One thing you can always count on driving Southeast Portland's McLoughlin Boulevard is bumper stickers.
All sorts, from the usual cowboy and redneck slogans that dominate life in the southeast through the twelve-steppers' "One Day At A Time" all the way to the "Keep Portland Weird" and the outre' band stickers of the hipsters.
But among the most common are the military. These range from my own 82nd Airborne patch decal (stuck down in the corner next to the Rose City Rollers and the literary mudflap girl that represents Mojo) through the very visible USMC propaganda, the yellow-ribbon and pray-for-our-troops painless patriotism tokens. It's pretty amazing, when you think about it, for a nation that supposedly began with a stern rejection of all things standing-army-ish, how infested we are with militaria of a rather denatured and cartoonish sort.
I caught this one as I was still laughing at the one I'd passed several miles back that stated that the driver's other ride was my mother. This kind of statement is actually pretty witty for southeast Portland, the land of the rubber trailer-hitch scrotum.
But I'm not sure the driver got the sort of sexual-dominance result he was looking for (I'm doing yo momma, bitchez!); the mental picture of my mother, 86 and in need of adult diapers, getting sexed up by this Lents Lothario struck me as powerfully ridiculous. Hey, I thought, it doesn't really work for me but you go for what you need, stud, and I was still laughing about that when I ran up behind the pickup flying another of the fairly common southeast Portland automotive messages;
"Land of the Free/Because of the Brave".Normally I shine this sort of silly shit on. I usually find it offensive but harmless, like obese twenty-somethings waddling around with SWAT team t-shirts or screaming eagle ballcaps, the sad ejecta of an American culture that says if you say you want to do something (or worse, say you merely like something) it's almost practically the exact same as actually doing the thing.
But this week I caught a little bit of the old Ridley Scott file "Blackhawk Down" and was struck hard by the bitter sorrow in the movie's account of the vicious, futile Battle of Mogadishu.
Scott didn't mean it that way, of course; his Beyond Thunderdome battle flick is intended to make you all misty eyed about the young American heroes fighting for each other in comradely love. It's a beautiful, elegiac piece of utter crap war porn.
The American troopers are all gutsy heroes fighting for each other while the cynical politicians wheedle and betray them, of course. The hordes of Skinnies aren't really people; they are there just to be fuckdolls, to give the war porn its money shot. And like good porn, the hot pounding battle action just keeps coming; wave after wave of nameless Somali freaks seem to rise from the dead and attack like horrible real-life Negro zombies armed with AKs and RPGs, their fearsome inhumanity insuring that you will love our fighting men because you fear the dusky legions they are killing.
The reality behind the film - that this meaningless horseshit mission, the bastard product of a midnight union of eleemosynary television and credulous national greatness politics, managed to get 19 men killed and almost 100 wounded for absolutely no fucking purpose - was as invisible to the viewer as the larger context in which these men fought and died. If you took the film at its face value, as it intended you to take it, you saw only all those lovely young American men fighting and dying for the love of their country and each other. You saw the brave defending the free.
And - mind you, I'm still driving along McLoughlin, past the seedy payday loan storefronts and the chrome and neon blare of the car lots, the many newly-vacant windows where the small businesses and mom-and-pop stores have failed under the weight of the Great Recession - as I'm thinking about this I started to get angry, really angry, about the lies that our "leaders", civil and military, that our press, that our punditry, told about Somalia, about war, about the politics of Puntland, that led up to "Maalintii Rangers" - the Day of the Rangers, that left young American and Somali men dead in the dirty streets, and are still being told, told to send more young men to their meaningless deaths in the dirty streets of similarly worthless Third World cities and, as a byblow, inflate the "patriotism" of the sort of fool that drives around with a "Land of the Free Because of the Brave" bumper sticker.
And I started wondering.
What freedoms have we Brave been defending lately? Who are these Brave, and what the hell have they been doing to earn their bumper sticker praise?
Were there the brave that stopped the Grenadian armored spearheads cold in the bloody snows around Bastogne and Houfflaize and defended the Arsenal of Democracy from Caribbean aggression?
Perhaps this was the brave whose rifles shredded the Panamanian grenadiers in the fields of Freeman's Farm as we beat back Noreiga's bold bid for continental dominance at Saratoga?
Could these brave have been the brave that caused the astounded Iraqi general to cry "Those are regulars, by God!" as we repelled Saddam's invasion of the Midwest at the Battle of Chippewa?
Could these brave warriors have been the ones which sank the Al Qaeda carriers at Midway, sweeping the Pacific clean of The Pan-Islamic Co-Prosperity Sphere, and saving the West Coast from invasion?
Or the brave that rolled over the remnants of the evil Ba'ath legions on their way to Berlin and the end of the global Ba'athist threat?
Our public worship of soldiers and soldiering, our yellow ribbons, our "War on Terror", is built on the same fucking self-deluding horseshit that ended with good men face down in the dust in a dump of a town by the Red Sea. If we were an honest nation we would admit that for most of the past sixty years and certainly for all of the past twenty years - since the fall of the Soviet Union - our armies and navies have done little but exercise the prerogatives of global power. That's what the armed forces of Great Powers do, and that's much of what we have done since the defeat of Japan, nearly entirely since the defeat of the Soviets.
If we still are the land of the Free - and although I believe we still are, more or less, there are some legitimate grounds to be skeptical of this - it is because of the Rude, the Skeptical, the Free-thinking, the Morally Outraged, the Watchdogs of Government, the Gadflies, and the Critics.
Yes, we have sometimes served freedom, we soldiers, in our way, when we could, when it served the purposes of our political masters.
But only a fool places blind trust in the powerful. The business of soldiering has been the business of power as the business of dealing fear and death always is, and to pretend otherwise is to be a fool.