Reading two important books lately has reinforced in me the realization that our troubles in these times do not stem from isolated problems like Republican obstructionism or the Tea Party or a few Wall Street banksters or who happens to occupy the White House, but from the integration of an entire system, an entire culture based in insatiable greed, amorality (often immorality) and a military-style, hyper-competitive notion of what life is about. Hence, in the United States, what we find in this late stage of capitalism is the most inequitable society ever built, where the top .01% controls all the wealth, and through that wealth, all the politicians and the public policy that results. These porcine deities also control the health of the planet and the health of billions of people around the world through their determination of where the U.S. goes to war, where wealth is allocated to produce whatever needs producing (with often-disastrous conseqences for the ecosystem), and thereby who succeeds in living and dying. The only time that concern for the well-being of ordinary individuals is allowed to intrude is in slick commercials and public relations campaigns designed to reassure the masses and pacify them with fake lullabies of freedom. Underneath, of course, run the real attitudes: ruthlessness in controlling the hordes who might prove dangerous, and massive contempt for their gullibility.
I was reminded of this, as I said, by reading two unrelated books that turn out to be related: Kill Anything that Moves, by Nick Turse, and Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Michael Moss. What struck me was how the underlying ideology that animated the Pentagon during the Vietnam War closely resembled the ideology motivating the major food companies that have changed not only the way Americans eat, but their very ideas of what food should taste like. A little thought makes clear that the same ideology and attitudes also pervade the way corporations deliver health care, the way political parties and politicians operate, the way sports teams compete, in short, the way the whole mainstream culture behaves and through that behavior reveals its beliefs. Whether using sports metaphors or war metaphors, the basic idea is the same: in order to beat the hell out of your opponent, anything goes (poor Cole Porter had a song and musical with this title, but what he referred to was child’s play compared to what animates the culture today).
Begin with Turse, because what he reports is less surprising—since he’s reporting about war—though no less disgusting. Using a term coined by sociologist James Gibson, Turse attributes much of the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians in Vietnam to “technowar”—a philosophy “combining American technical and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities to create a war machine functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.” This embodied a “rational” approach to war, an approach which identified the problem in Vietnam as guerilla fighters who could strike quickly and then vanish back into the jungle villages where they lived. This made it very difficult for even high-tech troops to distinguish them from ordinary villagers who typically wore the same ‘black pajama’ uniforms. So what the American military concluded was twofold: first, that the villagers would have to be separated from the guerilla enemy; and second, that a “crossover point” had to be reached when American soldiers would be killing more enemy soldiers than the Vietnamese could replace. Rational. Statistical. Just kill so many VC that the enemy would run out of replacements. And just destroy so many villages and so much of the jungle cover and so much of the food resources that the people left after the destruction would have to re-assemble in controllable refugee camps. For the one, it was “kill anything that moves,” which could be gauged by the “body count” (this, in turn, meant that commanders would have the incentive to count every dead body—VC or civilian, all were the same—as a dead enemy). For another, it meant that the entire countryside could be ‘carpet bombed’ by B-52s, by napalm-spewing aircraft, by artillery, by helicopters, all doing their best to kill anything that moved, or didn’t move. Oh, and for good measure, by destroying the guerillas’ cover by spraying vast areas of jungle with the pesticide known as Agent Orange to create a nice, foliage-free desert.
As to the morality of all this, that could be taken care of by propaganda (the ‘domino theory’ which held that if one East Asian country like Vietnam were to ‘fall’ to the evil communists, then all others would) and by perversions of logic such as: “we had to destroy the village to save it,” and, more generally, “we had to save the country by destroying it.”
The odd thing, the revealing thing, is how the metaphors applied to war (the war machine, technowar, assembly line efficiency) came from business in the same way that war metaphors showed up to animate corporate strategies. The most striking example of this appears in Michael Moss’s book, Salt, Sugar, Fat. In an interview with reformed Coca Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn, Moss let Dunn describe his early years overseeing 800 Coke salesmen, and how his aggressive attitude earned him a nickname:
“Sales people, by definition, like to keep score. You generally don’t make it in sales unless you are good with people and you like to keep score. It’s just the nature of the beast…So I gave this speech about winning and I said, ‘It’s like we’re at war. And the way you keep score is how many body bags get carried off the field. The key is to have more of their body bags carried off the field than our body bags. I want you all to go out and ramp up our scorecard. I want to see a lot of body bags.”
