I’ve been tentatively working on a manuscript for Temple University Press called JingoSport! Power and Performance in the New Millennium. It examines the disturbing intersection of sports and militarism in the new millennium so far, and stars a rogues gallery of political sportsmen (and women), terrible reality television shows, push-button wars, martyred crossover saints, pharma-enhanced performance and enviropocalyptic terrors that will downsize the sports industry as we know it. And not too soon, given its econopocalyptic waste.
If you’re interested in the manuscript, read chapter seven so far, make contact, and let me know if you’d like to publish it. I’ll provide further content on the project on Huffington Post, Morphizm and more in the months to come. Viagra down, read up, game on.
I’m a Fucking Soldier!
Militarism, Torture and War in Sports, Entertainment, and Advertising After 9/11
“It’s war. They don’t give a freakin’ you-know-what about you,” screamed Kellen Winslow Jr. “They will kill you. They’re out there to kill you. So I’m ‘a kill ‘em…I’m a fuckin’ soldier!”
But Winslow was no soldier, just a University of Miami tight end caught up in a football game, where war and recreation have seamlessly merged since the sport’s inception. But his infamous 2003 comments, delivered the year the Bush administration plunged America into an exceedingly expensive occupation of Iraq, were delivered without a hint of irony or deceit during the heightened militarism that followed the 9/11 attacks. And along with the life and death of Pat Tillman, a football player who actually quit the NFL to become a soldier, Winslow’s foot-in-mouth moment illustrated the intersecting trajectories of sports, marketing, geopolitics, religion and entertainment in the early stages of the 21st century.
Winslow’s inability to separate well-paid recreation from well-funded devastation wasn’t his alone: It was virally replicated on playing fields and killing fields alike, from pro sports’ throat-slashing gesture “The O.J.” to the torture porn of so-called Reality TV game shows like Fear Factor, film and game franchises like Saw and Grand Theft Auto, and politically sanctioned terrordomes like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The violence was both real and hyperreal, with the lines blurring as the games metamorphosed into disturbing confluences like Manhunt and America’s Army, the first blockbuster video game developed by the United States military.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there simply was no business like war business.
Sports marched in lockstep with the Bush administration’s jingoistic campaigns like the War on Terror and The Patriot Act, which coldly coded cultural and social difference into a geopolitical imperative that attempted to rewrite the political, economic and religious map of the world, using the binary language of team players and clubhouse cancers, until the very bitter end.
And the White House had one offense: Take no prisoners. Its defense? Shoot first, avoid questions later.
Given the exponential technological evolution of virtual environments like the internet, videogames and military weaponry at the end of the20th century, the Bush administration’s recruitment schemes for the war effort achieved pure entertainment with blinding regularity. In the process, cultural exchanges became mediated bloodsports with little in the way of contemporary precedent, exceeding the scale, scripts, costs and benefits of those that came before.
As a result, the line between propagandized brutality and competitive spirit evaporated into the warming atmosphere. Those unwilling to enlist in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan strove for proxy victories, and their own dignity, in game theories on screens large and small. And so, after a Clintonian leap forward into the challenging relativism of the ’90s, sports and war after 9/11 regressed into Manichean absolutes: Good and evil, haves and have-nots, freedom fighters and terrorists. Winners and losers.
And you stare at me
In your Jesus Christ pose
Arms held out Like you’ve been carrying a load
And you swear to me You don’t want to be my slave
But you’re staring at me
Like I need to be saved
– Soundgarden, “Jesus Christ Pose”
The rise of 21st century American militarism in sports and entertainment was most meaningfully exemplified in the charged nexus of Pat Tillman, a free-spirited Californian who starred with the Arizona State Sun Devils and graduated to a decorated career with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. From his years in college and onward, Tillman’s sports narrative was that he always took one for the team. But after the horrors of 9/11, he nationalized the narrative, quit the NFL, joined the United States Army Rangers and shipped off to Iraq and Afghanistan. But like all narratives, Tillman’s fractured under the weight of too much capitalization, shortly after his life ended on May 22, 2004, at the hands of his own countrymen in a hail of friendly, possibly murderous fire.
“The medical evidence did not match up with the scenario as described,” doctors who examined his body explained to investigators, who subsequently suppressed the information and, at the urging of the Bush administration and the military, propagandized Tillman’s sacrificial death as a heroic fight for life.
That hyperreality was disputed by his family, friends and fellow soldiers, who watched helplessly as Tillman was converted before his death into a heroic soldier-athlete inhabiting the symbolic and literal spaces of service and sacrifice, and after his death into a sacrificial casualty of the War on Terror, whose mythology superseded reality itself. But the reductive narratives did not work for long, as Tillman became a symbolic football himself, passed between secretive military and government officials, sports marketers and surviving relatives. His viral sanctification eventually unraveled, and has since scattered into strands and cannot be pulled together again, even by Tillman’s own diary, which the Army still refuses to release, lest his humanity be publicized.
Indeed, there is nothing more antithetical to mythology and propaganda than humanity, which is complex, destabilizing, and resistant to overt simplification, and while Tillman may have been exceptional, he was no exception to that truth. He was a study in contrasts and tensions: He was a football player who understood the separation between military service and televised recreation. He left the NFL precisely because he knew that being a football player was not the same thing as being a soldier. He was a well-read knowledge-seeker, who knew his Koran as well as he knew his Bible, his Henry David Thoreau as well as his combatives field manual, his Noam Chomsky as well as his Karl Rove. He reportedly dressed in drag, talked openly about sexuality, and was as laid-back a dude as San Jose, a city squeezed between beaches, farms and Silicon Valley, could produce.
But he was no naïf: “You know, this war is so fucking illegal,” Tillman once said of the Iraq occupation to Army Specialist Russell Baer, who was also caught in the friendly fire that eventually claimed Tillman’s life in Afghanistan. Neither was he a man of the cloth: “You know I’m not religious,” he told Seattle Seahawks general manager Bob Ferguson in 2003.
Yet as the apotheosis of football-war merge, Tillman was nevertheless biblically deified as a sacrificial lamb in wars bankrolled by evangelicals that swept the Bush administration into power. But the manufactured mythology of what Tillman represented to the war effort and the sports media that vigorously supported it bypassed those closest to him, who had watched his humanity at work for years before anyone knew who he was. And their memories eventually spoke truth to power and propaganda, problematizing the foundation of which Tillman’s mythology rested.
“Pat isn’t with God, he’s fucking dead,” his younger brother Rich swore at Tillman’s memorial service at the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden in May 2004. “He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”
The rest of the Tillman family exhibited such moments of brave, if politically incorrect, protest. When the military explained that it erred when Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal approved Tillman’s Silver Star citation and detailed his death as occurring “in the line of devastating enemy fire,” Tillman’s family became vocal opponents of the war effort, which had unscrupulously manipulated its son’s life and death for political and economic purposes.
“After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” Tillman’s father Patrick Sr. complained to the Washington Post in 2005, choosing his words carefully as career lawyers often do. “They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy.”
Tillman’s mother Mary was equally offended by the military’s use of her son to raise recruits and ratings. “They could have told us the truth. And if they didn’t want to tell us the truth, they could have said that we don’t know, we’re doing an investigation,” she argued to National Public Radio in 2007. “But what they did is they made up a story. That’s not a misstep, and that’s not an error. They made up a story. It was presented on national television. And we believe they did that to promote the war.”
Tillman’s brother Kevin, who joined the Army with Pat in 2002, blood brothers to the core, called those who fed off his brother “parasites,” and delivered in the heat of the historic 2006 midterm election a rhetorical flourish, seizing upon the symbolic nature of Pat’s birthday and the Democratic Party’s attempts to take back the legislative branch of the United States.
“It is Pat’s birthday on November 6, and elections are the day after,” he wrote in a powerful editorial on Truthdig. “Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.”
Kevin Tillman wasn’t alone in his desire to keep our focus on his brother’s complex humanity, and our own as well. One year before Tillman would be felled by too many suspicious bullets, famed Dallas Mavericks point guard Steve Nash, two-time winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2005-2006, had the same mission in mind. “From the start, I spoke out just because I don’t want to see the loss of life,” Nash told ESPN. “People are mistaking anti-war as being unpatriotic…This is a much bigger issue. But now that we’re in battle, I hope for as many lives to be spared as possible, as little violence as possible before a resolution.”
