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Illumination Without Batteries: Of Gas, Glow Sticks And War

This essay is a reflexive commentary on the current war in Iraq and the US military's abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
London, England
20 MAY 2004

...allow me then to ramble -ramble as American foreign policy in the Middle East has rambled from a road map for peace to pre-emptive conflicts in a 'war on terror', Israeli-style. While in Washington, DC on July 25, 2003 George W. Bush had this to say about maps, "Security is the essential roadblock to achieving the road map to peace."

Road map to peace!

From one great thinker to another I quote Jacob Bronowski, the mathematician, humanist and presenter of the popular 1970s television documentary The Ascent of Man:

"Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime."

Here is part of my road map... Although I was born in the small Indiana town of Bedford, my family soon rambled north to the suburbs of Chicago: hog butcher to the world, city of big shoulders, the second city... the windy city.

1973. Viet Nam. Watergate. The last year that Ron Santo would play third base for the Cubs. Oil embargo. Energy crisis. At the time, I was your typical hyperactive Coca Cola dependent kid. Numerous attempts to wean me from the sweet dark liquor to Tab had failed. One day my father and I waited in queue at a gas station for what seemed hours. After some rather dynamic Coke-fueled protests against stasis on my part, my progenitor lost his sympathies and curtailed my freedom of speech (and dynamism).

Speaking of sudden rises in gas prices, our modern -but well paid- Diogenes, Andy Rooney of CBS's 60 Minutes, had this to say:

"Before we get too mad at OPEC though, we should consider what a group of American businessmen would do if they controlled half the oil in the world. What do you think they'd do? Oh, I think they'd limit production of oil in order to drive up the price of gas. I know damn well that's what they'd do."

When we moved to Chicago, we drove. It is difficult for me to remember what model of car it was, but I am fairly certain it was some kind of dark green GM sedan. At least I think it was a sedan -they have four doors, right?

A couple years later another transfer for my father meant another move for the family. This time we headed west to the distant land called Iowa where I learned to fish for bluegill on Lake Geode, became lifelong friends with Molly Fleming, and missed the opportunity to eat pancakes with the baseball player Paul Molitor (then on a minor league contract with the Burlington Bees).

Molitor would debut for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978; be voted 1993 World Series MVP for the Toronto Blue Jays; and end his career with a .306 batting average: but all of this is a different story.

Glow sticks. My first encounter with the power of glow sticks came while attending Donna Summer-AC/DC-Michael Jackson-Black Sabbath grade school skating parties. All of us hyper-active Coca Cola dependent kids would skate around in circles with glow sticks in our hands twirling them, chewing on them or whipping them at those watching from the edges of the rink -while Olivia Newton John invited us to a place where nobody dared to go. The audio and the visual... trying to catch a skate with Mary Phyllis Jones... falling on my ass... illumination without batteries. Xanadu!

To Mike Kraft, however, the glow stick had an alternate utility.

I first met Mike at Saint Isidore's Elementary School in Cloverdale, a small farm town that by the 1980's would be engulfed by Chicago's ever-expanding sprawl. Mike and I were outcasts: he because Sister Joan just didn't seem to like him and me because she liked me too much. He never did his homework. I asked for extra credit. At graduation Sister Joan gave me Pope John Paul's latest book. I don't remember Mike getting anything. I kissed ass, while Mike preferred to kick it. We were opposite outcasts, but that was okay we were friends.


I can't remember if it was in seventh or eighth grade, but one of those years Mike and I decided to go trick-or-treating together. With my mother's help I became a one-eyed pirate with a bandana and hook hand. Mike grabbed a sheet, a pair of sandals, some ketch-up and a couple of glow sticks. Strategically taping the glow sticks to his body, he transformed himself into Jesus of the Glowing Guts. That Halloween the pirate and Jesus toured the neighborhood bestowing blessings and collecting stares.

Bless you my child.

The Ask A Scientist program run by Argonne National Laboratory describes the inner workings of the glow stick like this:

"The glow stick reaction is an example of chemilumenescence. The chemical reaction in a light stick involves several different steps. Commercial light sticks hold a hydrogen peroxide solution and a solution containing a phenyl oxalate ester and a fluorescent dye. The hydrogen peroxide oxidizes the phenyl oxalate ester, resulting in a phenol and unstable peroxyacid ester. The unstable peroxyacid ester decomposes, resulting in an additional phenol cyclic peroxy compound. The cyclic peroxy compound decomposes to carbon dioxide. This decomposition releases energy to the dye. The electrons in the dye atoms jump to a higher energy level, then fall back to the lower energy level giving off energy in the form of light."

Jesus of the Glowing Guts. If only glow sticks could propel our SUVs!

In the 1990's glow sticks would reappear in my life and the public imaginarium as popular accessories at raves. Along with pacifiers, techno and the drug ecstasy (MDMA), illumination without batteries would become part and parcel of raving. But in 2003 Senator Joseph Biden's proposed Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (The RAVE Act) threatened to classify glow sticks as drug paraphernalia.

