(until of them shall be asked one thing, they romp or doze)
have got it made;
no prob. was ever set them, their poor ol’ jerks
of parents loved them, with deep-freeze, & snacks
would keep a Hindu family-group alive.
Well, so they’re liars & gluttons & cowards: so what?
. . . It’s the Land of Plenty, maybe about to sigh.
Why shouldn’t they terrify
with hegemony Dad (stupido Dad) and teach?
(The tanks of the elders roll, in exercise, on the German plain.)
Even if their sense is to (swill &) die
why don’t they join us, pal, as Texas did
(the oil-mailed arrogant butt), and learn how to speak
modestly, & with exactness, and
. . . like a sense of the country, man? Come off it. Powers,
the fêted traitor, became so in hours,
and the President, ignorant, didn’t even lie.
When the U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was shot down on a spy mission over the Soviet Union, he was supposed to have taken a suicide pill that was issued by the CIA to U-2 pilots, thus avoiding a public international incident. Instead, he bailed out of the plane and was captured, becoming a “fêted traitor” and triggering another infamous Cold War crisis. What was going on back home? Plenty for the kids to eat, three cars, no problems. Spoiled rotten, as the saying goes. This poem is all about the disjunction between the seemingly carefree life of food, cars, the consumerist American Dream on one hand, and the terrifying reality of America at war (again) with another world power, with only the existence of atomic weaponry and their threat of global annihilation keeping the US and the USSR from really going at it. But they were ready: The tanks kept exercising, the planes kept flying in a cat-and-mouse probing, that often broke out into full-bore aerial combat that the public never heard about—until Powers, unwilling to kill himself, brought it all into light of day. For any sensibility aware of irony and absurdity, it was a freaky situation. Welcome to American life in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Sock hops, the Beach Boys, fast cars, candy, and movies at home, and abroad, Migs and Phantoms firing missiles at each other, Cuba and Berlin, Sputnik and Mercury as Cold War symbols of industrial advantage, Bikini Atoll and the Nevada desert aglow with nuclear testing. The only things that brought it home were little kids going through air raid drills at school and the black and yellow Fallout Shelter signs nailed up everywhere. Vietnam changed everything: Now it was war, something you could support or protest. No more denying the facts.
It’s tempting to read this whole situation, as I think B. intends, in a kind of vertical integration: The reality of war and conflict is masked by the appearance of prosperity and happiness, deadly aerial combat is replaced on the front page by malt shops and Disneyland. The American Dream is a fraud, beneath its happy surface there is conflict, and more to the point, the conflict is necessary for the fraudulent image-making. The cultural happiness only matters, is only even tolerated, if there is an underlying agenda for it. If it has propaganda value. Dippy dozing teenagers are permitted because they serve a purpose in camouflaging the strategic war machine. But I tend to think that it’s even more complicated than that. American is big enough and widespread enough that both elements are valid. If lazy teenagers are spoiled enough to afford a car, that’s a reality. Hundreds of thousands of workers in Detroit made that car, and that was the reality of their lives and their livelihoods. A U-2 shot down over Russia is also real—piloted by a man who was one of those lazy teenagers himself just a year or two ago. The Cold War served a rhetorical purpose for the power on both sides, and in fact consumerist prosperity was sometimes upheld as a Cold War weapon in itself. But no one died from that: It was all about image and the rhetorical consolidation of control. But way over there, or else under the mask, however one sees it, there was war, and what a dreadful, sick thing that is. In the end, if war has to happen, then it should never be hidden.