I am a child of the Cold War. I was 13 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In the years that followed, the so-called Doomsday Clock was always five minutes (or much closer) to midnight and the terror of imminent annihilation was constant.
But by the late 1950s, there were signs of hope. We were still here, the Bomb had not been dropped, and Mutually Assured Destruction had not taken place. In the USA, there were also the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King (with its equivalents here in Australia, like the Freedom Rides).
But every polity has its dark side. In the USSR, it was Stalin’s Terror, the gulag and State murder. In America, it was the CIA, Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts, and the increasing power of the corporations and the military.
Despite the exigencies of the Cold War, however, there was something admirable about America and the American belief in democracy at the beginning of the 1960s. This was the American Liberal Tradition, which, despite US imperialism, still had some meaning and substance at the time.
A motion picture called Bobby, which has just been released on Australian screens, depicts one of the key events that announced the end of that era of optimism. Bobby deals with the assassination of Robert F Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968. (He had recently nominated as a Democrat candidate for the American presidency.)
Bobby is written and directed by one Emilio Estevez, who is the eldest son of Martin Sheen (star of Apocalypse Now and the TV series The West Wing). He prefers Estevez (the family name) over Sheen as he does not wish to be seen as hanging on to his famous father’s coat tails. He was born this is important in 1962. He is just 45 and was six when Kennedy died.
In a recent interview, Estevez said that the death of Robert F Kennedy marked the end of idealism, principle and manners in American politics. This is arguable, but Estevez’s point is well taken. There was a time when America, for all its faults, had some moral authority in the world. Not anymore.
The American Dream has become a nightmare.
A film still from the movie Bobby
One good example of this is an earlier motion picture, Falling Down, made in 1992. Here, retrenched engineer Bill Foster abandons his car in a Los Angeles traffic jam and walks home through a violent and scarred city to his estranged wife.
Foster comes to realise that the getting of wealth, patriotism and hard work no longer apply in other words, the supposed ‘values’ of George W Bush have become irrelevant and he goes on a rampage. That is the situation America faces today and maybe Australia, too with its endless, nouveau-riche, highly mortgaged suburbs.
Curiously, despite Stalin’s gulags and America’s CIA, there was, throughout the Cold War, a sense of optimism and vigour: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s marches could be an occasion of joy and solidarity, and the impact of the Protest Movement was extraordinary. The threat of annihilation did not necessarily mean resignation, inertia and despair.
Frank Rich, columnist for the New York Times, thinks that George W Bush, with his aggressive, red-necked, Christian-fundamental values is largely a creation of the media. I am not sure about this. It may well be that Bush (and his senior colleagues) represent the dark side of America just as John Howard (and his senior colleagues) represent the dark side of Australia.
We have two examples of how far America has fallen in the moral stakes. Recently, 49 nations in the UN agreed that the use of cluster bombs should be prohibited in warfare. (Cluster bombs are munitions containing smaller bombs or ‘bomblets’ the US military slang for them is ‘firecracker’ or ‘popcorn’ shells, because of the many small explosions they cause in the target area. Many of the bomblets lie unexploded for years, and people in Vietnam are still being killed by cluster bombs left by the US military in the 1970s. Children often see unexploded cluster bomblets as toys. Cluster munitions are manufactured by Textron Inc and Insys Ltd, both of whom have offices in Australia. Last December, a private member’s Bill, prohibiting the manufacture and possession of such weapons, was introduced into the Australian Senate. The Bill did not pass and was not supported by the Government.)
The US refused to support the UN’s proposed ban of cluster bombs, saying that they were permissible, provided they were used within the ‘rules of engagement.’ I do not know which way Australia voted, but it is not hard to guess.
The second example of the US’ moral decline concerns the American policy of ‘rendition’ and the use of torture. ‘Rendition’ is the procedure by which suspected terrorists are flown by the CIA to secret prisons in countries where torture is either legal, or part of the daily routine in places of confinement. Such countries include Syria and Uzbekistan. In this way, the Bush Administration pretends to keep its nose relatively ‘clean.’
The maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison just outside of Baghdad was a low-point in America’s moral prestige. I’ve little doubt such things went on before 9/11, but it was the ho-hum reaction of the Bush Administration to it (particularly, that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) that was so appalling. Such a reaction would have previously been unthinkable even under the Realpolitik of Henry Kissinger.
This issue of New Matilda includes an extract from Michael Otterman’s book American Torture. Recently, Dennis Altman, Professor of Politics at Latrobe University, reviewed the book for The Age, and reminded us what the New York Time Times said in 1951:
We must be careful not to commit the same kind of judicial iniquity of which we accuse the Reds. To descend into their mire would be to lose the ideals for which we stand.
GuantÃ¡namo Bay is an American gulag of the 21st century; and Bush, Blair and Howard have betrayed the values for which we once stood. Torture now is a permanent fixture on the military policy order-of-the-day. ‘Rigorous interrogation’ is routinely used by the American military, with the blessing of the Bush Administration and our own Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, thinks that sleep-deprivation is not torture. Howard, Downer, Ruddock and the Australian military have descended with the Americans into the moral mire.
The mire is deep, dark and foul. It threatens to engulf us all.
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