“‘There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism‘” (Walter Benjamin Illuminations)
William Burroughs’ annotated Boys Scout’s manual has been reissued, and I am waiting for it to arrive so I can have another go a trying to reconcile the whole boy scout thing. Militarism in the blood by dint of generations of just doing what kids do when their fathers did it before them. The dodgy old hyphenated, Colin Baden-Powell had invented the concentration camp in Mafeking during the Boer War too. Can’t say a Boy Scout history is a reason to be proud. I first heard of the Burroughs manual from Mick T, so I rifled through an old travel diary into which a news clipping was folded. It included a photograph of five young Americans in combat gear beside a ‘Homeland Security’ bus. From the front page of the New York Times I collected it on May 13 2009 when last visiting Mick in New York. The image caught my eye and I recall this was the same day when newly discovered atrocity photos from CIA ‘facilities’ in Afghanistan and Iraq were to be published but were censored so as to avoid undermining the war effort and the troops at the front.[i] Anxious excuses were conjured for spin and impression management… Instead, we got the unbelievable shot of Explorer scouts tooled up for the kill.
The Explorers program, a coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America that began 60 years ago, is training thousands of young people in skills used to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence — an intense ratcheting up of one of the group’s long-time missions to prepare youths for more traditional jobs as police officers and fire-fighters. Rereading the text ten years on is bracing, and Burroughs does not help the dark forebodings of the text.
“This is about being a true-blooded American guy and girl,” said A. J. Lowenthal, a sheriff’s deputy here in Imperial County, whose life clock, he says, is set around the Explorers events he helps run. “It fits right in with the honor and bravery of the Boy Scouts.” (New York Times, 13 May 2009)
Blocking the atrocity images, then president Obama said he would fight any release of the new set of detention images,[ii] backpeddling from an earlier ‘release them all’ position after a word from Pentagon chiefs. This old strategy or submerging truth is reported on the same front page as the scouting story). But the bus picture contains a curious quirky little detail. Look at the line of action-figure scouts in the shot. The very last one doesn’t seem to think the situation is all that real. A big grin on his face, forgetting the seriousness of the security role-play; has he tapped his colleague on the shoulder to say he likes his combat trousers? ‘Dude, I got these on special at ‘Old Navy” says his colleague. ‘Awesome’. I wonder if there is perhaps-possibly-maybe a little chink of critique, on the part of the New York Times’ photographer or picture editor in this edge-of-the-image smile? Such good terror-fighting teeth too. I would ‘hope’ we read this scene against the grain. ‘Yes we can’.
The article offers a great many other howlers – including strange juxtapositions: one such follows on from the news that neophyte Explorer Cathy is ‘attracted by the guns’ and says: “I like shooting them … I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.” We then get the observation that the police who supervise this ‘training’ have been exploring in their own perversions: “There have been numerous cases over the last three decades in which police officers supervising Explorers have been charged, in civil and criminal cases, with sexually abusing them”.
It seems though we are safe. This is after all only a role-playing game, with Arab dress-ups and other harmless pantomime fun. We are assured that ‘the training … is not intended to be applied outside the simulated Explorer setting’. OK.
Meanwhile, collected from the same paper, another photograph of another line of troops had caught my eye – commemorating the body of a soldier being returned to the US. RIP Michael P Yates, killed by one of his own in the counselling tent.[iii] The televised reporting of the return of troop bodies was of course suppressed by the previous President, Bush W, but the correspondence between the line of Explorer scouts and the solemn line of the troops in the second picture is poignant. (The death toll of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan topped 5000 soon after). This picture too appears a few pages before a full page ad taken out by a right wing group, suitably named the ‘Torture Truth Project’ that condemns those who would embarrass the US internationally by mentioning the ‘only three’ detainees that endured the notorious torture technique known as water boarding. The text of the ad takes on its own special rhetoric when it tortures the truth by warning that ‘we are losing the goodwill of people across the world’. Welcome to the USA today, in the New York Times.
The Scouts, as spawn of Sir Colin Baden-Powell, cannot be disassociated from the logic that developed the detention camp at Mafeking. Be Prepared. I remember this slogan and the implication of youthful disciplining, as is surely true for anyone who was a scout (sure, it was mostly fun of course, smoking behind the troop hall). My grandfather in the UK and father in the Ukraine were also enthusiastic adventurers. William Burroughs might have been a safer bet as father figure.
[i] New York Times, 13 May 2009
[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/14/us/politics/14photos.html?scp=6&sq=obama&st=cse accessed 13 May 2009
[iii] curiously, the image is not reproduced in the online version of the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/14/us/14victims.html accessed October 20 2009.