Ralph E. Melcher
I sit peacefully in the visitors center at Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri's ongoing experiment in urban design, located snugly on the edge of a mesa overlooking a beautiful canyon in the Arizona desert about 50 miles above Scottsdale. I haven't watched a television or listened to a radio broadcast in three days. The closest I've gotten to the news has been on newspaper front pages peeking out of machine windows outside of restaurants and gas stations. A cursory glance at the headlines gives one the general drift of things, particularly if one is old enough to have seen this particular drift before. The troops are still stuck so more are being sent. Vows by Bush and Blair and Saddam that their forces will endure and be victorious. Bodies of dead Iraqi's proudly displayed in full desert colors.
Yesterday my son Gabriel and I passed among the long broken logs of wood turned to rock in the Petrified Forest. Scattered across ridges in shattered sections resembling the vertebrae of giants, these skeletons tell a story in which all the works of humanity, including wars, are a quickly passing instant. Gabe just turned twelve and it is his spring break and we both needed to escape from the low urban clouds of war fog. Among these skeletons of the distant biological past I reflected on my own memories of being twelve, when I had nightmares of atomic bombs falling on my school and home in Cleveland. The biggest tragedy of war is that it intrudes upon every thought and action. At Arcosanti the most important development is that construction on the second section of one of the main apses proceeds around the graceful arch of the performance center. All of the apartments face in a half circle toward the place where the sun rises. In the winter the low sun warms the whole space and in the summer an artificial waterfall cools the audience and stage area and dwellings.
I find myself speculating out loud that perhaps one day humans will devote themselves to working on things like this that offer new possibilities to the world, rather than drowning in the mechanical behavior of wars. Gabriel asks me what I mean. I tell him that Arcosanti is an embodiment of thought and spirit poured into concrete form. Imagination realized in circles and vaulted arches and round windows and painted tiles. Wandering among these shapes it's possible to experience a doorway opening into alternative dimensions, where humans pursue a future apart from the infantile obsessions that lead us into fighting and killing.
Emerging as a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright in the early thirties, Paolo Soleri infused the modernist methods of architecture with a spiritual and philosophical vision reaffirming the evolutionary theories of Tielhard de Chardin. All of matter and all of life, Chardin proposed, tends toward both increased complexity and miniaturization. As the human brain and body incorporates a vast array of functions and possibilities into a compact and efficient container so the products of human invention become more complex and more compact. As the computer chip grows more complex and works at faster speeds it also becomes smaller and the electronic signals have less distance to cross from one connection to another. As the human population increases, our cities and our dwellings must follow this trend toward miniaturization if we are to survive on a limited planetary surface.
Arcosanti is a prototype of the city in the image of an efficient biological organism. Rather than sprawling out over land that could be better used for the replenishment of nature, Soleri's city leaves a small footprint on the earth. It's functions are centralized around human activity rather than designed to support our culture of the automobile. Although Arcosanti, funded completely through donations and the sale of art, is only 3 percent complete (eventually the design would house 500,000 people), all of the fundamental elements are present. One can experience what it would be like to live in a city of human dimension. Walking among these buildings and arches and pools I experience something that transcends the present in a way that makes the current state of civilization look like the struggle of a failing race of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs aren't people, but the containers we have come to inhabit, dominated by machines, dependent on oil, covered with asphalt. In a modern city like Phoenix or Denver humans are more or less 'packaged' and set among the uniform sprawl that covers the landscape, breeding distance between people. The loss of real community built around real human needs is compensated for by an increasing dependence on mass media.
From the visitor center enormous round windows look out in three directions over the expanse of high desert landscape. Gabriel and I sit and read, or we talk beneath the balcony listening to the sound of brass bells in the gallery above, or watch the interaction of residents. People have come from all around the world to learn and take part in the experiment and construction. Never in this place do I feel separated from the natural world. It occurs to me that modern people aren't ready for this. I look out at the landscape and realize that the interactions and conversations we are having here are only small beginnings in an enormous transformation. So much must take place before we can all exist together in close quarters without the mediation of the forces that now own and manage the means of our communication and living. In these times humans need to feel that natural forces are under strict control, so we've constructed a technology out of that need. We've put people of very limited vision in charge of keeping our peace within all of the complexity. As complexity increases the peace grows strained. Trying so hard to maintain order people have replaced simple human compassion with an exaggerated sense of importance and responsibility.
Now, the incorporation and empowerment of these 'hollow men' has brought us all into a theater of war. Humans act on automatic, out of some primitive howling need for revenge. They are taken advantage of by those who would reshape the world in their own image of greed and power. America the beautiful becomes America the maniacal. Even here in this canyon below the mesa one can't avoid being conscious of the obscenity of what's taking place. For this time, however, I enjoy a hint of a better future with my son, grateful that the generations will leave him something that reflects our higher nature.
