Thu, 23 Feb 2012 10:34 UTC
I could have been a vicious raving monster who killed and killed and left towers of rotting flesh in my wake. Instead, here I was on the side of truth, justice and the American way. Still a monster, of course, but I cleaned up nicely afterward, and I was OUR monster, dressed in red, white and blue 100 percent synthetic virtue.
-Jeff Lindsay, Dearly Devoted Dexter
I teach creative writing in a maximum security prison in Philadelphia. During the week I scour two thrift shops for 35-cent paperbacks that I haul in to stock a small lending library I created for inmates. Amazingly, the prison had no library.
In the process of collecting used books, I've surveyed the crime, mystery and noir genre of popular fiction. I collect some books for myself and have read many in part or end to end. The range of quality in such a genre runs from garbage to genius.
I'm a Vietnam veteran and a veteran anti-war activist who follows the US war news closely. The psychological and mythic forces of Eros and Thanatos (Death) interest me and how they play out in popular culture. Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents writes about "the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction." Eros is the force that brings humans together and Thanatos is the force that drives us apart. "This struggle is what all life essentially consists of," Freud writes.
The other day I picked up Jeff Lindsay's second book in the Dexter series - Dearly Devoted Dexter - about a Miami police department forensic expert by day and psychopathic killer by night. Lindsay's Dexter novels have spun off into a popular Showtime TV series. The Miami Herald called the book about a lovable serial killer "A macabre work of art."
Personally, I wouldn't pay the full cover price for this book. Still, Lindsay is a fine prose writer whose characters are well drawn and set within a fast-paced plot that ping-pongs from the sweet, personal and mundane to the truly horrific blood feast. Dexter as first-person narrator speaks in a tone of light, ironic gallows humor with the reader assumed as a friendly confidant. His day job is as a blood-spatter expert with the Miami-Dade Police Homicide Department.
In this book, Dexter has a relationship with a woman named Rita who has two kids, a boy and a girl, Cody and Astor. All three are wounded from abuse by her ex-husband. Interestingly, Dexter makes it clear he doesn't care so much about Rita and is not interested in sex. At one point, this disciple of Thanatos is drinking beer and finds himself in bed snuggling with Rita and succumbing to the Erotic. "She was just so nice and smelled so good and felt so warm and comfortable that - Well. Beer really is amazing stuff, isn't it?"
What Dexter really cares about is Rita's kids, especially the boy Cody. On a fishing trip, he notices Cody taking pleasure in plunging a knife into a flopping blue runner. He learns from Astor that little Cody killed the neighbor dog for pooping in their yard.
"I had a son. Someone just like me," Dexter says. "I wanted him to grow up to be like me - mostly, I realized, because I wanted to shape him and place his tiny feet onto the Harry path." Harry was Dexter's "wise foster father," the man who recognized in the teenager a psychopathic need to kill and channeled that destructive impulse onto the noble path of killing only those who deserve to be killed.
This is pure genre writing so, predictably, Dexter's "Dark Passenger" (that's his Mr. Hyde killer persona) is faced right away with the need to kill a hideous pederast who duct tapes young boys, then rapes and kills them on his boat, finally dropping them into the Gulf Stream to never be seen again. It's clear this man deserves to die. The formula is that Dexter never kills anyone mourn-able; his prey is always someone demonized beyond any degree of human sympathy.
I don't want to make a case for the immorality of the Dexter series, although I think one could easily make that case. Devotees of Dexter glibly toss off any questions of immorality, saying, hey, it's fiction. Lindsay says he's like Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan; his character has grown into an icon that now belongs to the greater culture. He puts the Dexter attraction this way: "It's having the bully on your side to finish your battles for you. People love that. If someone bothers you, you can say that's all right, Dexter will take care of this, and the people like that."
What's interesting to me is looking at the Dexter phenomenon as a component of mass pop psychology and national myth that deals with the use of lethal violence as a more and more acceptable solution to problems. In that sense, it's disturbing how much Dexter's motivations and self-justifications as a necessary killer mirror the current US military doctrine centered on Special Operations hunter-killer teams.
The New York Times reported this week that Admiral William McRaven, a former Navy Seal and now commander of US Special Operations Command, is lobbying that his hunter-killer Special Ops units be given a larger role in US military strategy. He wants greater authority to employ these sophisticated hunter-killer "cells" outside of normal Pentagon deployment channels - that is, increasing secrecy and diminishing accountability vis-à-vis the American tax-paying, voting public.
This is the super secret world of military and intelligence operatives that has evolved out of the paranoid, post-911 Bush-Cheney years. It is the legacy of Vice President Dick Cheney's famous statement that the times required that the nation not shrink from going to "the dark side."
