American Noir

<> on September 10, 2013 in New York City.

America’s Truth Is Scarier Than Hollywood’s Fiction

The other night we watched Pulp Fiction for maybe the fourth time. Halfway through the film I was jolted. It occurred to me suddenly that Americans today live inside a frightening, dystopian noir movie that makes Pulp Fiction pale by comparison. Director Quentin Tarentino tried to portray aspects of that condition in his film but, compared to the real-life, day-to-day realities that Americans face, his film looks like pretty tame stuff, more like a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy than a historically horrific cinematic experience. Just substitute John/Samuel for Rock/Doris. In Tarantino’s film there are half a dozen assassinations that made cinema history for their casual cruelty, but they’re like a walk in the park compared to normal American life over the past half century or so.

I suspect that you’re going to accuse me of exaggerating. Of course, I’m exaggerating. I need to get your attention. So just stick with me a bit more and I’ll prove to you that everyday life in America is far more horrific than Hollywood’s best/worst cine noir, better than Frankenstein, better than zombies, better than snuff. Have you ever seen a snuff film? Can you imagine a movie with 58,000 snuffees whose names were later etched on a monument 258 feet long in Washington DC? And those were just the American victims. There were many more–like millions–among the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Between American-inflicted “collateral damage;” the carpet bombing of great swaths of Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian territory; and the assassination of thousands of suspected Viet Cong collaborators carried out by the CIA under Operation Phoenix; Messrs. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger and McNamara, brewed up a movie that Messrs. Tarantino, Jackson and Travolta could never dream of.

And it’s not over yet. Vietnam veterans are still committing suicides attributible to their Vietnam experiences, but their statistics get swallowed up by those of more-recent war-related American military suicides, currently occurring at around 20 per day. According to  (June 29, 2018):

The 20-a-day rate has been relatively consistent since 2008. By that estimate, more than 58,000 veterans and troops have taken their own lives since 2008. Add roughly 20,000 more suicides for the three years prior to that, when the daily suicide rate was 19 a day (in 2007) and about 18 (in 2005 and 2006). Numbers for 2016, 2017 and 2018 are yet to be tallied. If they hold to 20 a day, by the end of this year the total number of suicides among veterans and troops will be more than 100,000 since 2005.

These lurid realities, I think you’ll agree, go far beyond the horrors of a couple of pretentious, Bible-quoting assassins shooting dope pushers in a Hollywood film.

Bringing It All Back Home

Not all of the American horror shows take place overseas, by any means. Most of them hit the American heartland. Would you be interested in a script that would make Tarantino’s blood run cold? Let’s talk about homelessness and poverty.

Last spring the Washington Post ran a story they called Homeless, Living in a Tent Blocks from the U.S. Capitol–and Working Full Time. In it they tell Monica Diaz’s story. Monica works full time in a fast-food outlet and sleeps, with her husband, Pete Etheridge, in a tent on the street. But even under those unthinkable conditions they are not secure from municipal harassment. This is their seventh tent; the other six have been swept away, along with their belongings, in raids by city police. The way to evade these evictions? Monica must stuff all of her belongings in black rubbish bags, take down her tent, put everything on a shopping cart and move it to another location until the police go away. Then she’s moves back in until the next rout. It seems to be the best the American capitol can do for its “more affluent” homeless, the ones with a job. This is the lesser homeless horror show. What is life like for people with no income, and with children? Let me guess. You try not to think about it.

Numbers of homeless peoplel in America in 2017:

553,000 total on a given night 2018 0.17% of population

According to http://www.opendoormission.com, the average age of a homeless person is nine years. But according to the New York Times, who interviewed the Department of Homeless Services, the average age across the whole system is 24 years. Estonia is the country with least homelessness with 0.06% of the population. The US has more than double that rate. According to joinpdx.org,  homelessness can essentially be broken down into four categories: chronic, episodic, transitional, and hidden. If we cut to the chase, the principal underlying cause of all of these modes is income inequality and we’re obliged to look at poverty.

Lurking Beneath Homelessness is Crushing Poverty

According to debt.org, more than 46 million Americans–15%–live in poverty today. Atd-fourthworld.org reports that the wealth of countries is usually rated by GDP per capita, and many statistics include the poor in that same basket. So when the rich get richer, they maintain, so do the poor. That’s not true. The rich can–and do–get immensely richer without the trend alleviating poverty in any way, whatsoever.

The Trump administration has made poverty in America much worse. Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib note, in an opinion piece published in The Guardian on New Year’s Eve, that Trump has just finalized the first of three policies that will make this inequality even more obscene. Just two years after passing a $1.5tn (that’s “trillion” with a “t”) tax giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and large corporations, the Trump administration now plans to eliminate nutrition benefits for 3.7 million people.

