Posted June 10, 2009
This past weekend, I flew to Sacramento for an interview with the Argentine Discovery Channel. They’re doing a documentary on César Chávez, about whom I wrote a biography. It was on their dime, and I thought it would be fun, though it turned out to less entertaining than I had expected. The flight home became a series of delays and missed connections leading me on a circuitous journey from Sacramento, to San Francisco, to Chicago, and finally home to Cincinnati a day later than I expected. But it was, in the end, educational. I learned on this trip that not only does the war goes on, but so does the corporate sponsorship.
As I boarded the United flight from Cincinnati to Chicago, I noticed four rather serious looking young men with short cropped hair dressed in military camouflage uniforms. I always feel like going up and saying, “Don’t let you send them there.” I was, however, unprepared to offer them the name of a local anti-war counselor of conscientious objectors, and they looked worried enough as it was without me haranguing them. I was not the only one who had noticed them. When the plane landed in Chicago, the captain came on and told the passengers, “We want to thanks the troops on board for their service to our country” and for “defending our freedoms.” Perhaps a third of the plane applauded vigorously, though others either didn’t hear or ignored the captain’s encomium.
I have to say—naïve as this might sound—that I was somewhat surprised by the captain’s remarks. Hadn’t we had a national election, just eight months ago, which was a kind of referendum on the war? Hadn’t much of the public expressed its opposition to the war, and among those who voted weren’t there many who knew quite well that our troops abroad don’t fight “defending our freedoms,” but on the contrary carry out a mission aimed at taking away the freedom of others?
No. The war goes on. Obama continues the war in Iraq and promises to leave tens of thousands of troops there as an occupying army if the conflict should ever end. He has also sent more troops to Afghanistan. And he sends U.S. drones to bomb Pakistan. The war goes on and on. And though a few months ago it seemed the American public had turned against the war, the corporations continued to produce commercials for it at every opportunity.
I walked through the Chicago airport to catch the flight to Sacramento, passing a bar where a Jim Beam advertisement encouraged tipplers to “Raise a glass” in support of the troops. Some inside were already raising glasses well before lunch, though I don’t know if it was patriotism that motivated them. Some had that permanent sunburn produced by the fierce glare of a whiskey bottle.
Later while waiting at the terminal gate with its ubiquitous television screens and inescapable noise, I noticed CNN broadcasting the ceremonies commemorating the D-Day landing in Europe. Commentators naturally linked the allied landing to other American wars and “heroes.” I wondered, are the guys in New Jersey or Nebraska or wherever they are watching the screens and playing with the joystick that commands the drone also “heroes”?
The Sacramento River and the Homeless
Let me make a kind of aside here from my discussion of the war to touch on another issue. In Sacramento, after checking into my hotel, I took a cab to the Sacramento Public Library where the interview was to be done in the beautiful Sacramento Room, a classic reference and reading room saved from the old library when it was remodeled. In the lobby there was a display of African art and a poster announced that June was dedicated to gay and lesbian rights, and both of those made me think about the impact of the movements whose most public figures were Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez. Had it not been for the African American civil rights movement and the Mexican American farm workers movement, we might never have had the anti-war, women’s or GLBTQ movements.
Well, the crew of half a dozen 20-something Argentines met up with me and under the glare of their lights and the prompting of the young interviewer, we made the tape. I went back to the hotel and got back into the book I’m reading. I like memoirs and this has a long title: Rossa’s Recollections, 1838 to 1898; Childhood, Boyhood, Manhood; Customs, Habits and Manners of the Irish People; Erinach and Sassenach—Catholic and Protestant—Englishman and Irishman—English Religion—Irish Plunder; Social Life and Prison Life; The Fenian Movement; Travels in Ireland, England, Scotland and America by O’Donovan Rossa (1898). The story of the Irish reads like the story of the Guatemalans: foreign conquest, suppression of the language and religion, robbery of the land, famine and starvation, exploitation of labor, massacres and more massacres of the Irish by the English, and the struggle to build a movement to resist and fight back.
After a good night’s sleep, I awoke, still on Cincinnati time, at 5:30 a.m., had breakfast at 6:00, and by 7:00 had gone for a walk down to the bridge near where the American River joins the Sacramento River. A few fishermen were out on the river. It was a beautiful morning. Walking along the river, I passed here and there homeless men, wrapped in their blankets and still asleep. Sacramento, you may remember, achieved some notoriety recently for its Hooverville — we should say Bushville, I suppose — a tent city of the homeless. After the national news media featured the village, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, took quick action to provide temporary shelter for the homeless. Well, that was then and now many of them are back sleeping out-of-doors, some down by the river walk where the bicyclists and joggers pass them, ignoring or unaware of the human bundles in the bushes along the path.
I continued to walk down the bank of the Sacramento River for a mile or so to the California State Railroad Museum where a few of the docents were busy polishing up one of the locomotives, getting ready for the day’s series of short railroad tours. Behind the Museum loomed up the old buildings, some of them dating back to the 1860s, of the Sacramento Locomotive Works of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Once the largest industrial complex in the West employing 7,000 people — and even as late as the 1950s more than 4,000 people labored there — today it is a collection of enormous abandoned buildings awaiting some post-modern future.
If you are walking along the river, just after you pass the Museum, you come to Old Sacramento, some historic buildings preserved to create a typical town of the old West for tourists, its wooden sidewalks leading to mock nineteenth century shops filled with twenty-first century cuisine and what passes out there for haute couture. I stop to watch what looks like a scene out of a 1930s movie, a man in uniform, either a Sheriff or park ranger, I’m not sure which, brings a bindlestiff, sand still in his eyes, into the donut shop and buys him a cup of coffee.
The next morning I read student essays — quite good the lot of them — and then in the afternoon go out to the airport to catch my plane to Denver. The board says DELAYED, so my itinerary is changed to San Francisco, then to Chicago, where finally I arrive near midnight to be put up at the Doubletree Hotel (the one where they give you the chocolate chip cookie with your room key.)
At the registration desk there is a sign on the counter asking us to “Support Our Troops.” I sleep restlessly for five hours, shower, dress, and leave my room just as a man is dropping a copy of USA TODAY on the threshold. Going downstairs to wait for the shuttle, I read the headline: “Live from Iraq: comedian Colbert delivers laughs to American troops.” Speaking to a crowd of 300 U.S. servicemen and women, Colbert tells them, “By the power vested in me by basic cable, I officially declare we have won the Iraq war!” General Ray Odierno tells him that his declaration of victory may be premature. When the general notices that Colbert’s hair is too long, President Obama appears on the big screen TV and tells the general to give him a hair cut, which he does. Colbert, whose show carried out a scathing criticism of Bush, has now, it appears, become Obama’s clown.
In the end, the trip to Sacramento to do the interview was probably not worth the time and effort — except for the beautiful river walk — but it was educational. I learned that the war goes on in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and via drone bombers in Pakistan, with commercials from United Airlines and Jim Beam, and from CNN, the Comedy Network, and the Doubletree Hotel. I also learned that even in today’s America, occasionally a man in uniform will buy a cup of coffee for a fellow without a job or a home.
Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based writer, teacher and activist.