“I read the news today oh boy.” – The Beatles, A Day in the Life, 1967.
“The only enemy of Iraq is the occupation.” – Muqtada al-Sadr, 2007.
Forty years ago down in sunny Monterey, California, an ultra-cool black cat from Seattle named James Marshall Hendrix set the world on fire. “Respect” by Aretha Franklin (written by Otis Redding) was the No 1 hit single in the US (to be replaced, a month later, by “Light My Fire” by The Doors). Hendrix and Otis in Monterey merged into the Summer of Love – the apotheosis of Make Love Not War, vinyl treasures and Indian mottoes dressed in caftans and granny dresses.
Already in the spring of 1967 a stirring wave of counterculture fusion between London and San Francisco was irresistible. Dismissed Harvard sage Tim Leary ordered everyone to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (The Beatles, already in 1966, were quoting from Leary’s version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead – “turn off your minds, relax and float downstream”).
While the radically politicized were yelling “Kill the pigs!” the Beatles were inventing whole new groovy sounds in the studio and beat poet Allen Ginsberg was singing the praise of Bob Dylan’s victims in “Chimes of Freedom” – and assisting LSD experiments unsupervised by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The irretrievably fragmented consciousness of the whole Western world was unifying, at least in the hearts and minds of young people everywhere, even for a fleeting moment in time. It was a river flowing out of the postwar consumer boom, from jazz to the beats to rebels without a cause to Dylan to The Beatles.
The Grateful Dead loved Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (from 1955) so much they set it to music. The doors of perception were being cleansed by what Ginsberg defined as “the divine herbs and greases” and by LSD – the crucial catalyst.
Yippie icon Abbie Hoffman, who defined The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as “Beethoven coming to the supermarket,” later recalled that “at the height of the American Empire we had all the bombs, all the cops in the world – and it was all ours – the Cadillacs, the two-car garages, the split-level ranch houses.”
But then young people, spiritually unfulfilled, started to think there might be something else. Flower power met the East, met unbounded optimism – before, in 1968, reality came crashing down and despair set in.
From 1967 to 2007
Today Leary’s motto would be “turn off, tune out, drop dead.” At the decline of American Empire, young people have all the bombs, all the post-September 11, 2001, cops in the world – and it is not theirs. They have Hummers, holidays in Cambodia, neo-Byzantine condos. But then, spiritually unfulfilled even though they have been to all the five-star healing spas in the world, they still think there is nothing else – apart from a shot at TV celebrity.
Nobody gives a damn: the best lack all conviction (and take refugee in their iPods) while the worst simply lord over all, unchallenged. In overwhelmingly dumbed-down global medialand, airhead heiress Paris Hilton is the Queen of News, governments are no more than “political commissars of economic power,” in the formulation of Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, and the Bush administration/industrial-military complex merrily fight proxy wars in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Somalia.
History does repeat itself – as farce. By early 1967, the US had half a million troops in Vietnam. Massacres of civilians and torture – the precursors of Abu Ghraib – were routine. Half a million Vietnamese – the precursors of Iraqis – had already been killed. President Lyndon Johnson, another regular guy from Texas, was not going to “negotiate with terrorists.”
Vietnam was being destroyed with napalm and Agent Orange. Laos had been bombed for three years without the US Congress even knowing about it (during the administration of Richard Nixon, the victim would be Cambodia). By the Summer of Love, young people everywhere in the affluent West – and all around universities in the satellite global South – already knew the Vietnam War was no less than undiluted state-sponsored terror.
Muhammad Ali refused the draft – joining the throngs of “hell, no, we won’t go.” No one could possibly come up with a sound reason for shooting unknown Asians in far-off jungles (as if there is a good reason for shooting unknown Arabs in far-off deserts). The Vietcong were regarded as true freedom fighters (as are Sunni or Shi’ite Iraqi nationalists today).
Hippies and blacks were uniting against the Man (the white, conservative system) – but unfortunately there was not a lot of communal action, as blacks increasingly started feeling themselves members of a separate nation led by Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael. The year 1967 in San Francisco, London and Amsterdam was not exactly multi-racial: it was in essence a white phenomenon.
But politics did cross culture. Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell became the executive and honorary presidents of a war-crimes tribunal set up in Sweden to try the US government for its crimes in Vietnam, including dropping more bombs than in the entire World War II, unleashing chemical poisoning and herding more than 8 million peasants into barbed-wire gulags. The tribunal had two sessions – in May and then in November 1967. In his speech, read by his American secretary, Bertrand Russell, in pure beat/countercultural mode, said:
We have no armies and no gallows. We lack power, even
the power of mass communication. It is overdue that those
without power sit in judgement over those who have it …
We are responsible before history.
Never in Western civilization had a war been stopped by public pressure – in fact, the pressure of a whole generation – like the Vietnam War. Then there was a book – The City in History by Lewis Mumford, in which the Pentagon is described as an ancient malignant structure that has to be destroyed to ensure a peaceful world. Magic realism met political theater. Why not try to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon?
