Exile Nation: “Two Paths Diverged in the Wood, and I Stumbled Down The One Less Sane”

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Two Paths Diverged in the Wood, and I Stumbled Down The One Less Sane

In the run-up to the Iraq war, two divergent story lines emerged in the public consciousness. The first, largely American-held perspective, told the story of a grand nation that was the noble guardian of peace, the “brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity,” brutally attacked by fundamentalists hell bent on punishing her “for her freedoms.”

In the second, largely foreign-held perspective, a cunning imperial power with a history of open warfare and covert activity either concocted or permitted an attack on her own soil in order to provide a pretext for expanding her empire into oil and resource rich Central Asia. This key strategic location is at the crossroads of the great Eurasian landmass, striking distance from China, Russia, Iran, and India, along what used to be known as the Silk Road linking the Mediterranean to China. For 5,000 years each successive ruling empire expanded along this link to the Orient, and in the historical Great Game between the colonial powers, the empire who controlled the Silk Road controlled the world.

The first storyline had already been accepted as cultural mythology by the vast majority of Americans. This version was told ad nauseum, reinforced at every turn, with a particular saturation coming on the yearly anniversary of the attacks. This version was said to be a de facto justification for any kind of military action around the globe deemed necessary for the defense of this noble peace-loving nation and it’s way of life, which its leaders had deemed “non-negotiable.”

The second storyline emerged slowly and much more hesitantly, and for a time, was considered nothing short of heresy. The implication, however vague or misguided, that the United States was anything but completely and totally surprised on September 11th, was akin to high treason.

Certainly, George Bush’s provocative, “let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September 11th,” had a certain pay no attention to that man behind the curtain flavor to it, to say the least. But these “outrageous conspiracy theories” weren’t gaining any traction, were they?

Apparently, they were.

I was one of the only people I knew who opposed the bombing of Afghanistan, mostly because I was so sickened by the bloodlust and puke patriotism of the American public, who if they could, it seemed, would push a single button and annihilate every Muslim on earth. I opposed the war because I knew enough to know that the Afghanis probably weren’t the guilty ones, and that Afghanistan was a destitute country that had seen nothing but war and privation since the 1970s. They needed a break, man. Never mind that Afghanistan was unconquerable. Everyone from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union had suffered defeat in her maze of mountains. 

This view of an ulterior motive for invading Arghanistan was helped along when Harrison gave me the first real piece of contravening information that questioned whether 9/11 was really a surprise attack. He was researching what was then loosely referred to as “Operation Silk Road” and the “Silk Road Pipeline,” a plan to pump oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Indian Ocean for sale to the East. The Caspian Basin was seen as the next mega-producing oil and gas region, and a consortium of Western oil companies led by Unocal had been haranguing Congress since the mid 1990s to give diplomatic recognition to the Taliban, the proverbial last man standing in their seven-year civil war. [1]  The pipeline had to go through Afghanistan in order to avoid Russia, who would have extracted too great a share, and Iran, who was under harsh US sanctions. It should be no surprise then when you learn that Hamid Karzi, the US-installed leader of Afghanistan following the invasion, was formerly a consultant for Unocal. [2]

Equally germane to the Afghanistan question was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, which Harrison turned me on to. Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor and remains a heavyweight in the Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission. The best way to understand the role of these two organizations is to see them as unofficial extensions of the government. Their theories and philosophies generally become US policy, and so someone like Brzezinski wields considerable influence.

Brzezinski is also credited with founding the Mujahideen, the CIA armed, trained and funded Muslim insurgent army that during the Reagan years ousted the Soviets from Afghanistan and would eventually morph into the “Al Qaeda” network. [3]  In The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski outlined a frank and unapologetic strategy for the US to take control of Central Asia as a means of containing Russia, China, India and Iran. If the US did not control this region, Brzezinski warned, the resulting power vacuum would result in anarchy.