Like all of the brave Tillman brothers, Nash had no problem going off-message, and he took many, if metaphorical bullets, for it. He first incited the ire of NBA players and executives by vocalizing his opposition to Bush’s war by wearing a T-shirt that read “No War. Shoot for Peace” to the 2003 All-Star game. He was roundly criticized by another MVP, retired San Antonio Spurs center and Navy graduate David Robinson, who toed the militarized line by arguing, “There’s plenty of time for commentary later. If it’s an embarrassment…maybe they should be in a different country, because this is America and we’re supposed to proud of the guys we elected and put in office.”
Robinson got added firepower during the controversy from Nash’s own boss, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who confided to Business Week that “I’ve always felt [that] it’s better not to commercialize tragic events or the loss of troops.”
“I’m not embarrassed by America,” Nash clarified, breaking down the cultural and political bloodsport like he routinely broke down defensive schemes designed specifically to contain him. “I’m embarrassed by humanity. More than embarrassed, I think it’s really unfortunate in the year 2003 that we’re still using violence as a means of conflict resolution. That’s what I’m speaking out against.”
It would take years for the nation to wake to the truth of the intractable, destructive cycle of violence of which Nash so eloquently deplored. Cuban, no dummy when it came to commercialization, realized the winds of war had shifted shortly after Nash sensibly spoke out, eventually financing the Brian De Palma’s antiwar film Redacted, offering a publicly disgraced Dan Rather a job at HDNet, and launching the Fallen Soldiers Fund.
“It’s really easy to hate,” Cuban would say of war and in defense of Redacted, sounding more and more like Nash every day as right-wing regulars like Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly and more accused him of everything from treason to ignorance. “It’s really hard to think issues through on their own merits. Anything that makes people think about issues is a good thing.”
But thinking was the opposite of what sports fans and war critics alike were asked to do after 9/11, as Robinson parroted on autopilot, his military training and belief in the unsurpassed power of authority merged with the popcorn entertainment he spent his life hawking. His confusion of pride and embarrassment was by no means localized, returning to the misguided triumphalism of Kellen Winslow Jr., son of Hall-of-Fame NFL tight end Kellen Winslow, whose loyalist thirst for violence and heroism was representative of the culture-at-large. Winslow Jr. delivered his infamous gaffe during a 2003 loss to the Tennessee Volunteers, in which the University of Miami’s All-American tight end tackled and injured Vols defensive back Corey Campbell, then stood over his writhing body talking trash and displaying the type of bloodthirsty sportsmanship that makes coaches in the college and pro ranks proud — that is, when the cameras aren’t rolling and the refs aren’t watching. When asked about his taunting afterwards, Winslow ripped like Robinson into the wrong logic and, pardon the pun, went ballistic.
“I don’t give a flyin’ you-know-what about a Vol,” he shouted in the locker room after the game. “I don’t give a damn! He would do the same thing to me. It’s war. They don’t give a freakin’ you-know-what about you. They will kill you. They’re out there to kill you. So I’m ‘a kill ‘em. You write that in the paper. You write that. You make money off that. No, man, I’m pissed. All y’all take this down. I’m pissed, man. We don’t care about nobody except this U. We don’t. If I didn’t hurt him, he’d hurt me. They were gunnin’ for my legs. I’m a come right back at ‘em. I’m a fuckin’ soldier!”
Yet Winslow badly misconstrued his importance to the U, as his college is regionally known, who like Tillman’s brothers in arms, turned on him. Days after the outburst, the University of Miami prepared a statement and sent him out like a good puppet to eat the very words he probably heard on infinite repeat in the locker room, at rallies, or on the field.
“After speaking with the press, I immediately regretted my comments and felt embarrassed for my family, my team, the University of Miami, our fans, alumni and myself,” he apologized. “As for my reference to being a soldier in a war, I meant no disrespect to the men and women who have served, or are currently serving, in the armed forces. I cannot begin to imagine the magnitude of war or its consequences.”
Winslow’s battlefield conversion was apt, given that he was sold out, like Tillman, by his superior officers. And his embarrassment quickly went supernova, exploding onto popular online video site YouTube and even leaking into Winslow’s underwhelming pro career. Shortly after being drafted by the Cleveland Browns, he injured himself and played two games in 2004, none in 2005 and, as of this writing, has only nabbed nine career touchdowns.
Yet his mouth has still roared: In October 2008, he was penalized $25,000 by the Cleveland Browns after publicly disclosing his staph infection, ironically becoming a free-speech symbol for the NFL players’ union, who defended Winslow’s right to communicate not his triumphs but his injuries to the press.
Winslow, Nash and Tillman’s mediation from heroes to heretics, and back again, was instructive, as were their unrestrained displays of ignorance, intellect and heroism, respectively. It was a synergy that signaled the geopolitical bent of entertainment, consumption and commerce in American sports in the early years of the new millennium’s first, estranged decade.
Head to Head, Mouth to Mouth
Murder is media. – Tricky, “Broken Homes”
The violence itself was easy to spot, especially in sports. After the belabored spectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial in the ’90s, athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB and elsewhere started using an on-field throat-slitting taunt called, what else, “The O.J” after scoring a touchdown, home run or other accomplishment. The move was named for the manner in which Simpson reportedly dispatched his wife: Multiple stabs to the throat resulting in near decapitation.
The athletes caught using “The O.J.” varied wildly, from self-mythologized bad boys like Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson to mediated golden boys like Brett Favre and Ken Griffey Jr., who used it as recently in 2008 against sportscaster and ex-player Jeff Brantley, who had previously criticized Junior’s play on air. The gesture itself is a cipher, to be filled with meaning or legalese depending on the context in which it is made. There are worse gestures to be had on the playgrounds of America, but in a world where actual and virtual beheadings invaded popular conscious with, dare I say it, a Winslowian vengeance, it was a taboo to be both hidden and exploited.
If you just arrived in America from a remote island after the American occupation of Iraq and switched on the television or screened a flick at the mall, you might have thought that you had wandered into a snuff warehouse. From photos of naked Iraqis stacked in cheerleading pyramids in Abu Ghraib to the recorded, literalized “OJs” of Nick Berg, Daniel Pearl and other unfortunate casualties of war, must-see TV turned pornographically violent like never before. Cinema buffs and gamers, online and otherwise, were equally rewarded with an unending stream of competition-based torture.
Or “vile display[s],” as President Bush called the beheading of Berg, a civilian contractor in Iraq, during a televised May speech on military strategy. But the president’s binary view of evil didn’t encompass the torture and murder that made Abu Ghraib the first in a series of major scandals that sent American approval for the war in Iraq south in a hurry. In fact, the travesties of Abu Ghraib were expressly created and encouraged through presidential approval.
“An Aug. 1, 2002, memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, addressed to [Alberto] Gonzales, said that torturing suspected al Qaeda members abroad ‘may be justified’ and that international laws against torture ‘may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogation’ conducted against suspected terrorists,” Mike Allen and Dana Priest reported the Washington Post in 2004. “The August 2002 memo from the Justice Department concluded that laws outlawing torture do not bind Bush because of his constitutional authority to conduct a military campaign. As Commander in Chief, the President has the constitutional authority to order interrogations of enemy combatants to gain intelligence information concerning the military plans of the enemy.’”
The rabbit hole went deeper. Berg’s killers protested the “slaughter,” “degradation” and “shame” of Muslims tortured at Abu Ghraib, right before they went ahead and perpetuated the cycle with their own grisly slaughter, degradation and shame. The videotaped tit-for-tat was indeed a war game, designed to exhaust the opponent and, more importantly, to scare off squeamish fans making money from the game.
“The reason this video was made was an attempt to destroy [the military's] auxiliary,” Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. “It’s not going to scare the U.S. troops out of the country, and it’s not going to get rid of the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]. But there are a lot of…contractors that are going to decide this is not the time to be doing business in Iraq.”
“If you turn America’s stomach, you turn around public support at the same time,” Center for Media and Public Affairs analyst Matthew Felling argued in the same article “All the news reporting, all the language, all the written word in the world does not have the effect of one brutal video image.”
