In the Gulf, the forever spill has become the forever war. A calamity of untold magnitude is unfolding and, alongside it, a strange militarization has emerged, as the language for managing the crisis becomes the language of war.
War-talk is firing from the mouths of local officials, TV pundits, the Coast Guard and journalists. Campaigning frantically to protect Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal urges the TV cameras: “We need to see that this is a war….a war to save Louisiana…a war to protect our way of life.” Billy Nungesser, indefatigable President of the Plaquemines Parish, implores anyone who will listen: “We will fight this war….We will persevere to win this war.” For Ragin Cajun, Democratic strategist, James Carville: “This is literally a war… this is an invasion…We need to hear someone say ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches.’” Retired Gen. Russell Honore, who oversaw the Katrina debacle, insists: “We need to act like this is World War 111. Treat this like it’s an invasion…equal to what we decided about terrorists. We’ve got to find the oil and kill it.”
This is truly strange talk, this talk of war and killing oil. Even President Obama tried to fire up the nation by invoking 9/11, couching the spill as an invasion, a siege, an attack by terrorists. The militarization of the disaster has become the invisible norm, so much so that it is hard to see how misplaced and dangerous the analogy to war actually is.
Visit the BP site (one of the more surreal Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass internet experiences) and you will see the word “kill”—BP’s favored, faux-techno buzzword—appearing with ritualistic incantation. Kill the well, kill the leak, kill the oil, which morphs into “kill mud” (the mud that will kill the leak) and “kill lines” (the lines that follow the pipes to kill the leak). All this kill-talk has a jaunty, we-know-what-we-are-doing tone, but accumulatively it borders on the bizarre, culminating in the “junk shot”—the slurry of car tires and golf-balls that BP fired at the leak to ‘kill’ it—as if, by throwing enough sacrificial detritus of our oil-soaked leisure activities into the maw of the oil-god, we could stop it spewing death.
There is a lot of verbal killing going on here, and indeed the Gulf does seem to be bleeding: a vast, streaky, orange-red smear stretching to the horizon. Seventy days and counting, and the oil eruption gushes unstoppably past 100,000 barrels (BP’s secret, original estimation), past 400,000 barrels and up…We haven’t a clue how much, really. In this, our summer of magical counting.
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer gazes at the grey Louisiana horizon and declares: “It looks like a military campaign…heavy lift helicoptors taking sand to the frontlines of the battle against the oil.” I do look, but it doesn’t look like a military campaign to me. Certainly, a few Blackhawk and Chinook helicoptors drop sandbags into a filthy, yellow-brown sea overflown by a few hapless gulls, but a war front it really isn’t. This is, in fact, as unlike a war front as one can imagine. The Louisiana marshes lap quietly with brown ooze; solitary birds heave and flail in the middle of nowhere under the oil’s slow embrace; dolphins gape open-mouthed on beaches; a dead whale washes ashore. No, this is not a war. Only a tremendous failure of the imagination can see this as a war.
So why are people calling the calamity a war and why does it matter that they do?
Calling the oil the ‘enemy’ helps us not to question who was culpable in the first place. Calling the response ‘a battle front’ helps us not ask who, other than the military, should be in charge. Calling the spill an ‘invasion’ helps us not to see that our global culture of militarization is what got us into the mess in the first place. Calling the spill a ‘war’ only fuels the pervasive militarization that produced the crisis in the first place. And calling the oil the enemy helps us not
admit how much we, the consumers, having awakened the oil from its ancient slumber to fuel our gas-greedy lives, are the most complicit of all.
A fateful circularity takes shape as the spill is managed in the same terms that produced the spill: that of war. Most critically, militarizing the environmental catastrophe as a war becomes a cover-up for not seeing the environmental catastrophe of war.
An unsettling verbal alchemy is at work in all this military talk. “Jindal has declared war!” cries the Florida Pundit. But on whom has Governor Jindal declared war? The murderously irresponsible BP? The Obama government for failing, really, to do anything? The increasingly invisible, but culpable Halliburton? (Wherever there is Halliburton, there is pain). The Sunday Herald, for one, pleaded with Congress not to blame BP: “The oil is the enemy,” it urged, “not each other.” Admiral Thad Allen described the oil as “an insidious enemy that keeps attacking in different places.”
Viewed through the prism of war, oil and nature are seen as the enemy, for they have erupted beyond our control. Adopting a warlike stance toward nature is not new. A long-established figure of conquering the wilderness is ready to hand to justify our rapacious assault on the life-forms around us. Drill, baby, drill. Then, when it all goes horrendously wrong: kill, baby, kill.
