WE’RE ON THE HIGHWAY TO HELL
The Global War on Terrorism is Over! The day that George W. Bush had predicted has finally come. The Global War on Terrorism is finally over and has been since March of this year. However, it didn’t come as he described, with a “complete victory” and dancing in the streets of Baghdad. No, in fact most people don’t even realize the “long war” is over. That seems strange. Perhaps the designers and those complicit in the old Global War on Terrorism are too busy with other things these days to pat themselves on the back for their vision and foresight in foreign policy. Bush is hidden away somewhere, sucking his thumb, popping anti-depressants and dreaming of happier days at Andover. He waits for word from Cheney on what to do next – waiting for orders that will not likely come anytime soon. Cheney is busy holding his daughter up as a shield in defense of his constitutional date rape. An overly complicit Congress seems eager to put the war behind them, even if in name only. It seems the only one with any moral foothold on this Global War on Terrorism is President Barrack Obama. One of the few who opposed conducting a war on an abstract nou. It is appropriate now that he is the man who in fact ended the war. Sadly it didn’t end gloriously like wars past, with ticker tape parades, sailors kissing pretty girls in Times Square, big smiles and a more unified world. No, in fact the Global War on Terrorism is over in name only. It simply got a name change – the Overseas Contingency Operation. It is ending more like that other war we don’t like to call a war, we call it a conflict instead. Hopefully it won’t end like the war that is still on the books in Korea. That war hasn’t officially ended in over 60 years. But the Global War on Terrorism is officially over, if in name only. Well, somebody had better change the signs.
There is a long stretch of highway in the American West where one is encouraged to think about wars and their names and all the men and women who have died for those wars and those titles. Driving east out of Hawthorne, NV is a harrowing experience. It is long, straight, dry and rather bleak. The entire stretch of highway is a memorial to the veterans of America’s various wars. It is a long desolate road. It is a worrisome portent that beyond the last memorial sign there is plenty more highway waiting to be dedicated to the future’s fallen. Driving the highway seems a bit like walking through a mine field. Though Highway 95 provides a flat, straight passage, the sheer volume of explosive mounds expanding in both directions keeps drivers alert with their hands gripped tightly at ten and two. The desert outside of Hawthorne is not of course dotted with explosive anti-personnel devices. Not technically. The massive underground armory caches however are patiently, if passively, waiting to be detonated, controlled or otherwise. As far as the eye can see in every direction are 12 foot mounds – entryways into underground storage bunkers, housing everything from dynamite to the highly classified unknown. This is an armory of the U.S. Government. There is some comfort in that notion. Surely, they would maintain their stockpiles responsibly. They have a long history of maintaining and utilizing those stockpiles responsibly.
An obvious reminder of this flashes rhythmically past your windows as you drive along. The signs consist of crisp white lettering on government brown, the standard uniform of the memorial highway marker. They stand perfectly perpendicular like a smart line of the very soldiers they represent. The first sign is dedicated to the veterans of World War I. Suddenly the armory stretching wide to either horizon doesn’t seem so menacing. The first “great” war was a clear example of our justified might. We didn’t even want to be a part of that war, remember? We were goaded into it when they killed that kindly old archduke and blew up that cruise ship of innocents. Everyone knows that. After a little road side reflection, the explosives there in the desert become rather comforting. This is the big stick that good old Teddy Roosevelt said we should carry, but swing only when necessary. By now the second sign is approaching. Standing tall and proud nearly saluting you as you pass – a memorial to the veterans of World War II, another worthy endeavor which solidified America’s place as keeper of the light of liberty. This war gave us what has become known as our “greatest generation” and so much more: baby boomers; rockets; satellites; computers; freedom; three immortal presidents – all these came from the greatest war of all, seemingly gifts from a divine hand. World War II, the one where America came in to save the day and ultimately to save the world. By now a drivers eyes may be misty from overwhelming pride. The rows of high mounds to the left and the right more closely resemble Arlington National Cemetery than a large scale ammunitions depository.