The pop culture Dexter novel really gets interesting when its major plot element opens up. It seems a homicidal torturer from the 1980s US war in El Salvador - Dr. Danco - has gone rogue and is operating in South Florida to get revenge on those who betrayed him.
Back in the 1980s, the evil Danco had worked in Salvador with Miami-Dade Police Sergeant Doakes, then in US Special Forces on loan to the Salvadorans, and with federal operative Kyle Chutsky. Dexter refers to the 1980s as "a homicidal carnival" in El Salvador, a time when death squads flourished and bodies were common in the streets. Dexter points out that Sergeant Doakes, now his partner in the hunt for Dr. Danco, "would have been one of the ringmasters."
The plot twist is that Danco was sold out to the communist rebels, who turned him over to the insidious Cubans. In the Isle of Pines prison in Cuba he was tortured to the point he joined forces with Fidel. The beast is now loose in South Florida in a white van seeking revenge on those who sold him out, to include Doakes and Chutsky. Danco specializes in surgically severing all a person's limbs and parts, leaving a hideous living head and torso tied to a table doomed to look at what's left of himself in a wall size mirror.
"Once you go over to the dark side, it's forever. You can't go back." That's what Chutsky tells Dexter, referring to Danco.
The Salvadoran Option
I was raised in rural South Dade County as a kid, so many of the streets and locales of this novel are familiar. My South Florida was living, fecund and wonderful and not the moral holocaust of this novel. As a photographer, I traveled quite a bit in El Salvador during the 1980s and 90s. So I heard many first-hand stories of the horrors Lindsay dredges up for his narrative. One example: A woman told me about finding her daughter's body skinned in a body dump. I had a terrible time absorbing that image. The fact is, the genre nonsense of this Dexter novel aside, the people tortured and killed by death squads in El Salvador were not monsters themselves; they were generally peasants and reformers hoping for a fair shake and the lifting of years of violent repression - all supported, of course, by US policy under Ronald Reagan.
I was also in Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 as a journalist when the US military invasion force began to realize the mission had not been "accomplished" and it faced a powerful and growing, internally-generated insurgency that wanted the US to leave - especially in Falluja and the Sunni area of Anbar Province, which I traveled through four times in a fast-moving GMC truck.
The US counter to that insurgency became known as "the surge." General Stanley McChrystal ran the counter-insurgency operation. Insider reporters like Bob Woodward called it "the secret weapon." Others called it "the Salvadoran option," as in war by death squad. So it wasn't a "surge" of troops that turned back the insurgency; it was the establishment of special operations assassin teams. It was "the dark side." All the rest was public relations to clean things up for home consumption. No one really wanted to think of our boys working as common assassins.
The critical factor was the use of both highly sophisticated and crude methods of intelligence gathering (to include torture) to identify the leaders of the insurgency and then to send out hunter-killer units supported by air power, satellite communications and whatever else would help the mission. And the mission was to kill or capture leaders and other people critical to the insurgent effort. As counter insurgency expert William Polk has made clear, the most successful counter insurgency campaigns in history have relied on scorched earth tactics focused on the troublesome population. That, of course, is impossible in today's world. So, the next best thing is to focus on systematically eliminating the leaders of an insurgent movement.
General MyChrystal's tactics were successful in at least slowing down the insurgency enough so US military public relations could claim it controlled the area. No matter whether one holds onto the notion of "the surge" or what one chooses to call it, the tactic was focused on identifying and killing key people in Anbar who simply wanted US soldiers out of their neighborhoods.
Since sovereignty means not having to answer to anyone, especially in a "war," such killing was not characterized as "murder" and soldiers were praised and got medals. This isn't to question the toughness or bravery of these soldiers. The issue is the mission and, on a disturbing level, how the justifications for these killings are not unlike Dexter's pop culture "red, white and blue 100 percent synthetic virtue."
From the "granular level" of Anbar Province circa 2005, the so-called Salvadoran option advocated by Vice President Joe Biden and others is fast becoming national military doctrine. Admiral McRaven wants to base hunter-killer "cells" in Asia, Africa and Latin America. While the traditional big unit military is being squeezed, special ops budgets are rising. The nation is in the midst of a major shift.
Recently, very competent and trained Special Ops teams have been used in well publicized rescue missions of people held captive by Somali pirates, and of course the killing of Osama bin Laden. These missions are public relations gold dished out to the media as gourmet feasts of positive imagery. The problem is, only military insiders know what's going on in the huge and growing secret, unaccountable realm of the US military.
As with any new tool or weapon, people tend to find uses for it. All that's required in this instance is the establishment of an "enemy" - someone demonized or inconvenient to the point of warranting assassination. The challenge is to keep the action secret and anonymous - like the virtually certain recent Israeli murders of five Iranian scientists.