It is that image that haunted the minds of the pop culture vultures that fed on the spectacle of the OJ Simpson trial, the specter of Nicole Simpson’s partially decapitated head giving them nightmares and thrills at the same time. It is that thrill of violence that the NFL, NBA, MLB and others moved quickly to suppress when “The OJ” took over pro sports’ on-field celebrations, and it is suppression itself that became the Bush administration playbook when it came to decrying torture as “vile” abroad while legislating it as permissible at home.
After all, “vile” at home paid the bills just fine, thanks, especially in gory exercises like Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), Fear Factor, Passion of the Christ, Saw, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and more. After quickly getting past its aversion to televised violence after the jarring horror of 9/11, the American people swung wildly to the opposite extreme, showing a surprising resilience and pleasure in unchecked physical brutality.
The Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) franchise, for example, authorized the autopsy drama for prime-time. Starting in 2000 as a single show, it replicated like an internet worm during the reign of the Bush administration, spawning two more television series, comic books, art installations, computer games and much more, including toys. (What, no cookbook?) Shows like Fear Factor, Survivor and The Contender and many more each offered a variation of a simple theme: A “real” person, which is to say someone who is not a professional actor or athlete, faces hyperreal, often surreal, stratagems and manipulates or struggles his or her way to an overt victory against a host of competitors. And they paid for their competitive drive in often bizarre ways. Dare spectacles like NBC’s Fear Factor, adapted from The Netherlands’ program Now or Neverland, usually made contestants eat exotic insects, and even blended rats, a maneuver that elicited a frivolous lawsuit from at least one viewer. In season four, whose ad campaign promised a “Year of Fear,” Jason and Misti Palmer passed hissing cockroaches mouth to mouth to free their son Kaden who sat shackled in a boxful of them. NBC published a post-game interview with Jason and Misti online that reads like an ESPN report fed through Franz Kafka:
FEAR FACTOR: Did you two have a special strategy in place?
MISTI PALMER: Well right before we began, I knew how I was going to have to position my feet to turn, to twist really fast back to the other box. And I think I had an advantage over the other team because I’m longer. Jason and I wanted it to be where as soon as the roaches were in my mouth, I would immediately turn and he would immediately go down for more. So he was never having to wait with roaches in his mouth. There were a few times where they were biting my lips and getting a good hold in my mouth and I had to shake them off, and that was horrible.
FEAR FACTOR: You two were definitely in a zone. Jason, at one point you banged your head and had started bleeding a little but you never seemed to let that affect your rhythm.
JASON PALMER: I couldn’t tell that I was cut when I was going down. I went down so many times. I knew that I had so many roaches in my face at different times, I was knocking them away so I couldn’t tell if one of them just scratched me or whatever. But once I got through and I could feel up there, I felt a little knot so I knew I must have banged something.
The situation worsened when the roaches turned into pets, recalling the Bad Newz Kennel dogfighting ring that landed superstar NFL quarterback Michael Vick two years in prison in 2007, shaming both his Atlanta Falcons and various sponsors in the process, who helped him become football’s highest-paid player in 2004 with a $130 million contract. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture report filed during the investigation, Vick and three other associates “thought it was funny to watch the pit bull dogs belonging to Bad Newz Kennels injure or kill the other dogs,” and once even killed a dog by “slamming it to the ground several times before it died, breaking the dog’s back or neck.” All four principals offered plea bargains for federal felony and misdemeanor charges rather than be subjected to further scrutiny and more severe charges under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which no doubt would have made naked the Kennel’s hunger for sport and violence, usually made manifest in gambling and dogs executed by electrocution, hanging, shooting or summary other brutality. “You may have thought this was sporting, but it was very callous and cruel,” Judge Henry Hudson said to Vick’s co-defendant during the sentencing phase.
The same could be said of another sport that went supernova in the years following 9/11. The bare-knuckle brawls of mixed-martial arts franchises like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), PRIDE Fighting Championships, Shooto and Rage Cage, which during the occupation of Iraq metamorphosed from a subterranean sensation to a lucrative Fight Club for the pro-war and pro-consumption set. Derived from Shardana and Egyptian freefighting, Greek pankration, and Japanese bushido, mixed martial-arts have a millennia-long and storied history, mostly involving male violence without much in the way of rules. Once rules that eventually sanitized the sport were inserted to safeguard not just the fighters but the audiences as well, the real-time violence of the UFC and its kind wasted no time in erasing the revenue leads generated by safer sports like pro boxing and fake ones like the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). In 2006, UFC pulled down $200 million in pay-per-view subscriptions alone, breaking industry records, while WWE’s buys cratered. Along the way, brawlers like Chuck Liddell started showing up on ESPN, and popular brands like Tap Out flew off of store shelves.
But the political dimension of the sport could not be ignored, on either side of the red-blue divide. Presidential candidate and Republican senator, John McCain, a war hero and tortured veteran, screened early matches from the UFC and declared it “human cockfighting,” an iteration of Michael Vick’s canine deathmatches. McCain even led a ban on the UFC, sending a protest letter out to all 50 states, most of which dropped the mixed martial arts powerhouse from their cable programming. The UFC responded by diluting the more visceral violence of kicking a downed opponent and groin strikes by leaning heavier on the grappling and striking and teaming up with Las Vegas-based Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who bought the franchise in 2001 and legitimized it for the nevertheless bloodthirsty War on Terror. UFC’s emergence into the mainstream began, aptly enough, on reality TV shows called American Casino and The Ultimate Fighter, where economic and recreational violence merged to form a consumer base strong enough to break the bank. And mend political fences: In 2006, the UFC hired Marc Ratner, former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission and John McCain ally, as its vice-president. Ratner, who once campaigned for the McCain’s proposed ban. facilitated cover stories for Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine, as well as high-profile sponsorships from Anheuser-Busch and Harley-Davidson. The momentum of UFC was so high-powered that even Lorenzo Fertitta left Station Casinos to devote his full attention to it. In 2007, the Fertittas hit the jackpot and joined up with casino heavyweight Colony Capital, which owns Hiltons in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, for a combined investment of nearly $900 million.
Meanwhile, a feedback loop created between the thirst for violence and hunger for profit grew only stronger. More mythologized brawlers meant more marketing opportunities, which meant more money, which circularly meant more fights and bloodshed. The fact that America was so competitively bloodthirsty in cages, kennels and reality TV spectacles spoke volumes about where its head and heart were at after 9/11 and during the occupation of Iraq, but it also betrayed where its consumptive urges were most powerful. Before the unraveling aftermath of the invasion of Iraq reset the country’s moral, economic and political code, the cultural and social trajectory toward violent spectacle broke the horizon and bled on everything.
That trajectory peaked in Abu Ghraib, where naked, smeared Iraqis were stacked in cheerleader pyramids and Jesus Christ poses, athletes through the looking glass, on display for sadistic gratification in dehumanization, torture and murder without trial. Not that America could have won one, which is why few of them were ever tried: The majority of the prisoners were either innocents or minor criminals. Only a handful comprised high-value targets, meaning that Abu Ghraib was a Fear Factor terrordome of an altogether different type.
In fact, the Pentagon itself reported that autopsies of 22 Abu Ghraib prisoners revealed causes of death including “multiple gunshot wounds,” “strangulation,” “blunt force injuries and asphyxia.” It’s not as glamorous as a beheading, but that’s not America’s style. We prefer the less intimate, more virtual violence of Saw and Donald Rumsdfeld’s “Shock and Awe” bombing campaigns, safe behind our drones and night-vision goggles. Like the hyperpopular videogame franchise Grand Theft Auto, our real-time horrors are mediated through digital displays that filter out social logic and concern, which makes it easier to commit what would have been more literal, soul-destroying acts of violence like, say, America’s 2004 missile attack on a wedding in Mogr al-Deeb, which cost 40 lives, including six women and reportedly, ten children. The difference between death via remote, often unmanned weaponry and televised beheading may bother some, but not Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. When asked about the preponderance of dead innocents at Mogr al-Deeb, which was captured on video by the Associated Press, he offered a soundbite worthy of Bobby Knight.
“Bad people have parties too,” he cracked. Cue the laugh track.
Better than that, they have blockbusters, especially if they are the sporting type. The type of brutality through technology embodied by “Shock and Awe” represented sports in the new millennium. With the war on Iraq in full swing and torture videos from either side of the war’s blurred divide hitting the internet, popular entertainment skewed unapologetically grisly. The gore became the game.