Later, Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie revealed in Bin Laden, la verité interdite (''Bin Laden, the forbidden truth'') that the Bush Administration had been in negotiations with the Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the US in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic aid. At the time, the Bushies were attempting to coerce the Taliban into accepting the pipeline deal, seemingly uninterested in Bin Laden, at one point threatening, “either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” [4]

Around the first anniversary of 9/11, I saw a video produced by the Guerrilla News Network called, Aftermath – Unanswered Questions from 9/11. Nine experts asked eleven key “unanswered” questions related to the official investigation into the 9/11 attacks, providing the most coherent and intelligent critique of the official version I had heard up to that point. Aftermath went deep into the issue far beyond anything I understood at the time.

The film introduced me to the concept of Peak Oil and connected the Afghan pipeline project to the seemingly unrelated obsession the Bush Administration had with invading Iraq. It examined the negligence of military officials in reacting to the hijackings, and showed the links between the hijackers, Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and the CIA. I was already familiar with the impact of post-911 legislation like the Patriot Act on civil liberties, but I had no clue, for example, what “Continuity of Government” was, how in a state of national emergency the President (or designated figurehead) can assume unencumbered powers, and all rights can be suspended.

Although not going so far as to make any accusations of complicity, the video raised enough doubt about the official story—certainly it dispelled the absurd notion that the US was attacked “for our freedoms"—to convince at least me that there was much more to it than what we were being told. In spite of this, I remained violently resistant to any claims that the “US Government” might have permitted the attacks, much less deliberately planned them. That just seemed too insane for me. However, any way you broke it down, 9/11 was most definitely the “catastrophic and catalyzing event…like a New Pearl Harbor” that both Brzezinski and the neoconservative Project for a New American Century said was necessary for us to shift in this radical new direction. [5]

I began to poke around looking for confirmation in other sources, and other wrinkles to the investigation. I came across an unattributed audio interview with Gore Vidal, I don’t even remember where or how I found it, in which he describes how Bush and Cheney represented a neoconservative “junta” that had taken over the Executive branch of the US government through the stolen election of 2000 and were now setting out to expand the American empire. Then, rather by accident, I came across an article by a person calling him or herself “VoxFux” on a site called with the title,"Make no mistake about it, 9/11 was an inside job" in which the author claimed the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by these  neoconservatives. “VoxFox” also claimed, wildly, that this same rogue element in our own government planned to detonate a dirty nuke in New York City.

It was the craziest, and scariest, thing I had ever read. I felt wrong even looking at it, and I became paranoid that someone was monitoring me and making a log of my visit to the site.  I quickly put it out of my head, although, it never really left, and lingered, like the residue from tear gas, persistently irritating my senses and not washing off no matter what I did.

Beyond the apparent insanity of VoxFux’s claims, you would think that, given all the other information I uncovered which drew into question virtually every aspect of the official story, that I, being the incessantly curious and rebellious personality that I am, would immediately seize on this material and launch my own crusade. In truth, it had the exact opposite affect. It completely freaked me out. I simply was not equipped in any psycho-spiritual sense to grapple with this question.

Had I just left it alone, that would have been one thing. Instead, it started me off down a very bizarre path. As the march to war in Iraq grew stronger and stronger, I found myself descending deeper and deeper into fear, and against every logical instinct and assumption, I slowly found myself becoming enchanted with the idea of invading Iraq. “Enchanted” is really the correct word usage here, because what I experienced in the early months of 2003 before the war began was nothing short of a magic spell.

What I am about to describe flies in the face of all rational thought. Were I a man only concerned with his public image, I would never in a million years admit this (reflect on that in light of all the other naked disclosures I have made thus far), but over the years as I reflected on this very short and surreal period of my life, I realized that there was something else going on here, a much larger and deeper process. There was a powerful force, that took me over and bent my reason to absurd levels in order to justify its perspective. It was something directly related to the traumas and alienation I had suffered in life, and ultimately, was a manifestation of my psyche’s desperate need for acceptance and “normalization.” In other words, as I attempted to heal, unbeknownst to me, long-repressed psychological crises were surfacing in bizarre and unexpected ways.

