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Mixed Messages

Trying to make sense out of life during wartime, with help from the Talking Heads

By Greg Cahill

WAR IS HELL. A nebulous and protracted war fought by an invisible enemy armed with common items turned into tools of terror and waged against an MTV nation that has the attention span of a gnat is nothing short of delirious.

I fell asleep last night to Hieronymus Bosch-like visions of anthrax spores mixed among the mound of mail--poorly written press releases, marketing surveys, cheap promotional gimmicks and free CDs--that litters my office desk each day.

That's what a diet of late-night news will do to you.

I awoke in the morning with the Talking Heads' 1979 song "Life During Wartime" dancing in my head.

The song and the current state of affairs give me pause to think about the paradoxical plea by the government and the media that we Americans should hunker down for a long war yet return to our normal routines.

If America is to return to a sense of normalcy in these post-terrorist days, then evidently we are expected to rise above that paradox (and here's the tricky part), ignore the anthrax scare, the armed military patrols at the nation's airports and the pre-Sept. 11 economic downturn with its own threat to our financial security, and spend like there's no tomorrow (despite a rash of layoffs and pay cuts).

Somehow we must arm ourselves for a life during wartime--all that dancing around is going to require a good soundtrack.

Same As It Ever Was

In 1979, the Talking Heads released the breakthrough album Fear of Music (Sire), which put New Wave into the Top 40 and the musical mainstream. The standout track was "Life During Wartime," a psychodrama-cum-dance hit best remembered for the catchy refrain "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around." But the song's lyrics actually portray a dark vision of apparently foreign terrorists living underground in America's suburbs.

At the dawn of the Reagan era, it was a seemingly paranoid nightmare--little did we know that it described today's reality.

At a time when folks are reaching for songs with meaning--waxing nostalgic over Whitney Houston's newly reissued pyrotechnic Gulf War blast of the "Star-Spangled Banner," recasting the anti-establishment rock of John Lennon as patriotic anthems and misinterpreting such scathing antiwar songs as John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" or Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," just because they might contain a red, white and blue reference--"Life During Wartime" is a funky cautionary tale that feels custom-made for these dangerous times.

It reminds us that America needs artists to step forward to express our fears, doubts and sorrows or just to help make sense of current events in a manner that doesn't kowtow to jingoism and knee-jerk patriotism. In short, we need artists to rise to the challenge of life during wartime.

Inspiration within the fine arts for that mission is everywhere. There's no need to retreat into a banal blast of mediocrity--the preening pop princesses and emasculated boy bands of the last five years were banal enough.

Remember that bad times spawn great art. Think Guernica, Picasso's cubist depiction of the Nazi-backed air war against civilians during the Spanish Civil War--the first time planes had been used against noncombatants. Or the profound sense of disconnection evoked by painter and sculptor Max Ernst, a leader of the Dada movement and founder of surrealism, after witnessing firsthand the horrors of war while serving as a German soldier in the haunted trenches of the French countryside during World War I.

And there are many other examples, all so much more inspiring than Mariah Carey desecrating "God Bless America."

In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, the great classical violinist Isaac Stern was performing a concert in Tel Aviv when an attendant rushed onstage to announce that the Iraqis had launched a Scud missile attack. As sirens wailed outside, the concert halted and audience members were instructed to remain seated but to don their gas masks in case the warhead contained biological or chemical agents.

Stern later recalled how eerie it was to gaze at the orchestra and hundreds of impeccably dressed concertgoers, now clad in tuxedos, evening gowns and military-issue gas masks. Since it was still several minutes before the missile struck, Stern stood his ground, declined a gas mask, raised his violin and played a majestic classical solo selection to ease the tension in the hall.

His action was in keeping with a rich Jewish tradition. During World War II, the beleaguered Jews in the teeming Warsaw ghetto kept their sanity by holding underground cabarets, singing songs of resistance and thinly disguised radical anthems right under the watchful eyes--and menacing guns--of the Nazis.

That powerful need to rise above the worst that mankind has to offer and nurture the best of the human spirit, even in the midst of war, nobly manifested itself again during the epic six-month siege of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942, a conflict that spelled the first major defeat of Hitler's forces, at the terrible cost of more than a million Russian lives.

While the bloody house-to-house street fighting raged, a unit of Russian ground troops one night risked their lives by staging a decoy assault on the encircling German army so that the Stalingrad symphony could perform unhampered at the opera house.

Can we muster that kind of mettle?

Warning Sign

Meanwhile, the threat of bioterrorism raises the ante on those trying to maintain normality in life during wartime. In the absence of any objective war coverage or thoughtful news analysis, the mainstream media are reaping a ratings coup with the anthrax scare.

But before moving lockstep into the perpetual war machine, let's put this one in perspective. Your chance of exposure to anthrax as the result of a terrorist communiqué delivered by your friendly postal carrier (a scenario that gives a whole new meaning to the term "going postal") is about one in 25 million. In other words, statistically, you have a better chance of winning the Super Lotto (and that is a snowball's chance in hell) than becoming exposed to a bioterrorist weapon.

The fear is palpable. Osama bin Laden has pledged that Americans will never again know peace. And certainly the events of Sept. 11 have changed us forever. But how shall we shape this new world, and how shall we allow it to shape us?

Of course, it's easy to slip into a sense of apocalyptic angst--the Sept. 11 suicide plane attacks killed thousands, saddened millions, scared the Western world and spurred a massive military response that, in turn, has sparked a storm of angry and potentially destabilizing protests throughout the Muslim world.

The impact of these foul acts is pervasive. In the past two months, prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs have increased more than 40 percent, doctors are scribbling 17 percent more scrips for antidepressants and New York bartenders are reporting a 30 percent increase in alcoholic beverage consumption among patrons.

