The Euphoria of Despair
A review of Canaries on the Rim by Chip Ward

PoisonI was one of the last people in America to be drafted – they did away with the draft not long after they got me during the Vietnam War. So in a sense, early in life I was a victim of military-industrial overreach that Chip Ward documents in his book Canaries on the Rim, and a veteran of the struggle to stop it before that.  Now, in the late afternoon of my life, I think I know a thing or two about the struggle against power. I can tell you this: appeals to reason, fairness, economics, justice – none of that works. The thing that worked in Vietnam was that too many of the sons of America started coming home in body bags. That has been the thing that has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan too, except that since the draft has been abolished, it’s hasn’t worked as well. Ward uses Vietnam over and over as a metaphor for our nation’s blind willingness to sacrifice everything to defend our own tribal myths.

It’s a metaphor that Ward himself doesn’t appreciate enough. Throughout the book, Ward maintains two opposing points of view. The first is thoroughly justified by his own metaphor: the people in charge are stupid, incompetent, corrupt, or all three and disaster is inevitable. The second is that we can change. All we need to do is organize well enough and keep the faith. My own experience supports the first one. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during most of the Vietnam War, confessed on his deathbed that he knew all along that the war was futile and “terribly, terribly wrong”. Did it change anything?

Reason and justice is a poor match for money and power.

One explanation is the one Ward illustrates with the boiling frog analogy. (I hate that image, by the way. I wish people wouldn’t use it.) Death by ecocide doesn’t have the direct impact of a body blown apart by war. Cancer could be caused by eating too much nitrate laced bacon, genetics, or just bad luck. And not everyone lives next to the Love Canal. It’s all too easy for people to think that there is no nuclear waste in their back yard, convince themselves that it’s not a problem, and go on with business as usual. Ward uses the phrase, “cancer and illnesses woven through the fabric of western civilization”. It’s easy for primary causes to get lost in that complicated weave.

For example, in the first chapter, Ward and his brother-in-law Bill share a lunch of bratwurst and argue about a disease of an endocrine gland. Do they concern themselves about the damage to the endocrine system that can be done by what is in that bratwurst? No-o-o-o-o! Ward may have finally decided that he’s boiling to death like the frog, but it took too long. His life story really illustrates the conclusion that the vast majority – to use that phrase from politics past, “the silent majority” – never will figure it out.

One vivid example of the continuing victory of lies is the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. When it opened in 2005, downwinders tried to stage a protest, pointing out that it is, “like visiting a museum that historically documents the Holocaust but leaves out the stories of the victims.” A visit to their web site shows that nothing there has changed.

Another reason that money and power wins is that they can buy minds. Literally. The public comments to this Deseret News article about the Tooele incinerator finally being shut down show the kind of minds that can be bought. Contrast what the US Magnesium website says about their environmental record with what Wikipedia says about it. Who do you think Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia believes? Ward quotes one of his neighbors in Grantsville talking about the smell of poisonous chlorine gas from MagCorp, “Smells like jobs to me!”

You and I can be outraged by Ward’s book, but nothing changes. It was published fifteen years ago. Has anything changed? Fifteen years and there are exactly 9 reviews at The last book of the Harry Potter series has over 8,000 reviews. Fifteen years, and the nerve gas incinerator kept on keeping on. The incinerator is finally being dismantled only after doing its worst for fifteen years. US Magnesium is still using the same electrolysis technology to produce three pounds of the poison that killed a hundred thousand soldiers in WWI for every pound of magnesium. Ward concludes his chapter on MagCorp by claiming victory and writing, “MagCorp is already a relic.” Not so fast. His own HEAL website documents the latest struggles. It looks like déjà vu all over again to me.

Like hyenas snarling around a buffalo, Ward and his allies have only irritated the power interests.

In spite of this, I found the book to be enjoyable. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed Ward’s description of cows. I grew up in cow country without much water too. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, had a constitutional objection to going anywhere that didn’t at least have the possibility of gaining material benefit. So we went out on the desert and picked up rocks that could be brought home and squirreled away like nuts for winter. (The rocks are still there in the old family home.) As a kid, I seldom saw water that wasn’t surrounded by about a quarter mile of cow shit.

Since my wife and I have become vegetarians, I can now condemn cows with a righteous fervor unmatched even by Jerimiah of old … or Chip Ward. (It’s coffee bean plants that are A-OK with us.) As I read the tale of the cow in Chimney Canyon, I wondered how a cow could survive year after year in a place where cougars are supposed to be native. It says a lot more about cougars than it does about cows. I thoroughly agreed with Ward’s conjecture that, “The agents of Western federal lands would have no hesitation in calling up a sharpshooter in a helicopter if a cougar was even suspected of harming some rancher’s sheep or cow.” I had an uncle who made a living being the pilot for those sharpshooters. Ward wrote that he had never seen a live cougar. Neither have I. People who demanded that home-grown communists eight thousand miles away be exterminated in their own country until 55,000 of our native sons had died in the attempt aren’t bothered much by the loss of a few cougars. Ward made the same point.

