Thursday, October 04, 2007

Blackwater U.S.A. : A Literary Analysis

"In the morning the rain had stopped and they appeared in the streets, tattered, stinking, ornamented with human parts like cannibals. They carried huge pistols stuck in their belts and the vile skins they wore were deeply stained with blood and smoke and gunblack."

Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian”

Maureen Dowd, back in public after some 18 months of sequestering under the “New York Times” attempt to charge extra for internauts who enjoy their best opinionators (Frank Rich, Bob Hebert, Paul Krugman etc.) took a stab at the Blackwater U.S.A. scandal a day or so ago.

Adept at skewering politicians Democratic and Republican alike, Dowd founders in conjuring the evil behind this particular brainchild of the shrinking w. regime.

She quotes Nietzsche saying something about the abyss staring back at those who stare at the abyss, but is limited to anecdotes about that crazy Blackwater crew filtered by news agencies and Iraqi-English translators; dulled by our own dimmed wits that have been subject to similar fare for nigh on five years.

She talks "abyss" but does not conjure the abyss, so the highway scribe wanted to turn to literature where accuracy is not so important as legend, volume, word of mouth and, yes, art, which we know can never imitate life.

“Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West” was written by Cormac McCarthy. the scribe read it about ten years ago, with his jaw-dropped, in about 12 hours time, horrified by the verismo accounting of how the West was truly subdued and entranced by the author’s overwrought, overwritten, and too numerous pastoral sequences.

Unable to get the stark renderings of Western moonscape and wretched accounts of senseless massacre out of his mind, the scribe recently went out and purchased the novel for a re-reading that has been no less satisfying the second time around.

“Blood Meridian” ostensibly follows the wanderings of a 14-year-old piece of Tennessee trash referred to only as "the kid," but is really concerned with a cabal he falls in with: Joe Glanton, The Judge, and an ensemble of often and easily replaced mercenaries working on behalf of certain Mexican municipalities seeking protection from the Comanche, Apache, and other “aborigines.”

McCarthy, as a novelist, can go where the journalist Dowd cannot and when he does, leaves our hair standing on end. The first reading through, the many massacres of Indians in the book filled-in a large blank in the scribe’s understanding of American history.

To wit: You gotta kill a lotta injuns to vacate a continent of them and “Blood Meridian,” written by a respectable North American pensman, provides a very plausible rendering of how that was achieved.

highwayscribery’s suggestion here is that strong parallels exist between the Glanton Gang and those who have been so arrogant of the law and human decency in Iraq as to garner headlines in the likes of the “Washington Post.”

Even though we’re not winning the war at many levels, we have the arms to wage it and to do so with open-ended staying power. Only domestic politics might stop the war. Guns we will not run out of and early in “Blood Meridian” Glanton is sampling a special pistol offered up by a man named Thayer.

“When all the chambers were loaded he capped them and looked about. In that courtyard other than merchants and buyers were a number of living things. The first that Glanton drew sight upon was a cat that at that precise moment appeared upon the high wall from the other side as silently as a bird alighting. It turned to pick its way among the cusps of broken glass set upright in the mud masonry. Glanton leveled the huge pistol in one hand and thumbed back the hammer. The explosion in that dead silence was enormous. The cat simply disappeared. There was no blood or cry, it just vanished.”

Properly equipped, the gang depart from Chihuahua City with a contract that will pay them one hundred dollars per Indian scalp. That’s a lot of money in 1849 so that while stopping in an “ancient walled presidio” Glanton puts the same gun to an innocent old woman’s head and kills her, ordering the Mexican in his crew, McGill, to collect the “receipt.”

“He took a skinning knife from his belt and stepped to where the old woman lay and took up her hair and twisted it about his wrist and passed the blade of the knife about her skull and ripped away the scalp.”

Just practicing. Later they approach a thousand Gileño Indians camped along the shoreline of a shallow lake. Coming upon an old man at the outset of the early morning ambush they club him to death, stampede the village and kill a few overmatched warriors with bows and arrows.

“When Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village people were running out under horses’ hooves and the horses were plunging and some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy. There were in the camp a number of Mexican slaves and these ran forth calling out in Spanish and were brained or shot and one of the Delawares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew...”