And if all this seems merely metaphoric, there is Rush Limbaugh to rely on, for whom the doomed rig explosion was not just a metaphor, but an actual act of war. Limbaugh saysthe rig was probably attacked by “a foreign government,” with culprits ranging from “Muslim terrorists to the Red Chinese, Venezuela and beyond.” Michael Savage began simultaneously peddling the same story, but with North Korea behind the ‘attack.’ Cherry-pick your terrorist of choice; no matter, it is war.
The war talk of Limbaugh, Savage & Co would be laughable if it didn’t converge with the broader militarization of the spill. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) is calling for the actual military to take charge. But what part of the military’s mission and expertise, I wonder, leads Nelson to believe that the army could stop the oil billowing from the ocean bed, let alone take charge of the massive response? Do we actually have the military hardware to stave off this thing in the first place? Sure we do. We can send in a Predator Drone, point the Oil Vaporizing Missile at the leak, hit the “If-we-dream-hard-enough” button and…hotdamn. Thing works like a charm.
A painful irony is obvious: we can’t send in the army because it is already overstretched by fighting two ruinous wars abroad, both wars fought precisely to secure the dwindling oil we need to lubricate our profligate lifestyles and keep our global military mobile. But the military can barely manage these wars abroad, let alone cope with environmental catastrophes back home, stretched so thin as it is that, according to the Veterans Association, returning soldiers from all US wars have post-traumatic stress so severe they commit suicide at the harrowing rate of eighteen a day.
Couching the catastrophe in the language of war conceals the political void at the heart of the clean-up. The administration’s systematic failure to regulate BP, Halliburton et al before the explosion is matched only by its stunning impotence after the explosion. We’re into the second month and Nungesser is still begging to know who is in charge. Even Admiral Thad Allen told reporters: “To push BP out of the way would raise the question of: Replace them with what?” The robust, accountable civilian agencies that should be responsible have been gutted by decades of deregulation. This is what the far right wants. In the last decade, Republican calls for limiting government have given way to calls for dismantling government, in favor of a system run and policed by the very rapacious energy and corporate barons who caused the crises in the first place.
In a world of promiscuous deregulation, oil giants like BP take obscene risks and rake in undreamed-of bonanzas. BP, the third largest oil company in the world, has an annual profit of $14 billion; it made $17 billion last year, and $9 billion in the first quarter of this year alone. BP’s top CEO before Tony Hayward, Lord John Browne (at $11 million a year the highest paid CEO in the UK) was so addicted to profit that he cut safety costs at all costs. BP has long been known as the top-ranking safety violator globally. Last year alone, according to OSHA, BP racked up over 700 violations. BP’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf was so makeshift it included references to walruses and sea-otters, neither of which inhabit the Gulf.
The oil bonanzas are so vast that when the companies are fined for spills, the fines often amount to just a few days annual profits. Exxon Valdes’s fines were reduced by Justice Roberts’ Supreme Court from $5 billion to $500 million and not one company official saw the inside of a jail. So why bother following safety regulations? And when safety regulations are systematically violated, well, stuff happens. Like a dead ocean.
And when stuff happens, what do we do? Who is in charge? Gov. Jindal cries out again: “This is a war. We’ve got to be adaptable.” The trouble is, there is precious little to be adaptable with. Skimmers, sandbags, shovels. Antiquated barges with makeshift vacuums trying to suck up an ocean that is turning black. On TV, I watch men in white overalls hold a puny vacuum-cleaner nozzle to the gargantuan oil slick. Cajun engineering, some wryly call it.
The wildly unregulated oil industry is profit-driven to such a degree that no R and D has gone into developing any clean-up technology for the last forty years. Not since the Santa Barbara disaster in 1969, that is. Not since everyone was still using typewriters. The oil industry has the technology to drill to fabulous, sci-fi, Jules Verne depths, but is still using hopelessly outmoded methods like booms, wetmats, and spades to clean-up after them. Skimmers lumber ineffectually back to shore carrying only 10% oil to 90% water. Kevin Costner’s save-the-day machines are not yet in action. The booms get tangled up in every squall and are laid out with little or no knowledge of the shoreline. I watch as men swirl mops in the ooze.
Where is the R and D for clean-up technology? As I write this, I wonder: I can touch my i-pad and in a few seconds beckon from the ethers an invisible book that speeds unseen through the starry skies to materalize magically into print between my fingers. We can pull off this breathtakingly wondrous stunt, but are stumped by the task of scooping up the oil we ceaselessly spill? Why?
