
I try, I do my best, to explain the reasons for my trip, and I can tell right away that she doesn’t like it. I knew she wouldn’t. She says she’s never heard such a stupid example of thinking privilege. I know she’s right but also feel there’s something she doesn’t see. Some reason that I have to do this that neither of us will ever understand. What I’m saying suddenly feels completely mystical to me, and I’ve never thought of myself as mystical before. She tells me I should get on a plane and go home, protest against my own government back there, or fight to replace them with something, anything, better. If I want to do something than those are causes worth dedicating your life too. Not come here to experience firsthand the violence almost everyone else she know would give almost anything to escape. I know she’s right. But I feel as helpless at home as I feel here, as unable to change anything about my government and I am to make all wars stop. Knowledge is experiential. I already know what it’s like at home. I need to know something else, perhaps feel my very life at risk, perhaps even let it go, and find out if that changes anything. She’s basically disgusted by my explanations. She tells me it’s the most sickeningly apolitical thing she’s ever heard. I wonder if I think what I’m doing here is political. It’s agitated by political reflections but, if I’m honest with myself, it had much more to do with being depressed. For the first time I think that perhaps my depression is also a privilege. To be depressed because bombs are falling far away rather than be depressed because they’re falling on your head. It seems I’m misguidedly trying to trade in the former for the later.
In the morning we have breakfast and continue our disagreement. Over the night, a new thought has occurred to my friend, something that I haven’t yet mentioned. That I’m not just here to stupidly risk my life and take in the suffering of other – a suffering that I feel partly responsible for but also don’t know how to stop – but that I’m also hoping to get a book out of it. It is so obvious she doesn’t know why it didn’t occur to her before. She tells me, almost as a confession, that she’s always liked my books, that she feels I always try to write about these questions in complex ways, to write by way out of my own political paralysis. But my books have always been works of pure imagination. I’ve written about suicide but never put my life at risk, as far as she knows never tried to kill myself. I’ve written about revolutions but never tried to make or join one. Why now? As works of pure imagination my books were productive and perhaps energizing. But I’m only a tourist here and no matter how much I observe I will never get it right. I can’t write her experience much less the experiences of so many here who have it so much worse or who have already been killed or martyred. She’s almost crying as she says this. I realize part of what’s making her so upset is that she thinks this is some sort of game for me. She thinks I’m just trotting around playing my literary-political games. And, once again, I fear she might be right. But, from my perspective, I don’t feel that I’m playing. I think I might die here. For a brief moment I lost my mind, bought a plane ticket. Because I wanted to see for myself. And now that I’m here I, for some reason, have to go through with my plan. A plan I mainly worry I no longer even believe in if I ever did.
So often, when I argue, I get nowhere. We both dig in our heels, double down on our positions, and get nowhere. I want to listen to her deeply, feel that I’m really listening, let her persuade me, but I already agree with so much of what she’s saying. I tell her that I understand her position, she laughs and looks at me almost in disgust, and I suggest we put it aside for now and go for a walk. She doesn’t reply, but from the way she continues to stare at me I understand that one doesn’t just ‘go for a walk’ here. It was too dangerous. She continues to stare at me, wondering what she could say to change my mind, to knock some sense into me. I ask her if we’re still friends and she says that we are. That she’ll write about what good friends we used to be when she writes my obituary and I laugh and say that I’ll go for a walk myself and she shouldn’t worry. Then she says that she is worried. That she’s worried precisely because she’s my friend. And that she’s never thought of me as someone who knows a lot about friendship but when you have a friend you don’t want them to die. And you especially don’t want them to die stupidly, by strolling into a war zone, in a way that could so easily be avoided. But she can also see that I am lost, she’s always thought of me as lost, but I’m more lost now than back when she knew me before. She can see that I’m lost, that I’ve painted myself into a corner, and there’s an Italian expression that I’m reminding her of right now: that when you’re painted into a corner sometimes the only thing to do is shoot yourself in the foot. She just hopes I shoot myself in the foot and not in the head.