When Yahoo news tells you American forces have killed 70 “insurgents” or “terrorists,” remember that the Indians were the terrorists and insurgents of those times and that the lexicon of war permits the indiscriminate taking of lives, be they of women, children, the old, or young.

As The Judge lectures the men before a campfire: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.”

The harvest complete the band return to Chihuahua City where they are roundly remunerated and fêted, but overstay their welcome, raping the town’s young girls, elevating the status of whores, emptying pantry and kitchen, first with money and then with the threat of guns, until finally a desperate citizen scribbles on a wall, Mejor los Indios.

We’re better off with the Indians.

Having stripped the town of all worth, they depart and quickly slaughter a “peaceful band of Tiguas” before riding into the Mexican town of Nacori where a cantina spat spurs them to kill twenty-eight Mexican men whose scalps they also collect - scalps, “of the people they were paid to protect,” the author observes.

McCarthy has a kind of reverse literary triumph here. It is very rare you don’t root for the people you’re following in a story. A murderer escapes from jail and flees through a swamp and you find yourself pulling for him to evade the hounds and coppers.

In “Blood Meridian” you ask, Can’t the authorities do anything to stop these monsters?


In fact, one of the more poignant sequences occurs shortly thereafter when the mercenaries decimate a corps of mounted Mexican cavalry:

“They wore tall shakos faced with metal plates and horsehair plumes and they wore green coats trimmed with scarlet and scarlet sashes and they were armed with lances and muskets and their mounts were nicely caparisoned and they entered the street sidling and prancing, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men. The company looked to Glanton. He holstered the pistol and drew his rifle. The captain of the lancers had raised sabre to halt the column. The next instant the narrow street was filled with riflesmoke and a dozen of the soldiers lay dead or dying on the ground. The horses reared and screamed and fell back upon each other and men were unhorsed and rose up struggling to hold their mounts. A second fire tore through their ranks. They fell away in confusion.”

This is what you get with mercenaries and one must wonder how many good Iraqis hoping to help their country in the police or the nascent army have died the same way as the young lancers.

A third of “Blood Meridian” takes place at the Colorado River near Yuma and across the region spreading west to San Diego, where Glanton and Co., abduct the mayor, his wife, and the grocer good enough to trade their stolen gold for dry goods, “to an abandoned hut at the edge of the ocean eight miles south of the settlement,” tie them up and leave them for dead.

Ironically, Blackwater U.S.A. wants to open an 824-acre training facility in the same region, in east San Diego County. So angry are the residents of Potrero - which sounds like something out of the novel - at the planning commission that green lighted the scheme, that they voted to set a recall election for the whole slew of them.

And it’s not looking good for the currently seated officials.

So maybe, hopefully, Dowd is right when she writes, “Americans have been anti-mercenary since the British sent 30,000 German Hessians after George Washington in the Revolutionary War.”

the highway scribe has never been to war, but he did waste a lot of time trying to sell screenplays in Hollywood, which is similar, what with the immorality and whores and betrayal typical of the Glanton clan, but without the blood (for the most part).

There was forewarning in this screenwriter’s quest and the plan as drawn up was to make a stake and get the hell out.

But there is no “out” for mercenaries of the kind detailed by McCarthy. No matter how much money they steal or gold teeth they pull from the jaws of weaker souls, they never choose to leave for greener pastures; never settle down on that ranch with the little woman to propagate more mercenaries.

That’s because the money’s nice, but the thing they like is the killing. And so mercenaries hang on until they’re murdered and cremated by vengeful Yumas... or left hanging from a bridge in Falloujah.

And therein may lie one reason you don’t see the U.S. making its way for the door in Iraq. The people running the show wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.

Mejor los Indios.


ak47 said...

Dear Scribe, this poetic, comparative essay of yours left me horrified and recalled a memory for me. I met a mercenary once when I was 19, waiting tables at a lovely little outdoor bar in Kansas City and he was my customer. He eventually revealed his occupation after a few too many beers one evening. I didn't know what it meant and later looked it up in the dictionary. I then understood why his eyes looked deadand had the air of a ghost. I was also aware that I would never be quite the same after learning about this ugly subculture that no one talks about. Thanks for this piece. One of your best.

highwayscribery said...

Ak, thanks for coming by, for working through the piece and sharing your own story, and for the kudos, too.