It’s not as if there aren’t enough bad spills to warrant spending some serious R and D cash. The sheer untruth of Obama’s claim in April that “oil rigs generally don’t cause spills” could hardly be rivaled. In fact, as much oil is spilled in the world every seven months as was spilled from the Exxon Valdes. In Nigeria’s oil-devastated delta alone, where oil companies operate outside the law, where writer-activist, Ken Saro Wiwa was executed for opposing them, more oil is spilled every year than so far in the current Gulf spill.
But who cares? These spills occur slowly, every day and far away, out of range of the U.S. media’s sensation-driven gaze, evading the disaster-packaging of prime time news. So that Doug Suttels, BP chief, could lie to NBC’s Tom Costello, saying that BP hadn’t developed any remedial spill technology because “there have been so few big spills.” And when warned by a BP engineer that the Deep Horizon was a “nightmare rig,” another BP official responded in an email: “Who cares? It’s done… We will probably be fine.”
We aren’t fine, but perhaps by calling this a war we stave off feelings of helplessness by giving familiar symbolic shape to an unforeseen chaos. Perhaps fear is militarized and given a reassuringly violent form. Certainly, Americans are particularly prone to deploying the language of war to deal with social crises. We pretend to wage war on a lot of things that we can’t wage war on: the war on drugs, on crime, on poverty, on AIDS, the forever War on Terror, and now on oil. The militarization of our culture has become so pervasive that every crisis of neo-liberal capitalism rolling in is seen as the next war.
Very early into the spill, the militarization of the Gulf extended even to journalists prevented from covering the disaster by a motley alliance of BP contractors and Coast Guards, on the grounds that the Gulf was a war zone. After protests, Admiral Allen assured the media that they would have “uninhibited access,” but the blockades only increased, flyover permits were revoked, photography on public beaches was banned, and cleanup workers were silenced. National guardsman blockaded even CNN from filming oil-damaged birds. The question remains why President Obama, who campaigned on the promise of government transparency, would collude with BP in the media blackout, refusing to let even the New York Times fly over “Ground Zero”—a blatantly militarized reference to an industrial disaster? One Coast Guard official referred to journalists as “media embeds,” but embeds in what, precisely?
All this war talk would be understandable, defensible even, were it not for a fatally circular, feedback loop. BP would not be in the Gulf drilling deeper than it knows how to drill were it not for its uniquely profitable relation with the US military war machine. The United States Department of Defense buys more oil than any other entity on the planet. The protection of overseas oil is now so unquestioned that even Defense Secretary Gates warned against the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. And to fuel this militarization, the Pentagon uses 75% of the oil bought by the DOD for its jets, bombers, drones, tanks, and Humvees. And in order to keep buying this oil, the military has to keep protecting our regional oil interests, two thirds of which are now in conflict prone zones. US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan use a staggering ninety million gallons a month. And to garrison this vast, global gas-station, the DOD keeps expanding, which means buying more oil.
From whom? In 2009, BP was the Pentagon’s largest contractor at $2.2 billion. The DOD has a longstanding, multimillion dollar business relation with BP, which it says it has no intention of relinquishing, even now, in the aftermath of the Gulf disaster. Despite knowledge that BP has racked up 97% of all flagrant safety violations. In 2005, the DOD paid BP $1.5 billion. Indeed, last year 16% of BP’s profits came from sales to the Pentagon alone.
Keeping this in mind, we would do well to remember that militarization is the number one cause of environmental destruction in the world, and that military production facilities, which are exempt from environmental restrictions, are the most ecologically devastated places on earth. We drill, we spill; nature pays the bill.
Blaming BP means we don’t have to admit our complicity as consumers in the slow-mo, chemical slaughter we have unleashed on the planet. Blaming BP means we don’t have to look too hard in the rear-view mirrors of the cars we drive, or too deep into the plastic water bottles we drink. Last year Americans drank enough plastic water bottles to stretch around the world one hundred and ninety times. Blaming BP means we don’t have to admit how our oil-addiction keeps U.S. foreign policy in thrall to petro-despots and oligarchs.
BP would not be drilling in the Gulf in the first place were it not reaping ungodly, monster profits from our luxurious oil-bingeing. A gas-pedal-to-the-metal nation, we American consumers are especially complicit, our profligate lifestyles devouring 30% of all raw materials used by people globally every year. We Americans siphon 25% of all the earth’s black oil into our cars, trucks, airplanes, helicopters, mega-malls and military bases. Every one of us who drives one, two, three cars is complicit. Every one of us who shops with plastic bags is complicit. Every one of us who strolls through malls heated to a permanent tropical summer in winter, is complicit. We are all complicit in this calamity. We are all BP now.
Anne McClintock is an award-winning writer and author of Imperial Leather, who holds the Simone de Beauvoir Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The piece was originally published in CounterPunch on July 24th 2010.