Oh, fear not champions of chemilumenescence for the men and women of the US Army's 372nd Military Police Company seem to have invented yet another use for the glow stick. Surely this new utility is what George W. Bush considered when announcing from Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin "Because we acted, torture chambers are closed."

On January 16, 2004 the US Army issued a press release stating that an investigation of abuses at an unnamed prison in Iraq had been ordered. We now know this prison as Abu Ghraib.

Welcome to Abu Ghraib! We are now re-open... and under new management.

Reruns of Hogan's Heros, this is what I know about POW camps. Stalag 13 this is not. Lebeau's not serving omelets with a subtle glasses of burgundy and Sergeant Schultz isn't as cute and cuddly as he used to be. But he still knows nothing, nothing.

Rereading Seymour Hersh's much publicized and at times surreal New Yorker article of May 10, 2004 "Torture At Abu Ghraib" my brain can't help but stumble over his citations of General Taguba's report on abuses at the facility. It is as if he were describing the plot-less details of a snuff film:

"Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape... sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack..."

Sodomizing detainees with glow sticks? Abner Louima's 1997 stationhouse brutalization by the NYPD with a twist! Glow sticks as nightsticks.

Just the text alone is vivid and appalling stuff. It challenges belief, but -fortunately for the incredulous- reason did not rule the day in our age of digital imaging. Enough damningly framed pixels have been distributed in our news reports to convince even the most doubtful. The lamb sleeps with the lion on this one. MIT's Chomsky naps with the National Review's Buckley. Could the apocalypse be next?

And there are more photos where these came from, of this Donald Rumsfeld has reassured us.

We could wait, but let's take the photographic evidence presently at hand. You may feel differently, but I've seen enough horror films and sex flicks to be somewhat desensitized to scenes of torture. Naked bodies, beatings, murder, rape, dogs, torture, sodomy... what's new here? And what exactly is a 'simulated sex act'? That caption takes the cake in doublespeak and makes me question to what degree all sex acts are simulations?

Naked, incarcerated, hooded, Iraqi bodies kneeling while American soldiers pose beside them: forced smiles, dangling cigarettes, green rubber gloves, hands for guns, the symbolic emasculation of the Arab. No, none of these images revolt as much as the self-assured 'mission accomplished' attitude of the thumbs-up given by Graner and England.

Mom... dad, look what I can do?

Well done! Well done!

There's more to come Mr. Rumsfeld? What possibly could you mean?

So, we look... we watch -belief suspended. Some will strive to understand how this could happen, while others may try to forget. A few might buy the glossy coffee table photo book (the perfect conversation starter). But I suspect the conclusion we as a society will draw is that -like the 1968 massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai- Abu Ghraib is an aberration: a by-product of war, the result of deviants, a consequence of the logistical challenges of waging peace in uncivilized lands.

George W. Bush reflected on peace when he gave an address at Oakland University on July 18, 2002. This is what he said, "There's a lot of war talk these days, as there should be, but it's all aimed at making sure the world is peaceful."

Why attempt to understand such atrocities? To prosecute the offenders in a military tribunal does require that the motives be made evident. It may help, but it isn't necessary. No, the absolution of the American conscience is at the root of any such a project. These reprehensible actions did not just materialize from the alien imaginations of a group of soldiers from Virginia. They are the consequence of our own fears. If we as a nation had had the courage to embrace peace and diplomacy a year ago -or even immediately following the aerial terrorist attacks in 2001- we might not be in the precarious position of searching for peace of mind.

Cured ham, grits, Holiday Inn, Ashville: my parents once took my sister and I on a roadtrip to North Carolina and Virgina andirgina in the maroon Chevy Impala station wagon that eventually replaced the green sedan. Beautiful country. Sweet and generous people.

This reference may unsettle you, but I feel its time to reconsider the remarkable words of Bronowski at the end (or was it the beginning) of The Ascent of Man:

"It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of the gods."

Have we in our actions withstood the temptation of arrogance? Can we honestly conclude that in our actions we have sought justice, or have we offered to replace one model of injustice for another?

This week I received an email encouraging me to join in a one-day nationwide gasoline boycott to demonstrate that Americans were not going to stand for being exploited at the gas pump. OPEC cannot hold our fuel tanks hostage. I thought about simply deleting the message, but that didn't seem right. Considering the current news the request seemed bizarre, myopic and very selfish; so, in replying to all (admittedly a web faux pas on my part) I asked that people consider boycotting gasoline everyday.

Oh, that's just brilliant! Then what Adam?

I don't know... this is a ramble, not a rant.

Maybe you need to find the answer to that question.

One final word about peace from George? "I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace."

What I am beginning to believe a little more each day is that history will not remember this war as being one that was fought for peace.

Adam Christopher Snow 2004
why the mea culpas 01.Jun.2004 05:23

Joseph Dane

thanks for the prose. liked the glowing guts bit, but why the mea culpas? didn't we anticipate all of this in november 2001. that is why we marched then and again in winter/spring 2003.