The United States government and its lethal military operate vis-à-vis its citizens in two distinct modes: Public Relations or Secrecy. Trust us, it says. We have your best interests at heart. And, besides, opposition is futile. So enjoy your bread & circus and don't ask any questions.
Meanwhile, US imperial prestige is ebbing in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Latin America, led by a booming Brazil, is no longer intimidated by the United States. Globalization is breaking everything down. Despite Clint Eastwood's half-time riff at the Super Bowl that America is ready to roar back for "its second half," decline is real. The struggle is between the exceptionalist expectations pandered to by American politicians and the harsh realities of the coming world. The financial and human resources spent out of fear on Thanatos and the forces of destruction only further erode the life-giving forces of Eros that, tragically, are so weakened but needed in a time of national crisis like we're living through.
US war makers are completely in synch with Dexter's rules. Because, in a way, a sovereign government in fear of the future is not unlike a psychopath. As long as it can keep things quiet and under the radar and project a clean image, it can do anything and not have to answer to anyone. The challenge is to work the dark side and get away with it "dressed in red, white and blue 100 percent synthetic virtue."
When Dexter's psychopathic mentor Harry "squared away" his foster child, he told him, "There are rules, Dexter. There have to be. That's what separates you from the other ones." Harry said to "blend in" and "clean up, don't take chances." Finally, what's most important for Dexter's stable future as a psychopathic killer, "You have to be sure before you start that this person really deserves it. ... Get some proof."
"It doesn't have to hold up in court."
The United States is finding the occupation of other nations more and more challenging. Consider the burning of Korans in Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, the bombing deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers and a host of other recent disasters. Economic challenges at home only add to the difficulty.
In such a frustrating quandary, Washington and Pentagon leaders are falling back on what they feel the US does best: Secret killing.
In Part One of this story, I suggested there were similarities between the new US military doctrine of Special Ops hunter-killer teams and Dexter, the popular novel and TV character who is an upstanding police forensic expert by day and a gruesome psychopathic killer by night that he calls his "dark passenger," a character who is "dressed in red, white and blue 100 percent synthetic virtue" and kills only people who deserve to die.
In Part Two, we go to Hollywood.
The US government wants its war machine to look good when the budget crunch is on. So with our ten-year Iraq occupation going south and Afghanistan headed in that direction, it's understandable the Pentagon might want to shill its new, shiny War Doctrine in the marketplace of popular culture.
After two controversial wars, we're now watching a situation in which Israel could attack Iran, but do it so ineffectually that it would pull the US into what could snowball into a Third World War. This is happening in the context of the Arab Spring upheavals that suggest people around the world are rising up and demanding the removal of the repressive yokes around their necks. China and India and Brazil are on the way to being competitive peers in the capitalist rat race. This dynamic is already driving gasoline prices higher and higher. The future is getting very troublesome and foreboding to contemplate for the average American.
So what better time to crank up the Pentagon propaganda machine and assault the popular American public mind with a thrilling distraction like Sylvester Stallone and Rambo, who single-handedly won the Vietnam War on the screen after the United States had failed to do it with millions of troops and materiel.
I'll let Tom Clancy, the master, establish the nature of the new feature film Act Of Valor. Clancy wrote a preface to the novelization of the Act Of Valor screenplay by Kurt Johnstad. The novelization is now on grocery store thriller and romance shelves all across the nation. Although his name is in 60-point type at the top, Clancy, who has become an industry in himself, only "presents" the book, which was actually written by Dick Couch and George Goldorisi, whose names are in much smaller type at the bottom. Here's Clancy's opening sentence:
"Navy SEALs are Olympic athletes that kill people for a living."
That's a marvel of a sentence that exploits admiration for the Olympics and the idea of athleticism at the pinnacle of excellence and then presents the killing of other human beings as the equivalent of an Olympic sport. Cool! It also establishes the reverent tone of the movie, which, as the advertising touts, is "the ultimate in action adventure ... starring active-duty Navy SEALs."
Clancy writes that when he heard that SEAL leadership was planning this movie and popular novelization he reached out to them. It seems he had no trouble getting his crack action thriller writing team the mission to produce the novelization. This thriller, we're told, is different from all the other assassin and serial killer thrillers on the grocery store shelf: This one is the real deal.
But is it?
There is really no way for the ordinary citizen to know if anything in the book is "real" as far as what an actual Navy SEAL hunter-killer team does, because SEAL activities are so absolutely secret, especially the unpleasant, illegal and embarrassing aspects of SEAL missions. What SEALs really do is not what's most real about this movie and book. What's most real about the movie and the book is that they are both pure forms of pop culture propaganda mobilized in the war to occupy the American mind.