Out on the street life is muted but goes on. It’s true no one seems out for a casual stroll but people are out on the street regardless, walking briskly, doing the things they have to do, going from place to place. There are even a few children playing, but few enough that I assume other children have been told to stay inside. Some of the people stare a me, I suppose wondering if I’m a soldier in civilian clothes (I assume I don’t look much like a soldier), and if I’m not a soldier what the fuck am I doing here, wandering at a pace that is considerably more casual than anyone else on the street, a flâneur on streets inhospitable to such activities. A formation of planes flies above, and everyone starts walking a bit faster, heading for whatever cover seems best yet without any real panic, as I stop in my tracks and watch the sky. I know nothing about planes, but they don’t seem ready to attack, they seem in transit, off to attack someone else a little further along. They move smoothly through the serene blue sky and just then, as I’m watching, one of the planes in the formation explodes. I can see no reason for it. There are no shots fired, nothing under attack, nothing but five planes in the air, a trail of smoke leading to some unidentifiable point on the horizon, and then there were four. No one else on the street seems especially interested or perturbed by what we just witnessed. It’s apparently business as usual. They’ve seen it all and they’ve seen it all before. But I think, in the distance, I hear a few voices cheer.
I turn around, head back to my friends place, as I do so having some kind of quiet epiphany. I find myself making a decision, my first since I decided to buy the plane ticket. If I do actually end up writing a book about all this, if I do actually live long enough to write such a book, and I’m still not sure that I will, I decide in that moment that in this book no one will die. Not a single death. If you’re reading this, you weren’t born yesterday and you already know that bombs kill people, that in wars people die. But I don’t want bombs to kill people, I don’t want to kill them again by transforming their deaths into prose, don’t want to profit from their deaths, don’t want someone to say how tragic it all is and that my book derives resonance from such tragedy. Of course it is all tragic and savage and unconscionable. It is violently horrific in a way I could barely conceive so I had to come here. If I write about it, it will be because I’m a writer and, short of dying, I can’t seem to help myself. But there’s enough death in the world and, watching that plane explode, I decide for a fact I will not add any more. This will be the first anti-war novel in which no one dies. (Except perhaps me. If I’m unlucky and get my wish.) This book is not reality. No book is reality but this book especially so. All of this is something you can refer back to if during later moments you’re confused. In fact, every time someone does not die in this book I ask you to keep in mind that in reality they would be gone.
When I get back to her apartment I tell my friend about what I saw, about the plane that exploded in mid-air. I don’t tell her about my decision to write an anti-war novel in which no one dies. I don’t think she would like that idea much either. We argue some more, but unlike before, now when we argue we also laugh. I think, while I was on my walk, she somehow decided that if I was going to die we should at least have some good times together before I go. That night she took me to a secret, illegal art party. I was surprised that she was unsurprised by the warplane I had seen explode. She told me it happened regularly and no one knew what to make of it. I felt there was something exciting about the phenomena, that it presented possibilities, or at least promising questions, but my friend wasn’t so sure.
To get to the party we drove to a suburb of a suburb. Several times as we drove, we heard planes overhead, and each time we heard that sound we drove just a little bit faster. We parked by fence, climbed over it (I ripped my pants as we did so), and then walked for a long time, I would guess almost an hour. (I was wearing a watch but didn’t think to check it when we started our drive or when we started out walk.) There was a door with a password, another door with a different password, and then stairs going down and down and down. After such a long journey I was thinking that no party could possibly be good enough to make it worth this endless travel to get there but I was wrong. I had no idea what I was talking about.
On our walk I asked again about the exploding planes. She told me the rumor she had heard was that about one plane was exploding every other day. And strangely it seemed it was democratic, not only planes from any particular government or army or faction. Planes from all countries appeared to be exploding more or less equally. We talked about whether it could be a computer virus, perhaps a computer virus that had gotten out of hand, spread beyond its original target, or some other form of sabotage. My friend didn’t discount these as possibilities, in fact she didn’t discount any possibilities, any explanation might be possible, but I couldn’t help but feel she wasn’t particularly interested in what the explanation was. For her it was happening and that was all, another mad thing in this endless series of madness’s called war and colonization.
