We keep hearing that Iraq is not Vietnam. And surely any competent geographer would agree. But the United States is the United States — still a country run by leaders who brandish, celebrate and use the massive violent capabilities of the Pentagon as a matter of course.
Almost fifty years ago, during the same autumn JFK won the presidency, John Hersey came out with “The Child Buyer,” a novel written in the form of a hearing before a state senate committee. “Excuse me, Mrs., but I wonder if you know what’s at stake in this situation,” a senator says to the mother of a ten-year-old genius being sought for purchase by the United Lymphomilloid corporation. “You realize the national defense is involved here.”
“This is my boy,” the mom replies. “This is my beautiful boy they want to take away from me.”
A vice president of United Lymphomilloid, “in charge of materials procurement,” testifies that “my duties have an extremely high national-defense rating.” He adds: “When a commodity that you need falls in short supply, you have to get out and hustle. I buy brains. About eighteen months ago my company, United Lymphomilloid of America, Incorporated, was faced with an extremely difficult problem, a project, a long-range government contract, fifty years, highly specialized and top secret, and we needed some of the best minds in the country…”
Soon, most of the lawmakers on the committee are impressed with the importance of the proposed purchase for the nation. So there’s some consternation when the child buyer reports that he finally laid his proposition “squarely on the table” — and the boy’s answer was no.
Senator Skypack exclaims: “What the devil, couldn’t you go over his head and just buy him?”
“The Child Buyer” is a clever send-up, with humor far from lighthearted. Fifteen years after Hersey did firsthand research for his book “Hiroshima,” the Cold War had America by the throat. The child buyer (whose name, as if anticipating a Bob Dylan song not to be written for several more years, is Mr. Jones) tells the senate panel that his quest is urgent, despite the fifty-year duration of the project. “As you know, we live in a cutthroat world,” he says. “What appears as sweetness and light in your common television commercial of a consumer product often masks a background of ruthless competitive infighting. The gift-wrapped brickbat. Polite legal belly-slitting. Banditry dressed in a tux. The more so with projects like ours. A prospect of perfectly enormous profits is involved here. We don’t intend to lose out.”
And what is the project for which the child will be bought? A memorandum, released into the hearing record, details “the methods used by United Lymphomilloid to eliminate all conflict from the inner lives of the purchased specimens and to ensure their utilization of their innate equipment at maximum efficiency.”
First comes solitary confinement for a period of weeks in “the Forgetting Chamber.” A second phase, called “Education and Desensitization in Isolation,” moves the process forward. Then comes a “Data-feeding Period”; then major surgery that “consists of ‘tying off’ all five senses”; then the last, long-term phase called “Productive Work.” Asked whether the project is too drastic, Mr. Jones dismisses the question: “This method has produced mental prodigies such as man has never imagined possible. Using tests developed by company researchers, the firm has measured I.Q.’s of three fully trained specimens at 974, 989, and 1005…”
It is the boy who brings a semblance of closure on the last day of the hearing. “I guess Mr. Jones is really the one who tipped the scales,” the child explains. “He talked to me a long time this morning. He made me feel sure that a life dedicated to U. Lympho would at least be interesting. More interesting than anything that can happen to me now in school or at home…. Fascinating to be a specimen, truly fascinating. Do you suppose I really can develop an I.Q. of over a thousand?”
But, a senator asks, does the boy really think he can forget everything in the Forgetting Chamber?
“I was wondering about that this morning,” the boy replies. “About forgetting. I’ve always had an idea that each memory was a kind of picture, an insubstantial picture. I’ve thought of it as suddenly coming into your mind when you need it, something you’ve seen, something you’ve heard, then it may stay awhile, or else it flies out, then maybe it comes back another time. I was wondering about the Forgetting Chamber. If all the pictures went out, if I forgot everything, where would they go? Just out into the air? Into the sky? Back home, around my bed, where my dreams stay?”
Suppression of inconvenient memory often facilitated the trances that boosted the work of the Pentagon. But some contrary voices could be heard.
Lenny Bruce wasn’t a household name when he died of a morphine overdose in August 1966, but he was widely known and had even performed on network television. His nightclub bits, captured on record albums, satirized the zeal of many upstanding moralistic pillars. One of Bruce’s favorite routines described a visit to New York by top holy men of Christianity and Judaism. They go to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral: “Christ and Moses standing in the back of Saint Pat’s. Confused, Christ is, at the grandeur of the interior, the baroque interior, the rococo baroque interior. His route took him through Spanish Harlem. He would wonder what fifty Puerto Ricans were doing living in one room. That stained glass window is worth nine grand! Hmmmmm…”
In what turned out to be his final performances, Bruce took to reciting (with a thick German accent) lines from a poem by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton — a meditation on the high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. “My defense? I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distances with missiles? Without ever seeing what you’d done to them?”
We saw butterflies turn into bombers, and we weren’t dreaming. The 1960s had evolved into a competition between American excesses, with none — no matter how mind-blowing the psychedelic drugs or wondrous the sex or amazing the music festivals — able to overcome or undermine what the Pentagon was doing in Southeast Asia. As journalist Michael Herr observed in Vietnam: “We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.” At the same time that Woodstock became an instant media legend in mid-August 1969, melodic yearning for peace was up against the cold steel of America’s war machinery. The gathering of 400,000 young people at an upstate New York farm implicitly — and, for the most part, ineffectually — rejected the war and the assumptions fueling it. Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was an apt soundtrack for U.S. foreign policy.
Days after the November 2004 election, while U.S. troops again moved into Fallujah for the slaughter, a dispatch from that city reported on the front page of the New York Times: “Nothing here makes sense, but the Americans’ superior training and firepower eventually seem to prevail.”
Superior violence, according to countless scripts, was righteous and viscerally satisfying. Television and movies, ever since childhood, presented greater violence as the ultimate weapon and final fix, uniquely able to put an end to conflict. Leaving menace for dead — you couldn’t beat that. But at home in the USA and far away, the practical and moral failures of violence became irrefutable. In Iraq, sources of unauthorized violence met with escalating American violence. In the United States, war opponents met with presidential contempt.
In a short story, published one hundred years ago, William Dean Howells wrote: “What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right, anyway!”
This article is adapted from Norman Solomon’s new book Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.