The Saw franchise, started by James Wan in 2003 and continuing to this day, was one of a series of films released in the build-up and aftermath of the occupation of Iraq known as torture porn. The films outdistanced any measure of graphic violence that could be applied to previous films, and became an exploitative, disturbing pastime for a country that would not even allow photographs of its own flag-draped coffins appear on network or cable news. It was a dangerous game of numbers played by the Bush administration, which hoped that fictional substitutes for the torture and butchery of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and beyond would keep the drumbeat of war alive long enough to strip the country naked. And it worked like a charm: To this date, the Iraq body count for civilians alone climbs to 100,000, compared to the roughly 3,000 innocents killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Speaking of numbers and games, the Saw film franchise alone generated over a half a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. It plans an excursion into gamer platforms like Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3 in 2009, a suitable metamorphosis given that the torture stratagems, otherwise known as needlessly complex Rube Goldberg machines, of the various films were arranged like games themselves.
The first film opens with photographer Adam Faulkner (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) chained to pipes in an industrial warehouse on either side of an corpse armed with a revolver and microcassette recorder. Both men subsequently find tapes in their pockets labeled “Play Me” that contains conditions and instructions. Adam’s tape explains he must escape the bathroom, while Lawrence is instructed to kill Adam before six o’clock, or else the film’s marketable antagonist, The Jigsaw Killer, will murder his wife and daughter and leave Lawrence to die. The film ends with Jigsaw shouting “Game over!” to the sound of his victim’s screams.
And so the template for Saw was set, and replicated with varying pop-cultural and financial success over the course of several years. The guilty or innocent are thrown into a murderous deathtrap, and must struggle through the visceral bloodshed to survive to yet another level. It’s a winning formula that permeated other torture porn exercises like Hostel, in which Americans abroad venture into a Slovakian hotel and met their grisly doom by more elaborate tortures than one thought possible in the 21st century. Like the war in Iraq, which birthed all sorts of bizarre torture itself, the film was met with financial success at home and international condemnation abroad.
“I am offended by this film,” Slovakian Parliament official Tomas Galbavy complained, “I think that all Slovaks should feel offended.”
But these violent stratagems became a bonanza for the gaming industry, which began to crank out ever more disturbing and controversial product. Rockstar Games became a shining knight of the trend starting in 2001, when the controversial game empire released the hugely successful Max Payne shooter and, one month after the 9/11 attacks, the epochal Grand Theft Auto III, which sequenced the genes for the gamer landscape of the new millennium.
Grand Theft Auto III was indeed revolutionary. Its dimensional, gritty environments and situational and interactive creativity immediately set it apart from every game that had come before, and wasted no time in helping it to become the top-selling game of 2001. But the game’s true appeal was its ability to not just sublimate its players’ darkest urges, but encourage them. The protagonist is an ex-con forced to navigate his way through detail-oriented, first-person-perspective environments, and subsequently dispatch enemies with everything from a knife to a rocket launcher. And anyone, as the saying goes, was fair game: Players could punch any of the game’s passersby on the street, or run over them with all manner of carjacked vehicles. And they usually did, just to feel the thrill of social transgression, a fact that brought Rockstar Games no shortage of controversy and protest.
For example, scenarios existed where the player could have sex with a prostitute, kill her and take her money, and be rewarded for that violence in the game with increased health. Grand Theft Auto was banned outright for a time in Australia, and suffered a $246 million lawsuit in the United States from the families of Aaron Hamel and Kimberly Bed, claiming that their respective kids were assassinated by William and Josh Buckne, who claimed that their actions were inspired by the game in statements made to investigators.
Grand Theft Auto III”s troubles extended to the 9/11 attacks itself. The game was delayed because of the attacks and cut in ways to deflect predicted criticism. “We have come across certain small contextual references that we were no longer comfortable with,” explained Rockstar’s Manhattan-based president Sam Houser in an email to Wired.com,” as well as a couple of very rare game play instances that no longer felt appropriate to us. We apologise to you and all the people waiting for this game to ship for the delays that have now ensued, but I’m sure you can understand our reasoning.”
The cuts eventually made were instructive, given that GTA3′s protagonist is an escaped convict on a violent rampage in a New York City simulation called Liberty City. The design of the police cars changed from those of the New York Police Department to those of the Los Angeles Police Department. A terrorist revolutionary named Darkel, who planned to bomb the city’s economic nerve centers was eliminated entirely. Further changes disallowing the ability to blow off limbs of bystanders and enemies or fly a plane around Liberty City were executed. But even those changes and controversies weren’t enough to stop the Grand Theft Auto juggernaut. As of March 2008, the franchise, which includes later, equally panic-inducing titles like Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, had sold 70 million copies worldwide.
But Rockstar Games’ response to the world’s deeper thirst for torture porn would raise its fearsome head as well. Released in November 2003, months after the invasion of Iraq, the publisher’s most controversial game Manhunt built upon the hyperviolent yet wildly lucrative Grand Theft Auto series by making extreme violence the central thesis of its gameplay. As in Saw, which followed a year after Manhunt’s release, a protagonist serial killer named James Earl Cash finds himself a prisoner in a dilapidated terrordome which he must slash and kill his way out of in the interests of survival and unlocked secret levels, all while a deranged antagonist tracks his every move and lords over the rules of the game within the game. And it was an uncompromisingly brutal one: The player’s main purpose is to facilitate a series of executions and little else, by any means necessary, which included everything from plastic bags, baseball bats and crowbars to machetes, hammers and firearms, all to avoid a death-row execution of his own by a lunatic warden named Lionel Starkweather. In a poetic synergy, Starkweather was voiced by Bryan Cox, who played the lunatic Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s 1987 film called, wait for it, Manhunter.
Manhunter’s prison was a perverted version of Abu Ghraib, a glorified slaughterhouse that Starkweather populates with thugs, rapists and killers that hunt inmates down so that he can film their deaths. And there were grisly deaths to be had: In one scenario, Cash kills one inmate by driving the pointy end of a crowbar into an opponent’s head. Its vicarious thrill was obvious: The player doesn’t need to join the military, undergo weapons training and psychological desensitization to kill and survive. All he needs to do is sneak up on a victim and press a button. The game does the rest.
That push-button barbarity informed America’s games, television, and movies, as well as its military weaponry and geopolitical power, with the strategic goal of desensitizing its populace into real-time horrors like the destruction of habeus corpus or innocent civilians in a land far, far away. And so American apathy to scenes of gratuitous violence and death only increased. And while Manhunt did not sell as well as the Grand Theft Auto franchise, mostly because more than a few countries banned it outright (America, always on the money hunt, declined that opportunity), it did accomplish its mission.
“You’ve seen one decapitation,” argued Tech TV’s review, “you’ve seen ‘em all.”
True enough. Today, even measured speech about violent acts like beheadings carries within it some type of arch penumbra, as if objectively discussing things like medieval executions — rather than playing a Rockstar game strictly designed to recreate them — was tantamount to murder itself. But in a bizarre twist, the visceral viewing of beheading, rape, car crashes, executions, war footage and other real-time horrors, televised or otherwise, has become popcorn entertainment.
And so America, and its mainstream media, grew increasingly infested, like poor Kaden’s box, with talking-head propaganda trumpeting the metaphysical blasphemy of things like gay marriage, immigration, redistribution of wealth, and terrorism while vigorously selling, airing and profiting from push-button deaths via air, missile or nuclear strike. In a short time, the innocent deaths resulting from the 9/11 attacks, fed through the winner-loser prism of the War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq, became “collateral damage” or worse. Whereas before the death tolls of Vietnam and the 9/11 attacks were broadcasted as sober reminders of our enemies’ lethal power, our own exercises of strength remained immeasurable. In fact, we have dedicated ourselves to winning a game in which we don’t even keep score.
Which is probably why we are losing.
No Man’s Land
“I don’t believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered,” Gen. Tommy Franks, now-retired commander of the United States Armed Forces, explained after launching Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002. “We don’t do body counts.”
