June 12, 2008

"Ain't It Cool?"

Truth: "uncool."

Nineteen-year-old Army Pfc. Aaron J. Ward, a Fort Lewis military policeman whose hometown was San Jacinto, Calif., was killed May 6 in Iraq's Anbar province when his patrol came under enemy fire. - Ranger, sub officer, MP with links to state died in war last month EDITOR'S NOTE: Each month, the P-I remembers the servicemen and servicewomen with ties to Washington who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The American culture of cool has become a nation apart, an alternate-America..."

It was Easter Sunday in 2004 and we were two and a half years into the war. Good Friday evening was one of those nights when, in Southern California, the weather and the combine to create what are rightly called "balmy conditions." Balm, as in a kind of salve to the soul and the skin. The air is warm but not too warm. The skies are clear and the stars seem closer. My then wife and I had just seen some current comic book confection at one of the 20 screen multiplexes that are so numerous in this area that you can see the same movies 15 times within a ten mile radius.

We sat by a large sandstone and marble fountain in the stone circle between the vast theater and the vaster parking lot. It was date night and the beginning of Spring Break for the schools of Orange County. All around us kids from 11 to 18 were whooping and laughing and forming clusters of friends. They were dressed according to the upscale Goth-Surfer/Balkan Refugee dress-code common to the kid culture here on the coast. Most were too young to have tattoos or piercing, but you could see some were already planning where those lifestyle statements would go. They were slim, energetic and heedless of the future. In short, they were just reasonably rich kids in America in 2003. No different now in 2008, seven and a half years into a war they've been trained to hate or ignore.

The war was not and will probably never become these kids' concern. It isn't even something they consider outside of, perhaps, a few classroom exercises of dubious intent or merit. There is no reason they should consider war, nor do I wish that upon them. It isn't, in any real sense, their war. War isn't being asked of us or the affluent kids of Orange County, nor does it seem likely to be. Besides, war isn't what they're into.

They're into creating their own layer on top of our culture of cool. Their variation would be, as these things are these days, a kind of slap-dash cultural collage. It would have a bit of the Beatnik, a Hint of the hippy, a shred of the Skateboarder, an ounce of Outlaw, a portion of Punk, a hunk of Hip-Hop, and, because we were on the California coast, more than a soupcon of Surfer. It would be a melange of the old and outdated that would assert it was unique, that it was relentlessly brand-new. When they were done cooking up their "culture of cool" they would all agree among themselves, "Ain't it cool?"

Their parents, as parents now do, would sigh and pour another drink or drop another Ambien. They'd hope that their children would get through this phase without a drug arrest, a school suspension, a permanent piercing, or a lethal accident on the highways or in the ocean. It was all they asked of them. We were two and a half years into the war and none of the kids of Orange County would fight in it unless they asked for it. All of the parents in Orange County knew their kids were crazy. After all, they were teenagers in high school. Few thought any of their kids were that crazy.

Less than 20 miles south of where we sat that Friday of 2004, there was another kind of youth culture. I saw it for a day the previous January. You don't see the other kind of youth culture very often around here because it doesn't hang out at the malls. You can't see it from the freeways because its center is far back in the hills. It has its own malls and towns and sporting and educational complexes. It doesn't deal in "the culture of cool." It deals in the culture of carnage. It's the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

There are many young people there, some the same age as the kids at the malls to the north, but none of these young people are kids. There's something about daily training with tanks, rifles, heavy machine guns and artillery that puts your childhood as far behind you as the kids at the malls have their childhood still in front of them. Instead of worrying if their dad is going to pay for the new mag-chrome rims for their Escalade, this youth culture worries about the state of readiness of their Apache attack helicopters AH-1 SuperCobra attack helicopters.

The culture of Camp Pendleton isn't cool in the way political fundraisers today feature hip-hop groups and background music composed for the current charlatan of change. The culture of Camp Pendleton despises the culture of cool. The culture here is composed of deeper, abiding and more fundamental things: Duty, Honor, God, Country and The Corps.

There are a lot of people in America and elsewhere that would like nothing better than to deconstruct this culture into oblivion, but, as courageous as they might be in proclaiming this elsewhere, they don't seem to be showing up at the gates or on the grounds of Camp Pendleton to press the issue. They wouldn't because, according to their world-view that arises from spending decades as adolescents, the Marines are just so uncool. Aren't they?

