Against the War Machine: Some Reflections on Tulsi Gabbard’s American Dream

Vamsee Juluri
Mar 19 · 7 min read

Almost Sunrise is a powerful, moving documentary by Michael Collins about two young Iraq war veterans who decide to walk across America in the hope of finding peace. Starting in Milwaukee, they head across mountains and plains, and finally reach Los Angeles. Along the way, they meet other veterans, families who have suffered the personal cost of war, and teachers and healers. Their quest is indeed one of healing. Not from physical wounds, or even the “post-traumatic” mental wounds that many veterans experience, but from a wound to the core of what makes us human in a sense: that of conscience, and of conscience as the core determinant of our sense of self.

What we find in Almost Sunrise is a discussion that we lay citizens accustomed to thinking of the cost of war at best through movies like Uri (a few moments in it), closer home in India, or Born on the 4thof July for an earlier era in America, rarely encounter. What soldiers deal with when they come home is not just stress to the mind, but something that experts in the documentary call “moral injury.” Soldiers such as the two heroes of Almost Sunrise are barely even adults when they are subjected to something like reprogramming out of civilian life and boyhood into becoming a machine-like force for killing.

Then, after their duty, they return, with the whole of life before them, and yet so much already used of their lives by their participation in that machine. The veterans in this movie speak of what they did, or did not do while in Iraq. There is no debate over the greater moral crisis of that particular war, as many of us had in the early 2000s, about things like “truthiness” and WMDs. The discussion is only of the moral injury of the individual — the boy-soldier who has had to kick in doors and point guns at terrified women and children, and at times arrest people who were in all likelihood innocent. At times, one feels like even a brilliantly composed movie like this is inadequate to the horror of conflict, for what we see is the horror of those who invaded and regretted, and not, in this case at least, those who got invaded upon. And yet, this statement is important, incredibly important, because it is a reminder again that this world we live in, and this country many of us live in, in particular, is in debt permanently to its policies, its practices, and its troublingly existential entanglement in war.

I had the honor of listening to Congresswoman and possible First Female, First Hindu (and First Homeschooled) President of the United States Tulsi Gabbard speak on my campus last weekend. The crowd was substantial, and very cheerful. I sensed that many of the people who came were Bernie Sanders fans, who remembered her from the last campaign, who were open-minded about listening to someone whose work is similar to his but also different and uniquely her own. What I found most inspiring, was the fact that they clearly related to her honesty and open criticism of what America has been living with for far too long now — an unregulated, trigger happy, yarn-spinning, at times culturally totalitarian war business. For me, who first dreamt of San Francisco from the antipodes listening to the protest rock anthems of the 1960s against the Vietnam war, and then got to San Francisco as a teacher the same year that the catastrophe of 9/11 happened, the presence of Tulsi Gabbard, and what she represents, gave me a sense of hope about a better world, even if quietly, and moderately, for now. The twitch for wars is an incredibly deep-rooted one in America, indeed its very core sense of self. Its economy, its politics, its media, its colleges, and even its schools, are all things fashioned out of the assumption that wars and empires are natural, eternal, and inevitable. Just the way things are. And the tragedy is that even much of the sentiment that opposed this naturalization, this military industrial behemoth, has been coopted by it so much that one cannot even believe many of the people who make platitudes about peace interspersed with propagandized sob stories for interventions would do such a thing.

We seem to have arrived at a time when both the war culture and a certain, narrow, identity-circumscribed notion of “anti-war culture” have both become normalized, just as so much of our thoughts and actions about the world have become polarized. When a certain kind of war-machine operates to drive an explosive-filled car into a convoy of policemen charged with peacekeeping in a difficult situation, the existence of this machine is obfuscated by the deployment of the commodified pretense of an “anti-war-machine.” 40 deaths in Kashmir and 25 reports in a leading newspaper ignore the horror of the event to focus instead on the noise made by ratings-hungry news-channels instead. That is just one example.