The second measure it to limit benefits to families who cannot afford childcare and decent housing. Add to this a determination to turn up the pressure on families who must choose between food or heat. Meanwhile, the Republican tax-cut scam is working perefectly. Today, the richest 400 billionaires pay lower taxes than any group in America – including the poor. Nearly 100 of the top Fortune 500 companies now pay zero taxes.

Down the Poverty-to-Prison Chute

The United States leads the world in mass incarceration with 788 prisoners per 100,000 population. A reasonable case can be made for a country’s incarceration statistics as a  pretty good indicator of its overall health and wellbeing. By that measure there’s the United States, topping the list of the most dystopian nations in the world. Is that because Americans are innately more evil than people from Argentina or Norway? I doubt that. Or is it that the least fortunate Americans are faced, virtually from birth, with an uphill struggle against poverty, inadequate education, failing social services, and alienating societal values. Unlike the first world, they don’t even have health care. And these conditions have gone from bad to worse thanks to anti-social measures taken by a series of right-wing governments which have given rise to an unheard-of level of income inequality.

In a society that embraces the Americans’ wild-west human values, for the children born into underprivileged America, it’s a short hop to violence and crime. They perceive that as their only option for getting rich quick–the universal American aspiration. And they’re not mistaken. So they are rounded up and sent to prison. About 25% of the world’s prison population is in the US, which currently has more than 2.1 million total prisoners. The prison population in 1972 was 200,000, almost 2 million less than it is today. Here are the comparative statistics by country (prisoners per 100,000 population) of the world’s top 10 lockups:

  1. United States (737)
  2. Russia (615)
  3. Ukraine (350)
  4. South Africa (334)
  5. Poland (235)
  6. Mexico (196)
  7. Brazil (193)
  8. Spain (144)
  9. Kenya (130)
  10. Netherlands (128) (Source: worldpopulationreview.com)

Despite President Trump’s lack of concern for American prestige abroad, as anybody with an IQ over 50 can discern, this is not a proud list to be on. And the United States is not only on it. The United States leads it.

If You’re White You’re All Right

Mass incarceration in the United States is, of course, a civil rights issue, as many argue that incarceration dehumanizes poor people and minorities, does not increase public safety and damages already marginalized communities. The creation of massive amounts of prisoners with ever-longer mandatory sentences has led to several other issues, including overcrowded prisons, which increase health risks and decreased psychological well-being. And we still haven’t touched upon the disproportionate numbers of minorities imprisoned in the United States. Let’s just look at the briefest of statistics. According to 2017 figures from pewresearch org, hispanic and black people make up 28% of the American population but 56% of federal and state prisoners, while white people, with 64% of the total US population, make up only 30% of its inmates. Something is clearly amiss in American society and it goes far beyond their minorities’ inborn penchant for crime.

Additionally, the increasing number of prisoners is putting a major strain on state budgets. Prisons must control and administer all aspects of life for inmates, which include lengthy and costly list of necessities. Prison costs include adequate security, food, recreational and education opportunities, infrastructure maintenance, utility costs for the facilities, and providing healthcare for the prisoners. State prison spending varies greatly and can be as high as $69,355 per inmate per year (the average cost of an inmate in New York).

Black Holes, Anyone?

Independent journalist, Will Potter, visited one of the quasi-secret US detention facilities that exist inside two prisons out there in flyover America. Here’s his 15-minute report:

Can you think of a screen writer who can make this stuff up? I can’t.

How Does It End?

Is this noir enough for you? I don’t want to bore you, though I could go on about titles like Americans Who Die by the Gun, The Uninsured, Children in Cages by Themselves, Victims of Homicidal Racism, Politicians Who Sell Democracy for Self Gain…

How does it all end? We can only guess. You want my guess? It’s not a happy ending.

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The Vietnam War–Horror, Hypocrisy and Heartbreak–1/3

APVietnamBurningVillage

More Horrific and Unjustified Than You Can Imagine

The Americans’ active intervention in Vietnam didn’t start with President Kennedy in the early 60’s. It began in 1954 on the heels of France’s historic defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu by North Vietnam’s supposedly-inferior army. The score was 1,500 French dead, 10,000 captured. Such a victory over a well-established colonial power–backed, furthermore, by American arms and financing–was unthinkable, but it happened and it prompted the French to pull their troops out of that feisty little southeast Asian country. That was the perfect moment for the Americans not to stick their heads into the Indochinese beehive. So why did they do it? There were a few reasons, all of them specious, in retrospect. They entered the fray with a scant 1,000 “advisors” in 1954, then a few regiments to protect their bases, and wound up with more than half a million combat troops in the country, 68,000 of whom did not make it home alive.

What were they thinking?