The young men and women that come to this culture do not, we are told, come in the main from the affluent suburbs of America. They come from the ghettos and the working class parts of the country. They come to get a leg up and a ticket out of their origins. They come because they see the Marines as either a career or a means to an education that leads to a career.

Most of the kids that come have had little given to them because they come from families with little to give. Some come to prove themselves. Some come because members of their family came before. Some come because the only other path open to them led to a cell. Some even come out of a deep faith and a deeper sense of duty. Not all that come will be accepted, but none come because it is cool. Before they came they too were once kids in America. They got the big and repeated message that the military in America these days is uncool. They knew it was uncool and they came anyway. Some because they had no other choice. Many because they didn't care about being cool if being cool meant being a kid forever.

There aren't many rich Orange County mall rats that come to the Marines out of high school. Rich kids no longer have this calling. Instead they wander on in their extended childhood though college. Then they drift into the arena where all they will have will be a six-figure income and a few "great moments at work."

Slacking at the mall. "Cool."

These pampered children will learn, if they do not already know, how to play golf and how to drive themselves deep into "middle management." In time, they will form one or two or more families in one or two or more cities or suburbs. Their roots will be shallow, but they will take lots of interesting two-week vacations to comfortable enclaves in Europe or pacified third-world countries.

Towards the end of their eternal adolescence, they'll spend a lot of time on cruise ships where they will be treated 'like royalty.' They'll acquire real estate and hope for "a nice appreciation ride." They will have little to show that they existed but that will be all right. They will use the word 'cool' in conversation and evaluation well into their seventh decade. One of the central social anxieties of their lives will be being discovered being or doing something that their peers will say is "uncool."

In short, they will be such cool Americans that, two and a half years into a war, nothing will be asked of them. That would be, you see, very uncool.

Twenty miles south at Camp Pendleton, everything is being asked of the Americans there. It is asked for in Iraq daily and paid there daily. Our very cool media's job is clear. It is to tell us in hundreds of big and little ways daily of how uncool it is to ask everything of someone. Our media is very cool indeed.

Our media is by default not a "liberal media," but a melange of many businesses and institutions that are staffed by generations of the coolest of the cool in our aging culture of cool. Our media, as every MTV-addled mall rat learns by age 5, is where the really cool jobs are. Rock star or record producer, movie star or director, reporter, anchorman, editor, publisher, video-game designer, web-monkey, DJ, photographer, pundit, columnist -- the positions go on and on and everybody knows, EVERYBODY knows, that the media is where the cool people are.

If you have a job in the media you go to the cool parties. You live in the cool towns driving the cool cars. You eat the cool foods in the cool restaurants where everybody knows your name and you get the cool table next to what passes for this week's cool celebrity du jour. You subscribe to the cool magazines and if you haven't had your picture in one yet, your turn is on the way.

If you have a job in the media you have the cool summer place. Your haircut is cool. Your computer is cool. Your friends are cool. Even your dog is cool. You wear the cool clothes, and you are absolutely up-to-the-nanosecond on what is cool now and what will be cooler tomorrow.

And you also know that that which is not of the culture of cool is uncool.

What is uncool today is, of course, the war. War's been uncool to these eternal cool kids and their kids since about 1962 and, except for a brief six month period after September 11, 2001, war is uncool now.

War's uncool because, well, it is "unhealthy for children and other living things" goes the party line in the culture of cool. This war is especially uncool because it is being run by uncool people and the uncoolest President ever.

At bottom, war is uncool because it is one of the big things that threatens to undo all the great parties and smooth lifestyles promised and delivered by the media-made culture of cool. And how does war threaten this? War, real war, actually asks something of the people of a nation as a whole people. It asks them to sacrifice their blood and their treasure and their cool attitudes and their endless summers. It asks, in the parlance of the Marine Corps, that "all give some and that some give all."

The American culture of cool has become a nation apart, an alternate-America that looks to the real America as merely some mechanism set up to deliver the many features and benefits of America to the culture of cool without question, by divine right of media.

The American culture of cool is not into giving back anything they have taken from the culture at large. The culture of cool is not a giving culture, it is an taking culture. Anything it chooses to have is taken in and used to improve the lot of those within the culture of cool. That which is not cool it seeks to either use or destroy depending on whether or not it advances the culture of cool and the lifestyles of those that exist within it.

