A nightmare scenario: you’re stuck in traffic on a two-lane mountain highway, five inches between your car and the one in front of you. You’re trying to get to the San Francisco International Airport to make a morning flight and you have an itinerary as convoluted as the mountain road ahead of you: from SFO to Dallas then onto Toronto. A terrible accident has produced bumper-to-bumper stasis on this particular stretch of mountainside. You have an hour to make it to the airport and you’ve bought a budget ticket: no refunds or dispensations for missed flights will be given.
The minutes flow by like water as the sinking feeling in your stomach gurgles its awful truth: you’re not making this flight. The mountain pass on the California 92 is gorgeous in its rolling immensity, but the pressure in your head denies its foggy beauty. All you can do is obsess over the cost of a new ticket.
Finally, you arrive at the American Airlines terminal in SFO amidst the zealous morning rush. The computer informs you that check-in is impossible. You line up in the “customer service” corridor, awaiting your fate from the airline’s representatives. Beside you, a middle-aged Chinese woman and her twin twelve-year old daughters eagerly wait to check in. You try explaining to them that this is not the check in line, that they could do that easily from the automated kiosks nearby. They don’t mind the wait- they just want to be helped by an actual human being.
The mother is a professor at Beijing Normal University and they’ve been in America for over a month, the first time they’ve been stateside. They’ve seen the highlights- New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and you immediately respect the effort that the trip must have entailed. A mother traveling alone across a foreign land with two twelve year olds. That takes gumption, no matter where you’re traveling. She urges her daughters to practice English with you. The two girls are, however, woefully shy, their faces huddled behind their Ipads. The mother settles for a picture of all of you instead- a keep sake from their trip, the stressed out Mandarin-speaking Albertan a touch of genuine multicultural zaniness.
Suddenly, thirty Chinese teenagers burst through the doors of the concourse, led by an overweight tour guide roiling with sweaty anxiousness. They have also arrived late for their flight and they know it will be next to impossible to re-route tickets for the entire group. The tour guide is absolutely stricken- you feel for the guy, who will probably lose his job over the tardiness. I wonder if they too got stuck on that damned 92.
Finally you speak to an official: the best the airline can do, short of charging you for an entirely new ticket, is to place you on standby for later flights. Maybe you’ll fly out to Dallas later and hit your connection. At worst, you may not make it to Dallas at all, in which case you’ll be forced to cough up for an entirely new ride.
And so begins your 24 hours in standby limbo, Toronto suddenly feeling as far away as Moscow or Beijing. Will you get home today? Only the standby list and the whims of pre-booked travelers can decide.
And yet a calm comes over you: whether you are allowed on the next flight or not is ultimately out of your hands. All you can do is wait. Read books. Eat the overpriced terminal food. Maybe catch an archived game on MLB At Bat. Concentrate on your breathing so as to keep your blood pressure in check. Stay calm.
The name of the game is just to make the best of a bad situation.
You embrace this newfound ethic of patient detachment, easing yourself into a kind of demobilized state of grace. You sit. You watch, mostly in silence (for who do you have to talk to?). Eventually, you do leave the sleek confines of SFO, with its ergonomically correct furniture, farm-to-table eateries, and Silicon-Valley menace, to arrive at the mega-mall grandeur of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). You’ve missed your connecting flight to Toronto and have no choice but to wait for tomorrow’s plane out. You’re traveling on a budget so a hotel is out of the question.
You have only one option: to spend the next sixteen hours in the DFW concourse. In your zen-like state of quietude, you watch the traveling Texas crowds flow by, turning to them for whatever bit of insight, entertainment, or comfort they can provide.
Militarism, Patriotism, and Sacrifice
DFW’s Terminal C is ringed with patriotic regalia. You cannot miss the sight of a large American flag hanging from the ceiling. Close by is the Texas state flag, equal in size and (presumably) political importance. You will find flags of military organizations, a wall full of pictures of DFW employees who have served in the armed forces, and display cases of military buttons from various units. The buttons shine like gold in the late afternoon light, words jutting out at you in brass relief: Operation Iraqi Freedom, Aviation Support Battalion, Camp Taji, Iraq etc.
