M&M Enterprises

When I was a young man, I read (as every young person should) Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a novel about the absurd bureaucracy of war and the misery it wreaks on those caught within it.

The most absurd character in the book is Milo Minderbinder, who – at least initially – runs the mess hall. A true entrepreneur, Milo steals supplies from the army and sells them on the black market. He justifies this by telling the servicemen he’s cheating that they will all benefit from his larceny. He issues “shares” in M&M Enterprises. The Ms stand for Milo and Minderbinder, but he put an ampersand between them to “demonstrate” that the company will benefit all. “What’s good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country,” he tells the airmen who complain that he’s ripping them off and endangering their lives by selling the safety equipment from their planes. (Does any of this sound familiar?)

By the end of the book, Milo has misappropriated an entire squadron of planes and is bombing his own airbase, having signed a contract with the Germans to do so. It’s absurd, right? Mr. Heller, like many novelists, uses exaggeration to allow readers to see our own society in a new light.

If only. I looked at the news Tuesday afternoon to see ABC reporting that the Justice Department now admits American military personnel tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay on behalf of the Chinese government. Milo immediately came to mind. “We’re doing this on a contract with the Germans!” I heard him say.

Joseph Heller’s irony is now our reality. The people we tortured at Guantanamo for the Chinese are Uighurs. Uighurs are an ethnic minority from western China who practice Islam. U.S. military personnel kept the Uighur prisoners awake, unfed and subjected to low temperatures for hours prior to the arrival of Chinese interrogators. The idea was to “soften them up” and make them more likely to tell the Chinese what they wanted to know (or at least what they wanted to hear).

It’s come to this. In the hectic days after Sept. 11th, John Yoo and other Bush administration functionaries cranked out memos justifying torture on the grounds that America was under threat of imminent, devastating terrorist attack. Two and half years later, we were treated to scores of photos from Abu Ghraib of soldiers torturing prisoners as they “softened them up” for military and CIA interrogators. A few enlisted were held accountable, even though authorization for such tactics went all the way to the Oval Office, via then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Now we learn America is the outsource for Chinese torture and no even seems to blink.

The other voice in my head, sounding quite at home next to Milo Minderbinder’s, belongs to George W. Bush. “They hate us for our freedom,” he said repeatedly in the months after September 11th. What kind of freedom, Mr. Bush? Religious freedom? The Uighurs of western China just want to be left alone, like the Tibetans, another ethnic minority whose homeland has been occupied by the Chinese, who disapprove of their Buddhist religion.

I thought the “global war on terror” was supposed to bring the values of western democracy to the world. Seven years on, our own civil liberties have withered away, Iraq and Afghanistan are ruined nations, the terrorists are stronger than ever and our government acts more like them every day.

China holds over a trillion dollars in U.S. currency, thanks to our enormous trade deficit, so when they come asking for a wee bit of torture, it’s awfully hard to say no. America, which in very recent memory was a beacon of liberty for the world, is now torturing people who seek religious freedom at the behest of the Communist government of China. We turn our heads away as Tibetans protest the half-century of Chinese occupation and repression because, hey, we want our Olympics. The tee vee rights and the marketing tie-ins are worth billions.

Welcome to the 21st century and to hell with the notion that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What’s good for G&W&B Enterprises is good for the country.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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