Monday, August 11, 2008

Mike Davis reconnoiters the Borderlands

Pic: Cruising the Border Fence, San Diego-Tijuana, 2008

At Bomb Magazine this month, Lucy Raven drives around the San Diego-Tijuana border with Mike Davis, discovering pirate urbanization, the border fence, drug tunnels, Iraqi groceries, war dolphins, and the urban warfare simulators at Yodaville, where poor immigrants masquerade as insurgent Iraqis:

LR How do the public sector and the public servants of San Diego function in the context all of these other, privatized operations?

MD San Diego not only supplies research and technology for the Bush-era hybrid of empire and homeland-security police state, but it also provides—together with nearby desert areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties—an extraordinary proving ground for their application and integration. These days there are approximately one quarter-million soldiers, sailors, and marines, either officially based or in training, in our Pentagon beaches and deserts. The border—now reinforced with National Guard and Coast Guard detachments as well as ICE and its friends—has become an integral part of this virtual (and real) warspace.

Since most tourists and non-military residents—I suppose beguiled by pandas and wet t-shirts—don’t even register the monumentality of these mega-bases and naval installations, they are unlikely to read the surrealistic fine print. For example, about 50 miles east of San Diego along the border is an obscure naval facility called La Posta Naval Reserve Base. In fact, it is “virtual Afghanistan” where Navy SEALs and probably the elite Marine recon guys train before they go to Afghanistan, because it so strikingly resembles that landscape. Forty or fifty miles northeast of La Posta, still in San Diego County, is the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) facility at Warner Springs where SEALs try to survive in the mountains but are inevitably captured and brutally interrogated. You might have seen the SERE (Florida) sequence in G.I. Jane where Viggo Mortensen beats the shit out of Demi Moore. SERE training has been invoked in the defense of waterboarding and torture, since our commandos and pilots themselves undergo what the Spanish Inquisition used to call “The Question.”

Live here for a while (I grew up in the San Diego backcountry in the ’50s and early ’60s) and you will inevitably have eerie, unexpected encounters with the brave new world that a trillion dollars of recent military expenditures is summoning into being. On hot days I like to run at the harbor with a sea breeze in my face. Frequently, in the mornings, there are dolphins doing Sea World–like stunts in the water; after an encore, they hop aboard the flat back of a Navy fast-boat which roars back to the “marine-mammal weapons facility”—or whatever it is actually called—at Ballast Point. The dolphins, of course, are the advanced descendants of pioneering ancestors domesticated and weaponized in the ’70s. Together with some killer whales and a few sea lions, they are now a routine part of the naval arsenal and were used to penetrate Sadaam’s harbor defenses during both Iraq wars. They are also rumored (most recently by the London Independent) to be efficient underwater assassins with a gunlike device attached to their friendly faces.

The military also operates its own versions of Disneyland. San Clemente Island, just over the horizon, west of the Encinitas surf shops and pickup bars, is one of the Pentagon’s most valuable assets. It’s about 25 miles long and has been bombarded, strafed, and invaded almost daily since the early Second World War. Recently they opened a 21-million-dollar American embassy on San Clemente: smaller than Madonna’s house, but still useful for practice by Marines and SEALs.

More well known perhaps are the stage-set versions of Fallujah and Sadr City. These “urban warfare simulators” include “Yodaville” at the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station just across the Arizona border, and the MGM-quality complexes at 29 Palms and Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, where Arab immigrants impersonate unruly natives and give young Marines and soldiers an extra jolt of Baudrillardian hyper-reality.

Pic: "Welcome Space Brothers": Mike Davis goes all BLDGBLOG on the Model Unarian City

In the Parking Lot of San Diego Christian College

MD This is the local megachurch and Christian college: probably the only curriculum in the world where you can pursue a double major in aviation and creation studies. The spiritual and earthly architect is Tim LaHaye, one of the authors of the Left Behind series, who now lives in L.A., but was the pastor here when I was in high school. The campus used to be a convent and Catholic girls’ school.

Presumably the Rapture will begin at this very spot: North Greenfield Drive in El Cajon. The real estate agents, used car dealers and trophy wives will be beamed up to paradise in a flight path ordained by their fierce Republican God while the white trash, the Chaldean Catholics, the Chicanos, and all of us pagans are left to burn. This is why I truly regard the Unarians—those pleasant reincarnations of Joan of Arc and Rudolph Valentino—as tantamount to the Age of Reason (or at least pleasant tolerance) in medieval El Cajon.

LR It looks like they give you a good parking space if it’s your first time.

MD If we don’t leave, they will come out and shanghai us for a sermon. Honestly, if I was a more adventurous student of paranormal popular culture, I’d attend some of these megachurches. But neither my wife nor I are good spies. We blurt out the goods at the first opportunity. We were once at the Alamo and one of the tour guides, a daughter of the Texas revolution, came up to us and said, “Welcome to the birthplace of Texas independence. Do you all have any personal connection?” And my wife says, “Oh, I do. My great-great-grandfather, General Juan Amador, helped execute the survivors.” I thought we’d have to get an ambulance for this poor lady.

Mike Davis, by Lucy Raven, Bomb, Issue 104, Summer 2008

The Essential Mike Davis:

City of Quartz (1990), the original neo-Marxist dissection of Los Angeles as the quintessential postmodern city.

Ecology of Fear (2000), a study of Los Angeles as the setting of disaster movies real and imagined.

Planet of Slums (2006), a deep exploration of the mass-produced improvised interstitial cities of the world.

The latest, Buda's Wagon (2007), tracing the history of the car bomb from its first known use, when (who knew?), on a September day in 1920, an angry Italian anarchist named Mario Buda exploded a horse-drawn wagon filled with dynamite and iron scrap near Wall Street, killing 40 people.

Also at Bomb: excerpts from Rachel Kushner's brilliant debut novel, Telex from Cuba

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