BLAST from the PAST: Paving the Way for the Road to Damascus

This essay appeared previously in Asia Times and Foreign Policy Journal circa Sept. 2013

“Most of all, [the Syrian conflict] is all about control of natural resources and channels of distribution.” —Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, September 9, 2013

paving1Like most battered tropes, the tail wagging the dog offers a durable, if dog-tired, metaphor for much that afflicts us. While rhetoricians are apt to groan over rote recourse to tired imagery, regular folks use clichés because they strike a cognitive chord. After all, mass appeal is what exhausts language in the first place. The bane of poets, cliché is a sign of democratic affections. Let’s have more of it.

This particular metaphor derives its power from the sense that, rather than addressing the thing-itself, we are forever grappling with epiphenomena, proximate reflections and spun realities. Everything is mediated. Nothing is authentically palpable. Manufactured consent is all about assembling a coalition of the deceived. True, we are being lied to with Goebbellian ambition to a point where deceit becomes, for many, an undetectable ethos. No sooner does one explain to a seemingly perceptive friend or colleague the diversionary intent of the current chemical weapons debate than they nod their heads in sage agreement, take due note of the submerged iceberg’s immense size and resume stock sound-bites the very next day. Such is the power of the frame. There is also, I’m convinced, a social component. Just as people want to make good around the water cooler, no one wants to be the office’s perennial, contrarian weirdo. The frame du jour is where polite small-talk gathers. Nothing ventured over doughnuts, nothing gained.


Within the mainstream media, we are presented daily with messages—tails—that attempt to corral ‘bodies of facts on the ground’. The messages are illicit rearguard actions designed to exert mastery over sleeping dogs. Since lies have a habit of demanding further lies, why undertake this great exertion of deceit? Lying somewhere between Straussian arrogance and neo-Platonic contempt, the elite are loath to address, in an open-air forum, the many hellhounds nipping at all of our heels. Are we wrong to dignify this aversion with philosophical pretentions as perhaps it has long since metastasized into pathology? Our leaders seem convinced subterfuge abets their power.

Meanwhile what Syria’s really about involves a knotty confluence of water rights, dueling pipelines, nation-state reconfigurations, militarized economies, competing CIA and DOD fiefdoms, Islamic sectarian divides, the global affliction of nihilism, domestic (US) shale oil ascendancy, Saudi panic, the fading Petro-Dollar, French colonial re-visitations, shifting Israeli internal demographics, Persian and Ottoman empire re-imaginings, etc., etc. With all due respect to the Syrian civilians who (apparently) died at the hands of some agency of chemical weapons, this is hardly about them. They are but ghoulish pretense. May they rest in peace all the same.

Here’s where things can get a little tricky, especially in this transparent and skeptical age of alternative media. Assad’s complicity in the chemical attack may or may not be fact. What is immutably true now however is the elite have selected it (for better or worse) as the controlling or instigating frame through which they will leverage America’s entry into the region for the host of ‘covert’ reasons touched upon above and, it should be added, at very real risk of sparking World War Three. If the Syrian regime did in fact commit the atrocity, it becomes a contributing legitimization within a cluster of larger reasons for American engagement. It is also a Trojan Horse hewn to commit America’s military within the ‘city walls’ of the Levant. Once we are there, the road to Tehran will be a long and arduous one; yet one our friends, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are determined we should make.

If on the other hand it is shown the chemical attack was committed by the rebel forces, the elite, far from relenting, will defend their rendition to the hilt. (Remember, they exist beyond good and evil in the Straussian realm of the Noble Lie.) Thus whether a complete fabrication or a genuine Assad war crime, the chemical attack has the practicable effect of being an incidental expediency in all cases. The burden and aftermath of collapsing grand deceptions can be onerous indeed. For instance, the Syrian case for intervention must climb a wall of worry constructed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Importantly and in all cases, the elites are practicing deception (certainly the sin of omission) when they purport that the use of chemical weapons is the sole reason for resorting to force. I would hazard it barely cracks the top five.

As it is, the plebes are fed a steady, lurid diet of comic book WMD’s and noxious gas portrayals. Bam! Zoom! Whammo! To coin Guantanamo’s Jack Nicholson, we can’t handle the truth, or so it has been decided. Plato’s Republic might be cool with this paternalistic head-patting except our elite manage to bollox one Guantanamo after another. (Since we’re treading linguistic terrain let me say that I disparage the term ‘elite’ as it conjures up notions of sure-footedness and meritocratic station. Our ‘elite’ are more in the vein of Keystone cops.)

When the Spin becomes King, vertigo rules the land and straight thinking acquires a positively eccentric ring. Backwardation overturns causality. People are instructed to believe TV, not their own eyes. Yet every time a regular Joe summons his dog in real life, the animal ‘defiantly’ arrives first, its tail invariably traipsing along behind. People have been known to shoot their dogs just to silence the doggone cognitive dissonance. Imagine putting down Fido so that Senator John McCain might sound a little more lucid? Such are the inestimable costs dogs of war are routinely called upon to make.

