Thursday, November 14, 2013

American Airplanes

The American airplanes that once flew over this part of the world have long since departed. Once they filled the sky in olive-green flocks, but now we only have remnants.

A concrete strip is cut into an island in the South China Sea. Chemical plumes lace the groundwater of Manila, Saigon, and Khorat. Horizontal concrete hotels stand in Southeast Asian cities, their bars paneled in wood with potted palms and velvet drapes, Jim Beam and Bacardi blended into tropical drinks for lieutenant's wives.

And of course the strips of bars with names like "Oriental Nights" where girls in pink fishnet stockings and go-go boots have been catcalling for decades, the sorts of places where Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken pointed guns at their heads, in towns where dislocated children with hazel eyes are born into uncertainty.

Sometimes the American airplanes were applauded. Other times they got spat on. And on the coraline islands of Vanuatu, they inspired the holy devotion of Melanesian fisherfolk.

Some of the Americans stayed. Others left and came back. You see the old men who live in concrete houses with local wives in old air-base towns like Nakhon Phanom and Udon Thani, or laughing over a seven-and-seven in the secret military bar on Sathon Tai in Bangkok.

Or you see them in sadder places, in sleazy pink-lit bars on Sukhumvit 22, eyes fixed in the middle distance, a Tiger beer in one hand and a slowly burning Marlboro in the other, and maybe they've got a greasy, thin burger made with gristly local beef on a chipped plate, cold fries going limp in a pool of ketchup. You see them leering in sleazy nightclubs where they listen to a band play covers of contemporary pop songs they can't stand.

And when they've reached their end you see them at the embassy in crooked sunglasses and a baseball cap that says U.S.S. NEW JERSEY, pushed around in a wheelchair by a Thai or Filipina wife who hates them, American children who pity them, signing their will.

Do you know what you're signing? the embassy official says.

The American airplanes came to Asia at a time when America was at its blindly optimistic industrial peak, when you could call Detroit "the Arsenal of Democracy" without smirking. The photos of the pilots are as bright-eyed and apple-cheeked as the Waltons.

They left Cambodia and Laos as UXO-riddled kingdoms of ghosts, Vietnam as a by-word for disaster, a legacy of hundreds of thousands of midnight murders in Indonesia, full-hearted support for the corrupt thugs running Thailand and the Philippines.

The lazy analogy is to call the Americans "cowboys"-- it's inapplicable, and yet somehow legions of clueless French and Germans still buy it-- but to be a cowboy implies self-sufficiency and a ruggedly individual spirit.

On the contrary, the American military machine in Asia in the mid-20th Century was just that, a machine, scientific in its approach, with lessons learned from cybernetics and systems engineering. War was laid out by men like the accountant Robert McNamara and the policy man Henry Kissinger, men in nerdish glasses, applying Taylorist principles of management to destruction and violent death.

And the ruins are accordingly mechanical: sulfur and phosphorus, carbon steel and vulcanized rubber. Even the food of Fordist America remains in the Carnation condensed milk poured into the coffee cups of Vientiane, in the Spam pressed into rice in Guam, in the slashed hot dogs on skewers offered as a street snack in Phuket.

But for me, the young American, it is now an antique society, existing in the same amber haze of history that cloaks belle-époque Paris and Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Things that, to a generation previous, were part of childhood TV broadcasts are now as horses and buggies.

And so, perhaps one day, I'll have nieces and nephews writing about the waning days of the imperial American urge. About their conversations with a Kurdish taxi driver, or their visit to a Pakistani town destroyed by drones. Atrocity is immediate. The process of history lets the act of killing unfold into a million subtleties.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Gunman in New Jersey

I am at work. I periodically click on things between assignments, and I find myself on Reddit. There's a shooting going on right now at the Garden State Plaza, a large shopping mall in North Jersey.

Click. He's shooting outside the Nordstrom.

Click. I switch to a music video. I check my-email and take a sip of my coffee.

Click. The area is being evacuated.

"Real time." What an odd idea. As we follow the events in what we consider to be real time, the chances are probably higher that we don't know anything that's happening. A photo here. Some video of a distraught witness there. But, despite the zoom lens that we have on the events as-they-are, we interpret them like the Twitter feed of a B-list celebrity, with about the same degree of passion.

Garden State Plaza. Paramus, New Jersey. Is that where the Seinfeld episode takes place where Jerry gets caught taking a piss in the stairwell?

The ads tell me that the stream of updates is sponsored by the NFL Network. TOGETHER WE MAKE FOOTBALL. White font, black background.

He's stopped shooting. Or has he? What's he wearing? Is he still in the mall? Accuracy takes second place to speculation. The speculation, after all, drives traffic and therefore revenue.

The next banner tells me there is "1 FOOD THAT KILLS," next to a rubicund man with a sow-pink paunch. "1 FOOD THAT KILLS. Top doctors admit that this popular food puts deadly fat into your belly, thighs, and internal organs. Never eat this food."

The Reddit update is filled with phrases like:

• Not sure of the validity of it.
• Unconfirmed.
• Take it with a grain of salt.

We think we see something when we absolutely don't.

It's New Jersey. For me, it's the other side of the planet. I don't know if I know anyone in New Jersey. I probably don't.

But I'm first-world enough to never be too far from the 24-hour news cycle. We are endowed with a certain omnipresence. Time and space have, as David Harvey said, compressed.

These things tend to follow a pattern. Eventually, facts are established, guilty parties named, the fog will clear and bathos will set in. Melodrama supplants empathy. Guilty parties are named and shamed. Genuine analysis is smothered under the desire for a morality play.

Meanwhile, down the street, protesters are marching through Sala Daeng, Uruphong, Ratchadamnoen. I see a photo, and even though I see the same intersection where I bought my breakfast, it feels just as mediated and distant.

Christopher Isherwood, living in interesting times, could say that he was a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. My camera is shut. I am only thinking, recording nothing at all.

At the end of the day, as I'm at home with my whiskey-and-soda, the poor bastard has shot himself in a dark corner. Another unstable person, another regrettable decision. The main story is finished, and now the bottom-feeders in the comment threads will take over.