Body counts, the military soon discovered after the Vietnam War, did more to remind civilians that the game might just not be worth it than it did to encourage cheerleading and recruitment. The conventional logic of competition dictates that there needs to be a score of some kind, a way to impartially tabulate results and decide a victor, which is one reason why daily announced death tolls worked against and eventually doomed Lyndon Johnson’s administration during the Vietnam War. That logic was still somewhat in force during the early months after the post-9/11 payback, although it would extinguish itself not long afterward.
“They’ve got a dilemma,” said John Pike, an intelligence expert at GlobalSecurity.org., after Franks’ rather frank, and infamous, statement following Operation Anaconda. “Since Vietnam, such counts have gotten a bad name, but there’s no other way to keep score.”
But as I said, that is the conventional logic of competition. If you’re not interested in keeping score, then you’re likely not interested in winning, or losing, either, probably because being declared a victor means that the game is over and that it’s time to pack and go home. And that’s just not what occupations are about.
And so the idea of winning, losing, tolls and scores go out the window. And so too does the distinction of being able to tell the difference between winning or losing, or guilty and innocent. According to the Red Cross and the American military, 70 to 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had been “arrested by mistake.” As for the civilians in the crossfire of the occupation, they remain faceless phantoms whose ranks will never be counted, pawns in the greater game of geopolitical dominance disguised as a battle of good against evil. As Republican senator James Inhofe stated, against the plain facts, of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, “Many of them probably have American blood on their hands.”
Blood is a handy selling point, indeed. And whether it is true or not is not as important as whether everyone is on the same team. Because that’s where the money is. Literally.
Take Mel Gibson’s controversial, professedly literal but definitively profitable cinematic execution of American sports favorite cheerleader Jesus Christ. His 2004 film Passion of the Christ, released during the bloodthirsty peak of popular opinion for the Bush administration and its dangerous game in Iraq, preceded the critical term “torture porn” by one year but nevertheless has still been denied inclusion, thanks to its religious and sociopolitical sensitivity. But it was as gory as any of the films from the Saw and Hostel franchises, and as lucrative: Its theatrical release took in over a billion dollars worldwide. Yet its overt pleasure in graphic violence caused it no shortage of controversy, and rightfully included it in the wave of torture porn sweeping the shrinking global village.
The violence was purposeful. Only one sentence in three out of the four gospels of Jesus mentions his flogging, yet Gibson’s film spends ten minutes vividly portraying the violence in graphic detail. Famed film critic Roger Ebert, who gave Passion of the Christ, four out of four stars, confessed that “The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus,” adding without equivocation for a man who has spent his life publicly watching and writing about cinema, that it “is the most violent film I have ever seen.”
David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine and Slate.com, took the next logical step, calling it “a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie — The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre — that thinks it’s an act of faith.”
And yet it was, according to Gibson. “I wanted it to be shocking; and I wanted it to be extreme,” he told Diane Sawyer in a 2004 interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, “so that they see the enormity — the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule. The actual crucifixion was more violent than what was shown on the film, but I thought no one would get anything out of it.”
Gibson got quite a bit out of hitching his splatter wagon to Jesus Christ, including a papal endorsement and allegations of anti-Semitism, which were further complicated by a drunken anti-Semitic rant to the Los Angeles Police Department in which the director belligerently complained, “Fucking Jews. The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”
But like Gibson, pro sports has always used Jesus Christ, once more popularly known as the Prince of Peace, as a nationalist symbol to fuel rivalries, pad earning reports and preach not forgiveness but persecution. He even came between Washington Nationals outfielder Ryan Church, a Christian, and his Jewish girlfriend in 2005, with the help of the religious non-profit organization Baseball Chapel, whose unpaid ministers were retained by Major League Baseball to provide services to pro athletes.
“I said, like, Jewish people, they don’t believe in Jesus. Does that mean they’re doomed?” the aptly named Church was quoted as asking Baseball Chapel’s chaplain Jon Moeller. “Jon nodded, like, that’s what it meant. My ex-girlfriend! I was like, man, if they only knew. Other religions don’t know any better. It’s up to us to spread the word.”
Shortly after the controversy, Moeller was removed from the team. But the incident nevertheless shone a further light on the tightly knit religious and sports community, whose adherence to biblical scripture brought in healthy financial and political returns, particularly for Baseball Chapel, which since 1973 had become the MLB’s de facto ministerial mainstay. More telling, Moeller was living dual lives: He was an active Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who volunteered as the Nationals chaplain, complicating the interchange between the two entities. It was an interchange purposefully complicated by compromise, as Karina Tanabe explained in the Jewish culture magazine Moment.
For one, it compromised demographic and religious reality. As Emerson journalism professor and former chaplain Donna Halper told Tanabe, “Baseball Chapel doesn’t even represent the average Christian—the majority of American Christians no longer believe the Jews (or other non-Christians) are damned to hell.” Even more damning, it was being paid, rather nicely, to use the MLB and its player as a pulpit for preaching intolerance. Donations have grown by 25 percent since 2003, the year war in Iraq was promoted and launched, and Baseball Chapel has collared a few cool millions for its volunteerism.
In order to access those millions, all staff must swear allegiance “without reservation” to Baseball Chapel’s Statement of Faith, which believes “the Bible, the Old and New Testaments to be equally and in all parts the inspired, infallible Word of God.” That oath extends to the players that Baseball Chapel ministers to, including athletes like Garrett Anderson, Carlos Beltran, Todd Jones, Trot Nixon and more, all of whom have provided testimonials to its official website.
“I don’t dispute his right to teach his Christian beliefs,” Nationals president Tony Tavares told the Washington Post in 2005, shortly after the Church controversy broke. “It’s just the way this was done, turning this into some public pulpit…that’s what troubles me.”
Evidently, it didn’t trouble him too much: Nearly two years later, he opened the Nationals ballpark to Third Coast Sports, who offered to drive up attendance by packaging the baseball game as an appetizer for after-game religious activities, booths and concerts called Faith Night. And when I say religious, I mean Christian. Like the White House itself, there is no room in American pro sports for any other religion. Because Jesus pays off in America like no other prophet.
“If somebody comes to a team owner and says, ‘We can drive an additional five [thousand] to 15,000 people to you, and you have no cost and no risk,’ that’s a no-brainer,” argued Third Coast Sports president Brent High to the Washington Post in 2007. We would not be in 46 markets if we were about the business of offending people. This is no different from Realtors Night or 4-H Night, where they’re attracting a particular demographic. We go to great lengths to avoid being confrontational.”
Not great enough, it seems: After James Dobson’s controversial evangelical non-profit Focus on the Family distributed pamphlets comparing homosexuality to alcoholism during a Faith Night for the Atlanta Braves, it was booted from the next event. That incident and the fact that Third Coast Sports recruits players from the game to provide public testimonials at its Faith Nights complicates the divide between sports, religion and commerce in ways that have yet to be fully measured.
And so it was no surprise to find that Major League Baseball, given its affinity for evangelical Christians, was a passionate supporter of the Bush administration. But in this it was not alone: According to an ESPN analysis, during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the Democratic nominees struggled to pull in over 16 percent of pro athlete donations. No doubt, the jingoism of the Bush administration, and its wars, played a major part in those calculations. And having the war in Iraq, and its peripheral miscarriages of justice and violence, characterized as a religious struggle against Jesus sure didn’t hurt either.
That weakness was capably exploited by the Bush administration, which actively sought out and recruited the religious right for support of its predatory experiment in Babylon. As Damon Linker explained in his 2006 book The Theocons: Secular American Under Siege, the war effort was publicly and theologically justified by Catholic priest and popular First Things author Richard John Neuhaus, American Enterprise Institute operative and Catholic Philosopher Michael Novak, Princeton University professor Robert P. George, and Ethics and Public Policy Center Senior Fellow George Weigel in academia, government and media. Those salesmen can be added to a rather sizeable list of religious figures that had infiltrated mainstream and cable media, from Pat Buchanan to Pat Robertson and beyond, who used their air times as pulpits in service of the Bush administration and, by extension, Jesus himself. And so the teachings of Jesus transformed from paeans to peace into manifestos for violence, oppression and intolerance.
Winner takes all.