By all indications, my budding progressive quasi-anarcho-libertarian views would have firmly pushed me into the anti-war camp. Moreover, I had always been a peace-loving person. I was resoundly anti-authoritarian, and had been squawking for a year about the Orwellian atmosphere of post-9/11 America. I laughed at the Bush Administration for being the most arrogant, ignorant, and galling group of, as Gore Vidal put it, “whores and mendicants” ever to occupy the White House.

So how in God’s name did I end up, for a brief moment, supporting the invasion? I credit three significant factors.

The foremost reason was informational, in that I began watching more television than I had since I was a teenager, and most of the time I spent watching the cable news programs. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I was not a big TV watcher, and never used it to keep up on politics or current events, so I was rather unfamiliar with the depth of information that was controlled by Big Media, or how the major news networks were little more than propaganda arms for various factions of the government and corporate elite. Consequently, I had no concept of things like institutional gatekeeping, neurolinguistic programming, and sensory disorientation.

The second reason was cultural, based in a lingering dislike of “hippies and liberals” that was a remnant of my conservative upbringing. It was absolutely baseless in nature since I held nearly all of their values, and clearly (at least to me now) a projection of some inner self-loathing, made worse by the pathetic narcissism of anti-war liberals and celebrities who really, really annoyed me. This anti-liberal bias was all-too easily fed by the pundits on TV. I think I reached my saturation point during a celebrity anti-war rally where Martin Sheen, who was then playing a fictional President weekly on The West Wing, carried a giant wooden cross on his shoulder like Jesus bearing his burden up the slope of Golgotha. And he did so, it appeared, without a shred of irony.

The third reason was archetypal, a much deeper rooted and more pervasive belief that did not make sense to me until I came across an essay by Norman Mailer that described it all. The primary supporters of the war were American white males, the purported “engines of the empire,” who themselves were lost in a miasma of changing cultural norms, far removed from any sense of cultural initiation and their traditional understanding of manhood.

The typical mainstream American male had been totally emasculated. He spent his days kow-towing at some inexpressibly boring and inhumane job, and spent his nights being drained by his nagging, material-and-media obsessed family, who siphoned off every last cent he earned while his dignity steadily eroded away. All he had were movies, TV, beer, and professional sports, and most of the myths driving those were coming apart as well, as steroid and drug use and a culture of criminality consumed most major league sports, and the movies were getting dumber by the year. The American male had lost all understanding of what it meant to be a man in today’s day and age.

Now, take this man and suddenly pluck him from the stultifying morass that is his corporate consumer life and drop him into a nation at war. Begin filling his head with propaganda about the shiny machines of battle and “benevolent despotism” and “liberating the oppressed.” Fill the theater with movies about war heroes and glorious battles and fill the airwaves with the demonization of the enemy other, with the talk of Empire, of the “colossus bestriding the globe,” the “most awesome military power in the history of the world,” “the most powerful nation on Earth.” Start calling the oil underneath another nation’s soil “our oil.” Now go and execute a unilateral act of aggression in a bureaucratically impotent age of political correctness, and watch these lost men leap to their feet and scream in triumph, like an overtime touchdown at the Super Bowl. Watch their empty, meaningless lives suddenly fill with purpose as the younger, poorer men of their society go off to fight and die for them, in order to enforce their imperial privilege around the world at the point of a gun. 

Mailer articulated the crisis as one of total disempowerment and disillusionment:

America had been putting up with the ongoing expansion of the corporation into American life since the end of World War II. It had been the money-cow to the United States. But it had also been a filthy cow who gave off foul gases of mendacity and manipulation by an extreme emphasis on advertising. Put less into the product but kowtow to its marketing. Marketing was a beast and a force that succeeded in taking America away from most of us. It succeeded in making the world an uglier place to live in since the Second World War…

…It could even be said that America was taking a series of hits that were not wholly out of proportion to what happened to the Germans after World War I when inflation came and wiped out the fundamental German notion of self, which was that if you worked hard and saved your money, you ended up having a decent old age. It is likely that Hitler would never have come to power 10 years later without that runaway inflation. By the same measure, 9/11 had done something comparable to the American sense of security.

