April 12, 2017

Possible opening for a new book...


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.

This book is not reality. No book is reality but this book especially so. Millions of years ago there were evil magicians who hid a substance deep under the surface of the earth in order to destroy their enemies. When they cast their spell, a spell in the form of this hidden substance, it was as bright as sunlight. But over millennia it turned pitch and viscous. The evil magicians pursued enemies that were not yet born, pursued their fantasies or premonitions of enemies in the distant future. They planted a trap, a fuel for war and conquest, and a fuel over which many wars would continuously be fought. This is one explanation for the existence of oil. It is clearly not the most conventional or accepted explanation. But when you hold oil in your hands, stare into it or taste it, I believe it is an explanation you can sense, feel there must be at least a certain degree of truth to it. I have never held oil in my hands.

A news item, buried somewhere in the middle of a newspaper. Warplanes were exploding and no one knew why. It was a malfunction. An error in their design. There was an investigation that came to no particular conclusions. What baffled those conducting the investigation most was that it was not one specific model of plane, but every model, almost at random. Experts could find no pattern to it. While it seemed likely that such a phenomena might be due to enemy sabotage, or sabotage of some kind, they could find no evidence of tampering. The article was written in a dry, tepid, journalistic prose, a style that must have thought itself rather objective. While random warplanes spontaneously exploding midair was most likely a spectacular sight, and therefore a spectacular subject for reporting of any stripe, you would have never known it from the way this short news item was written. I almost ever read newspapers anymore, so it was pure chance that I stumbled upon it in an airport café while I was waiting for my connecting flight. I had brought a book with me but, reading it on my first flight, had found the book far too depressing. Therefore, in between flights, instead of continuing to read the nonfiction book that was only getting me down, I absent-mindedly picked up a newspaper sitting on the table in front of me. The only headline that caught my attention: No Explanations For Mysterious Exploding Planes.

I am ashamed I decided to take this trip. The moment I got on that first plane I already knew I was in the wrong. 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. Most of the countries these bombs were being dropped on possessed considerable amounts of oil. It is understandable that these countries might want to keep the oil for themselves but, millions of years ago, the evil magicians who implanted this oil deep into the earth had a different plan. My tax money went to ensure that foreign countries which wanted to keep their oil, or their bananas, or their diamonds – especially if they wanted to nationalize or socialize these resources, use the profits for the good of their own citizens, but even if they just wanted to use them for palaces, cocaine and extravagant parties – would be taught a lesson. The instant obsolescence of the exploding bombs would murderously light up this lesson across their various skylines.

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.



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