The American culture of cool sees itself as the real soul and real intelligence of America, even as it actually rides on the broad shoulders of America like some strangling old man of the sea that, once taken up, refuses to get down. It sees itself as the engine responsible for making the culture of America continually new, even as it only recycles one empty cultural container after another through the battered green bins of its rigid internal codes and fashions to pop them out as 'new, improved and even more impossibly hip.'

Regardless of the shiny gift wrap of the cool advertising and marketing agencies that have taken to spot-welding vintage rock and roll and the latest pop or sports sensation's face onto their shabby garage sale goods, we seldom see, hear, or read anything today that is not either a remake, a sequel, or an allusion to the cool things of yesteryear. The same holds true for the politics of cool. This is confirmed in a brief review of the lamentable Democratic primaries of this year.

During the many months of this excruciating ritual, what was once a proud and progressive party offered up nearly a dozen cardboard candidates. When it was all over, the party chose the one candidate that sounded the most like, posed the most like, and sported the updated haircut of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Camelot Redux because JFK was, as the culture of cool constantly reminds us, the coolest President ever. And this iteration comes complete with a tan. How cool is that?

"Cool" guy.

The only sort-of uncool thing about him was that he smokes. But he's cool still in that he is trying to give it up, to release himself from the uncool grip of Joe Camel and Big Tobacco. It's cool to be a victim of "Big Something-or-Other." It's not cool to fight against the country's sworn enemies.

"Uncool" guy.

Yesterday I saw a photograph fresh from the war in Iraq. There aren't all that many photographs from Iraq these days. It's uncool that we're winning, so you don't here much about it. It's an uncool country in an uncool part of the world where American soldiers are still fighting and dying to cool it out.

Prayer: "Very uncool."

The photograph was taken in a hanger at a military base. It shows a group of young, uncool American Marines kneeling in a tight circle on the ground in prayer. Prayer. How totally uncool.

When you look closer at the photograph you notice that extending out from within the circle of kneeling and praying Marines are the legs of a dying or dead comrade in arms. Probably a very young comrade, not too distant in age from the kids laughing and playing in front of the multiplex on a balmy night in Orange County a world away.

How uncool this man was to die for his country and his comrades. How uncool is the effort to liberate a country mired in the morass of the middle ages, when you could just stay home and play video games. How uncool to take the war to an enemy that has sworn to kill Americans wholesale and has done so. How very, very uncool.

Now this Marine will never have a shot at working in the mail room of a movie studio, a record company, or a publishing house. All this Marine has now as he recedes into death are the prayers of those Marines who trained and fought beside him. That and a military funeral and a folded flag given to his family. Prayers. Funerals. Folded flags. These things are very uncool as the media-made captions on these photographs will seek to remind you. Very uncool.

Meanwhile, back at The Mall of America, the circus continues. Ain't it cool?

Posted by Vanderleun at June 12, 2008 11:48 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

That close-up picture of the soldier with the cigarette in his mouth was published a couple of years ago in the MSM (Time magazine, maybe) and I remember complaints because of the cigarette: said the pious complainers, 'He's setting a bad example.' I was speechless at the shallowness.

Posted by: Retread at June 12, 2008 12:47 PM

Some people complained to Lincoln that Grant, his most successful general-in-chief, was a heavy drinker. Lincoln replied, "find out what brand of whiskey he drinks, then send a case to each of my other generals."

In previous wars, we used to send free ciggies to the troops. Maybe we should start agian.

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at June 12, 2008 1:34 PM

I wrote some time ago about my inability to understand the attractions of "cool." One of my commenters called "cool" another way of enjoying ennui." I think of it as the "gray life."

Of course, it takes more than passion -- of any sort -- to elicit the willingness to dedicate one's life to the service of one's country. That takes values and a compelling moral vision...things that appear to be unable to germinate in mental soil saturated with "cool."

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at June 12, 2008 2:14 PM

If you can be cool under fire, all that other "cool" stuff is revealed for the fraud that it is.

Posted by: mike anderson at June 12, 2008 2:45 PM

The greatest days of this country are behind us. I know, it's been said before... even directed at the kids who were jitterbugging while other kids caught bullets at Normandy. We tend to remember the good and forget the bad, and the country has always been going to hell in a glittery handbasket, and there will always be millions who will jump in and party all the way down.