If there ever was a time to invest in the prescription drug and vice markets, this is it.

One possible investment: Those bright yellow chemical suits favored by the 1970s New Wave band Devo (accessorized with a matching medical-grade respirator, of course) are back in vogue and now available in a range of spiffy colors.

So, are these the fabled end times, those dark biblical moments of Armageddon that mark the gathering of the forces of good and evil, or just an unlucky streak in the relatively short history of Western civilization?

Road to Nowhere?

"Sometimes the world is a load of questions," David Byrne once sang, "sometimes it seems that the world knows nothing at all." Plenty of pundits offer answers. But these days, most of the folks seem uncertain about the future and unclear about the meaning of the bizarre events unfolding around us. Many are ricocheting between a dark sense of dread and a guarded optimism that things won't get too bleak.

To some extent, the truth depends on your point of view and whether you think the bottle of Cipro is half empty or half full.

The argument for half empty: I'm not given to an overly optimistic outlook. After all, it's easy for someone who spent his childhood practicing duck-and-cover drills in a darkened kindergarten cloakroom in anticipation of an atomic-bomb attack to suspect that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket.

Those survivalist impulses, so strong during the environmental and social chaos of the early '70s--when escalating tensions between the nuclear superpowers, the apocalyptic aura of the Vietnam War and an overabundance of psychedelic drugs contributed to a sense of impending doom--are reawakening. Purchase a patch of land. Plant a garden. Dig a well. Buy a gun. Make a stand.

You may or may not want to cave in to those primal urges, but it's wise to stock up on emergency food and water--this is earthquake country after all (gas masks, antibiotics, and a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun with child-proof trigger lock are optional).

In a society geared for life during wartime, it's best to be prepared.

The argument that the bottle is half full: On the other hand, life has a way of pleasantly surprising you. During the Middle Ages, European peasants--in addition to subsistence rations, squalor, overcrowding, and cruel masters--had to live with a mean malady that came to be known as the Black Death. Now we know it as the bubonic plague, a highly contagious bacterial infection characterized by fever, delirium and buboes (thus the term "boo-boo") and spread by the bite of fleas carried on rats.

As a result of the plague, one in three Europeans died. Still, your average European peasant--aided by an enthusiastic clergy--spent a fair amount of time deep in thought about sin and death.

So much for the Dark Ages.

Fast forward to the 1980s (and please note that the Black Death did not end civilization as anticipated) and the modern plague known as AIDS. At the time, there was a widely held fear that this incurable virus ultimately would annihilate mankind.

HIV has taken its toll, no doubt about that. In Africa, one in four villagers in some infected areas have succumbed to the disease. In the affluent United States and Western European countries, expensive drug therapies and public-health campaigns for the most part have kept the disease in check.

But why hasn't everyone exposed to HIV contracted AIDS? The lunatic fringe argues that this is proof that HIV isn't the agent that causes the disease. But a couple of years ago, genetic researchers discovered that about one in 10 people exposed to the virus--all of whom are of European descent--have a natural immunity to HIV that first developed during the Black Death.

Life has a way of winning--not for everyone, but for mankind as a whole.

So where do we go from here? The mixed messages of the mainstream media--watch out for suspicious characters, unusual activity and possible bioterrorism, on the one hand; dust off your credit cards and recharge the beleaguered business sector, on the other--offer no solutions, only more conflict and uncertainty.

This isn't business as usual--these are extraordinary times that should invite self-reflection and social criticism. The racial and political intolerance unleashed by the Sept. 11 attacks smacks of the old Pogo adage: we have seen the enemy and they are us.

Don't panic, be cautious, take your lessons where you find them.

And, in the spirit of democracy, open your mind to other views. While wrapping oneself in the flag might be comforting to some, it is not unpatriotic to get fired up once again about civil rights, environmental piracy, affordable health care, social injustice and all the other problems that faced this nation before the terrorist attacks.

For example, President Bush is pushing ahead with an energy plan that calls for oil exploration in the ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Before Sept. 11, Bush faced overwhelming opposition to the drilling of the ANWR. Now, the administration has made oil exploration there part of its anti-terrorist plan, arguing that domestic oil production makes us less beholden to foreign energy supplies. How safe would that ANWR oil supply be from terrorist attack? Last month, some drunken idiot fired a rifle round into the pressurized Alaskan oil pipeline, temporarily shutting down the supply from existing Arctic fields and causing 300,000 gallons of crude to spill onto the pristine tundra.

One bullet, one dollar.

If the government wants to encourage energy independence, it should establish fiscal incentives for wind, biomass, solar and other noncentralized alternative energy sources. It's true that the president's friends at Exxon won't benefit, but the nation will be stronger.

Meanwhile, White House officials are seeking tougher anti-terrorist legislation that would allow authorities to detain foreigners indefinitely, contrary to constitutional protections now in place. The Clinton administration's previous anti-terrorist policies went through largely unchecked, allowing the federal courts to use secret evidence and undisclosed witnesses against alleged terrorists.

It dishonors the memory of the thousands of innocent victims of the Sept. 11 attacks--including many Arab-Americans--if we relinquish the freedoms that they cherished, or if we give in to racial profiling and intolerance of political dissent.

Life During Wartime?

It should look a lot like life during peacetime, but with a lot more passion for the people, values, and things we hold close to our hearts. The terrorists in Byrne's prophetic 1979 tune would say, "No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain't got time for that now."

That's fine for fanatics. But maybe we should draw the opposite conclusion: In a nation at war, our private passions are more important than ever.

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From the November 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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