Then Dunn explained how he got his nickname: “The body bags were the Pepsi sales people who were going to get fired as a result of not getting our accounts. So my nickname for the next ten years was Body Bag.” (Moss, 103)
Here was the Vietnam War writ small, though not so small, in the parallel war corporate America sees itself having with competitors (in this case, Coke vs. Pepsi). It couldn’t have been scripted better by Hollywood: business is war, and like the Vietnam War, everything is focused on the kills, the body count, the body bags of the enemy that are produced. If, as many people contend, most American wars are fought on behalf of American business (think only of the wars in Central America fought for United Fruit Co. or the wars in the Middle East fought on behalf of big oil companies), then business is war indeed. And sadly, the war goes on not just between competing corporations killing each other for market share, but between these same corporations and the American public with whom they are engaging in every tactic and subterfuge to disguise the lethal reality of what they are purveying in order to make it seem harmless, benign, or beneficial. That is, the major food corporations (one of the biggest was owned until very recently by Philip Morris, that war-making purveyor of cancer in the form of those ‘manly’ Marlboro cigarettes) do everything they can to induce consumers (especially children) to buy more of the products they lace with sugar, and everything they can to disguise and gloss over the damage that sugar does. They war on children through TV commercials aimed directly at them. They war on children by inducing harried working mothers to buy “Lunchables,”—pre-packaged , fat-and-sugar-loaded lunches that poor moms don’t have to prepare themselves, and that their children find “fun.” And this food war, like the real one, depends on the most ‘advanced’ technologies to ‘engineer’ the taste that their hired guns—chemists and psychologists and brain scientists—have assured them is irresistible to humans, especially those trained from childhood to get maximum pleasure from sugary, salty, fatty foods.
Again, one of the most revealing segments in Moss’s book is an interview with a ‘food engineer’ named Howard Moskowitz, who brags about his ability to precisely engineer foods to reach the “bliss point,” as he did with the flavor for the excruciatingly sweet soda, Dr. Pepper. Here is how Moskowitz put it:
“I mix and match ingredients by this experimental design,” he told me. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create, so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.” (Moss, 30)
Of course, Moskowitz knows that the foods he designs and from which he has made a fortune, play a key role in the obesity/diabetes crisis that afflicts the nation and the world. But this seems not to bother him. When asked if he had any qualms about his research targeting the bliss point at which children would crave sugar most, he said flatly:
There is no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could…Would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. Did I do the right thing? If you were in my position, what would you have done? (Moss, 30)
How very like the generals in Vietnam. What else could we have done? We applied the best science, the best management techniques, the most advanced weaponry we had to solve the problem. That it killed more than 2 million civilians and destroyed an entire country is simply what happens in the rational enterprise we call war. That the sugar, fat and salt poured into processed foods, that the inducements to drink the valueless insipid liquid called “soda” in staggering amounts, that the training of entire generations of young Americans in (and now East Indians, Mexicans, Chinese and every other emerging market on the planet) what food should taste like, to the point where, according to researcher Karen Teff, “there is absolutely no tolerance now for foods that are not sweet”—this is also justified by having applied the best science available. As to the cost in human lives and suffering, the cost in a planetary crisis in obesity, in dwindling natural resources, in a planet gasping to rid itself of the chemicals and plastics needed to produce and induce such lethal consumption—well, that is simply the price we pay to keep stockholders and Wall Street and the banksters happily rolling in their profits.
It is, in short, the cost of war. The cost of competition. The cost of being number one. And if it requires the absolute perversion of democracy, of language, of decency, of morality, of humanity itself—which it does—then so be it.
Who, in such a system, could do any different?