But this isn't an "unpopular" war in Vietnam. This is a war MADE "unpopular" by the media and the opportunistic whores of the Democratic Party. It is a war brought by the screaming suicidal crazies of radical Islam. It is a war gleefully mis-planned and mis-fought by the opportunistic whores of the Republican party.

I didn't want this war to come, but we are in it. We have to win it. As bad and as rotten as this culture is, it must survive.

Posted by: Cynyr at June 12, 2008 3:00 PM

Some of the cool kids at the mall might be Marines now. People in their time off always look superficial. Most fun looks that way, often it is. Absolute heroes have been known to go to bars and get drunk. Get into fights, of all things. It doesn't look like virtue, or sacrifice. It's time off.

May the Lord bless and protect those who fight terrorism all over the world, and especially that warrior lying on the ground in the photo.

Posted by: Fred at June 12, 2008 3:00 PM

I'm queasy with revulsion and grief. What an incredibly powerful piece.

Posted by: Cathy Wilson at June 12, 2008 3:11 PM

Of course those young men are heroes - especially the ones like the one lying on the ground. Of course they should be respected. The only trouble is that they are fighting and dying for the sake of the political careers (and business profits) of, and at the command of, old men at home who aren't fit to lick their boots clean.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at June 12, 2008 3:59 PM

Fletcher, they are fighting to defeat fascists. And also so that shallow-minded fools can prate about "no war for oil" and "make music not war".

Posted by: pst314 at June 12, 2008 7:02 PM

Roderick Kelly:

There is a story similar to that about Grant, but less well known, about Major George Croghan. During the War of 1812, Croghan held Fort Stephenson in Ohio with a force of a hundred and sixty men against a besieging force of three or four thousand British and Indians. Years later, he was about to be court-martialed for being drunk on duty during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Told of the court-martial, Jackson "listened impatiently to the information, but heard it through, and then he laid down his paper, rose from his chair, smote the table with his clenched fist, and, with his proverbial energy, declared: 'Those proceedings of the courtmartial shall be stopped, sir. George Croghan shall get drunk every day of his life if he wants to, and by the Eternal the United States shall pay for the whiskey.'" How far we have fallen.

Posted by: Frederick at June 12, 2008 7:03 PM

Thanks for the piece, Gerard.

I'm beginning to wonder if this country deserves these brave people. Perhaps Steyn is right and Europe will die soon enough. Look what the left is doing to him for posing the idea. Will we soon be surrounded?

We owe our current military even more respect than "the greatest generation". Because that generation believed it very cool to be fighting for Western Civilization and ideals. And to keep the hordes from our shores. Now it seems to be like "who the hell gives a s**t".

My gut feeling right after 9/11 was that the Democrats would take every advantage and they didn't disappoint. I have a few relatives in the military and my advise to them if Obama is elected is to get out. "Progressive" Democrats got our military people killed in the 20th century by like 5-1.

Bad odds.

Posted by: JD at June 12, 2008 8:20 PM

Oh, Gerard, you make me weep and grieve - however, it is not you that makes me do these things, it is the awful truth about which you write so beautifully. Thank you!

Posted by: Joanne at June 12, 2008 9:51 PM

The cool life. The only problem with it is it's a mile wide and an inch deep.

Last year my old Navy squadron that flew in Vietnam had its first ever reunion. I was amazed at the people who attended. Yes, a few pilots were there, but the bulk of the attendees were former enlisted men who, for the most part, had served 4 to 8 years on active duty. Most of them had gone on to successful civilian careers, some building very successful businesses. In talking with them about their Navy days, I was struck by the fact that, almost without exception, their time in the Navy had been the highlight of their life. No where in civilian life had they found the sense of belonging, of commitment, of being a part of something that was bigger than them. They all raved about the "can do" spirit that our squadron had. The way we put airplanes back in the air using duct tape, baling wire, jury-rigged parts, and good old American ingenuity. The long days, weeks, and months at sea were remembered fondly, almost as a badge of honor.