The movie and book will certainly help the Pentagon obtain greater funding priority for its developing Special Ops program. Plus, ironically, cultural products like Act Of Valor will take the pressure off efforts to lift the government secrecy that keeps most Special Ops missions from public consciousness and, more importantly, reduces political accountability.
Our runaway national security culture is so corrupted we've reached the point where military operations done in the name of tax-paying American citizens are effectively either kept secret from those citizens or cynically employed as public relations. Many Americans subscribe to the notion that imperial policy hoses resources overseas that are desperately needed at home. Such a policy can only be sustained in a democracy as long as the home voting public is kept in the dark about what's really going on overseas. Citizens need to be distracted and occupied by what the Romans liked to call "bread and circus." Act Of Valor and other War On Terror genre thrillers are very much part of that distracting circus, and as such they work to take pressure off efforts to get at the real story.
Witness the current dismal attention given to WikiLeaks and to whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, both now caught in legal quicksand. It's for good reason that the Obama administration is harsher than its Republican predecessor in hunting down and prosecuting whistleblowers and leakers. The situation is getting worse, not better. As Act Of Valor makes clear, the star of this new secrecy cult is the SEAL hunter-killer team concept.
The plot in Act Of Valor takes our Olympic athlete killers "from Chechnya to the Philippines and the Ukraine to Somalia." At one point they're off the coast of South America on an aircraft carrier. There's no doubt lots of cool special effects, lots of crashing around and lots of blowing up things. Our Olympian heroes, of course, stick together through it all. Until the action builds to a final firefight for the future of America that takes place - why is this not a surprise? - on the border between the United States and Mexico.
At this point, you almost expect a cameo coda with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (as Sancho Panza on a donkey) plugging for Special Ops budget increases.
I can see young men running out of theaters ready to sign up for the SEALs, even if they know it's the hardest uphill climb in America and that 80 percent of those who try will wash out. This naturally recalls the Vietnam War and the pop song "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Special Forces Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. The odds to achieve elite status back then were apparently even worse.
One hundred men will test today,
But only three will win the Green Beret.
And who can forget John Wayne's 1968 war propaganda film The Green Berets, an epic directed by The Duke that has become a laughing stock in the war film genre. Check out its corny trailer and the final scene where Colonel John Wayne walks on the beach as the sun sets over the South China Sea - in the east. As Hollywood war propaganda goes, it's a very low bar for Act Of Valor to reach for. From its trailer, Act Of Valor looks much more hip and artful within the genre of schlock War On Terror thrillers. Plus, in The Green Berets, no one would mistake the aging John Wayne for an Olympic athlete. He's more like a lost water buffalo looking for a drink.
Propaganda and the Road to War
Back in the 1960s, the Frenchman Jacques Ellul wrote a great book called Propaganda in which he described propaganda not as the instilling of lies by sinister forces but as a sociological reality of power in modern democratic societies. We're saturated with propaganda. As individual citizens of a modern technological culture, we're lost in an impossible morass of competing propagandas. This is the reason we feel so nostalgic for anything remotely authentic. But, then, it's now gotten to the point propaganda even sells us authenticity.
In this cacophony of messages in American culture, the archetype of the killer is at the top of the heap. He or she is the person who removes obstacles and gets things done. James Bond and Mike Hammer are two popular figures of the fifties that come to mind. One of the things that made Bond so sexy was he had a license to kill that he used often. Mike Hammer was famous for using a .45 to blow away anyone who got in his way, including a lot of dames.
D.H. Lawrence said, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."
When the old ways don't work anymore, when things get confused and when the going gets difficult, a significant school of Americans don't turn to sociology, history or dialogue with others for answers; they think about killing something and how that will somehow solve the problem.
In the midst of the Vietnam War historian Richard Slotkin wrote, "The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means of that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience."
The trouble is that in 2012 we're not just starting out Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the west and the Philippines and beyond. The rest of the world is more effectively rising to meet and question our imperial destiny. All this means the process of defending the mythic idea of American Exceptionalism has become a more furtive, back-shooter mission. The brash, direct and up-front image of a Teddy Roosevelt is a thing of the past. Today, the image of Tom Clancy's beloved Olympic athlete killers are the ones cast to play the imperial role. Unlike the solitary Bonds and Hammers, these elements work in teams and are equipped with the most sophisticated communications and surveillance capacities and the most lethal weaponry in the history of mankind.
I would certainly not dishonor these men and women for their incredible athleticism and skills. I would not even say they're not unfortunately sometimes necessary to have around. What worries me and many Americans are the leaders we elect who order these Olympians to do what they do. And the secrecy they thrive on to keep accountability and criticism at bay. There are future debacles out there just waiting for leaders to set them in motion. US government support for Israeli belligerence toward Iran is at the top of this list right now.
If the past ten years is prologue, Americans have good reason to be scared.
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.