It takes a Basque, with an intact moral center to write Hellfire from Paradise Ranch: on the front lines of drone warfare. It takes an unimpaired moral compass to confront those ethical accommodations to which two-party-system Americans have become Pavlovized with moral corrosion over more than two centuries of temporizing with that old bugbear, “the lesser of two evils.” This book is dynamite. It names names, the names of the good, godly, American shibboleths—people like Obama, McNamara, Westmoreland, and Albright—we have come to enshrine, whose cynicism has raised their fiats to levels of criminal atrocity.
Joseba Zulaika has been a frequent participant in anti drone demonstrations at Creech AFB in Nevada along with Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, the Nevada Desert Experience, local people from Las Vegas and Indian Springs, and other groups, all Americans of conscience. He has been arrested there, and spent time in that notorious horror pit, the Clark County Jail, (see Brian Terrell) where as he writes, “Compared to [the] truly jailed, the homeless and defenseless, the poor of Las Vegas, the wretched whose freedom is uncertain at best…our [incarceration] was ritual….”
Although Zulaika is now emeritus, his day job was as a respectable Professor of Anthropology at the U. of Nevada, Reno, where he also taught Basque in the only American University to recognize the key importance of a language which may very well derive from once-peaceful Europe’s original language, before the Kurgan conquest of (mas o menos) 3000 BC whose depredations made of the “Europeans” the imperialist killers they became. In fact 1492 may very well be the extension of that first invasion, when sailing ships made it technologically possible to spead it’s genocidal depredations into the New World.
Hellfire is a virtuoso performance both as ethnography and documentation of horror that nauseates; at the same time it’s a well documented text that seethes with the good, ethical Basque outrage of its author. It quotes a bloodied butcher-aproned Obama with a “Yes, we can.” With its glance at assassination porn, it encounters a level of atrocity the depth of which defies encounter. And Zulaika brings it off dressed in the words of great poets Garcia Lorca, and in a final coup de théatre, Homer himself. As Zulaika meets the horror of our epoch full square, at the same time he celebrates years of resistance at Creech and at the Nevada test site.
The narrative strategy of the Epilogue is quite astonishing. It takes an original mind to see the points of tangent in Obama‘s and Al-Awlaki’s lives, initially parallel, eventually vastly unconverging. The comparison raises the narrative to the level of Greek tragedy, implying that both killer and victim are blinded by delusion and their lack of clarity makes of the them the stuff of tragedy.
While Zulaika accepts unquestioningly the received narratives of 9-11 and the Boston marathon, he rejects that of the burial at sea of bin Laden, a mythology it took the journalism of Seymour Hersh to explode. But these reservations become all but irrelevant in the larger scope of the narrative.
The major omission I find, although skirted in the Epilogue with discussion of ritual burial, would have addressed how drone warfare destroys a civilization, what Zulaika refers to as “what holds everything together,” the dailyness of planting crops, tending sheep, or weaving rugs, or going to school, or market, or to the well for water, or to celebrate a wedding, or bury a friend, or attend the Friday mosque—to observe the rituals of a society by which it describes itself.
Because the constant buzzing overhead implants fear in the heart, and inhibits the basic contact and the very acts of human cohesion which allow us to remain alive; under the constant surveillance by drones, one by one, they die, paralyzed by fear.
This is genocide.
Zulaika has written a colossus of a book, and much as I found his earlier Bilbao Moon interesting for its multi-leveled narrative, this book clamps the heart in a vise.
Hellfire From Paradise Ranch: on the front lines of drone warfare. 2020, Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 289 pages.
Read the article about drone resister Brandon Bryant published by the Independent, UK at
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