I also enjoyed Ward’s description of Ronald Reagan. I had a hard time deciding which was worse, Reagan or cows. I decided it was Reagan. Cows may be ruining the land, but they don’t lie to you. I was amazed at the description of the environmental destruction that would have been required to build the MX missile. Amazed, because I was reading the newspapers back then and I didn’t know all that.

OH! I just remembered. I was reading the newspapers in Utah. That explains it!

Another reason the book was good for me was because it’s fifteen years old. I was living in Salt Lake then and reading about all these confrontations. It was a walk back through my old memories. Larry Anderson and Khosrow Semnani! I remember them! Although Larry Anderson ended up being sentenced to 14 months in jail, Semnani prospered and sold his company to a New York investment company. The sports arena in Salt Lake is named after his old company. (No! Not Radium Stadium or the Tox Box … EnergySolutions Arena!) Everything old is new again.

Ward has a real flair for colorful descriptions of his enemies. Tooele County Commissioner Gary Griffith is “the head pimp in an environmental red light district.” The general manager of the munitions incinerator was called, “Harry ‘Kiss Their Ass’ Silvestri”. In describing the entire military establishment, he wrote, “Stupid or crazy? Take your pick.” Ward’s detailed descriptions of what actually happened thoroughly justify the name calling and it is great fun, but it doesn’t help the cause much. One suspects that deep down, Ward may have given up and is just doing it just for the fun. (Just like me.)

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the cause of the downwinders, especially since through relatives and marriage, I am one, but I think their tactics are often misguided. Too often, their only goal is to get compensation … money … for the damages suffered. Isn’t exchanging personal harm for money exactly what the Tooele County Commission and the Goshute Indians are doing by another means? I have long believed in the slogan, “Whenever anyone says, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the principal!’ you can be absolutely sure of one thing. It’s the money.” Long observation of corrupt bankers, lawyers, politicians and other assorted lowlifes has convinced me that, however much money you take away from them, they will just figure out how to get more. Forcing them to give you money doesn’t create change. If anything, it makes you one of them. I recently read a forum message from someone who wrote, “We only change when it is too painful not to.” So true!

The logical conclusion is that the only thing that deters white collar crime is personal punishment – usually a prison sentence. The silver lining is that personal punishment actually works quite well with white collar criminals.  For your average liquor store holdup artist, a stretch in the pen is like graduate school. But for the white collar criminal, it’s a convincing argument to reform. It has a profound impact on the criminal’s friends in the same business too. The dark cloud inside the silver lining is that white collar criminals are the least likely to suffer personal punishment for their crimes. Ward gave us a great example of this point in describing how a vice-president of the company owning “the dirtiest industrial operation in America” was able to plea-bargain a rape at knife-point down to “sexual misconduct” and three years’ probation … and kept right on pulling down the big bucks at his old job. After paying bribes to poison people in Utah, Semnani paid a fine and walked.

What a great book to stimulate an orgy of righteous indignation! We can churn up our sense of doom and gloom and condemn like there’s no tomorrow. (You might seriously ask yourself whether there actually is.) We can condemn “the government” and pretend that “they” is not “us”. How ironic is it that Ward and his wife worked for the government? So did Edward Abbey. How many of us who rail and moan about the Chimney Creek cow ate beef last week? Show of hands!

Ward describes Rocky Flats just outside Denver as a military “sacrifice zone”. Yes, it is. But it’s fascinating to discover that it’s more than that now. Today, it’s also a wildlife refuge. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the other side of Denver is another one. And Chernobyl is turning into an amazing wildlife zone. Animals that haven’t been seen in decades are thriving there now. The primary technique to heal the environment is to simply leave it alone.

At one point, Ward reports, “When mother rats are given doses of dioxin equivalent to the amount most of us are already carrying in our bodies, their male offspring are born with tiny penises and can’t reproduce.” Hmmmmm … could be a subtle solution to the problem there

Although Ward’s methods are undoubtedly doomed to … not “failure” … “irrelevance”, they do have one advantage that he describes. It keeps your soul alive to do something. Standing by and just watching is a sort of death to the soul. This death happens to a lot of people long before their body dies. I have to give him credit for not having a dead soul. He’s still fighting the good fight and campaigning for his cause. HEAL is still in business. (FAIR appears to have disappeared into the quicksand that dooms most volunteer protest movements, however.)

But you can’t do everything. To be effective at all, you have to pick your methods and choose a target for change. (My website is my method and my target for change is the Zion Canyon Community. I may be irrelevant too, but I know why I’m doing it.)

In his “Letter of Apology to My Granddaughter” (found on a website) Ward writes, “I know a better world is possible.” I don’t know that. I don’t think Ward does either. Ward calls my attitude cynicism and claims that it’s just another form of denial. I claim that Ward is an unrealistic optimist.

Ward’s soul may still be alive but his granddaughter doesn’t have the chance of a jackrabbit at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945.

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About Dan Mabbutt

I was introduced to Zion Canyon as a teenager working for Utah Parks Company at Zion Lodge. (See my Zion Park Centennial writing contest winning essays "Zion Lodge Stories" here under "About ZiCC".) I bought land here as soon as I could and moved here after a career misspent in corporate data processing. Springdale and the Zion Canyon Community is special and this website is my contribution to the strength and unity of the community.

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