Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all! So rhymed Method Man, of the famed New York hip hop collective Wu Tang Clan, in 1993. Underprivileged denizens of a particularly rough and tumble, if forgotten, slice of my own forgotten borough of Staten Island, most of the street dudes turned rappers in the Clan had been legit low-level narcotics dealers and, at times, weapons-totting players in the infamous Park Hill and Stapleton housing projects just a couple years before this mega-hit track dropped.
In a bit of, albeit wholly characteristic, irony, young white hipsters continue to adore and champion the Wu Tang Clan (it’s not uncommon to see white undergrads at the University of Kansas – where I now live – sport their shirts) to this day, more than a quarter century after their debut album hit the airwaves. Method Man, perhaps the most recognizable mainstream face of the Wu, went on to star, from 2003-08, as fan-favorite Baltimore drug dealer Calvin “Cheese” Wagstaff in HBO’s critically acclaimed series "The Wire." Incidentally, the show is also a cult-classic among the white hipster crowd (and, full disclosure, is one of my all-time favorites too).
I got to thinking about all this otherwise extraneous – if fascinating – New York hip hop lore, after mass (often fair) criticism of my last column here at Antiwar.com, "Happy Afghanistan Surrender Day,” flowed in this week. In one explanatory sense, it’s become increasingly clear to me that satire inevitably falls flat with many internet readers. Still, while a full reading of the piece ought to have made clear that I, too, am skeptical about the nature of, and longterm prospects for, President Trump’s "peace deal," much of the more thoughtful critique was valid and worthy of author engagement.
More interestingly, since I run in certain left-oriented publishing and social media circles, most of the strongest opposition to my (I thought) cautious assertion that I "conceptually" support U.S. troop withdrawal, and (again, I thought) modest plea that antiwar critics not "make this critical moment all about bashing The Donald," came from the very hipster-influenced crowd that reveres Wu Tang Clan and "The Wire." So, when my scores of responses to these readers’ queries, as to why the Afghan War will likely go on, inevitably turned to explication of the power and influence of the American militarist national security state – military-industrial-complex (MIC) in simplified shorthand – my tangent-suited brain immediately connected the drug trade to the defense industry.
While I didn’t grow up in Wu Tang’s Park Hill section of Staten Island, and my neighborhood life didn’t quite resemble the cinematic drama of "The Wire," I grew up just close enough – in proximity and time (the 1990s) – to remember the ubiquity of New York’s open-air drug markets. Allow me, then, to describe the forever war-prolonging MIC’s contemporary operations through the lens of a Staten Island, or Baltimore (as portrayed in "The Wire") street corner.
From the top down, there’re the "suppliers" (of mass narcotics or weapons "product") or "Kingpins," running the whole show. In "The Wire," these real powerbroker had cheeky street names like "Proposition Joe;” in real life Staten Island, monikers like those held by the long powerful brothers Harvey "Big Black," and Anthony, "Nitty," Christian – who, interestingly had alleged connections to the Wu Tang Clan. In the context of the forever wars, these big-time "shot-callers" carry such sobriquets as Boeing, Raytheon, and Honeywell – though it is only the CEOs and top executives of these defense contractors who truly qualify as Kingpins.
These bigwigs then employ mid- to high-level dealers to "hold weight" (slang for drugs) and do the neighborhood and corner-level dealing. In the world of the MIC, these are the well-compensated executives running the defense company. It helps, by the way, if these folks have previous military experience and can make their way, eventually, into government. For example, the West Point class of 1986, alone, has three former defense industry-connected representatives atop the Trump administration: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his close academy buddy Brian Bulatao (whom Pompeo made the CIA’s chief operating officer when he previously ran the agency), and Secretary of Defense (and longtime Boeing lobbyist) Mark Esper. Were this situation to unfold in Eastern Europe or West Africa, Americans might call that corruption.