As the war advances it becomes difficult to separate information from noise: truth falls to spin and news is almost entirely replaced by propaganda. It's hardly worth reading beyond the headlines anymore in the mainstream press. My email is filled with dozens of messages from anti-war and environmental groups and dozens more forwarded from friends and relations, mostly angry and committed to looking for a way to penetrate the falling media darkness.
Out here a flock of crows flying across the river stands out against the rocks like semaphore in a fantasy of time. The piled volcanic boulders across the way look almost as if they could be home to dragons. My thoughts keep crossing the boundaries of time. We are like prophets, getting a glimpse of the possibilities of the future. Like a prophet who comes to a new country's borders, it may be that we will never be able to make it across. Will America, that has made possible so much of the innovation and invention necessary to design a better life, ever make it to the promised land?
It has been said often that in the fog of war truth is the first casualty. I'm watching a long rerun of a scenario that shaped my own generation: the Vietnam war, where Americans similarly appointed ourselves the Virtuous Guardians of the World against the scourge of an "evil empire." Then too, in the name of freedom and liberation we proceeded to scorch the earth, turning populations into refugees, exhibiting darker and darker aspects of the shadows lurking at the core of who we are. We are a nation, after all, like most others, born out of blood and atrocity, committed upon one another and on those who stood in our way. More than many we hold a fanciful idea that we have always worn the white hats as we turned our enemies into fertilizer.
The voice of the Pentagon tells us that things are going according to plan. Every civilian and military casualty has been planned for. Many thousands have died and are yet to die, but not to worry, we are told that all of this has been foreseen. Fingers are pointed. Asses are covered. This is supposed to reassure us. The Iraqi military tells its people the same. The networks merely repeat the military. Embedded reporters, like the soldiers in the field whom they shadow, have no real idea what's going on outside of the closeted metal cans and convoys that take them into the desert. Independent reporters wander here and there, seeing only small parts of a greater confusing picture. Retired Generals fill the news shows with voices of supposed experience, telling us one thing. Military analysts, fat on theories, tell us another. No one, other than an occasional loose cannon, quickly silenced, is willing to entertain the idea that maybe we have once again screwed up as a nation, getting caught up in our own megalomaniac fantasy.
I attempt to assemble crumbs of information into a picture of what is truly unfolding. As far as I can tell from all the crossing signals, our army is more or less stuck in the desert, caught between military and political contingencies. It seems that due to political contingencies we had to launch the invasion before all forces were in position. The hot and miserable summer is looming, and the threatening 130 degree winds are hell on both soldiers and machinery. Our leaders promoted a bright vision of the Iraqi military shocked into laying down its arms, and a population welcoming us as liberators. This dream was encouraged by a bunch of Iraqi émigrés, some of them living 30 years away from their homeland, and a cadre of ultra-conservative theoreticians who simply cannot understand a people who won't enthusiastically embrace the American way of life as if it were their own. At any rate, according to most reliable witnesses our politicians may have jumped the gun, launching our soldiers too soon and too fast. Now they are strung out across the desert, far ahead of their supply lines, caught between militias attacking in the rear and the Republican Guard elite waiting before Baghdad. Meanwhile, with every falling bomb and erratic missile and every grisly civilian casualty broadcast on international television the country sets itself against us.
To keep our confidence and forbearance going at home we are told that, despite Turkey's refusal to cooperate we have now opened a 'new front' in the north. Read more carefully and you will see that this front involves 3,000 or so and an uncertain number of Kurdish insurgents against 100,000 - 150,000 Iraqis and a potential Turkish occupation to the north. Just like in Vietnam we are given probably inflated body counts, telling of thousands of enemy dead or surrendered, while our own casualties are minimized or go unreported. Just as in Vietnam we are told that thousands more troops are on the way to tip the balance. Just like in Vietnam, more and more effort and expense is thrown into endless bloody bombing campaigns against military and civilian targets to make up for our insufficiencies on the ground. Just like in Vietnam the version of the war we hear from career commanders in the Pentagon and career politicians in Washington increasingly diverges from the reality reported by those on the ground where there is horrible death and constant screw-ups facing a population growing more resentful and dangerous. It's getting harder and harder to tell civilians from soldiers as the days go by and our soldiers become daily more isolated in an enemy land.
Saddam Husein, admirer of Joseph Stalin, is holed up in his modern Leningrad, trying to delay the conquerors in expectation of the desert heat. Like the Russian winter, the desert can do greater damage than all of his armies. He waits as American bombs fall and the anger of the world against the Americans builds. There is nothing much he can do against so mighty a force, so he does little but stall for time. War invariably begins with some heroic ideal. Some wars, like Vietnam, are brought to an ignominious halt by the fault lines that grow between heroic rhetoric and the images we see and the experience reported by those who experience its horrors. Never before this has a war generated so many real time images and sounds. This time America is the aggressor and the Iraqi people are most of the victims that the world sees in photos and on video. The whole world watches America parading its latest technology for killing. We witness with horror a Frankenstein embodiment of the 'Savage Nation'. America, it is clear, will rule through fear and terror and intimidation.
