LIFE DURING WARTIME: From the 2003 diaries of DAVID BYRNE (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 5 (July 2003)

Life During Wartime

From the journals of musician-artist-activist David Byrne…


These are excerpts from a journal/diary. Obviously I’ve taken out all the personal stuff and left only the notes referring to the war, or rather, the invasion of Iraq. This makes me seem like a bit of an obsessive-all the rest of my life has been edited out and only the anger and paranoia remains. I’d prefer a life with the anger and paranoia edited out, but it seems that won’t be in the cards this year.

Feb 9 

Dinner at GM’s birthday at Savoy-lots of New York Times, New Yorker and other writers present whom I didn’t know—Don DeLillo at least I knew. A situation where I couldn’t jump up and leave easily, so I guess I wasn’t going to manage to sneak out and see those Icelandic bands downtown. Surprisingly, after some chit-chat with my surrounding diners the topic inevitably turned to the war and soon got very heated. The New Yorker writer next to me, for example—a young, attractive woman-said, “the French are always a problem, they’ve CAUSED this problem; so many of these Arab intellectual problem people studied there, and their philosophers, Derrida etc., are all sympathetic”—this is a paraphrase, but you get the idea. It just went on from there. A surprising number surrounding me were gung-ho for the war. None are dummies, but it’s surprising how they toe the Bush propaganda line and don’t see it as propaganda at all. I actually shouted at one point (saying it wasn’t just the French—if you’re going to slander those who disagree with this policy then you’d better deal with the Russians and Germans too at this point) Their position is that the success of the U.S. intervention in Bosnia justifies the use of military intervention, but that took place after how many years of vacillating, and with at least a few other nations backing, no? Milosevic and co were actually still involved in their ethnic cleansing campaign when NATO began bombing. Korea and Turkey are now additional powder kegs in the conversations, both of them confusing issues and mostly avoided. Yikes, what’s going on here? 

It is amazing that this topic dominates bourgeois dinner conversation–as it should–but still, it’s a strange new world. Again, I don’t feel comfortable here. Yikes. 

Feb 12 

Well, I guess I felt pushed over the edge by last night’s dinner. Decided to see if I can take out a New York Times full-page anti-war ad and recruit other musicians to lend their names and cash, as the thing might cost as much as 80 thousand!! Josh at Luaka Bop has been helpful, thanks to his experience with the Beasties’ Tibet efforts. Danielle and I did a rough layout, and Josh brought in a coordinator, a guy named David Fenton who’s done lots of political ads–and in this case Fenton had just met with Russell Simmons, who guaranteed that he, Jay-Z, Mos Def and Puff Daddy are in. Move On (the organization that has organized some of the marches) has agreed to cover half the cost if need be, which is a relief. 

Osama is using the impending war to his own advantage (despite his undisguised dislike for Saddam) and is calling for more attacks on the U.S. Our government’s response is to suggest that we stock up on water and duct tape.

Feb 19 

The anti-war ad is coming together nicely. Russell Simmons brought in a bunch of rap and R&B artists; my favorite is Missy Elliot, but many are impressed that 50 Cent has joined, as he has the #1 record in the country at the moment. Massive Attack and Blur fell in at the last minute. We’ve almost got enough…I suspect that by the Monday morning placement deadline we’ll have a few more, and that will be enough. Almost got enough money, too. Odd that the rappers have declined to contribute cash (they who sell more records than the rest of us combined), claiming they have other Black causes that they also support. Well, OK. Some others, not surprisingly, claim shortage of funds, but most pledge something or other. I’m thrilled, truly, that this has come together.

Feb 21 Göttingen, Germany 

I’m here overseeing the printing of an art book. This evening some of the folks involved have dinner together at a local Italian place, Gerhard, Pascal, Amy and I. The talk turns to politics as I mention that my Times ad is going ahead and that I’m thrilled about the list of names. I say that while it all may seem obvious here in Europe, in the U.S. dissent has been stifled and ignored so it is a bold move for many of the musicians to speak out and to add their name to the list. Gerhard notes that this is the first time his parents’ generation, one that has remained staunchly pro-American since WWII, has broken with that unspoken alliance. Evidently that generation feel they have had a lot to thank America for-from the guilt over the war, then the Marshall plan and the post-war miracle–but now it seems they feel America, or at least Bush, has stepped over the line. Bush has broken a trust that has existed for generations and was worth untold millions in economic stability and goodwill. Whooops. Pascal, who is a fashion retoucher and is supervising a picture book by Roni Horn, is anti-war as well, but although he’s French he’s even more vehemently anti-French. He maintains that the French aversion to the war isn’t due to humanitarian qualms but rather it’s because they have business dealings with Iraq and hope to expand those deals in the future. They’re afraid that U.S. troops entering Baghdad will find and reveal contracts, deals and more relations with the French.