“I knew that my God was bigger than his,” said Lieutenant General William Boykin, about Somalia’s Muslim warlord Osman Ali Atto, summing up the soft sell in language that would make Baseball Chapel blush with pride. “I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”
Boykin had a distinct tendency to categorize the War on Terror itself as an apocalyptic religious competition, an easy sell that masqueraded the war’s true geostrategical aim of controlling Iraq’s significant oil reserves and bleeding its populace and private sector as dry as its biblical desert. Boykin’s connections to the mercenary Jonathan Idema, who illegally ran a secret prison in Afghanistan, and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who prosecuted the occupation of Iraq and resigned in riches after its spectacular failure, further complicated his competitive bravado. That Boykin may have integrated the torture and interrogation techniques of Guantanamo Bay, under orders from Rumsfeld, to Abu Ghraib closes our critical circle with resonance. But not as much as Boykins’ speech to the Epicenter 2008 conference in Israel, in which he described the state in which he would like to arrive at the gates of Heaven.
“I want to come skidding in there on all fours,” Boykins sermonized to a standing ovation. “I want to be slipping and sliding and I want to hit the gates of heaven with a bang. And when I stand up and I stand before Christ, I want there to be blood on my knees and my elbows. I want to be covered with mud. And I want to be standing there with a ragged breast plate of righteousness. And a spear in my hand. And I want to say, “Look at me, Jesus. I’ve been in the battle. I’ve been fighting for you.” Ladies and gentlemen, put your armor on and get into battle.” In other words, “I’m a fuckin’ soldier!”
Paid to Suck
“You have to do something in your life that is honorable and not cowardly if you are to live in peace with yourself.” — Larry Brown
There are a lot of people who lie and get away with it, and that’s just a fact. — Donald Rumsfeld
But regardless of the wishes and beliefs of Baseball Chapel or William Boykin, religion has always been used as a smokescreen for more lifelike, lucrative motives, and the occupation of Iraq was no exception. To date, it remains the most hungry of money pits, pulling in more than $600 billion into its jaws and passing it out as suspicious payments to unsavory characters of unimaginable compromise. And that’s just the money on the books: The off-sheet costs skyrocket higher. According to a Washington Post article written in March 2008 by Harvard professor and ex-Commerce Department financial officer Linda Blimes and Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the botched occupation of Iraq will cost three trillion, and counting.
“Others will have to work out the geopolitics,” the two concluded, “but the economics here are clear. Ending the war, or at least moving rapidly to wind it down, would yield major economic dividends.”
It would yield dividends at a time they are needed more than ever. Thanks to excessive deregulation and consumption at the hands of the Bush administration, as well as computerized and proprietary algorithms from hedge funds maintained by all of the major investment banks and most of the minor ones that can best be described as virtual craps tables, the global economy is quickly descending into a nightmare that rivals the Great Depression in lethality. Which is another way of saying that war, as an economic project, was just torture porn of another kind, a perverse stratagem designed to depress and shock, and profit like crazy in the process.
That financial template was repeated ad infinitum across sports and geopolitics without mercy, until the game was upended by that most pernicious of players: reality itself. I call this template, simply, being paid to suck.
A minor if noteworthy example of this practice is venerable pro basketball coach Larry Brown, who commandeered the New York Knicks, still the highest-paid team in pro hoops, to their worst-record ever and was fired after the 2005-2006 season. During his short stint, he pissed off a team of perennially disappointing slackers like Stephon Marbury, soiled the NBA’s most storied franchise, and got bounced out of office by an equally dysfunctional general manager Isaiah Thomas, who would later go on to set his own record of incompetence. This after being crowned a prince of the industry, who won a championship with the underrated Detroit Pistons in the 2003-2004 season and shortly afterward became the highest-paid coach in the league.
But sports and war used to be a game of numbers, and Brown’s were rancid, and illuminating. During his short tenure with the New York Knicks, he won 23 out of 82 games — and walked away with a $28.5 million buyout. That equates to $1.24 million for each paltry victory. Brown may have been paid more to suck than any coach in pro sports history.
“The Knicks failed spectacularly under Brown,” explained the New York Times, “despite his Hall of Fame credentials and a well-earned reputation as a reclamation artist. Brown clashed with his superiors over personnel issues, openly feuded with Stephon Marbury and alienated nearly all of his players.”
Other than spectacular failures, Brown is also known for his evocative homily of indeterminate meaning, “Play the right way,” which he regularly parrots like a mantra, as a 2005 New York Times profile gushed before the Knicks hit the fan. He has used it for over 13 years, as a motivational tool and as an ex post facto critique. Over the course of those years of experience, Brown himself has become the aphorism; it has become so ubiquitous in his speech that it has simply become his speech. Which is why it has tightened around his neck like a noose, ever since he gamed language to hide the reality that his philosophy remains so diaphanous that it cannot be anything other than impoverished.
“The right way. The wrong way,” Howard Beck wrote in the New York Times profile. “In the end, it will be Larry’s Way.”
And so it has become. In that, Brown resembles another high-paid homily machine also let go in 2006, Donald Rumsfeld, whose own quotables were equally mystifying and indefinite. The popular online magazine Slate.com satirized the best of them as poetry, including this all-time classic:
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.
“Rumsfeld’s poetry is paradoxical: It uses playful language to address the most somber subjects: war, terrorism, mortality,” cracks Slate.com’s Hart Seeley. “Much of it is about indirection and evasion: He never faces his subjects head on but weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile.”
Evasion and indirection was not just Brown but also Rumsfeld’s blueprint for spectacular failure. For his part, Brown’s pleas to “Play the right way” translated, as the New York Times illustrated, into “Larry’s Way.” Given that the Knicks performed worse than they did before he arrived, it would be fair to say Larry’s way may have indeed been the right way, but it certainly wasn’t the winning way.
The same goes for Donald Rumsfeld, whose stubborn and lethal self-confidence also got him thrown out on his ass in the same year. That is, like Brown, after alienating himself from the American public and clashing with pretty much everyone except his inner circle, all while overlording Iraq, which went from an assumed quagmire to an undisputed one in three hyperviolent years.
Yet those who may pale at the comparison are correct: Rumsfeld’s failure was much higher, on either side of the ledger. But both nevertheless share a similar guillotine: Their money remains hyperreal, mere information we recognize as numbers across our screen, rather than pure liquidity like cash and blood. (Quick! Visualize a stack of money $28 million high. Now, up that to three trillion.) Unlike Brown, however, Rumsfeld’s real salary was spread far and wide on either side of the public and private sector divide. He profited from playing both sides of the corporate battleground, hopscotching between high-profile government and business positions, armed with suitcases full of handshakes with unsavory characters, theirs and ours.
Rumsfeld came of age, politically speaking, in President Richard Nixon’s administration, serving as the director of Economic Stabilization Program, which passed the Economic Stabilization Act of 1970 and gave the president authority to manipulate salaries and wages, and the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, which Nixon eventually dismantled. Those objectives were concomitant with Rumsfeld’s other duties. Like Brown, Rumsfeld was a master manipulator as well-paid as he was lethal.
“Rummy is tough enough,” Nixon, no fragile flower when it came to political chess matches, reportedly said of the controversial neoconservative. “He’s a ruthless little bastard.”
Rumsfeld’s ruthlessness would come in handy, once he joined the Ford administration as Secretary of Defense and set about initiating Brown-like personnel disputes. He unsettled not just future president George H.W. Bush, who felt like Rumsfeld was trying to push him out of the director’s chair at the Central Intelligence Agency, but also Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who Rumsfeld often undermined in negotiations on armament control. By 1977, he was bleeding between the private and public sectors, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein and glad-handling contracts for Bechtel, G.D. Searle and more.
It wasn’t long until that fateful handshake with Saddam paid off in ways probably even Rumsfeld couldn’t imagine. As of this writing, the cost of the Iraq war is nearing $600 billion, and that’s just costs based on budget authority. From handing out American taxpayer money in duffel bags to hiding billions off the books, Rumsfeld’s war, as the occupation of Iraq is remembered, has repaid failure and rewarded corruption in ways that Brown’s contract couldn’t dream of. “The American-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority could well prove to be the most corrupt administration in history,” wrote The American Conservative’s Philip Girardi in 2005, one year before Rumsfeld would leave public office in disgrace, “At least $20 billion that belonged to the Iraqi people has been wasted, together with hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Exactly how many billions of additional dollars were squandered, stolen, given away, or simply lost will never be known because the deliberate decision by the CPA not to meter oil exports means that no one will ever know how much revenue was generated during 2003 and 2004.”
