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Tomgram: William Astore, We Have Met the Alien and He Is Us

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Imagine a secret government facility buried deep in the bowels of a mountain; a deluxe bomb shelter -- encased within dense, almost fissure-less rock -- for top government officials to ride out doomsday.

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I did. A lot.

I spent an inordinate amount of time as a child reading everything I could find about a top secret complex -- a White-House-in-waiting, hospital, television studio, government offices, subterranean reservoirs, and who knows what else -- all entombed in a Virginia mountain. It was difficult for a youngster to locate much on it in those pre-Internet days, but what I did find out about Mount Weather fascinated me.

Looking back, I realize that I was captivated, and perhaps subconsciously unnerved, by the prospect of World War III. That future conflict was seemingly omnipresent, looming large in the pop cultural broth in which my brain was regularly bathed. Red Dawn and The Day After offered two possible scenarios for how such a war might be fought -- Vietnam-style in the U.S.A. or as a full-scale nuclear exchange between America and the Soviet Union. The president of that moment suggested that we might be spared the atomic devastation of The Day After through mammoth spending on a space-based missile defense system that, in the cinematic spirit of the moment, critics dubbed "Star Wars." WarGames, on the other hand, indicated that some combination of dumb luck, a smart computer, and an impossibly young Matthew Broderick would -- at the very last moment -- save the day. (Thanks, Ferris Bueller!) And what child of the 1980s can forget that moment when your last city was destroyed in Atari's "Missile Command"?

A survey of 1,000 grammar and high-school students conducted by an American Psychiatric Association task force from 1978 to 1980 found "the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation has penetrated deeply into their consciousness." Their answers to questionnaires "showed that these adolescents are deeply disturbed by the threat of nuclear war, have doubt about the future, and about their own survival," wrote John Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a member of the task force. I don't recall being distressed by the prospect myself, but it certainly caught my attention.

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While I was reading and re-reading John Bradley's lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, World War III: Strategies, Tactics, and Weapons, and playing with my G.I. Joes, TomDispatch regular William Astore was heading deep into another secret government facility buried within a mountain, another ground zero designed to withstand (but by then likely to be incinerated in) a nuclear holocaust. Today, Astore takes us from his younger days at shadowy Cheyenne Mountain to the darkened recesses of the cinema, where a steady diet of "space operas" and "alien disaster movies," from the iconic Star Wars to the recent U.S. box-office bomb Independence Day: Resurgence, provide a window on the twenty-first-century American experience and a funhouse mirror offering unflattering reflections of ourselves and our foundering, floundering wars. Nick Turse

We Are The Empire
Of U.S. Military Interventions, Alien Disaster Movies, and Star Wars
By William J. Astore

Perhaps you've heard the expression: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Cartoonist Walt Kelly's famed possum, Pogo, first uttered that cry. In light of alien disaster movies like the recent sequel Independence Day: Resurgence and America's disastrous wars of the twenty-first century, I'd like to suggest a slight change in that classic phrase: we have met the alien and he is us.

Allow me to explain. I grew up reading and watching science fiction with a fascination that bordered on passion. In my youth, I also felt great admiration for the high-tech, futuristic nature of the U.S. military. When it came time for college, I majored in mechanical engineering and joined the U.S. Air Force. On graduating, I would immediately be assigned to one of the more high-tech, sci-fi-like (not to say apocalyptic) military settings possible: Air Force Space Command's Cheyenne Mountain.

For those of you who don't remember the looming, end-of-everything atmosphere of the Cold War era, Cheyenne Mountain was a nuclear missile command center tunneled out of solid granite inside an actual mountain in Colorado. In those days, I saw myself as one of the good guys, protecting America from "alien" invasions and the potential nuclear obliteration of the country at the hands of godless communists from the Soviet Union. The year was 1985 and back then my idea of an "alien" invasion movie was Red Dawn, a film in which the Soviets and their Cuban allies invade the U.S., only to be turned back by a group of wolverine-like all-American teen rebels. (Think: the Vietcong, American-style, since the Vietnam War was then just a decade past.)

Strange to say, though, as I progressed through the military, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy about my good-guy stature and about who exactly was doing what to whom. Why, for example, did we invade Iraq in 2003 when that country had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11? Why were we so focused on dominating the Earth's resources, especially its oil? Why, after declaring total victory over the "alien" commies in 1991 and putting the Cold War to bed for forever (or so it seemed then), did our military continue to strive for "global reach, global power" and what, with no sense of overreach or irony, it liked to call "full-spectrum dominance"?

Still, whatever was simmering away inside me, only when I retired from the Air Force in 2005 did I fully face what had been staring back at me all those years: I had met the alien, and he was me.

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The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions

The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn't changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens' shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while -- you won't be surprised to know -- thoroughly thrashing said aliens.

Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle -- with Will Smith's cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman's kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet's "sole superpower." Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own "mission accomplished" moment?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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