“But don’t you think it’s actually great,” I asked her, unable to understand her patient lack of excitement.
“It might be great,” she replied, “I don’t know. The longer I live here I suppose the more suspicious I become. I don’t want to get my hopes up if they’ll only be dashed a few days later. And, also, the pilots… they might be enemy pilots, they’re definitely killing us much more, a lot more indiscriminately, then we’re killing them. But, I don’t know why, I find myself not wanting to rejoice in the deaths of those enemy pilots. I’m afraid of becoming obsessed with revenge. I mean, the longer I live here the more I am becoming obsessed with revenge, and therefore the more I try to counterbalance it by not rejoicing in these pilots deaths.”
“I’m not talking about revenge,” I say. “I’m talking about curiosity, about wanting to know why.”
“The planes are exploding. Whether or not we know why they’re exploding.”
I say nothing. I still didn’t understand.
Stepping into that party, into the first room, I felt something opening up. A sense of possibility I don’t think I’d felt in a very long time. Then I immediately started feeling guilty, as if I was here to experience a meaning I was unable to experience at home, but that I was getting without the daily pain that basically made it possible (though perhaps the pain would come later.) I walked into the middle of that first room and froze. There were things happening all around me, I could also hear other things happening in the further rooms, and I still hadn’t gotten my bearings. Frozen in the middle of that room it was as if I split into two, as if one part of me had broken off and floated up towards the ceiling with the intention of giving the other part a lecture. The lecture was as follows: Now is not the time to feel guilty or to beat yourself up. There will be plenty of time for that later. Now is the time to experience something. When you stepped into this room you had an experience of opening. When was the last time you had an experience of opening? Don’t throw that away for a wallow in cheap guilt. You’re friend brought you to this party, you don’t have a lot of friends, take it in and enjoy it. You might be dead tomorrow and might never have another chance. It was a good lecture, good self-advice, and I did my best to listen, though of course I don’t think I entirely succeeded.
On the large walls on either side of me were 35mm projections. One projection was a montage of randomly exploding planes, the other was footage of wildlife captured in the bombed out ruins of the city: a few rabbits, a stray deer, two camels that followed each other like a couple and another animal I didn’t necessarily recognize. If I had seen these films at home I might have thought they were good, more art that I was free to take or leave, but here it felt they were life as it was happening all around us and disappearing. I knew I was being romantic but told myself that perhaps being romantic was part of the opening. Being romantic was the flipside of my stupid guilt. In the next room was a performance, a choir of young people reading out an endless list of names in unison. I knew these were names of people who had died, had been killed, but also I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to have what I knew confirmed. At home I don’t think I would have found this performance good, would have found it too literal and heavy handed, but here it became something else, a kind of simple necessity to have these names witnessed and spoken out loud. It was performance like I had seen a million times before. Why did I suddenly care about it now? I imagined that I was killed tomorrow, my name being added to the list. But of course my name would not be added. There were all local names. Mine would not be placed among them.
My friend finds me and I tell her that I think the names are all people who have been killed and she laughs. They’re all names of contemporary artists, filmmakers and writers, most of whom are still alive. She laughs at me again, how I made the most simplistic and literal assumption. She tells me that for her it feels good to hear the names celebrated. That it’s a nice change from the endless names of war. All through the party, and we stayed basically all night, it was as if I was being reminded what art was for. Or not even reminded, as if I was learning what art was for, learning again what art was for as if for the first time. We walked through to the next room together. I couldn’t tell how many, but there were doors leading in all directions, and I found myself wondering what this place used to be, some sort of underground labyrinth or bunker. My friend actually didn’t know, so far she had known the answer to almost every question I’d asked, but this was the first time she’d been here as well. What she did know was that these parties had been happening every year since the war started which meant that this was the ninth or tenth one.