Before the end of this war every image of America is likely to be covered in blood.
Unlike Vietnam, we are not bombing rural villages and jungle, but urban areas filled with highly concentrated numbers of living, breathing bodies. Unlike Vietnam, these are people who have known a life not so different from our own. Americans keep hearing from military experts that we are not targeting civilians, and that any falling missiles must be Iraqi's, but reporters and civilians on the ground see it differently. As the political situation becomes more desperate and military time gets more precious the bombing will become more intense and the 'collateral damage' will increase exponentially. Of course the Pentagon will continue to deny everything, blaming any collateral damage on falling Iraqi missiles, and most of the true believers will be willing to accept this. We are the guys with white hats after all. We are here to 'liberate' those who refuse to buy our load of goods. As America becomes more frustrated that it can't go back to happily consuming a constant flow of distractions we are likely to direct more of that frustration at the Iraqi people themselves for their refusal to cooperate in our grand vision. Our collective hearts may for a short time grow colder as we struggle to deny the awful truth of our actions.
The level of hypocrisy is almost incomprehensible. The same papers and magazines that daily display pictures of Iraqi dead, wounded and captured, both military and civilian in full color on their covers are 'outraged' over violations of the Geneva conventions when the Arab press displays captured Americans. This after years where we have systematically and deliberately striven to weaken virtually every restraint of international law, supposedly in our favor. Once again Americans are unable to look into the mirror of our own brutality. American hypocrisy grinds upon the world's conscience because we are seemingly oblivious to the flagrant manner of its display. We blatantly lie to ourselves and the world and challenge anyone to contradict us. The relentless bullying is matched by our boundless pride in our newest machinery of progress and terror. We turn the page of another arms catalog, broadcast another cop show, take in a few commercials for things no one needs and curse the enemy who deigns to resist our mighty will. Rah. Rah. Rah.
Whether America 'wins' or 'loses' in this fight is, in the long run, of little consequence. One of the lessons that can be drawn from history is that the strength of a nation or empire declines almost in direct proportion to the extent that it depends on arms and armies to be its primary expression of power. The strength of America is in its resources, the spirit of its people, and the moral example it once provided to the rest of the world. American strength as embodied in "Fortress America" exposes a dangerous sense of our own weakness and vulnerability. In fact it indicates a state of dangerous decline. A nation so identified with its military might has lost its flexibility, its power has become rigid and brittle. The events of 9/11 occurred despite the fact that the amount of our GDP spent on national defense had risen to record levels. Our hysterical reaction to dissent and criticism, both foreign and domestic, reveals a dangerous and growing weakness in the national character and a fatal inability to adjust to changes in the wider world.
History doesn't stop for individuals or nations. The decline that drives our sense of paranoia can perhaps be traced to the effect of two world wars and a worldwide economic depression. These events cast doubt on the long term integrity and viability of the concept of the nation-state. World War II largely did away with the sense that a nation could define itself apart from its relationships within the play of larger international forces. America's post-war economic base emerged out of an enormously efficient military machine constructed to beat back the imperial ambitions of European and Asian nation-states. Its growth simultaneously brought to an end the Norman Rockwell fantasy of rural small town life as America's population base shifted toward the industries in large urban centers. The American fiction of self sufficiency fell to the reality of complex international economic and political webs tying our success to the ongoing development of foreign states. The Waltons were replaced by Wal-Mart. Community life and civic duty was replaced by unbridled consumerism promoted by vast centralized television and media conglomerates. America could no longer distinguish itself from the cosmetic fictional image projected on the world screen.
In the aftermath of world war, the Communist State was the perceived enemy that helped us to define ourselves. The 'Reds' provided us with a clear image against we could polarize. While we railed against the evils of state socialism we built multinational corporations on a foundation of state subsidy. When the sixties came along a whole generation raised in front of a television set saw the world for the first time from beyond the borders of the nation-state, many discovering a new identity as 'citizens of the world'. It's the children of the sixties who drive both sides of the present day apocalyptic struggle for the destiny of humanity. One hears repeated assurances from the conservative camp that the sixties and seventies were nothing more than a short lived aberration, and that we are returning to the bedrock moral values that guided America in the past.