Another hackneyed phrase is sending the right message, something we’ve been hearing probably six times a day of late. For this, we’re back on TV, only selling soap flakes. Sending a message is an attempted seduction via telegraph not unlike batting an eyelash. But I don’t want to be ‘right back after this message’ during which a kimono is coyly lifted, revealing a bit of ankle. Putin’s taken great pains to assure us he’s not that kind of guy, much less that kind of adversary. Don’t mediate your intent. Demonstrate it. All these ornamentalisms are features of decadence and feckless, late Empire. When the mediated message becomes the thing-itself, gesture has swarmed substance. Camouflaged boys and girls from Kansas are sent in to rescue Nero’s sound-bites. Merely embarrassing the elites becomes a veritable Pearl Harbor to be dealt with swiftly.

With repetition, a Quixotic syndrome develops where people increasingly conflate windmill-mirages for clear-and-present foes. This is a form of collective madness which, if not unique to the television age, is certainly an emblematic feature of it. Ironically, no group is more perilously removed from the visceral (and so convinced of their message-making’s existential heft) than are our rarified leaders. Surely a certain decadent nadir has been reached when their foremost concern involves the veracity and sanctity of the imparted message. You’d think the Red Line was pinned down on Iwo Jima with a two-day supply of water. No matter, a command is sent down from some high-up place: “Summon the kids (well, our kids anyway). The message must be preserved at all costs!” A contemptible equivalency has been struck: Losing a limb, ours, is a reasonable price to avert losing face, theirs. Never mind that the Red Line isn’t a cornered battalion, but merely a botched metaphor wrapped in a rhetorical gaffe. It happens also to be the exoteric casus belli.

These quotes are revealing:

“…to communicate with [the Iranians] we have to be very clear, very forthright.”—White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough

You’d think if America wanted to send a very clear, forthright message to the Chilean people, there are better ways to do it than bombing Nigeria. How about Antarctica? It’s closer and less populous. I would submit that Iran is, far and away, the most forthright target to send the Iranians a forthright message. These non sequiturs are compelled by veiled objectives. Then too, had we wanted to push Iraq decisively into the Iranian orbit, there were far less costly and bloody ways to go about it than Gulf War 2. Maybe my brain is not cut out for all this strategy stuff, but from this low chair, McDonough’s argument suffers all at once from logical indirection, geographic inexactitude and disingenuous message-talk. We’re also back to hopelessly mixed metaphors of sending bulletins with bombs, communicating with shrapnel etc. when Mr. McDonough should know that messages don’t kill people. Bullets kill people.

Then there’s General Petraeus—the most brilliant military strategist of our generation, doncha know—with this to say:

“Failure of Congress to approve the president’s request would have serious ramifications not just in the Mideast but around the world. Military action against the Syrian regime is, thus, necessary…to ensure that Iran, North Korea and other would-be aggressors never underestimate the United States’ resolve to take necessary military action when other tools prove insufficient.”

Apparently loopy geography and postural message-talk captured central command thinking too. How did North Korea creep into a military leader’s clear-eyed assessment of Syria? Is this guy still running for President? You’d think by now Petraeus would tip-toe around message-making like it was depleted uranium. Love missives demolished his career after all. But no, everybody is suddenly a purveyor of messages and a dime-store linguist when we’ve already got Noam Chomsky who knows everything under the sun and then some.

Are such subtleties forever lost on the powerful? I can kill you, without communique or fanfare. Or, I can convey the message that I plan to kill you. To the functionary foot solider, the former is decidedly more lethal than the latter which is mere telegraphed intention. But then, the foot soldier has his feet planted firmly on the ground. He knows the difference between a bullet and a bulletin. I truly believe our elites are losing this distinction. Nay, I think they’ve lost the friggin’ plot.

Worse, I believe they fear the effects of a badly drafted bulletin more than they do a well-aimed bullet. This is a moral corruption and there are reasons for it. The elite are far more accustomed to dying in bed than in combat. What coupon-clipper doesn’t yearn to expire bedecked in a smile and plunked beside his favorite mistress ala Nelson Rockefeller? Petraeus should be so lucky. By the way, having a mistress sends a terrible message to your wife.

I know I’ll be accused of some sort of class warfare harangue. But I view this message-promoted-to-flesh syndrome as a mental health issue that happens to afflict the promulgators more than we the recipients of said missives. Regular folks are inoculated to some degree because they still must take out their own trash and drop legs in faraway places. Decadence spawns from the enervations of unearned privilege. The mainstream media and the elite must re-engage on an existential level with war. They must rekindle a healthy forbearance towards armed conflict that only noblesse oblige can supply. Whizzing bullets cure armchair commandos. We need warrior-kings once again, leaders who can reacquaint word with deed. Through no accident warrior-king Eisenhower offered the most actionable speech of the last sixty years. We failed to heed his call and have trod a war footing ever since.

That’s why I’m calling for the immediate NDAA rendition and delivery of Senator Lindsey Graham to his new role as Damascan warlord for some merry band of al Qaeda psychopaths. Only after he has been baptized in palpable fear (a healthy rendezvous with unmediated reality) should Graham be allowed to resume frightening old ladies in Charleston with tales of looming nuclear holocaust. It’s high time we restored fear-mongering in America to its rightful place as a privilege that must be earned! Of course he will first have to explain to his new charges why he just called them ‘crazy bastards’ in the chamber of the Senate. But I have faith in Graham’s rhetorical prowess if not his skill with a Kalashnikov.

BLAST from the PAST: Paving the Way for the Road to Damascus