There’s a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that I can’t seem to shake. The scene takes place in a cavernous underground bunker where the U.S. president and his war cabinet have gathered to try and prevent an accidental nuclear exchange. They invite the Russian ambassador into the room in an attempt at diplomacy, but the effort devolves into a wrestling match between the ambassador and a zealous American general. Rushing to break it up, the president, played by a deadpan Peter Sellers, shouts, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”
The laughs in Dr. Strangelove are cathartic because the film’s premise is so terrifying. Kubrick had wanted to make a documentary about living on the nuclear brink, but he worried that no one could bear to watch it. Comedy, he reckoned, was the only way to get his point across. So he fashioned a cast of eccentric characters, played by no less than Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens among others. The movie was made before I was born, but I’ve been living in its shadow my whole life. So have you.
Every day when I look up I am reminded that we are at war. My yard falls in the flight path of the C-17 transport planes from Joint Base Charleston. They are constantly coming and going, ferrying troops and supplies to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. A staffer at the base describes in a YouTube video that a C-17 takes off or lands somewhere in the world about every three minutes. Yet most of us are unaware of the war machine running all day, every day. Perhaps this is because we have stopped declaring war. Indeed, in my lifetime Congress has abdicated its responsibility to do this, handing unchecked and unconstitutional power to the president. Or perhaps it is because we are no longer asked to sacrifice. Our military families bear the brunt of our endless wars, deploying their sons and daughters over and over again while the rest of us leaf through newspapers and ask ourselves things like where Niger is when we read of American soldiers killed there. We find other things to argue about every 24-hour news cycle. But we’re really just fighting in the war room, surrounded by a greater gloom.
Charleston, of all places, should be asking questions about why we’re still at war in so many countries, what our strategy and goals are, and when we might slow the carousel of C-17s. After all, we are a military town and many here know the sacrifice better than most. Yet we also live in a state that strongly supports a president who never served because he claimed to have debilitating bone spurs. He has now surrounded himself with others who have not served, yet seem eager to send others into harm’s way. MikePompeo has publicly supported torture by U.S. intelligence agencies and advocated regime change in Iran and North Korea. John Bolton’s views are even more extreme; he argued this year in The Wall Street Journal that it would be moral and legal for us to launch a first strike against North Korea. Bolton has also long supported bombing Iran and maintained, 15 years on, that our preemptive invasion of Iraq was a good idea. These are now key advisers to our impulsive president, who tweets insults at celebrities and threats at foreign leaders as if they were all part of a reality television show. Yet while the cast of characters is crazy enough for Dr. Strangelove, none of this is funny at all. We now stand at the brink.
It should be enough to have us pick up the phone and call those who represent us in this military town. We might ask them to fulfill their constitutional duties and consider questions of when we declare and wage war. We might ask them to check the powers of the executive and break the pattern of undeclared wars that stretches back more than seven decades now. We might ask them to support the beleaguered State Department and increase our diplomatic efforts. Or we might ask them to protect the one grown-up left in the president’s cabinet, General James Mattis. We’re counting on his cooler head to prevail. His nickname, “Mad Dog,” is straight out of a Kubrick film.
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