Reviewed by S. Azmat Hassan
Gore Vidal the eminent American essayist and novelist in his latest book Perpetual war for perpetual peace opines that two dates will be remembered in US history: April 19, 1995 and September 11, 2001. On the first, Timothy McVeigh, a much decorated former infantry soldier, blew up a federal building in Oklahoma killing 168 innocent men, women and children. On September 11, 2001, 3000 Americans were killed in the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York and a portion of the Pentagon in an attack widely laid at the door of Osama bin Laden.
McVeigh was castigated as a crazed, sadistic monster while the Pentagon “programmed” President Bush to tell Americans that Osama was an “evil doer” who attacked America because he envied its goodness, wealth and freedom.
Vidal thinks that Americans are never told the truth about anything that their government has done to other people, not to mention its own. Americans see themselves as close to perfection as any human society can become. That McVeigh and Osama were provoked to commit their horrendous acts is never dealt with. Vidal suggests with more than a grain of truth that for several decades there has been an unrelenting demonization of the Muslim world in the American media. “We are good,” Bush proclaims, “They are evil.”
In the eyes of many Muslims, the Christian West in alliance with Zionism has for a thousand years tried to dominate the Muslim lands. The Islamic world is desperately short of iconic figures. Osama is seen by many simple folk as the heir to Saladin (Salahuddin Ayubi).
Vidal believes that Osama’s real damage to US society and institutions is the loss of civil liberties in the aftermath of September 11. Once alienated an “inalienable right” is apt to be forever lost in which case America is merely a “seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line with SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated”.
Vidal quotes the renowned American historian Charles A. Beard to the effect that since V-J Day 1945 (victory over Japan) America has been engaged in “perpetual war for perpetual peace”. From the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 to the Kosovo operation of 1999, the score card compiled by the Federation of American Scientists lists 197 “wars” or operations in which the United States has been involved. These operations, each of which has been enumerated by Vidal, have been conducted against a diversified portfolio of antagonists such as Communism, terrorism, drugs, or sometimes “nothing much” between Pearl Harbour and September 11, 2001.
In these encounters, “we tended to strike the first blow. But then we were the good guys, right?”
The middle section of the book contains a fascinating account of the Oklahoma bombing perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh initiated a correspondence with Vidal which continued till just before his execution in May 2001, after reading an article by Vidal on the Oklahoma bombing in a magazine in 1998.
Vidal describes the FBI killing of two members of the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and the FBI attack on the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas in 1993 as the progenitors of the Oklahoma bombing.
David Koresh was the “mildly crazed” leader of the Branch Davidians who taught an end of millennium theology. The FBI stormed the Branch Davidian compound in which around 82 Branch Davidians and some FBI agents lost their lives.
Vidal explains how agro conglomerates are working to drive America’s small farmers systematically off their land by paying them less for their produce than it costs to grow. More and more Americans in the rural heartland are becoming alienated with the government in Washington. The emergence of cult groups, such as “Aryan Nation” and “Christian Identity”, is a reaction to the dispossession of people in rural America.
Timothy McVeigh came from a rural family which was dispossessed a generation earlier. McVeigh reacted by declaring “war on a government that had declared war on its own people”. Vidal poses the question that was McVeigh, aided by Terry Nichols, the only perpetrator of the bombing or was he a minor actor in a bigger conspiracy? He hints at the latter explanation.
Vidal ends his fascinating book replete with provocative insights, by reproducing his letter of January 2000 to President- elect George Bush. He tells Bush that ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, the “Pentagon warlords” have been anxiously searching for new enemies to justify an ever increasing military budget. The world’s one billion Muslims have been demonized as “crazed fanatics” dedicated to destroying all that is good on earth, which is “us”.
His advice to Bush is to rein in the American military. He concludes the letter: “although we regularly stigmatize other societies as rogue states we ourselves have become the largest rogue state of all. We honour no treaties. We spurn international courts. We strike unilaterally wherever we choose. We give orders to the United Nations but we do not pay our dues. We complain of terrorism yet our empire is the greatest terrorist of all…” Vidal does not reveal whether Bush responded to his letter.
Agree or disagree with him, like or dislike him, Gore Vidal is a foremost polemicist and writer, with a formidable output of novels and essays to buttress his literary reputation. Many decades ago he chose to live in self exile in Italy. Perhaps this spatial distance has added to his powers of observation and analysis. He dissects the foibles and follies of corporate led America with wit and erudition. He punctures the rosy self image that many Americans including its leaders, have of themselves, and exposes the dark side of their thoughts and actions.
His book is an important and timely rumination on the United States as it is poised to attack Iraq in an eerie confirmation of “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”
Perpetual war for perpetual peace: how we got to be so hated
By Gore Vidal
Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books
ISBN 1- 56025 – 40/S-X
— From: Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan
— Published: October 20, 2002