May 2-8, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Political Elite

By Peter Byrne

On a rainy night in late April, I sat in the Tomales Town Hall watching a live theater troupe perform a play about the Vietnam war called A Piece of My Heart. Normally, I do not attend live theater. Retread Broadway scripts bore me to curses and commercial actors creep me out. Nor do I watch television shows. (Well, I did rent a video of The Sopranos once and was neither shocked nor amused to see that our violence-sucking society considers murder-for-profit and snarling misogyny to be a humorous form of entertainment.)

I avoid television news; it gives me gas. But I am marginally well-informed, thanks to the snippets of real life that filter through our thought-controlled Internet. And I read lots of those interesting books that tells me to buy. For example, I recently finished C. Wright Mill's classic 1956 study of the military-industrial-political complex, The Power Elite. We'll talk about that in a minute.

So there I was, sitting on a cold metal folding chair in the drafty town hall of a tiny town on a wet night with a dozen others watching a true-life play about American nurses and soldiers getting the shaft in Vietnam. A Piece of My Heart was first produced in New York City in 1991. The song-filled drama, written by Shirley Lauro, opened for a short run in Point Reyes Station a few weeks ago. But Tina Taylor, the play's director, tells me that her local newspaper, the Point Reyes Light, owned and operated by Robert Plotkin, did not write a story about the community-produced event nor review it nor print any of several letters to the editor about the play that readers sent in.

In response, Plotkin told me, "We review almost no plays. Sometimes we run it in the calendar section. When we have an art critic, as we did last summer, our art coverage goes up. But amateur reviews are lousy."

I thought the antiwar play was extraordinarily timely, and I applaud the gutsy cast for raising their voices to expose the shame of warring on Vietnam and, by implication, Iraq and Afghanistan. Taylor and her troupe want to tour local high schools with the play. They hope seeing it will discourage North Bay youth from enlisting in the armed forces only to be chewed up and spit out after "serving" their country. My main criticism of the play is that it does not search for--nor find any meaningful analysis of--why the United States killed 2 million Vietnamese civilians before they finally defeated us on the battlefield.

Playwright Lauro throws a few rhetorical barbs at warlike males as a group, as if American females are not just as bloodthirsty as their mates, and rants a bit about "the brass," without telling us who "the brass" are. In short, the play has pathos a-plenty, but lacks tragic stature, due, in large part, to its failure to acknowledge that the Vietnamese side of the struggle was a war of liberation against foreign invaders.

And that brings us back to The Power Elite. In it, Mills systematically lays out how the post-WW II military-scientific bureaucracy, multinational corporations and the "political directorate" combined into a profit-seeking elite that runs America as a permanent war economy. Mills foresaw, several generations ago, that much of American culture, education, journalism and our very thought processes have been militarized: "Peace is no longer serious; only war is serious. Every man and every nation is either friend or foe, and the idea of enmity becomes mechanical, massive and without genuine passion."

The military-industrial publicity machine, observes Mills, "plant[s its] metaphysics firmly among the population at large," relying upon "the absence of opposition to [its program] . . . portraying the armed forces in a manner attractive to civilians" and developing "a cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military."

This is a profound broadcast by Mills over the chasm of a half-century. Since then, we have degenerated to the point where we shrug off presidentially ordered torture, officially sanctioned kidnappings, indefinite detentions and the daily slaughter of innocents as merely another installment of The Sopranos. But the Dance Palace's heart-felt antiwar production stood out in the poisoned cultural atmosphere we breath. Mass media suffocates us intellectually and scorches our hearts with a cultural diet that promotes consumption, narcissism and the blind eye.

Mills warned us: "American militarism, in fully developed form, would mean the triumph in all areas of life of the military metaphysic, and hence the subordination to it of all other ways of life."

I salute Dance Palace for raising a small voice against the tide.

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