Feb 23 Frankfurt 

At the TAT [an alternative performance center] I listen to an artist named Thomas Bayern do a wonderful but somewhat nonsensical talk about highways that twist into Mobius shape and run upside-down and about how to model such things in cardboard. As if it’s the most natural problem in the world. As if everyone has been scratching their heads wondering “how the hell can we get the cardboard to bend this way?” He is an older man who speaks like a sensible lunatic. 

A few people here ask me how things are in NY and the USA, with the implication that the USA has lost its mind; they wonder if it is true, as it seems from here, that the country is blindly going along with George Bush and his fascist pals. I talk briefly with Bill Forsythe, director of the ballet here, who says he recently called his sister or some family member in Colorado and that they are all gung-ho for the war, and Bill said, really? And they also said that they’d just cancelled their trip to NY, as they are afraid of getting gassed, wary of the code orange alert that was issued a week ago-Bill said, “Really? Have you seen Bowling For Columbine? You live in Littleton, after all. They’ve got you, you know? Scared, irrational, hiding–that’s where they want you.”

The Times ad has run today, and it looks great. 

Feb 27 NYC 

Did a press conference with Russell Simmons, Lou Reed, Roseanne Cash and Tom Andrews, the ex-senator from Maine who is leading the Win Without War movement. I’m optimistic; though we are a pathetic showing, I sense that we’re the tip of the iceberg, and that the rest of it will heave into view sooner rather than later now that we’ve broken ground.

Feb 28 

Did a phone interview with USA Today.com, in which readers write in their questions and comments. It was about the antiwar movement and the Musicians United ad. Most questions were aggressive and challenging: “What gives YOU [me, the sort-of celebrity] the right to speak out and foist your opinion on us? What makes YOU the expert?” Sort of a reasonable question, if aggressively put.

The interviewer/moderator was nice, and in the end said she didn’t forward me some of the nastier ones that said, “move to France!” Nice to know that the “love it or leave it” concept is back after ducking its ugly head post-Vietnam. Later, as the venom sank in, I got a real chill, realizing I was actually hated out there, not just hated or despised as an arty pretentious musician, which I’m used to, but hated in a high school bullying kind of way–a mean, vicious and potentially violent way. I might have been scared of gas attacks and terrorist stuff directed against NY in recent months, but now I’m scared of Kansas even more. Easy Rider all over again.

Columbia Maryland

My parents watch two hours of news on TV every night! It’s incessant and interminable, depressing and mind-numbing. I listen and endless news networks play and replay Bush’s speech in which he claims he has a “road map” for the situation in the Mideast, referring mainly to a concrete policy plan for Israel and Palestine. This plan was supposed to have been revealed a week ago (I read in the Guardian, I think) and he promised that he would show a real plan for the region before acting on Iraq. A sense of a map of the road ahead is important to both the Arab world and to the EC, and both were mightily disappointed when he changed his mind and decided that this document would not in fact be released (maybe it doesn’t exist is what I think.) 

But here he is making a speech announcing that this “road map” will not actually be released now, as promised, but some time in the indeterminate future–and this is presented, and accepted, as good news. What is shocking is that none of the American news services reveal that this is actually a change of plan which creates a major problem for much of the world. Instead it’s presented as the administration hopes it would be, as news that something positive will be announced in the indefinite future. An announcement regarding a non-existent document is accepted as good news? Is regarded as any kind of news at all?

March 19 Valencia, Spain

The War, or more accurately, the Invasion of Iraq by the USA has begun. It’s a sad day–the U.S., as suspected, has had this on the agenda for years, and, having been unable to bribe, cajole, pressure and intimidate the nations of the Security Council to pass a resolution legalizing this invasion during the last couple of months, has decided to go it alone–alright, with the U.K., Spain, Australia and our close ally–Bulgaria–but these other nations are mainly there for symbolic purposes and their support is minimal. The reporting, from almost every TV network (CNN, BBC, MSNBC, etc.), is all controlled and manipulated by the US military and their spin doctors. The Invasion is variously called, on different networks, Operation Freedom for Iraq or War in Iraq. The videogame effects, the logos and graphics, the pounding theme music are all relentless and stupid, as they were during Gulf War I; they turn the reportage into a videogame for teenage boys, which it is, I guess. I ask myself, how can I write songs in this climate? It’s not that I am afraid, it’s more that I feel profoundly alienated-from the country in which I live, a country that I admire immensely for the many things it has brought the world and the mad creativity and invention that has issued from this place. I feel like an outsider, something I haven’t felt since my adolescence during the Vietnam War. But at least at that time resistance was cool, hip, exciting and connected to a whole new outlook on life. Now one is constantly surprised by who is actually for the war. Friends who one assumed were intelligent and independent thinkers seem to have been swayed by the waves of hype, lies and propaganda. [Of course, since I myself disagree with them, they can’t be using their intelligence, can they?] I wish all the actors would boycott the upcoming Oscars; a parade of glitter and of the global power of Hollywood that is hardly appropriate now. But I doubt that will happen. If I were a rabid Islamic fundamentalist I would find a way to disrupt the Oscars, since it is such a symbol of both the cultural bankruptcy and the powerful global influence of the US. I ask myself, what can I do now? Granted, there are continuing and immense demonstrations-in every city all over the globe–but can I do more than lend my body to the ranks of the undercounted?

