1492, 1776, 2015. War is still more American than sex, drugs or rock & roll. While the war on sex rages, albeit muted beneath progressive legislation, and the war on rock & roll is a bygone flicker in the affluent imagination of the ‘50s, the war on drugs is far more blatantly related to war itself.
Brought up in American suburbia, countless adolescents continue to admire the pot-smoking, LSD-addled Vietnam War combatants in Full Metal Jacket as the quintessence of military life. Like the poor, soldiers have always been inundated with substance abuse, from the berserk Vikings consuming piss thick with amanita muscaria, to the opiate-addicted masses All Quiet on the Western Front of the War to End All Wars. At the tail end of American occupation (the tail being between the legs of politics and capitalism), the booming Afghani opioid business has led many to question the war.
The war in Afghanistan is the longest in all of American history, outlasting the 122 months in Vietnam. Record opium production numbers rose to an all-time high at the end of 2014 despite American efforts to curb the drug-fueled economy. As with nations, individuals consistently succumb to a vicious cycle of conflict, addiction and poverty.
Of the 2.6 million Americans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, many have returned home with debilitating psychological damage, and have found reprieve for conditions like PTSD through alternative medicine, such as cannabis.
In the wet, early fall weather, one young man volunteering at the Harry’s Hill Harvest Ball cannabis liberation festival in Starks, Maine stated PTSD as his condition, requiring self-medication. In Maine, veterans, and all residents, are subject to a seasonally impenetrable landscape, during which access to professional healthcare is practically impossible. This reality is shared throughout the U.S., with special emphasis on the more remote, agrarian communities who live in rural regions. Curiously, it is in these marginal, relatively undeveloped zones where another conflict of substance abuse is being fought. Natural resources are consumed by societies, and individuals much like drugs. The comforts of suburban life, furnished with every urban amenity, yet with the veneer of rural living, offer a sensation similar to opiates.
The children of suburbia are injected with a listless removal from the reality of the world as efficiently as a driveway of hot tar in the hopeful summer. They become indebted students, unpaid interns, and finally, hit the streets. Meanwhile, workers on the innumerable industrial sites that pockmark the country have fashioned their lifestyles, as with the military infrastructure. Many workers have begun to share sentiments in common with soldiers.
In America, war creates more jobs than anything else, anywhere. The Pentagon, for example, employs more people than any organization on Earth. And for Americans, employment, or more exactly the almighty dollar, rules over all.
Work is what defines Americans, and what made America what it is today. Yet, in the 21st century, the dependence on a wage economy is invoked in the name of democracy, while numbing the populace to co-opt capitalist extremism and over-industrialized landscapes the world over. In lieu of affirming and defending the land-based independence of the people on domestic soil, Americans are deployed overseas. War abroad, like at home, creates jobs. Soldier. Engineer. Politician.
At a certain point, and most immediately among those likened to independent thought, industrial work simply does not make workers proud of their jobs, not in the least. On the army base, as in the work camp, this can lead to ostracism, unemployment, and, subsequently, poverty. Most commonly, it leads to a substance abuse addiction, further stimulating the conflicts inherent to self-destruction so fitting to ecocide, and war.
The Canadian city of Fort McMurray, the township alongside the Athabasca tar sands in northern Alberta, is a tried and true example. Dubbed Fort McMoney, the amount of heroin, cocaine, and booze consumed is only paralleled by the insanity of the price for a hamburger, and the income of a prostitute.
For youth on the cusp of the labor force, the military offers academic, and vocational training, with all of the intoxicating liberties of college, while adding the stimulus of weapons training. With the mandatory draft long gone, the decision to go to war is less an exhibition of national service, than of personal opportunity. Yet, these two impetuses have undoubtedly gone hand-in-hand from Pearl Harbor to 9/11.
The absolute moral compunction to resist Nazi fascism by a force of arms was then delegated toward increasing economic reasons for militarization into the post-WWII era. While couched in the paranoiac Cold War, the Vietnam War exposed the economic underbelly behind the Iron Curtain.
Yet, despite having admittedly “lost” the war, capitalism proved victorious by more underhanded, gradual means. At the end of the day, the legacy of Vietnam continues to speak of the facts of war campaigns, that they are predominantly a political method to control the domestic populace.
In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the nation, and the world, declaring war as the enemy of the poor. Today, military recruits demonstrate a similar religious fortitude, albeit politically perverted, to the tune of a dominantly Judeo-Christian front largely deployed against the purported bastions of fundamentalist Islam.
Meanwhile, the national and personal economic reasons for joining the military are steadfast among the more moderate recruits. In the past century, the federal government has promoted nonmilitary civil progress with varying success, from the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression, when the War Department led the federal employment of a still matchless peacetime labor force, to the War on Poverty.
Regardless, the face of federal intervention in the daily economic life of American citizens has never been so bald as in the 21st century in the midst of perpetual war. In which case, the jobs and education that the military offers young recruits today are increasingly within the context of economic desperation.
In the summer of 2014, a young student from CUNY met his activist professor, along with his fellow students, to protest the recent bombing campaign in Iraq. On 125th Street, in Harlem, the police stood by warmly, as the bustling streets were peopled with the occasional fist-pumping support, though mostly wide indifference. One African-American woman yelled out: “Gender rights!” The student shouted repetitively and indiscriminately: “Money for jobs and education, not for war in Iraq”. His voice became dogmatic over time. Then, a middle-aged African-American man engaged the young Caucasian student in conversation, essentially lecturing him about the superficial importation of the activism on that day. The demonstrators, numbering about thirty all told, were organized by the national anti-war platform, A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition. As the conversational passerby pointed out, the group had simply displayed open neglect for recognizing the locals, and had ignored the importance of presenting their cause in solidarity with the communities who have been working for decades on similar issues in the neighborhood. For many Americans, as in Harlem, military jobs, and military education, are among the only opportunities afforded to unskilled youth.
The anti-war demonstrators marched down to African Square, in front of the 23-story Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, where a security guard quickly ushered the protest off the square grounds onto the sidewalk. There, energetic CUNY students, and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee harangued vociferous speeches aimed at U.S. imperialism. Nearby, a public drum troupe knocked out West African drumbeats from a chorus of djembes. One ecstatic dancer skipped over to the demonstration. She was an older woman with short hair, who grabbed one of the pre-written signs with unrivalled passion, almost mockingly. “I haven’t protested since high school!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, her throat raspy, as she promenaded in front of the crowd with reckless abandon. “Listen to me! Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan came out of my stomach!” she continued proudly, slapping her torso, emphasizing her motherly support for the combatants.
The loudspeaker rang out despite her flagrant show of support. She then ran back toward the African drummers that enticed her to move more abstractly to the calfskin bangs and pops of the spiritual warriors of ancestral tradition. The rhythms resounded with volume enough to drown the blaring student anti-war cries. They were there before any of the protesters arrived, and continued long after. They are still there.