The same critical voices are heard to contend (and have always contended) that poetry and art is somehow 'diminished' when it becomes involved in political advocacy. While they've banned poets and artists from their halls of power (Laura Bush's canceled White House readings and John Ashcroft's shrouded statues) they've incurred the wrath of those who dramatize the moment. Only at great risk does one piss off the poets and artists who will reveal our story in the record of time. In these extreme days the walls carefully constructed to keep art in its place as 'harmless' entertainment are breaking down and suddenly poetry and art have become loud, obnoxious and intrusive. For a moment, the sheep are called to look up.
The price of brutality is paid through the generations, and its cost accumulates with every brutal act. Today we see the images of murderers and the murdered displayed on every newspaper and every screen. Enormous headlines blare threats of terror and fear in the faces of all our children. We are a culture that has put away all restraint in exhibiting our own violence. Our public discourse is drowned in the rhetoric of war. The psychological cost of all of this violence is immeasurable and long lasting. Violence that we commit on others is eventually visited upon ourselves. The faces and lives of those who come home from war wear the mark of Cain. When violence becomes a way of life it is hard to simply shut it down. How long before it surfaces in seemingly random acts of mayhem and social disintegration? The bombing in Oklahoma City, the sniping 'executions' in Washington D.C., the shootings at Columbine, and a thousand other acts of home grown terrorism are in no way separate from the wars we have inflicted on ourselves and others.
We now have 'reality television' that follows soldiers on the paths of potential killing committed in our name. Do we really think that this does us no harm?
In the first dim light of morning the moon and Venus hover over the mesa. Their light gradually merges with the rising dawn. Down below the frugal guest rooms there is a colorful sort of gypsy village made up of square units with round windows gathered around a garden next to greenhouses and farmyards. In a moment of early spring before the oncoming heat of an Arizona summer the fields and brush and trees are full of brilliant greens. My son and I awake and before heading over to breakfast in the main hall of the visitor center we climb to the top of the main apse. This graceful concrete arch covered with handmade tiles covers the main public gathering area. From the top, the highest point in Arcosanti, one can see far over the mesa to the horizon full of distant desert mountains.
The early risers gather while Gabe and I eat our cereal and toast. We will soon travel again across that landscape toward our parts in the unfolding drama of the present. I want to return here again and again to be reminded that humanity can be other than it is. I wonder about the staying power of this vision. Will it fold up when the master dies? Paolo Soleri is in his eighties, living up the road in the sprawl of Scottsdale, coming here to visit and talk twice a week. I wonder if Arcosanti will one day become the curious ruin of a path not taken? Or will the experiment continue, the vision given its own life by all these hands and minds, forming seeds and beacons and a range of possibilities? The future remains a mystery.
In a corner of the cafeteria is a week old copy of the Sunday New York Times. Things are moving so quickly in our world that already the news and punditry from a week ago is obsolete. Nevertheless one can infer from very little data the broad patterns of what is going on, and in a week very little of what is important has changed. On our way back toward Santa Fe we drive through Globe, Arizona, past what appears to be a combination car and motorcycle rally and recruitment drive. There are balloons and flags and Marines in uniform. In the center is a pickup truck displaying proudly the flag of the Confederacy. Mixed messages and media abound in a blend of national pride, racism and, in restive knots of young people gathered before a rampart of house trailers, a mix of confusion and hostility. The questions we ask these days go well beyond dealing with this or any war, direct to the basics of who we are. What is the destiny of America? What is a patriot? What kind of future do we really desire?
In the mainstream news broadcasts we hear talk about America's duty as a superpower. Despite all of this talk, the designation superpower has very little real meaning in a world where actual power is determined by the permeability of borders and the free flow of both commerce and ideas. Power is not a fortress but a membrane. Power that is rigid and inflexible is doomed to fall. The real foundation of power over time is based in systems of relationship as complex as life itself. Americans, or at least their current leaders, appear to want more than anything for the world to be as simple as a marketing slogan. Out of some infantile desire to bring about this vision of simplicity with us on the top we are willing to pave the world into one enormous shopping center using concrete, asphalt and bunker busting bombs.
My first night back home is filled with dreams of combat and dread. The feeling I get is of walking in fear without trusting the earth at my feet. These past days at Arcosanti I've lived outside the fog of war. The vision of Arcosanti is an ongoing experiment combining human vision and technology with a sense of how nature has formed the world of living things. It's unsettling to return to a world overcome with useless struggle, although many would call this the 'real world'. Many would say that the world is an ugly and violent place and that we must match this ugliness with our own violence. Many would call this 'defense'. I call it suicidal fantasy. For me, and my son, allegiance to America is meaningless if it doesn't encompass a larger vision of harmony with both the environment and the rest of humanity. If America has any meaning to me at all it's an expression of harmony in diversity, and harmony will never be possible until we accept our enemies as part of who we are. Only then may we begin to deal with those things which frighten us and keep us awake at night waiting for the bombs to fall.
Ralph Melcher is a writer and essayist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. www.well.com/user/melcher