As a novelist, historian, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, politician and raconteur, Gore Vidal has been a voice of reason and dissent since the publication of his first novel The City and the Pillar, in 1948. The author of Lincoln and Julian recently spoke with In These Times and its affiliated radio show “Fire on the Prairie”, about his latest book Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.
Does a victory by either George W. Bush or John Kerry make a difference for the future of what you call the American empire?
I think everything is going to make a difference, because the empire’s collapsing. We’ve run out of money. So there are going to be dramatic changes no matter who is president. I think that with Kerry you’re not apt to have an invasion of Iran, which seems to be in the cards now, and of course Syria. You won’t have an extensive imperial adventure as you’re bound to have with a “war-time president.”
And so I think we’re a bit safer with Kerry. Unfortunately, Kerry is also an imperialist who follows Woodrow Wilson and a bit of FDR, but not FDR enough. FDR knew what he was doing; he was thinking ahead. I think the empire will quietly dwindle, but it might go rather [less] quickly under Kerry. The other one will start wars like brushfires just to distract attention. Kerry won’t.
In Imperial America you call the war on terrorism a “nonsensical war like a war on dandruff.” In your estimation, is the war on terrorism just a new version of the war on communism or are there differences?
For a country to turn itself into an imperial kind of despotism, you need an outside enemy. This was the brilliance of Adolf Hitler and his team. In fact, Goering gave a fascinating interview at Nuremberg. He said that the only way that you can organize an intelligent and well-educated people like the Germans into going to war, a war of conquest, was to frighten them. And you frighten them with, “We have great enemies everywhere, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, all over the place, and they have their eye on us,” and you go from there.
Well, it’s the same techniques in a very crude way that we’re seeing today. You cannot have a war on an abstract noun. “Terrorism” is that. It’s like a war on bad temper. “Oh yes, I really want to join that battle. Where do we start?” It is semantically stupid, and actually in practice it’s diabolical. We knocked down two countries who had done us no harm and intended us no harm. God knows what they intend now. And certainly after 9/11, they were innocent of any of that. But it happened through sheer reiteration and just telling lies, ferocious lies between Cheney and Bush about the connections of al Qaeda and Saddam and so on.
I think we’re a bit tired of that story, but the story never registers. Sixty percent of the American people think that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. When you’ve got people as hypnotized by that, you can only do it two ways, and it can only be done with a lot of premeditation. One is you have a terrible educational system for the general public, where they’re taught nothing when it comes to American history. I think they erase whatever it is they might have in their head.
So you have that, and then you have a totally corrupt media, which will tell any lie that the state wants it to. That’s how you can keep confusing them about who did strike us. Well, Osama bin Laden – I’m perfectly willing to accept he did it. But Afghanistan and Iraq were two countries that we smashed preemptively because one day they might actually do something to us. I imagine these people think everybody’s like themselves. Sometimes they think Americans are like themselves. After all, we developed atomic weapons and then we used them when we didn’t need to use them. I was in the Second World War, and Japan was finished by August ‘45 and was trying to make peace. Truman wanted to drop the bombs to scare Stalin.
What is your assessment of how the American media has covered the Iraq war and the presidential campaign?
The American media is almost by definition a creature of corporate America, which owns it. You can’t expect them to be otherwise. After all, Rupert Murdoch is now an Americanized Australian, so he has to be included in that. Corporate America knows what it wants.
The real battle here, which nobody has brought out in the campaign and I would have thought it was obvious, is that in 2001 Cheney came to Washington as vice president and more importantly as the great power in Halliburton, the oil and gas people. Interested in making money for his firm and himself, he called in a meeting of leading geologists and people who know about oil reserves and natural gas, and he asked a question which is quite sensible, “How much longer do we, the world, have for fossil fuels?” And they did their experiments and said, “Well, it looks like it’s all over in 2020.” That is when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began. 9/11 was just a lucky trigger for somebody who had already decided to attack Iraq and get a hold of their oil fields, position himself and his buddies for a war on Iran which has, I think, even greater oil resources, or rather the Caspian Sea has, and those little republics that end in “stan.” Those are the greatest oil reserves in the world, greater than Saudi Arabia.
So by taking out Iraq and making it an American base, which hasn’t worked terribly well, ditto Afghanistan, we are now on top of the world’s oil supply, which is what these people came into office to do. And when they talk about freedom and liberty and democracy, you just want to … I’m not going to use any strong verbs, but it’s the hypocrisy and the viciousness and the fact that the media covered for them and never questioned them, never took anything beyond what were the parameters that they had set up.
As you write in Imperial America, the military-industrial complex is such an entrenched part of America’s system of governance it is hard to imagine extracting ourselves from it. How can we break the vicious cycle?
By losing a war and by going broke. We’ve lost the Iraq war, no matter how long we stay in there. And secondly, we have no money. They were proposing about a year ago, merrily, that they, Rumsfeld etc., needed another 1‑million-man army. Well there is not enough money in the entire country to pay for that. On the other hand, they do have a plus. There are 2 million jobs forever lost in the last four years, and that gives you at least 1 million men that you could put under arms by restoring the draft. It will probably come to that, because the ones that are in the field are getting irritable, perhaps even mutinous, and they know that they have been used and thrown away. There are hard days coming should the Bush regime continue. There are also hard days coming if Kerry’s in.
Do you think the outcome of the election will determine whether or not a draft is reinstated?
I think Kerry is smart enough not to bring on a revolution. After all, I was in the army at the time of the draft, and I know how extremely unpopular it was, and that was a real war we were involved in. This is not a war. That’s why I make fun of the war on terror and compare it to bad temper or dandruff, whatever. Terrorism is a fact of life. In any country that you live there are always disgruntled elements that are going to attack the status quo. The Brits lived with the IRA for generations. The Spanish live with the Basques. The Italians have the Red Brigades. There are all kinds of minorities that turn to terrorism from time to time. Why should we be exempt, since we’ve done so many dreadful things to so many minorities, starting with Native Americans?
In one of your essays you write, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not illuminate, action.” The idea that the conservatives have mastered the art of manipulating political rhetoric (and consequently the opinions of Americans) is a hot topic on the left. Does the far right have the upper hand in terms of manipulating language, or is using language to obfuscate issues an equal problem across the political spectrum?
Well the far right wins in most of this because they’ve got the money. They own the newspapers and the FOX network. They own everything. They don’t even have to use much artifice to twist language in their own propagandistic direction. They have to work less hard to get their message across. I use a Confucius quote in that piece. If he became emperor, what was the first thing he would do? He said: “I’d rectify the language so the people don’t know what the emperor’s talking about. There could be no harmony.”
How do you predict the war in Iraq will play out? A $1 billion embassy and permanent military bases are being built.
None of that’s going to happen. They will try and make it happen, let’s say if the Bush people continue in office. They’ve invested too much time and our blood and our money, but it isn’t going to work. No invader from outside has ever made it in the Middle East. This goes back to the Crusaders and the Kingdom of Acre, which lasted about 200 years and that was the longest time, but things go much faster now. We aren’t going to be there. It’s very simple. How do you pay for it? Are the American people really to be put on short rations? And, meanwhile, we’re running out of oil in the world. There goes the world economy as well as ours. It isn’t going to happen; it’s going to fall apart. The idea is you just whistle and you have an army. They just don’t seem to have any idea of what armies are like and how much they cost, how hard it is to raise one and how hard it is to use one.