However, the trumpets we may be hearing suddenly blow off-note when the next sign whirs past. This memorial to the veterans of the Korean War is the first time the driver might actually think first of the veterans. And countless unnerving paradoxes. This war had lots of video footage and all of it grainy, but starkly bleak. A horrifically bloody but mostly forgotten war. A secret Chinese army with a growing Soviet agenda. Our pride after WWII was replaced by growing fears. Later, this war was given a famous comedic television show that was hilarious except for the tragic backdrop that peeked out at us and made us shiver and then turn away. There was a reason that Hawkeye, for all of his incessant humor, was preoccupied with distilling mind-numbing alcohol. Laughing all the way, he was living in hell. The Korean War is the war that ended long ago but has never actually ended. We are still stuck in the middle over there, though usually we can pretend we are not. The highway continues on a long time here with no more signs. Or perhaps it just seems so. Perhaps our foot has fallen off the gas pedal. A long stretch of reflection and the trumpets have gone silent. Arlington has become an overgrown, forgotten, haunted land and off on the northern horizon a shadow grows. A reminder of what truly lies below this ground: not our fallen heroes, but the means by which they are fallen and by which they fell others. An arsenal, a monster of our making, lying in wait, to see the light again, to burn the oxygen and rend the flesh of its creators. The next signal approaches as we knew it would. Perhaps we have subconsciously decelerated, to prolong the inevitable. The next stretch of desolate road is dedicated to the Veterans of The Vietnam War. Now the mind spirals downward. The driver has sagged down into his seat. Only a finger or two from a slumped hand remain on the steering wheel as if an inadvertent swerve off the road and into one of the explosive mounds might not be such a misfortune. Vietnam. It is hardly ever called a war. People used to insist that it was never a “war” technically. It was merely a conflict. As such, America didn’t lose the war if it wasn’t a war in the first place. Most people have given up that thread. We all just call it “Vietnam”. We say it an octave lower, giving it the grim weight that it deserves. Veterans of this “engagement” when speaking with one another call it simply “Nam”. Perhaps they are subconsciously calling it “Damn”. Yet, there are too many boys in the ground to not have it memorialized along this lonely stretch of road with all the other famous “wars”. So, it remains simply “Vietnam”. And it makes us think carefully about how we choose to label the latest deployment of the nearby garden of weaponry. Somehow the accelerator is pressed against the floorboard like the driver is trying to escape the images of Vietnam and the broken boys who came home and still linger in our lives now as old men, older than their years. We drive fast now trying to escape. Now the road has gone from flat and straight to a winding nauseating rollercoaster. The word “War’ is not to be seen again on these signs. Now we nearly run smack into a series of “Operations”. Desert Storm and Desert Shield douse us with a splash of momentarily refreshing patriotic pride. Those were good wars, er.. I mean operations. Weren’t they? We were liberators then again. Weren’t we? But didn’t those give us Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which was too difficult to say day after day. PTSD is smoother off the tongue and the mind. But we undoubtedly won that war! That was a great victory. We blazed our way to victory. No questions about Desert Storm. I mean look at the name! But in the end, weren’t those operations really about oil contracts in Kuwait? How did that sort of objective get mixed up in all of this? All this is becoming too murky, too perplexing. Perhaps we have swerved off the road at this point, because now it seems some signs are missing. If we are including military operations on this surreal stretch of highway, where are the memorials to veterans of Kosovo or Somalia? What about our dabblings in Central America? What on earth would we even call those? How many signs would be needed? Would we run out of roadway? We swerve back on the pavement frantically just in time to see the final sign erect and firm, freshly planted – the screws still shiny and clean. Dedicated to the Veterans of the Global War on Terrorism. There’s that word again. War. We are at last fighting a war again. But war against what?! And this one isn’t even over yet. How can this be? The veterans memorialized on this stretch of highway line up further and further, day after day. Now our hands are back, firmly on the steering at ten and two and our chin is thrust forward at twelve, high noon. The floorboard is dented where the accelerator pedal has been very nearly stomped through. We drive with a mission to see how this will end. What is next on this long highway and where, by the way, does this weapons depot end? Does it go on forever? How many explosives are enough? How many others are there in other deserts, along other endless highways? How can explosives defeat terror? Isn’t that like fighting a rising flood with buckets of water? What in God’s name are our young people dying and killing for? Then suddenly the road flattens again.
A glance in the rearview shows the road stretching razor’s-edge-straight and flat into the distance behind. The earthen mounds have dissipated and nothing but vast desert scrub remains, waiting. No more underground weapons, here at least. No more smart, shiny memorial signs coming at us, for now. There is some reassurance that the Global War on Terrorism is over, even if in name only. Yet after another quick glance in the rearview, the silvery back of another sign haunts us. The driver must have missed it. No telling what it said at this point and there is no way he is turning around on this stretch of road. Was it the latest addition to this memorial parade? Will that be the latest twist on this sordid road? Memorial Highway dedicated to the Veterans of the Overseas Contingency Operation. Another operation. The same old war? Another stretch of memorialized highway and no doubt another desert garden of weapons of mass destruction to protect us from… whatever is next. Perhaps it is time to stop the car and continue on foot. Watch your step.