The commodified anti-war machine is itself perhaps now a part of the war machine. If the war machine operates by reducing human experiences, struggles and dilemmas to boxes on a questionnaire that then determine their lives (as a scene in Almost Sunrise reveals), the anti-war machine is doing something quite similar by reducing our response to violence to a statement not on the naked enormity of it, but simply to the identity-calculations that surround it. The term “Islamophobia” is seen as an appropriate response after an attack on Muslims (and I have no quarrel with that at all), but the term “Hinduphobia” is not seen as relevant to our understanding of a hate crime by a Hindu-hate spewing terrorist. This is the logic of a machine, and a self-serving one, and not a human way of confronting violence at all.

This absence of freedom, in thought and action, is the immediate context in which the moment that expresses Almost Sunrise, and the unique, irreducible positions of Tulsi Gabbard must be understood. The veterans in Almost Sunrisefind their peace, and indeed their sense of self once again, by addressing what they have done in the battle duties as moral injury. The machine that makes war inevitable is separated, like an alien embedded in a human body in a scifi movie, from its host. Through “power breath” training, they restore what they might have been and hope to be still, after what they had been turned into during their training.

Tulsi Gabbard’s journey though is a different one, in that marks a public engagement with that same machine, and unlike that of the characters in the documentary, is only beginning. What I find interesting about her speeches as she navigates the incredibly complex machinery of her own world of professional politics, is her consistent targeting of the war-machine as the outdated core of so much in American life that needs to be dismantled now. And her actions are not of the sort that make up the usual anti-war machinery’s operations; making pacifist noises one day and jumping on Wag the Dog sort of bandwagons the next. She has defied her own party’s increasingly jaded and depressing record on that by refusing to join yet another selective “third world leader we don’t like so we’ll fund some enemies of his” bandwagon. She has been called a dictator-stooge, and of course, a Hindu (that word needs no suffixes in the machine’s game, does it, “nationalist” or “extremist” doesn’t matter, it’s the “Hindu” they despise). Cheap attacks on her aside, I think what she is out to do is something significant, and perhaps untested and even un-imagined in American public life so far. She is taking on the karmic cyclotron of American empire itself.

I do not know yet how her campaign will unfold, and if by some incredible conspiracy of time and goodness in the universe she will indeed be the one who is President, maybe as early as 2020, maybe later. But I believe that whatever has produced her as a rising phenomenon is not something to be dismissed or treated lightly at all by anyone who believes truth is beyond machines, physical or mental. I do not know too what that truth is, but somehow, it seems to be, so far at least, one step ahead of the machine that games even things like truth itself. Tulsi has expressed herself carefully, one might say strategically, but so far has not reneged on things she has stood up for. Being Hindu. Being a soldier. Being someone who is on a bigger game than machine politics.

It is strange that Hindu thought and practices have shown up in some form or another in both these moments, more indirectly in a cultural document of a journey home from de-humanization and killing in Almost Sunrise, and plainly and inspiringly in a political project that is beginning in Tulsi Gabbard’s run for President (someone did ask her at her USF Town Hall meeting about how being Hindu would influence her politics and she did not try the usual cosmetics someone with lighter convictions might have; Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga, she answered, devotion as service).

I am not blindly utopian, and I know machines are not easy to get around, or get past at all. But somehow, in this age when every little bit of life is machinized, and some might say weaponized, what we watch, what we are taught, what we desire, and even what we live for and why we die, the possibility of a new wisdom, a better day, is a temptation that teases the soul quite persuasively. Imagine this crazy, crazy, insatiable beast that has gone looking for trouble in far-away places setting off cycles of violence from Afghanistan to New York to Iraq to Europe to New Zealand somehow suddenly being tamed. Imagine this insanity of madmen being elevated to power and funded and armed and heralded as heroes somehow being brought down. An Anti-War-Machine moment in America seems suddenly, I don’t know, dare I say it… inevitable?

Vamsee Juluri

Written by

writer, professor of media studies at USF

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