Abbie Hoffman dropped in to visit the malignant structure, measured it, got arrested – but also got a lot of free publicity. The happening took place on October 21, 1967. Norman Mailer, who immortalized 1967 in Armies of the Night, reflected on how totalitarianism breeds apathy: there was no confrontation at the gates of the Pentagon because the Man had channeled the protesters – a mix of new yippies and ex-hippies, dressed from native American to all shades Eastern – toward an empty parking lot. But the ceremony proceeded. Ed Sanders of The Fugs chanted a magical sort of mantra – to the sound of bells, cymbals, drums and brass.
In the name of the generative power of Priapus, in the name of totality, we call upon the demons of the Pentagon to rid themselves of the cancerous rumors of the war generals, all the secretaries and soldiers who don’t know what they’re doing, all the intrigue, bureaucracy and hatred, all the spewing coupled with a prostate cancer in the deathbed. Every Pentagon general lying alone at night with a tortured psyche and an image of death in his brain, every general lying alone, every general lying alone. Out Demons, out, Out Demons, out.
The times they-are-a-changin’ … not.
So where are the Bertrand Russell-style tribunals now? Where are the civic consciousness and the responsibility toward history of bloated pop stars, financial-system moguls and celebrities hawking their own line of clothing? Now more than ever, a triumph of the imagination is needed. The only way to stop the insanity of the Iraq – and soon Iran – war is through total, visceral mobilization of US public opinion.
Only mega-successful levitation would force the Pentagon to get rid of its must-list of four “enduring bases” (whatever the costs) in Iraq: al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province; sprawling Balad Air Base, with attached Camp Anaconda in the Sunni belt; Tallil Air Base in the south; and Camp Qayyaragh near Irbil, Kurdistan. And we’re not even talking of the three Baghdad bases – Camp Victory (adjacent to Baghdad, formerly Saddam Hussein International Airport); Camp Taji (25 kilometers north); and of course the 10-square-kilometer, hit-every-day-by-mortars Green Zone, which is a base in itself containing the Vatican-sized, 40-hectare, biggest embassy in the world.
Both the White House and the Pentagon have just confirmed on the record what every distressed observer of the Iraq tragedy already knew: this is naked Empire on steroids, aiming at securing control over Iraq’s oil wealth and establishing permanent bases to control the Pentagon-denominated “arc of instability” from the Middle East to Central Asia.
Two weeks ago, Pentagon supremo Robert Gates stressed the “Korea model” and the US bent on securing a “long and enduring presence” in Iraq. And then White House spokesman Tony Snow reconfirmed that this is what President George W Bush wants and needs to fight “the larger war on terror.”
Blowback is a given: more and more Shi’ites will actively support the Sunni Arab, Iraqi nationalist guerrillas, and they may be supported in their cause by Iranian Shi’ites as well. Pentagon desperation – or cunning – is evident in the fact there are no more holds barred now to divide Sunni and Shi’ite to project an appearance of ruling.
The Bush administration and its neo-con advisers’ latest not-so-covert plan is to convince US public opinion of a nebulous Iranian government-Iraqi guerrilla connection – in plain English, another pre-packaged lie (echoes of Vietnam, echoes of Iraq). This carefully manufactured lie establishes the precious casus belli to bomb Iran. Call it Bombing Iran as an Extension of Destroying Iraq.
Any ludicrous disinformation trick in the book goes – such as Dick Cheney and National Security Council supremo Stephen Hadley accusing Iran of developing a new Shahab-3 missile capable of reaching more than 2,500km and striking Rome. In a sane world, the proposition of US anti-missile shields in Eastern Europe to “protect” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from Iranian missiles would be dismissed as a (mediocre) exercise in black humor. What is actually a fact is Russia’s new multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of smashing any missile defense known to man, plus new cruise missiles that President Vladimir Putin will have to point toward Western Europe if the Pentagon keeps on treating Russia as a delinquent kid.
Power to the people
Forty years after the levitation of the Pentagon, there’s no “democracy” to speak of anywhere. This is a plutocratic world. There’s no formidable push to change the world for the better anywhere – but there are already rumblings of repressed anger from all corners of the global South, capable of exploding like a thousand volcanoes.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek evaluates how hard it is today to think of a credible alternative to the current system: “Thanks to all these Hollywood movies and the catastrophic scenarios depicted by ecologists, it is easier today to imagine a total catastrophe destroying all life on Earth than a radical change in social life. In sum, an asteroid touches the Earth, but capitalism survives.”
In 1967, the Pentagon did not engage in liftoff. It did not turn pink. But the 1967 levitation ceremony at least gave the world the indelible poetic metaphor of a rose down the barrel of a M16 – and the flowers dropping from the helmets of trembling 21-year-old soldiers. The Pentagon was humbled, anyway. It was – at least metaphorically – levitated. And the US – losing any intellectual support from its elites – started losing the war on Southeast Asians for good. It was a triumph of the human imagination over heavy-metal greed.
Can US public opinion – or at least the iPod generation – muster the will, the commitment and the courage to do it all over again?
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007).