I confess that I did a double take. At 65 mph I sidled up to a loaded semi sporting the heavy red and regal gold logo of Budweiser. What surprised me was that the truck was “autowrapped” from headlight to taillight in the three-color desert camouflage pattern of light tan, pale green, and brown. The “King of Beers” was tricked out in battle dress.
It’s not unusual to see overt military presence around my home in Washington, D.C. Anymore, I hardly notice the anti-aircraft missiles mounted on Humvees around the Pentagon and Capitol or the invasion of discreet security cameras and recording devices at strategic downtown intersections or the new Army recruiting office that sprouted up in a previously abandoned storefront on Georgia Avenue. When I see, though, the dozens of men and women with new prosthetic limbs walking the grounds of Walter Reed Army hospital, I still run cold with shame, and pity, and anger at myself—and all of us—for letting this war happen, for letting it go on.
But it was the desert drab Bud truck that snapped me “awake” (as in 1 Thessalonians 5:6). No doubt the design was part of Anheuser-Busch’s “Here’s to the Heroes” campaign to support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the “For all you do, this Bud’s for you” feel-good attitude is just too much at odds with what we know about Iraq—more than 2,800 American soldiers killed; more than a quarter million Iraqi civilians killed, including as many as 54,000 children; the pornography of torture at Bagram and Abu Ghraib; the rise in soldier divorces and suicides. Will this be accompanied by the pay-per-view execution of Saddam Hussein—hanged by the neck until dead? All I could think was that America has become what, in 17th-century France, was called “a theater of devils” or “a theater of the possessed.” I was haunted by the King of Beers.
THE BUDWEISER AD campaign is nothing new. It’s not inherently evil. Desert camo is both a fashion statement and code for “I support the U.S. military.” However, in the moment I eased alongside that semi with the dun-colored background and eye-catching red and gold logo—would-be emblem of hard work, leisure, pure water, Clydesdales, and the working- class American Dream—the advertisement became a looking glass reflecting what had become grotesque in America, what had twisted in my own soul.
This was not so much the commodification or aesthetization of violence, but the “leisurization” of violence. If we are fighting for freedom, then don’t we deserve a pat on the back? When does this become the mixing of brutality with the reward of good times—violence as something we Americans do after work, with a six-pack of cold ones on the side?
The deformation is not, of course, only in the American soul. I see it when 12-year-old Iraqi boys rejoice at attacks on U.S. convoys or urinate on a fallen statue of Saddam Hussein, or Iraqi men dance around the uniform of an American soldier they claim to have killed.
“As long as the villain is punished and the hero is rewarded,” David Griffith wrote in his recently published book A Good War is Hard to Find, “the violence seems ‘just.’”
It is a hazy line to discuss the evil we do without conflating it with evil we are. Humans are not evil, though acts certainly may be. This struggle is not about disrespecting the troops or bashing America. I mourn for the veterans of this war—both military and civilian—who will be, as James Dickey put it, “furiously closed off from all of us” when they return home. As Griffith reveals in quoting Dickey, the survivors’ most devastating experiences are compartmentalized to prevent psychic fracture. There also will be those whose “compartments” simply don’t hold. Ultimately, this struggle is not “against flesh and blood,” as Paul so eloquently put it in Ephesians, “but against principalities and powers” (6:12).
What are we to do when we first recognize the distorted nightmare we thought was liberation for the oppressed? “The powers that enable evil to carry on,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “are powers given to it by goodness.” How do we act after the shock of glimpsing in the mirror our beautiful selves misshapen by demon-possession?
As Christians we are called upon to exercise the “discernment of spirits” and we are given the capacity to do so. In this way lies hope. But first, reminds theologian William Stringfellow, we must “distinguish and recognize, identify and expose, report and rebuke the power of death incarnate … while [we] also affirm the word of God incarnate in all of life.”
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.