  1. The first reason/pretext for going in sounds almost comically lightweight today, but in the mid-’50s, when Americans were building bomb shelters in their backyards, and school children were being trained to take cover under their desks–I remember it well–it was considered of vital importance. The American power structure considered the communist threat to be imminent and deadly serious. Their “domino theory” held that the reds would take small countries one after another, like a line of dominos falling, until they were capable of threatening San Francisco. This imagined scenario had little credence in reality, but it fitted in nicely with American Cold War paranoia of the time.
  2. Then there was the perceived necessity to buoy up Western colonialism in the Far East. Churchill had a lot to say on this subject. He actually proposed to Roosevelt that they should invade the Soviet Union immediately after the war, in order to head off the spread of Communism. If Indochina fell, Malaya, Indonesia and India would be next. Then the Philippines? Who knew? Ironically, the Vietnam war was no deterrent to the inevitable de-colonization that ensued.
  3. The American penchant for “having a go,” for flexing their muscles, trying out new armaments and strategies–though none of them enabled the Yanks to win–was also a factor. Didn’t Bob Dylan say, “…they got a lot of forks and knives, and they gotta cut something.”
  4. As always, there was American overconfidence, the disbelief among US political and military leaders that they could be defeated by a tiny country’s army of tiny soldiers. They had already forgotten that the Vietnamese army, against all odds, had just annihilated the well-dug-in French paratroopers who defended Dien Bien Phu. It was just one more instance of the US military underestimating their enemies.  There are the cases of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, to name just a few.

American “Victories,” Vietnamese Advantages

Unfortunately, at that time, nobody in the American chain of command foresaw the götterdämmerung that loomed ahead of them. Despite their massive advantages in arms and technology, and their claims to have “won every battle,” they were thwarted at every step of the way by the humble, under-equipped and ill-technified little enemies. The principal advantages the Vietnamese enjoyed were superior leadership and a top-to-bottom iron-clad determination not to be subjugated by the Americans. There was another major advantage the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army enjoyed, and it was a gift from the Americans. It was the extreme ham handedness with which they  treated everything Vietnamese, starting with the terminology itself, “Gooks” and “Slants,” and ending with indiscriminate carpet bombing of their country.

The Vietnamese had seen enough colonial humiliation under the French. That said, the Vietnamese–along with their neighbors, the Cambodians and the Laotians–paid a terrible price in human lives, some 1,5 million dead in Vietnam alone. But they prevailed and made history in the process. Did the Americans learn the lessons of that history? Their entry into Afghanistan a few years later suggests that perhaps they didn’t. That Afghan war, the longest, along with Vietnam, in American history, is just now winding down, and is just another ignominious defeat. Recent research suggests that the Afghan invasion may have had less to do with bin Laden and more with Afghanistan’s massive mineral wealth and the American necessity for bases in central Asia.

Before going into the details of some of the mournful events of the second Vietnam War, the Americans’ war, I cannot overemphasize the fact that it never should have happened. It was based on faulty ideology, wrong-headed ambition and massive cynicism. It was a classic case of unprovoked aggresive war against a grossly weaker “enemy” who had no enmity whatsoever against the United States.  As we will see below, the attack on the American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin that set off the open season on the Vietnamese was a lie calculated to justify American escalation. The Second Vietnam War was led, during its most cruel and sanguinary period, by a pair of borderline inhuman politicians: President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Henry Kissinger, both of whom had dubious psychological profiles. (Let me recommend a book: The Price of Power, Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House, by Seymour Hersh. There you will find 700 pages of fascinating details on the subject.) Ironically, but in keeping with recent American history, both Nixon and Kissinger have been meticulously rehabilited in the American political folklore.

Some Details, Some Numbers

I would like to review here some of the ill-remembered details and statistics from the United States’ 20-year war on Vietnam. The numbers are so staggering–and represent such a brutal accounting of the American violation of Indochina–that they are seldom cited these days. But I think the Vietnamese people, and all the other people around the world who have been blessed by American intervention in their countries, deserve a modest gesture of respect, so I’m going to note here just a few of the gravest American outrages.

Unsurprisingly, when you begin to research what happened during the Vietnam war, the stories are almost always told from the American point of view: American innovations, American casualties, American POWs, American superiority in everything… Presumably the Vietnamese fought and suffered, too, but they don’t post on Facebook, nor were they supported by the biggest misinformation behemoth in human history, the mainstream media. To find their stories you have to dig a bit deeper or winnow them out of their enemies’ accounts.

Business as Usual; It Began with a Lie

On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson alerted America on national television that North Vietnam had attacked the American destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Not long after, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing Johnson to begin military operations against North Vietnam. What Congress did not know was that President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had lied about the Tonkin Gulf incident. North Vietnam never attacked the USS Maddox as the Pentagon had claimed, and the falseness of the attack is now acknowledged–by the National Security Agency (NSA), no less. So the aggression that set off the Vietnam War never happened. It was carefully-contrived propaganda exercise devised to manufacture consent for all-out war, a war that remained undeclared from its dubious beginning to its bitter end. (Source: Goodreads.com)

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