I've thought a lot about that reunion and realize that those men represent the end of an era. These men all joined the Navy rather than be drafted. Had there been no draft it's likely most of them would not have opted to serve. But they did, and now, in the twilight of their lives, the memories warm their hearts and give them a feeling they did something worth doing. Their lives are deeper and more meaningful because of that service.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at June 12, 2008 9:55 PM

As usual, you hit the nail squarely.

I offer my own, small standing ovation to you.

Posted by: WJB at June 13, 2008 12:26 AM

This Essay hit a nerve perfectly. Fantastically well done! The pictures were well choosen, too. It deserves a wide readership.

I second JD's opinion that we owe today's army as much respect as the WWII heroes.

May I humbly add to your thoughts...In my opinion, the cultural problem is bigger than the War - although the War's sacrafices made by the few for the many certainly provides the starkest contrast.

I think the cultural problem can be extended to a culture of not just "cool," it's about a culture of "easy." The culture values luxury, but does not value sacrifice. An obvious recent example is about how people buy homes. Not too long ago, it was about saving for the down payment. Today, however, it's all about buying the biggest house - even if it is beyond your means. When the situation gets bad, they expect the government to bail them out. There is no shame about side-stepping sacrific and doing what's easy.

Posted by: Stevend at June 13, 2008 6:47 AM

Excellent piece, Mr. V.

The problem is cultural. Since the "enlightenment", we in the West have been living off the accumulated cultural capital left over from Christendom. Now that capital is beginning to run out. Oh, the Truth is still the Truth; it's just that no one believes it any more.

The only hope the West has left is a revival of culture, which will entail a revival of Christendom. God works miracles; perhaps this will happen. Perhaps a Charles Martel will arise, rally us Franks to victory over the Muslims, and found a new line of leaders. Perhaps a new Charlemagne will arise from that line and unite the West once more beneath Altar and Throne.

If, however, it is God's will that we suffer the same fate as the empires before ours, then we will be trodden under — by Muzis on one hand, by technoidolaters on the other. My little boy may face the choice of life as a ninth-century Kaffir or a pseudo-life as a file uploaded in some data bank. May God's Will be done.

I am going to stay optimistic. Chistendom can be revived — not through political action, but by fulfilling the Great Commission with both word and deed. Good people create good culture, from which springs good government. By living the words of Our Lord, we have the hope of becoming good people; therefore, it is imperative that we concentrate all our energies on doing so. It's salt, light, and leaven that will defeat the Conspiracy.

One minor quibble: the U.S. Marine Corps does not operate the AH-64 Apache helicopter; the U.S. Army does. The Marines fly the AH-1 SuperCobra attack chopper.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Plymouth Belevedere at June 13, 2008 7:34 PM

Thanks for the correction. Noted and made.

Posted by: vanderleun at June 13, 2008 7:49 PM

And sincere thanks for the thoughtful and cheering comment too.

Posted by: vanderleun at June 13, 2008 7:51 PM

You're welcome. Thanks in return for the hours of free entertainment (and occasional enlightenment).

Posted by: B-chan at June 14, 2008 8:11 AM

Thanks, I needed that.

Semper Fi.

Posted by: Damian at June 15, 2008 1:57 AM

I will be honest with you.

I look at how few soldiers there are, and how many "cool kids" there are, and I almost hope we lose the war on terror -- because very single one of those goddamned contemptible "cool kids" deserves to die screaming in fear and pain.

They have never known hardship. They have never believed in anything strongly enough to be willing to fight for it. They are weak, apathetic, not even decisive enough to be actively evil. They're hardly even ALIVE, for f__k's sake.

If you've read Revelation, you know the fate that awaited the church in Laodicea. We are all Laodiceans now.

Posted by: Jake Was Here at June 17, 2008 11:06 PM

re: GV's post: Fuckin' A!!

Posted by: Jim Rutt at July 19, 2008 9:28 AM

Dear Gail or Whomever,
I guess that during some long forgotten moment I must have screwed you or screwed you over -- or perhaps both. In which case I apologize.

As to the rest I don't recall anything called Popcorn Books (a bad title at any rate), nor six figure incomes in my 20s 30s 40s mostly 50s... believe me, I saw the checks.

As for the draft, I assure you I never -- or at any other time -- dropped acid for 3 days. Didn't know it was possible.

As for the rest, all I can say is I hope you, whomever you are, are living well and happy in the Land of the Formerly Cute.

Posted by: vanderleun at January 26, 2009 12:26 PM