Brown’s “spectacular failure,” as the New York Times explained, was a stage-managed disaster that came with a hefty price tag. The occupation of Iraq, meanwhile, is disaster capitalism whose bill has yet to be fully tallied, much less paid. There will be no arbitration, when it comes due. Naomi Klein’s book on this subject The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism portrayed these interchangeable spectacular failures and failed spectacles as “the new terra nullius,” or “nobody’s land” in one interpretation of the Roman Law that governed the colonial takeover of so-called unoccupied, unclaimed or uncultivated lands. The doctrine is a kissing cousin to no man’s land, a World War I designation describing not just disputed territory but the vast graveyards of the dead and diseased. The phrase actually reaches back to the 14th century, where it was used to describe the killing fields wherein criminals were executed and left to rot in warning to future offenders, and stretches to the current day, where it is used in pro sports to describe everything from tennis’ back court to crappy field position.
It is this linguistic synergy that knits Brown and Rumsfeld together in compelling ways, especially given the way each highly paid free agent negotiated his way to a victory disguised as failure.
In terms of Iraq, which not too long after the American occupation became a no-man’s-land littered with headless bodies and daily bloodshed, the war was not a search for WMDs or an attempt to spread democracy, pacify the Middle East even secure what’s left of the region’s oil reserves. It was all of that and more, disguised behind a free-market fantasyland that, in the end, couldn’t leave its Green Zone without getting its head blown off by what used to be, when Saddam and Rumsfeld were sharing hand jive, friendly fire.
Viva Voce Viagra!
These unhinged jingoistic and financial stratagems, married to indulgent, mediated masculinity and violence, formed a next-level economic and social arrangement. Let’s call it the 21st-century virility industrial complex, for that is what it is: Excessively bankrolled male energy gone wild.
Before this viral virility took down the American economy as a whole, it started by whittling the market’s corners down to planar perfection in sports and defense, two of the nation’s top economic engines, as well as ones already goosed by an intricate subsystem of gambling and fantasy. From steroids and Viagra to spectacular commercials from the Marines and an American military throwing millions of taxpayer dollars at videogames and weaponry that is mostly good at spectacular failure, pro sports had become an economic house of cards just waiting to be blown away.
In Viagra, it found its most (pardon the pun) potent symbol.
Made up of sildenafil citrate and patented by Pfizer, which donated the maximum amount of $250,000 to the second inauguration of George W. Bush and acquired Searle pharmaceuticals, whose CEO was none other than Donald Rumsfeld from 1977 to 1985, Viagra was initially trialed for treatment of angina. When that approach allegedly faltered, the pharmaceutical giant marketed the drug for treatment of male impotence, which it assigned the sporty title of ED (erectile dysfunction). For a society paranoid about terrorism and symbolically and economically feminized by the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, it was a much-needed erection. By the time Bush took office, Viagra was already clocking a billion in sales a year, and dominating the American market. By the time he left, Pfizer’s lucrative penile payday had competition in the form of Levitra and Cialis, with all three pharma titans hitting bonanzas in the billions.
Pfizer and its rivals did what any sharp marketer hawking male potency would do: Poured millions upon millions into pro sports, specifically the National Football League. In 2002 alone, Pfizer dropped $87 million on the NFL, which for years had regulations in place forbidding deals with pharmaceutical companies, for fear of collusion and corruption. But in the spirit of the Bush administration’s intense militarization and deregulation, the NFL abandoned that time-honored tradition and caved in February 2003, the year the occupation of Iraq began.
”We took a hard look at the industry and saw it was one of the most heavily regulated,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the New York Times in 2003. ”We have become increasingly convinced that pharmaceutical advertising can occur, and does occur, without violating the rules.”
But that is exactly what Pfizer and its sponsored athletes did, indirectly and directly. When it hit the market in 1998, it was presented as an antidote to impotence. By 2008, it was more notoriously known as one of pro sports’ most unregulated performance-enhancing substances.
The convergence was startling, but crept up on pop culture with stealth. Viagra’s first major sponsored athlete was baseball player Rafael Palmeiro, first baseman for George W. Bush’s old team the Texas Rangers. In 2003, the pharmaceutical titan spent millions on both Major League Baseball and Palmeiro, who hit his 500th home run on May 11. But steroid charges dogged him after Jose Canseco alleged in his scandalous 2005 book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, that he personally injected steroids with Palmeiro. Shortly after publication of Canseco’s book, Palmeiro put his foot in his mouth.
“Let me start by telling you this,” Palmeiro told Congress in March 2005, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis, “I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.”
But mere months later, on August 1 2005, the MLB suspended Palmeiro after detecting the steroid stanozol in his system, the same performance-enhancer that cost Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson his 1988 gold medal. By the end of the month, he had played his last baseball game ever.
Palmeiro was but one in a series of superstar disappearing acts that occurred after Congress decided to tackle steroid abuse, culminating in the 2007 Mitchell Report, so named for senator George J. Mitchell, who also, poetically, for our purposes, authored another Mitchell Report in 2001 on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ubiquitous and highly marketed superstars like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa also suspiciously vanished after appearing alongside Palmeiro on Capitol Hill in March 2005. For his part, the one-time home-run king McGwire had stopped playing professionally in 2001, yet his appearance before Congress stuck out like a sore reminder of his past greatness. He was rarely heard from publicly again, unlike Sosa, who soldiered on to play until his retirement in 2008, a year after the Mitchell Report’s explosive release.
Senator Mitchell’s merge of geopolitics and sports worked wonders as a pop-culture distraction. During a period in which all manner of political and economic corruption conspired to doom the American empire, it was not members of the Bush administration who were called to Congress’ carpet to hold forth on torture, warrantless wiretapping, illegal war and other constitutional violations, but athletes like McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro, little fish in the virility industrial complex’s war on weakness.
Another superstar athlete called to Congress was Roger Clemens, whose name was mentioned 82 times in the Mitchell Report. Clemens was accused of substance abuse by New York Yankees strength trainer Brian McNamee, who testified under oath that he injected both Clemens and pitcher Any Pettite, named also in the Mitchell Report, with stanozol. The back-and-forth blew up like a roadside IED, landing on the front pages of mainstream sports media far and wide, given extra juice, pardon the pun, over the fact that Clemens had won Cy Young awards in 2001 and 2004 at an age where most superstars’ skills are on the decline. This particular concern was explained by Clemens agent Randy Hendricks in an 18,000 word statistical explanation that concluded Clemens was not aided by his alleged steroid use. But Hendricks’ defense of his thesis, or viva voce, as the legal and academic industry term it, was rebutted by actual academics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, who analyzed Hendricks’ data and found that “unusual factors may have been at play in producing his excellent late-career statistics.” While other pitchers of the same age were faltering or shredding tendons, Clemens was increasing his efficiency and commanding crazy salaries for it.
To do that, he was accused of using everything from stanozol to human growth hormone. But one substance he was not accused of using to enhance his late-career performance was the one on every sports fan’s screens and stadiums: Viagra. That is, until June 2008.
That is when a source close to the Yankee clubhouse confirmed to the New York Daily News that Clemens was popping Viagra before heading to the mound, joining a growing number of athletes who turned Viagra into what the Daily News called “the hottest drug in the locker room.”
“All my athletes use it,” controversial Bay Area Lab Co-operative (BALCO) founder Victor Conte, who pled guilty to illegal steroid distribution and money-laundering after reportedly supplying disgraced athletes like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi to Marion Jones with performance-enhancing substances, told the Daily News. “It’s bigger than creatine. It’s the biggest product in nutritional supplements.” Its so-called off-label benefits illustrate why Pfizer decided to go the ED route in the first place. According to mounting scientific evidence from universities and organizations studying the lucrative lifestyle drug’s effect on athletes, Viagra can provide increased endurance, especially at high altitudes; deliver oxygen, nutrients and, yes, other performance-enhancers more efficiently to the muscles; and, circularly, counteract the impotence brought on by many of those illicit steroids. Increasing scrutiny of these benefits has caused the World Anti-Doping Agency to fund a new study focused on cheating via Viagra, and brought worldwide attention to the suspicious relationship between pharmaceuticals, sports franchises and superstar athletes. What once looked like a culturally curious symbiosis of pro sports and erectile dysfunction has now, with the passage of time and investigation, come to resemble a premeditated collusion. Where Viagra was once sponsoring leagues like the NFL and MLB and its athletes, it was now legitimizing substance abuse to the tune of billions, with zero oversight.