[Conservatives] fear the country is rapidly growing more dissolute, and the only solution may be – fell, mighty, and near-holy words – the only solution may be to strive for World Empire… There is just this kind of mad-eyed mystique to Americans: the idea that we Americans can do anything. Yes, say flag conservatives, we will be able to handle what comes. We have our know-how, our can-do. We will dominate the obstacles. Flag conservatives truly believe America is not only fit to run the world but that it must. Without a commitment to Empire, the country will go down the drain. This, I would opine, is the prime subtext beneath the Iraqi project, and the flag conservatives may not even be wholly aware of the scope of it, not all of them. Not yet. [6]


Mailer believed that from the point of view of the Elites, particularly the conservatives who steamrolled into power in 2000 and 2002, American culture had descended into anomie. All our traditional moral, ethical, and professional standards were in decline. We no longer produced anything but weapons and entertainment, and we had nothing left to be proud of except brute force. In the eyes of conservatives:

America is close to rotten. The entertainment media are loose. Bare bellybuttons pop onto every TV screen, as open in their statement as wild animals' eyes. The kids are getting to the point where they can't read, but they sure can screw. So one perk for the White House, should America become an international military machine huge enough to conquer all commitments, is that American sexual freedom, all that gay, feminist, lesbian, transvestite hullabaloo, will be seen as too much of a luxury and will be put back into the closet again. Once we become a 21st century embodiment of the old Roman Empire, moral reform can stride right back into the picture with all the hypocrisy attendant on that. [7]


On some level, this constant barrage of what amounted to little more than reformatted messages of noblesse oblige and the “white man’s burden” penetrated into that part of my Shadow where the shame of my addiction and attendant criminality was festering and seeking release. Like the emasculated males of cubicle city who wanted to feel the roar of maleness, my shame at being a worthless denizen of America’s moral decline caused me to seize upon the perceived nobility of the neoconservative vision of “transforming the Middle East.” I began reading Niall Ferguson, Michael Isikoff, Christopher Hitchens, and Fareed Zakaria, and was nearly sold on the idea of preemptive warfare after viewing a shameless episode of PBS’ FRONTLINE, "The War Behind Closed Doors: The Inside Story of the US March to war with Iraq, and why Iraq may only be the beginning." This pathetic piece of propaganda glorified the “Bush Doctrine” on par with some of America’s greatest political achievements. Slowly the snake oil of cultural supremacy began to infect my wounds. If I have nothing else, I thought, at least I’m an American!

At the absolute height of my ignorance I sent an email to the Newtopia mailing list arguing the merits of an invasion of Iraq and I actually had the temerity to state that this was not a colonial venture. The veritable shit storm that email ignited still causes me to flush in horror every time I think of it. My friends and colleagues, nearly all of whom opposed the war, including Edie and everyone at Newtopia, had rightfully thought I was going insane or having a breakdown. Some of the more perceptive and sympathetic sensed that there was a larger pathology working itself out, but I nonetheless strained their patience.

On February 15th, 2003, as more than 36 million people around the globe, including nearly all my friends and colleagues, marched in the streets to protest the invasion, I was glued to MSNBC watching the countdown to war, laughing at the futility of their actions, knowing full well that the only thing that would stop the invasion would be the Second Coming of Christ. Even that was doubtful, since the talking heads were telling us that Jesus was on our side, and had an equal beef with Mohammed.