A “Wall of Thanks” can be found nearby, where fliers write in black ink their expressions of gratitude to American servicemen and women. In cascading loops one is confronted again and again with the following expressions: “God Bless You,” “Our Safety,” “ Our Freedom,” “Our Nation,” etc. Many passengers stand in reverence in front of the wall for a moment or two, reconfirming their own patriotic commitment. Others even say a prayer under their breath, followed by a quick gesture to the heavens.
As I stand in front of the mural I feel neither patriotism nor spirituality but, pointedly enough, anger. A gamut of questions surge through my mind: for what cause did so many thousands of young Americans die over the last decade? Did the “war on terror” protect the “freedom” that Americans love so much?
Judging by the NSA spying scandal, the continued breakdown in trust between local communities and law enforcement, economic recession, and the massive increase in state security apparatuses over the last ten years, I don’t think its possible to claim that Americans are somehow more “free” today than they were before these wars were launched.
The DFW passengers who sign this wall certainly do so with gratitude in their hearts. But do they really understand why the Bush Administration launched a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, one that produced the breeding ground for the very terroristic forces the war was supposed to terminate?
On a monitor nearby a news story regarding ISIS’s barbaric beheading of an American journalist plays incessantly. The juxtaposition of the utter failure of American foreign policy in Iraq with the statements of gratitude on the wall possesses a haunting, brutal irony. I stand in front of the Thank Yous in mournful contemplation. I curse not only the orgy of violence unleashed by American military intervention, but also the simplistic cultural narratives which provided justification for the whole sorry adventure in the first place.
Iraq never presented a clear, present, and immediate danger to the United States. There were never any weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Al-Qaeda and the secular authoritarianism of the Saddam regime. And no, the Americans were not looked upon as liberators by the Iraqi people, themselves haunted by ethnic tensions which threatened civil war the moment a power vacuum emerged.
How did Americans ever believe that militarily occupying that part of the world and attempting to radically remake its domestic political structures was ever going to be easy, painless, and safe? Now, the same people who fed us those lies sit on the sidelines and blame Obama for not continuing the imperial project they began. They urge us to double down on military intervention as the only sure way to guarantee Iraqi pliancy and cheap oil reserves, ignoring the carnage that has been unleashed in the process.
If we are to understand just how America should utilize it’s still impressive (though no doubt dwindling) military and economic might in the world, we need historical perspective regarding societies abroad that are profoundly different than our own. Most importantly, we need a nuanced view of the limits and costs of military intervention, buffeted by a strong moral compass that does not see the wanton destruction of a society (i.e. American occupation) as the key to its democratic liberation.
Simple jingoism, the trafficking in black-and-white narratives, does nothing to honor the sacrifices that servicemen and women have made. In fact, it ensures that they will be rendered meaningless, tied to a war machine whose central benefits are enjoyed by the very few (Oil Companies, the Military-Industrial Complex) and whose costs (lives lost, bodies crippled, tax dollars wasted) is borne by working people across the country, to say nothing of the violence suffered by the colonial peoples subjugated in the process.
An idea surges through my head: if the DFW is going to have a wall of thanks, let it also have a section in which historians from many of Texas’ fine academic institutions can curate exhibits regarding the history of the modern Middle East. As passengers mill about in the airport, gorging themselves on fried foods and overpriced snacks, they can take some time to read about the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration, the European protectorates, American support for autocratic oil producing states, the Israeli army’s occupation of Palestinian land, and many other important aspects of the modern Middle East. We could call it the wall of nuance, or maybe the wall of historical complexity.
Such an exhibit would do a fine service for the passengers of DFW. For without a more sophisticated understanding of the world beyond America’s shores, and without an appreciation of the obscene violence that the US military has enacted across that world (from Vietnam to Iraq and beyond), Americans will continue to support politicians that waste the precious resources of their country in a foreign policy that is as fantastical as it is destructive.
That is all a Canadian trapped deep in the heart of Texas can offer when faced with such patriotic exhibitionism. I move away from the Wall of Thanks, lest my whole day be clouded by anger over America’s foreign policy. I walk down terminal C, in search of my next set of concourse adventures.
PART 2 OF THIS PIECE WILL BE PUBLISHED TOMORROW.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.