Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Go East, Young Man

Anybody who’s travelled abroad knows just how vulgar and obnoxious Americans can sound. It really is embarrassing. I was sitting in a nice little restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia once, eating shish kabobs and getting quietly toasted, when suddenly a loud, nasally, distinctly American voice rose sharply above the din: “Ewww, I’m not going to eat that, there’s too much fat on it!”

It felt like somebody sawing through your spine, and I never wanted to go home again. I came from a nation of three hundred million people who sounded like that? Oh, the horror, the horror

(I’m sure I sound just as bad, by the way. I’m a homegrown American, too. Moreover, I’m originally from LA — the worst of the species!)

I thought about this when I read the following story about our military base in Bagram, Afghanistan. It’s a little city really, complete with fast-food joints, beauty salons and a Harley Davidson dealership. Americans, both military and civilian, live the lives of a privileged over-class, like members of the nineteenth century British Raj, where they are able to indulge in all the vapid pleasures of contemporary American life while being serviced by dark-skinned coolies. The ugly American just got uglier. It’s obscene:

There are at least 5,000 civilians on base working for companies contracted by the military, such as Kellog, Brown & Root (KBR) and Presidential Aviation, whose pilots still lounge around with “Blackwater Aviation” marked on their jackets — a name laden with controversy since its operations in Iraq.

Multi-course meals are cooked up by KBR costing what a US military spokesman said is 28 dollars per head per meal, more than most Afghans earn a month.

Some nights the fare includes steaks and crab legs, with most of the food flown in more than 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) from the United States.

KBR employees also collect the trash, clean the toilets, provide a laundry service and supply fuel to aircraft -- doing just about anything that needs to be done without the use of a weapon or military equipment.

Under the supervision of KBR managers, Afghans do most of the menial work. There are also Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Indians, Kyrgyz, Nepalese, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Tajiks and Uzbeks, working as labourers and service staff.

Here’s the best part:
Alcohol may be banned, in keeping with US military policy, but there is no shortage of recreation.

Special guests are flown in — the actor Gary Sinise and his band played a concert recently — while Kyrgyz women offer soldiers eight-dollar haircuts and full-body massages at 20 dollars an hour at a popular beauty salon.

The PX facility -- a sort of shopping mall built out of shipping containers and plywood -- has a supermarket, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Green Beans coffeeshop open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Other shops sell sports clothing, jewellery, “Afghan apparel” and souvenirs and cell phones. The Harley Davidson dealership says it sells around four motorcycles a month to US servicemen.
You can eat steak and crab legs, get a ‘massage’ from a Kyrgyz woman for only twenty bucks an hour, and buy quaint Afghan apparel for the wife and kids back home. When you consider that this is being subsidized by US taxpayers at a time of double-digit unemployment, it’s beyond disgraceful. We’re sliding into the poor house while propping up a tiny, imperial ruling class in Afghanistan who’s rocking out to Gary Sinise (!?!) and buzzing around on Harley Davidsons yelling “boo-yah” to each other.

(By the way, is it boo-yah, hoo-yah, or some garbled permutation of both? No matter. It doesn’t befit the demeanor of a noble or liberating army; it’s the bellicose war-cry of drunken frat boys at a college football game. It’s thuggish and arrogant. If I was an Afghan who heard it, I’d run straight to the hills and join the resistance, even if it meant losing my job at the Pizza Hut on base.)

History will not be kind to us, and it shouldn’t be. We’re letting our own cities die while building gigantic imperial outposts that are monuments to all of our worst traits: militarism, arrogance, commercialism, gross immaturity and bad taste. A people this crass and corrupt probably can’t be saved. Sometimes I wonder if we even deserve to be.

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