Mar 24 Back in NYC 

It is a little odd, after all the No A La Guerra signs in Barcelona, to be confronted by flags and logos that say simply FREEDOM, when you know the implication of these signs is NOT freedom, they’re actually saying “ OUR WAY, which we call freedom, or the highway.” On the other hand, this is still a country where dissenting views can be spoken…but as they said about Russia, when nothing is permitted, everything (which I take to mean everything that’s said) is important, and when everything is permitted–as it sort of is here– nothing is important. The sheer force of marketing, graphics, salesmanship, propaganda and embedded journalism makes dissent, even thought itself, seem irrelevant. It’s negated by negligence.

Josh, Yale’s assistant at Luaka, tells a story over our common lunch about some friends of his who were having dinner at an Indian restaurant in NY. They were just ordering when a bunch of guys from the Dept. of Homeland Security burst in, guns drawn, saying they needed to search the place as it was suspected of assisting terrorist organizations. Josh’s friends watched for a while as the employees were grilled and questioned, and some were handcuffed. The guns were still out. One of his friends asked if the employees were allowed to call a lawyer; a gun was then pointed at Josh’s friends and they were told no, that under the Patriot Act it’s not required or necessary, and that if his friends had any more questions they’d be joining the employees downtown. They took the hint and left the restaurant, ate somewhere else and walked by later, and saw that the Homeland Security guys were still in there.

The Middle East looks like Western Cowboys vs. other (Eastern) cowboys to me, and the vibe I get, having just returned from Europe and having spoken with friends who work internationally is that the rest of the world is now contemplating how to balance the might and arrogance of the U.S. Sadly, it has little to do with whether we might be right keeping Saddam in line or not; rather, it’s the sense that the U.S. has no right to unilaterally decide who shall rule their own nations. Hell, Bush wasn’t really elected either, so the U.S. can hardly be said to represent the democracy they claim to be bringing to the oppressed of the world.

I go to see a recent Chinese film called Unknown Pleasures and before the film begins there are a pile of ads for several upcoming TV mini series–one I remember is Rudy, starring James Woods, the life and times of ex-NY-mayor Rudy Giuliani. I’ve never seen TV try so hard to get people out of the movie theater and back onto their sofas. The middle-aged woman a couple of seats down from me asks when the Rudy TV movie starts and I tell her, “tonight, at 8…if you leave in the middle of this film you can still catch it!” She didn’t think my comment was funny.

Then comes a hip hop music video–or at least that’s what it looks like at first, until one spots the fire engine red Coke cans prominently placed in our line of sight. The “It’s the real thing” line figures repeatedly in the tune, a play on the “keeping it real” philosophy ubiquitous in hip hop. The “video” is interrupted by a dramatic comedy scene in which Common, a Chicago rapper known for being “conscious,” issues-oriented and credible, is seated at a conference table across from a (white) record executive who tries to persuade him of the value of a Common action figure and other tacky merchandise. Common, of course, turns it all down, because, like the man of integrity he is, he’s “keeping it real”…with Coke. The video kicks back in. With Coke?! 

What a bit of mind-warping business this ad was! It’s not only cool now to sell out and endorse, of all things, Coca-Cola, but somehow selling out is NOT selling out, because it’s Coke, after all. Huh? Can we see that again? Did I hear that right? Have we entered some kind of mirror universe, where things are actually their complete opposites? Now, I don’t care if Common decides to sell out and play for Coke or not–but actually I’m surprised and a little shocked, as he’s one of the last people I’d expect to do this, which is probably why he was approached. Lil’ Kim would sign on for a sexy “action” dolly in a NY minute, but we wouldn’t expect to see this guy doing it. Which is exactly the point, eh? But I still don’t get it. How does seeing someone with integrity selling out imply that selling out now demonstrates a form of integrity? Does cheating on your girlfriend mean that you’re actually faithful to her? Does imposing foreign domination mean that you’re actually bringing democracy?….

War Porn: The lovely diagrams of high-tech missiles and bombers that fill the back pages of the Times like Playboy centerfolds, the charts detailing the inevitable advance of the troops. Deep into enemy territory. Thrusting across the desert sands….