And so deregulation in sports came to signal a greater deregulation of economies of vastly larger scale, which is saying something considering that pro sports pulls in billions every year and supports a labyrinthine system of industry that stretches from teams and athletes to advertisers, auto manufacturers, fast-food chains and, most importantly, the armed forces themselves.
Game of Death
Like the pharmaceutical industry, the military remains one of pro sports biggest supporters, from videogame-like recruitment commercials for all branches of the armed forces down to fearsome stadium flyovers during games. It’s hard not to feel what Donald Rumsfeld called the “shock and awe” of American military power, standing in baseball’s bleachers as top-flight fighter jets appear out of nowhere to roar overhead. During an Angels-Mariners game, I had to help my cowering mother up from the floor after one flyover caught her by her surprise, terrorized with her fingers in her ears.
“Just imagine what that would be like if bombs were dropping out of those planes,” I joked as she came to her senses, laughing off the heart attack.
It’s hard not to joke about something as serious as the shock and awe of bombing campaigns during sports flyovers, because the polarities and synergies are just that confusing. As it stands, the defense industry commands half of the nation’s annual budget, and much of those billions make their way to the American military’s in-house public relations divisions, each of which farms out hefty sums to advertising agencies, who in turn craft sensational, grabbing visuals designed to get bodies into recruiting stations. It’s exceedingly hard to pin down the full amount the armed forces spends on commercials that air routinely during NFL, NBA, MLB and other competitive spectacles; as of this writing, the armed forces still has not responded to my request for a ballpark figure. But if you add in the military appreciation days, the flyovers and other peripheral defense marketing, it no doubt rivals the gross domestic product of some countries.
But it wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that the military’s marketing millions, numbered annually in the hundreds, are well-spent, As The RAND Corporation’s James N. Dertouzos and Steven Garber explained their 2003 analysis Is Military Advertising Effective? “Ample evidence suggests that reductions in advertising […] play a pivotal role” in reductions of enlistment “propensities.”
In other words, when it comes to the military, advertising is the only game in town.
If heavy expenditures in advertising equal higher recruitment rates, then it would be fair to argue that much of pro sports marketing is annually subsidized by the American armed forces, all of whom field teams that compete for bowl games and other spoils of mediated conflicts of interest. Those conflicts grow more knotted during periods of intense militarization such as ours, although ours doesn’t have any previous historical analogue, given its scale and complexity. According to Dertouzos and Garber’s modest appraisal, the American military spends $100 million annually on advertising, much of that on television and print campaigns, which are designed to specifically encourage recruitment and glamorize service. Aligning the sloganeering of such advertising with sports is an almost seamless process: Popular recruitment slogans like the Army’s “Be All You Can Be” and the Marines’ “The Few, The Proud” are easily married to athletic achievement and prowess.
Given the meteoric rise of the gaming economy, much of that advertising has been packaged to resemble popular first-person shooters like Microsoft’s Halo or literalized merges like America’s Army, which was specifically developed by the U.S. Army in 2002 as a public relations initiative to aid recruitment and released to the public on the Fourth of July after 9/11. Conceived by Colonel Casey Wardynski and managed by the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis (OEMA) at the United States Military Academy in West Point, America’s Army proved, in the words of Wardynski, that “using computer game technology to provide the public a virtual Soldier experience that was engaging, informative and entertaining” was the most important recruiting tool the military could pursue in the 21st century.
One way America’s Army fished for recruits was to track gamers’ stats, and send the best of the best invitations to join the war effort. “America’s Army isn’t merely a game, recruiting device or a public-relations tool, though it is certainly all of those things. It’s also a military aptitude tester,” wrote the late journalist Gary Webb in an exhaustive 2004 Sacramento News and Review analysis called “The Killing Game.” “And it was designed that way from the start.”
Indeed, as Webb argued, America’s Army and other combat simulators had a much easier time selling militarization to the United States and abroad after the 9/11 attacks. “We thought we’d have a lot more problems,” Michael Zyda, director of the think tank at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey that created the game, confessed in an Army report of the game’s astonishing success. “But the country is in this mood where anything the military does is great. … 9/11 sort of assured the success of this game. I’m not sure what kind of reception it would have received otherwise.”
“We are much more comfortable with using entertainment technologies for military training today,” explained Roger Smith, chief scientist and technology officer for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation told Soldiers magazine in September 2008. “As games have become more sophisticated, and as the military has come to understand them better, we have been able to identify better means of leveraging these technologies for serious purposes.”
That means building on gore and war games like Doom and the Unreal Tournament, which feature any numbers of ways to die but skip over the visceral exchanges that occur when weaponry meets flesh. Indeed, America’s Army used the Unreal Engine, Epic Games’ popular gaming environment software, and the Navy even built its own Navy Doom off-shoot. In addition, partnerships with colleges like the University of Southern California and technology stalwarts like NVIDIA, Lucasfilm, Dolby Laboratories, GameSpy Industries and more have complicated what has grown into a billion dollar business hawking the military experience via immersive simulation. But at what cost? Six to eight million dollars, to start, which is what the first iteration of America’s Army cost American taxpayers, although the game itself was given away gratis. (“Citizens. Countries. Video Games. The US Army keeps them all free,” explained the game’s slogan.) How about $45 million, the budget for the Army and USC’s joint partnership Institute for Creative Technologies, which created the 2004 crossover combat simulator Full Spectrum Warrior, or $50 million, which is the amount the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command decided to invest in 2008 for further videogames designed to teach soldiers about combat. How about $100 million, which is how much General Dynamics was paid to create Objective Force Warrior, the Halo-like prototype for the 21st century warrior of the future, built “from the ground up like other sophisticated weapons systems,” as Nick Turse wrote in the TomDispatch essay “Bringing the War Home: The New Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex at War and Play.”
“With the lines between entertainment and war blurring totally,” Turse concluded, “more and more toys are poised to become clandestine combat teaching tools, while an increasing number of weapons are likely to be inspired by toy culture or its makers. What of America’s children in all this? How will they imagine the world through the dazzling set of military training devices now landing in their living rooms, crafted by Hollywood and produced by videogame giants under the watchful eyes of the Pentagon?”
That of course depends on what they find. If they find, as the outcry over America’s Army and other sanctioned games illustrated, that glamorized virtual combat rarely communicates the moral, physical and political fallout of intense combat and violence, then they will go to war and forget to put their heads down in a firefight and come back riddled with post-traumatic stress disorder. That has already happened: According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, over 300,000 troops returning from the War on Terror, only to rejoin it again after too-short stays in the states, are suffering from PTSD, which manifests itself in the form of nightmares, breakdowns, suicides and murders. And those who have bought into the warrior code and sports ethos of toughing it out are often lost in the cultural erasure of humanity from videogames and mediated propaganda and advertising. They learn the hard way that there is still a difference between hyperreality and reality. Quite a few important differences, to be sure.
Webb himself no doubt learned about those differences. Barely a month after the Sacramento News and Review published “The Killing Game,” the controversial yet intrepid journalist was found dead in an apparent suicide; apparent, because evidently Webb shot himself through the head twice, which is exceedingly hard to do. The resultant outcry over the details of Webb’s violent end came to resemble that of Pat Tillman, who like Webb was a California iconoclast willing to speak truth to power and take a bullet for his pains. Like Tillman, Webb was subjected to friendly fire mired in confusion and deception. Unlike Tillman, he was vilified for his war effort.
But these heavily leveraged merges of finance, marketing and gaming in sports and war would have no greater example than the financial implosion that rocked Wall Street and Main Street alike as the Bush administration’s second term came to an end. It redefined the boundaries between hyperreality and reality, mostly by blurring them, in fantasy leagues and Ponzi schemes, and especially in labyrinthine economic stratagems meticulously crafted by deregulated hedge funds trafficking in proprietary algorithms and shock tactics that facilitated the greatest transfer of public wealth to private hands in American history. It was craps, on a grand scale, like so many geopolitical and cultural phenomena of the early 21st century.
And it cost America almost everything it had.