It was my second cross-country train ride. First a section of the “Blue Water” route from Flint, Michigan to Chicago. From Chicago, it’s the jingoistically named “Empire Builder,” cutting through the lands of the Ojibwa, Lakota, Blackfeet and Salish. The name Empire Builder celebrates an empire built on the bones of these people and countless others.
Despite the name, the route is fantastic: crossing the wide-open desolate beauty of North Dakota and Eastern Montana along the Hi-Line, creeping ever closer to the Rockies and Glacier National Park. There is some deep and hidden part of ourselves that is woken, electrified, by an endless vista of prairie grasses undulating across the landscape like a soft sea. It could be a genetic memory to the African savannah of our hominid ancestors, or even further back to the mother waters from which we emerged. To watch it’s passing, hour after hour, from the window of a train is at once mesmerizing and exhilarating. A tonic for the disease of city life.
Somewhere in North Dakota, maybe Minot or Stanley, the train stopped to pick up a single passenger. From my window, I saw the scene that’s been repeated a million times in this country: Mom and Dad at the side of their pickup truck, their son, pulling his duffle from the truck bed, his uniform carefully ironed, his hair freshly cut. There’s a long hug from Mom, until the son finally breaks free. There’s an awkward attempt at a hug, floundering into a handshake, from Dad. The child soldier climbs on board. Mom and Dad return to their truck – the day’s chores still need to be done, and there will be less help around the farm for some time, perhaps (they know) forever.
The newly minted soldier makes his way down the aisle and slumps into a seat a few rows up from mine. His belief in the justice of his cause fights to mask his fear. When I was young, I felt anger toward people in uniform – for me they represented the corrupt government and corporate powers that created them. But eventually, I realized that they are not representatives of the corruption, but are victims of it. When I see a soldier now I feel pity. Many are victims of a poverty draft, all are victims of the great Lie: that they are fighting for some ideal rather than corporate profits.
This was in 2003 or 2004. A war based on a lie was being played out on the other side of the world. A war for oil, for Halliburton’s bottom line, for George Bush’s need to look tough. The lie was two-fold: that Iraq had a connection to the attacks of 9/11, and that they were harboring weapons of mass destruction. Of course, both claims were overwhelmingly proved untrue (although 80% of Fox News viewers continued to believe one or both of these claims).
Mom and Dad returned to the farm, proud of their son. Believing in the righteousness of this cause. Another family made victim to the propaganda of American media; victim of the lies of The White House; victims of the flag-waving and disingenuous use of words like “freedom,” “patriotism,” “service.” The building of the empire continually needs new bones for its great project.