It is nothing less than vital for the "weight-holders" to have a military and/or eventual Washington connection. That way, they can both seem "credible" to, and influence, the next analogous group in the trade: the drug "fiends," or customers – in this case the US Government and a "tweaking" Congress that relies on defense jobs in their districts for public financial and electoral support. (Disturbingly, even otherwise antiwar and excessive defense spending opponent Bernie Sanders has, at times, equivocated over, or defended, the presence of the Air Force’s boondoggle F-35 fighter jet program in Vermont). Decade after decade, year after year, bipartisan super-majorities in Congress – representing, ostensibly, the US Government and People – willingly buy whatever the corporate corner-dealer has for sale…more every year in fact.
Now, to protect the drug "stash" – and particular street "real estate" – from rival dealers, the weight-holders need to hire, and surround themselves with, "muscle." These rough characters often carry weapons and intimidatingly "hold court," showing presence, on a given drug corner. Though a bit of a tougher analogy, one supposes that the common troopers and junior- to-mid-career military officers of the army, navy, air force, and marine corps, probably qualify as any presidential administration’s (and their MIC-owner’s) musclemen.
And, though, for officers, military salaries (and especially benefits) can be solid, neither the soldiers or gang members who "muscle-up" for the bosses are getting rich. For example, as the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh described in his 2005 book, Gang Leader for a Day, most folks running or protecting drugs in Chicago earned barely more than minimum wage. Well, all the same, most of my troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan sacrificed their lives for something approaching $30-40,000 a year.
Now, even the weight-holding and pushing dealers on the corner need advertisers, publicists even. These are the underage, often pre-pubescent, future players who stand a dozen meters or so up and down the avenue alternately hollering "5-0" (to warn of the approach of the, thus nicknamed, police) or the regularly rotating brand-names for that day’s drug product. In "The Wire," almost too coincidentally, the slick brands hollered out by these young street kids had particularly martial overtones. A few of the famous drug trademarks yelled out in the show were "WMD!" and "Troop Surge!" Well, though the participants inevitably trade their baggy jeans and Timberland boots for thousand dollar tailored suits, the MIC also has such publicity men on their payroll. You know them as…lobbyists.
To maximize effect, in fact, many of these lobbyists – who sell their own brand of (more existentially deadly) "WMDs" to the US Government – are former generals and admirals from the military. Thanks to a fast-spinning and quite lucrative "revolving door” that seamlessly provides entry for retired flag officers into the defense industry, it is, in fact, increasingly difficult to parse out any real difference between the Pentagon and the corporate tycoons who equip them (at a generous profit margin, of course).
Drugs and high-tech weapons. Narcotics pushers and (what 1930s US Senators actually called) "Merchants of Death" in the gun-running defense industry. Really – what’s the difference? Should the remarkable similarities in these twin industries’ operations surprise us? I mean, given the CIA’s lengthy, I think quite credible, alleged involvement in the crack-cocaine epidemic’s spread in the 1980s – and more certainly, its toleration of drug-money-fueled right wing death squads that it backed in Central America at the time – why not compare the MIC to street corner drug gangs? What, honestly, is the moral difference between the two trades, besides the fact that one destroys individual lives whilst the other (the MIC) does that in spades, but also scuttles what’s left of the American (small "r") republic.
It’s all sort of a pick-your-poison scenario at this point. In one sense, while I support Trump’s conceptual withdrawal plan and don’t think he’s uniquely bad on this particular conflict, the sale of Afghan "peace" (or more war) is scantly different from the peddling of a crack vial. Both offer little more than an illusory escape from reality. The death merchants on the street – whether Staten Island’s Park Hill Avenue or Washington’s K Street – both traffic in death, of body and soul.
All Americans – whether engaged or apathetic – are, by now, party to this forever war-profit-perpetuation system. It is a prison of sorts, for each of us. Wu Tang rapper Inspectah Deck seemed to recognize precisely this 27 odd years ago, when, in the second verse of "C.R.E.A.M.," he opined that "as the world turns I learned life is hell, living in the world no different from a cell."
As for me, I actually prefer the plain language and authenticity of the corner dealers. Both the defense industry and drug gangs push poison…but at least the latter is honest about it…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen