For Saskia Vogel
High above LA’s freeways,
And the traffic’s whine,
Stands the well-known Galatronics
Branch of Yoyodyne…
Bendix guides the warheads in,
Avco builds them nice.
Douglas, North American,
Grumman get their slice.
Martin launches off a pad,
Lockheed from a sub…
Convair boosts the satellite
Into orbits round;
Boeing builds the Minuteman,
We stay on the ground.
–Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
In August 2001, I boarded a plane for New York City, where I was starting college, vowing that I’d never again live in Los Angeles. It remains one of the few promises made by my eighteen-year-old self that, a lifetime later, my thirty-six-year-old self has managed to keep. I moved from New York to Oxford and back again, from New York to Chicago and back again, from New York to New Orleans and back again, and, finally, from New York to Berlin, where I now live, but never back home. I have returned from time to time, but less and less often. At first, it was for summers and holidays, and then for holidays and weddings, and then only for weddings and funerals. (My most recently planned trip, which would have disrupted this pattern, was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and with it, the promise my eighteen-year-old self made to never ever quit smoking.) What I did not know, as the plane took off from LAX, was that within a month I’d become the citizen of a country that was never not at war, and, as a result, Los Angeles would be with me, in one way or another, wherever I went.
My father, in the meantime, had moved from the apartment complex called Versailles where I’d grown up to a condo complex called The Metropolitan (shortened, after the 2008 financial crisis, to The Met). The Met was north of the freeway, a West Valley real estate distinction whose significance has always been lost on me, and despite the monogrammed gate, the swimming pools, the gym, and the tennis court—in fact, precisely because of them—no more lived up to its branding than Versailles had.
The balcony where I smoked when I was there was the vestigial organ of someone’s idea of an apartment. My father never used it. Why would he? It faced eastward, into hours of direct, blinding sunlight, against which the Potemkin line of evenly spaced, ice cream scoop shaped trees provided no cover. Across Canoga Avenue, there were a few beige single-story office buildings and a parking lot. The guard booth at the entrance had tinted windows and a boom barrier that never seemed to go up or down for cars that never seemed to go in or out.
The booth reminded me of the one at Checkpoint Charlie, in Berlin, and which, as if to return this backhanded compliment, Berliners say reminds them of Disneyland. For a long time, I wondered what it was supposed to be guarding. Because the buildings were unmarked and there was no signage on the patch of trimmed lawn out front, the going hypothesis was: porn studio. The adult entertainment industry was what the area was known for, after all, though its cultural relevance and profit margins were in rapid decline, having been eclipsed by the tube sites and free content ethos headquartered in the Valley up north. Maybe a former porn studio, then. I pressed my cigarette against the silver rim of the can of espresso that, along with a hornet’s nest, a thin layer of carbon particulate, and a plastic broom, were the only things my father stored on the balcony, and decided, without giving it much further thought, to go find out. Apparently I’d forgotten how to cope with boredom in the only city I’ve ever been bored.
Canoga Avenue is one of those wide stretches of asphalt that bears out Martin Amis’ observation that, in Los Angeles, “the only way to get across the road is to be born there.” It would have qualified as a highway in forty-nine other states. To get to a pedestrian crossing, you had to walk at least a hundred feet in either direction. The one on the right, as you passed through the gates of the condo complex, ran parallel to an overpass, and enraged drivers, after hours stuck in traffic, the closest a suburbanite ever comes to experiencing the social, felt entitled to take the adjoining off-ramp at speed and frequently blew the red light. In practice, jaywalking meant jaysprinting and to do so without getting run over or getting a ticket was a matter of blind luck.
I arrived on the other side, lucky, and a little winded. To my surprise—I had genuinely expected it to be empty—a man, some six and a half feet tall, sweating into the polyester uniform of a private security company, unfolded himself from inside the booth, placed his hands on his hips, and thrust his chest out in what might be described as a deterrent posture.
“What can I do for you?” he asked. It was, as we both knew, not really a question. It was a conversational protocol designed to elicit to the right answer (Nothing, sir) in as few steps as possible. In the reflection of his wraparound sunglasses, I saw myself as he saw me: ill-shaven, reeking of cigarette smoke, dressed in black from my blazer to my boots, without sunglasses, but wearing a red scarf loosely tied around my neck, even though the sky was cloudless and it was almost eighty degrees out. And I’d come on foot, no less. I must have looked like a foreigner, maybe even a journo—not too far from the truth in both cases—anyway, like someone who should under no circumstances get whatever it was he was about to ask for. My intended reply, Just wondering what goes on here, sir, suddenly seemed utterly absurd, even to me. As I should have remembered from countless films about my hometown, here there was no such thing as idle curiosity, only idleness and asking too many questions.
But as the security guard shifted his stance, he revealed, on the booth, a detail I hadn’t noticed before. There, decalled on the side facing away from the balcony was not the name of a porn production company, but the logo of Northrup Grumman, one of the world’s largest defense conglomerates.