On March 19th, 2003, two days after my thirty-fifth birthday, the US launched the “Shock & Awe” bombing campaign on Central Baghdad as the opening salvo to the invasion. I was at home with Edie standing in front of the television when news reports announced that the bombing was imminent. The moment Saddam’s palace went up in a fireball and the concussive thud of the explosions distorted the audio coming out of the television, something shifted in me. It was as if I had been in a trance, or hypnotized, or possessed, and had suddenly woken up, disoriented and scared. All at once, like an avalanche racing down the mountain at two hundred miles an hour, the blistering reality of the carnage being wrought right in front of me slammed into my conscious mind and knocked me off my feet. Oh my god what have I done! I wailed, dropping to my knees. Between the rumble and crack of the fireballs I heard the helpless screaming of women and children incinerated in a flash, vaporized out of existence. I wailed for hours uncontrollably.

A few miles downtown thousands of Chicagoans poured into the streets to protest the invasion. Police cornered them on a side street, launched tear gas, and began mass arrests. The crowd spilled out onto Lake Shore Drive and shut down traffic. Eventually 900 courageous souls would end up in custody, and our local anti-war movement was born into the flesh. Meanwhile, I sat on my porch in Lincoln Square, watching them on television standing up for what they believed in, as I shrank back into the wall, wishing that I could disappear or die for my ignorance.



  1. The original project started in March 1995 when an inaugural memorandum of understanding between the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan for a pipeline project was signed. In August 1996, the Central Asia Gas Pipeline, Ltd. (CentGas) consortium for construction of a pipeline, led by Unocal was formed. On 27 October 1997, CentGas was incorporated by several international oil companies along with the Government of Turkmenistan. In January 1998, the Taliban, selecting CentGas over Argentinian competitor, Bridas Corporation, signed an agreement that allowed the proposed project to proceed. In June 1998, Russian Gazprom relinquished its 10% stake in the project. Unocal withdrew from the consortium on 8 December 1998. The new deal on the pipeline was signed on 27 December 2002 by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2005, the Asian Development Bank submitted the final version of a feasibility study designed by British company Penspen. Since the United States military overthrew the Taliban government, the project has essentially stalled; construction of the Turkmen part was supposed to start in 2006, but the overall feasibility is questionable since the southern part of the Afghan section runs through territory which continues to be under de facto Taliban control. (from Wikipedia)
  2. “A Creeping Collapse in Credibility at the White House: From ENRON Entanglements to UNOCAL Bringing the Taliban to Texas and Controlling Afghanistan” – By Tom Turnipseed, Counterpunch, January 10, 2002.
  3. “How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen” – Interview of Zbigniew Brzezinski in Le Nouvel Observateur (France), Jan 15-21, 1998, p. 76*.
  4. “U.S. Policy Towards Taliban Influenced by Oil – Say Authors,” By Julio Godoy, Inter Press Service, Thursday November 15, 2001.
  5. “Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century” – A Report of the Project for the New American Century, September 2000.
  6. Norman Mailer, “Only in America” – a speech given at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, February 20, 2003.
  7. ibid


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Exile Nation copyright©2010CharlesShaw.Allrightsreserved.

Charles Shaw's work has
appeared in Alternet,
Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist,
Guerrilla News Network, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The
New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality
Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness,
, and Znet.
Hewas a Contributing Author to the 2008
Shift Report
the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen's
Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning
 (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was
recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.

is the Director of the Exile Nation Unheard Voices Story
Project, the Editor of the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum, and the Editor of
the Dictionary
of Ethical Politics
, collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy,and
the Tedworth Charitible Trust. He was Editorial Director of
Conscious Enlightenment Publishing (Conscious Choice, Common Ground,
Whole Life Times, and Seattle's Conscious Choice
), the founder and
publisher of Newtopia, head writer for the
nationally syndicated radio show Reality Checks,  Senior Staff Writer for The Next
American City
, and a Contributing Editor for Worldchanging.

long-time activist and former official for the Green Party of the US,
he is a native of Chicago who lives on the West Coast…for now.


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