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War Stories, Cultural Bridge-Building and Sustainability
Chris Turner, 24 Feb 09

207255871_2c32f1d381.jpgField Notes of an Accidental Eco-Tourist, Part 4: Holiday Reading

I will say this, right off the top, for the Houston airport: it has excellent shopping. Houston was my transit point en route to Costa Rica back in December, and I took advantage of my twelve-hour layover to stock up on some holiday reading. This consisted mostly of spy novels and glossy magazines, but I also decided on a couple of "important books" for the serious side of the docket. Still, I intentionally chose two titles that seemed utterly unrelated to climate and sustainability issues, two books I figured couldn’t possibly push my mind back onto its work track. They were Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. A frontline reporter’s account of America’s current military morass and a National Book Award winner offering a fictive window on the last one – nothing at all to do, surely, with building a new kind of social order resilient enough to weather the storms of the Anthropocene Epoch.

Wrong, obviously. The key lessons of Saigon and Baghdad turn out to be all kinds of relevant to the sustainability movement – cautionary tales, in a sense, of how to lose hearts and minds in a change-the-world campaign.

First, though, a bit of background on the titles in question. Now, it’s become all but cliché to suggest that the Bush Administration’s disastrous nation-building invasion of Iraq was a kind of desert-camo remake of the Vietnam War tragedy, but I was amazed, reading The Forever War and Tree of Smoke back to back, by just how fully the themes paralleled each other.

The main narrative arc in Tree of Smoke traces the Southeast Asian careers of a rogue CIA agent named Colonel Sands and his studious, principled nephew, Skip, as they try to inject a new way of thinking into the American military. The Colonel and his nephew have come to realize that democracy is not something that can be airlifted in and that unconventional wars are won not by superior firepower but essentially by superior empathy. The Colonel lectures repeatedly on the need to learn the Vietnamese people’s myths, to “tell their stories and sing their songs,” to first understand who these people are before presuming to tell them how to live. It spoils nothing for those who haven’t yet read the novel, I’m guessing, if I note simply that the empathetic Sands approach is doomed to be trampled underfoot by the domino-theorizing Cold Warriors of America’s Vietnam-Era military.

Skip ahead a generation, and The Forever War finds another pack of ideologues airlifting another army of hundreds of thousands into another nation whose songs and stories are as alien to your average American soldier (or strategist) as Vietnam’s were. Filkins’ tale begins in Taliban-era Afghanistan before moving on for an extended stay in Baghdad and a hyper-realistic march through Fallujah. Throughout, Filkins describes a startlingly consistent deficiency in local intelligence among the American military ranks – a near-total absence of Arab-speaking translators, the utter inability of decision-makers to notice (as he eventually does) that the Iraqis, whether friendly or hostile, invariably tell one set of stories to the Americans and an entirely different one among themselves. In one particularly troubling series of scenes immediately after the fall of Baghdad, an Iraqi doctor turns a mob of would-be looters away from his hospital doors with a single warning shot, while elsewhere in the anarchic city an entire platoon of U.S. Marines conducts impotent precision drill in front of another looting party, awaiting an order that never comes to secure critical nearby government buildings. Ignorant seemingly of even the basic instinctual sense of how to control the country they’d conquered, the American military engaged in little more than a pantomime of order.

“You had to accept your ignorance,” Filkins writes of his sojourn in Iraq; “it was the beginning of whatever wisdom you could hope to muster.”

This statement could serve as the one-line thesis for both books, and reading them together on an accidental eco-tourist’s holiday, it struck me as a powerful lesson to keep in mind as the sustainability movement marches forward. There is a sense, among those of us working toward a new, sustainable world order resilient enough to survive in the Anthropocene, that we are beginning anew. Abandoning a ruined social order, casting off outmoded ideologies. “Starting from zero,” as the artists and thinkers of Europe’s modernist vanguard used to say. Sure, we enthuse about green retrofits and revel in the inherited livability of old walkable downtowns, but there is ultimately – and I would argue necessarily – a sort of fundamental reboot at the core of the sustainability project. Small, incremental changes aren’t going to cut it. The thing needs re-engineering from the ground up.

I’m thinking, for example, of the Outquisition idea we talk about often here, which is predicated on the idea that there is a wide stratum of industrial society whose way of life is in dramatic and inexorable decline. It’s a solid argument and a fine way to begin structuring the process of renewal, but it needs to be carefully entwined with Filkins’ point about accepting your ignorance and Johnson’s doomed protagonists’ belief in the primacy of myth, song and story. Take the crusade, indeed, to the ruins of the unsustainable, but remember that there is still a culture there – a sacred thing to some no matter how outmoded or doomed it might seem – and it will not change dramatically at the behest of anyone who can’t speak its language.

I’m thinking of a conversation I had with Adam Werbach awhile back about his work with Wal-Mart – a bold headfirst leap into the ruins of the unsustainable if ever there was one. Werbach’s first job as a Wal-Mart consultant has been to conduct sustainability training seminars for the company’s legions of employees, to get them thinking about and embracing the core principles of sustainability. When Werbach, formerly the old-guard environmental movement’s self-appointed wunderkind, first started that controversial gig, he reckoned he was the green redeemer, come to liberate the poor working stiffs from their big-box prisons. He soon learned otherwise, and he took to structuring his seminars not as lectures but as dialogues that began with a simple question: What does sustainability mean to you?

Werbach was, in a sense, asking these people for their songs and stories, and then beginning to weave his own agenda into what he was told. It’s the right starting line for any nation-building exercise, sustainable or otherwise.

Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.

Photo credit: flickr/kyle~, Creative Commons license.

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