After dropping my daughter at her Hip Hop dance class on upper Broadway I go across the street to a Starbucks for a tea and to read my book on Post-structuralism for dummies, or something like that. When I finish and I’m preparing to leave, a soldier, or someone dressed like one, comes in wearing full battle gear, a camouflage outfit (to blend in with what, I wonder?), slinging a machine gun. Haven’t seen the likes of this since my last trip to Israel, JFK airport security or South America. I stand next to the soldier and ask the Starbucks man if the toilet needs a key and I notice that the soldier is baffled, flummoxed-he can’t seem to decide which kind of caffeinated beverage option he prefers. It’s as if he’s never been in a place with so many weird coffee options before–not surprisingly. I myself still refuse to call small tall. The other customers sort of gawk in amazement. I also wonder to myself if anyone, myself, for example, in an Army surplus camouflage outfit with a few badges sewn on, could carry a machine gun out in the open around New York City. I guess the answer is yes, as he was alone-there was no troop vehicle waiting outside while he got all the jarheads their macchiatos and cappuccinos.

I see pictures of these guys in the daily papers, advancing heroically into Baghdad, pictured giving candy to some pathetic Iraqi children (whose parents they may well have just blown up.) These guys feature in all the embedded newspaper propaganda these days-in the Times, the Post and the Daily News. On CNN and especially Fox TV. These young soldiers, like NY cops, are loaded down with all sorts of gear: backpacks, gas masks, sunglasses, maps, satellite positioning systems, helmets, night vision stuff, a few guns, satellite telephones and maybe even walkie-talkies. These one-man command posts are slow lumbering dinosaurs compared to the Iraqis, the Vietnamese and the Chechens. They are America’s Knights, fighting men in the current high-tech version of medieval armor (which was equally high tech, sexy, heavy and expensive in its day), using the best yet simultaneously inappropriate technology to fight an enemy that doesn’t even wear a uniform half the time–the cowards.

Yesterday the Americans in Baghdad had a photo opportunity featured all over on the US media: pulling down an Iraqi statue of Saddam. It began with the Iraqis doing the job, but that was not fast enough for the U.S. TV crews, so a U.S. tank heaved in, shoving the Iraqis aside (a little metaphor here) and after draping a U.S. flag over the statue’s head (another little metaphor here) hooked up a chain and pulled it down. The lack of sensitivity by the U.S. jarheads and media is shocking-here lies the real shock and awe.

[This photo event it appears was carefully stage managed- according to a reporter form El Pais who was there. According to him the Iraqi enthusiasts were bussed in by the US military and there were only 50 of them, so they had to be moved around to make all the news shots look good]

April 13 

I read in a book review about a lynching in San Jose in the ‘30s in which fever and passions of the crowd who strung up and abused the victims (they were indeed guilty) had been whipped up and excited by the coverage in the local paper. I am reminded of the recent war and pre-war coverage in the U.S. media and press-the similar fanning of primitive animal flames until a conflagration is inevitable and unstoppable. The glorification of the technology, the single point of view, the rampant patriotism and the imagery that is geared to motivate and excite-the logos, the rapid editing with pulse-pounding music and the print attitude and it’s tech-y graphics-it makes the media as responsible as the Bushies for the death and future misery that will befall a people and a region….not to mention the US, when the blowback eventually occurs. 

April 14 

An Op-Ed piece in the Times mentions that the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution to “support” our troops in Iraq…and then minutes later they vetoed a bill for veterans’ benefits.

Another Op-Ed piece compares Bush’s saying the inclusion of the U.N. in post-war Iraq is “vital” to the way a upper-class person considers their butler to be vital, implication being that Bush sees the U.N. playing much the same role as a servant. 

April 27 

Two articles in today’s Times Magazine: The cover is a lurid cartoon of teenagers escaping from North Korea, an ominously dramatic replay of the mythic image of Berlin Wall jumper dramas. The escape to freedom, the desperate desire for the West.  The timing seems possibly ordained by the U.S. government-isn’t North Korea next? And isn’t this a perfect way to “explain” to the chattering classes another oppressive regime and the obvious need to change it? Does the Bush administration suggest what the Times focuses on, and when, or are these coincidences all part of the national zeitgeist?

Another article, entitled The Empire Slinks Back, is a book review of an apology for empire-a common stance now that Emperor Bush II is on the throne. The book claims, as many other recent articles do, that the Victorian empire, their chosen example, established law, democratic institutions and education in its outposts around the world. Whether it’s true or not, the unsubtle subtext is that the American empire will be a good thing for the cultures it obliterates and dominates. 

Categories: Arthur No. 5 (July 2003), David Byrne | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

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