Along with The Crying of Lot 49, The White Album, and Minima Moralia, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz is one of the few indispensible books about Los Angeles. (He is also the author of The Monster at Our Door, an indispensible book about global pandemics.) In it, Davis remarks that Southern California is one of the most militarized spaces in the world. To most Angelenos, this would come as quite a shock. It’s not because they’ve never been to San Ysidro or Otay Mesa Border Checkpoints, which make Checkpoint Charlie look like, well, The Happiest Place on Earth; nor is it because they’ve never driven past any of the more than twenty bases that ring the continuously populated zone between Fresno and San Diego. It’s because the offices of defense contractors are so seamlessly integrated into the visual environment of ostensibly civilian spaces like the San Fernando Valley that they escape notice, even when they’re being looked at.Nothing in the guard’s expression betrayed the fact that he knew I was obviously lying.
This is the banality of evil translated into architecture, a confusion of public and private space, as Davis notes, equivalent to their confusion of public and private function. Later, I learned that not only was The Met directly across the street from Northrop Grumman’s Mission Systems division, it was also few minutes’ drive from Aerojet Rocketdyne in Canoga Park (Pynchon’s Yoyodyne, unless the company was intended as a parody of Teledyne, which has since been merged into Northrup Grumman), Lockheed Martin in Agora Hills, Raytheon Systems in Reseda, and a half a dozen less well-known companies that supply overlapping products and services to what is known as the military customer community.
“Yes, I’m here to inquire about job opportunities with Northrup Grumman,” I improvised, unconvincingly. “Maybe you can show me where HR is? I was having a hard time finding HR.”
Nothing in the guard’s expression betrayed the fact that he knew I was obviously lying.
“You got an appointment? You gotta have an appointment. Unless,” he said, leaning his cheek toward the two-way radio in his shoulder holster, “You want me to make you an appointment. Understand?”
I told him I understood. Again taking my life in my feet, I jaysprinted back across Canoga and placed my wallet against the sensor on the pylon that stood next to the guard booth in the driveway of The Met, the public-private fortress where I had clearance to enter. The gates opened slowly, regally or inefficiently, depending on your perspective. The Met guard leaned out of the booth, gave me a professionally affable wave, and reminded me to use the pedestrian entrance next time. He was gazing across the street, where I was sure the Northrup Grumman guard was still standing. I didn’t look over my shoulder, but I imagined them staring each other down, with mutual indifference that is born of overfamiliarity.
Back in the apartment, as a thought experiment, I did a cursory search of the job openings at Northrup Grumman, but I didn’t think of the incident again until many years later, when a news item caught my eye. In June 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a $130 million Northrup Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, a remotely piloted surveillance drone, over the Strait of Hormuz, in what was then the latest in a series of tit-for-tat military operations stemming from the unilateral American withdrawal from the JCPOA.
While I cannot state with any certainty the trajectory of this particular drone, one of around thirty maintained by the Air Force, it is a matter of public record that the Global Hawk was designed and developed in San Diego. Units have been manufactured at USAF Plant 42 and piloted from Edwards AFB, in the Antelope Valley, an hour’s drive to the north. And, according to what I learned in my search that day, avionics engineering, logistics, and technical support for the approximately quarter-million flight hours the Global Hawk has logged over the Middle East, North Africa, and the Pacific Rim since 2001 have been provided, at least in part, by Mission Systems on Canoga Avenue in Woodland Hills.
Of the many myths Americans have swallowed about the Global War on Terror, these two may be the most pernicious. First, it is not being fought here. Second, the reason it has become a Forever War is because “we” are losing it. In the aftermath of the downing of the drone, Northrup Grumman signed a $4.8 billion contract with the Air Force to last through FY2030. The number of Global Hawks included in the package was not immediately disclosed.
In the closing days of 2019, as doctors in Wuhan, China were noticing a rise in cases linked to a previously unknown kind of pneumonia, Iranian proxies attacked a US military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, killing an Iraqi-American contractor from Sacramento, precipitating retaliatory strikes. On December 31, as the WHO learned of the outbreak of a SARS-like coronavirus from the Wuhan CDC, protesters vandalized the US Embassy in Baghdad. On January 2, without first informing Congress, a panicked president authorized a drone strike against the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the most extreme response presented to him by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a major escalation of the conflict, and a move which may have been intended to pacify the hawkish Republican senators who would soon be listening to the opening arguments of his impeachment trial. Less than two weeks later, the first person carrying Covid-19 arrived in the United States.
Since then, the year that looked like it was going to be dominated by news about a war between Iran and the United States has instead been dominated by the news about the global coronavirus pandemic. Although the two would-be belligerents have been among the countries worst hit by the pandemic, the conflict has continued simmering, largely under the radar. On March 27, the New York Times reported that, according to leaked documents, the Pentagon had been ordered weeks before to prepare for a military escalation in the conflict against Iran, in which the Air Force’s new fleet of Global Hawks will presumably play a role. By the time the story went to print, despite weeks of mounting pressure, the president had yet to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private companies like GM and 3M to produce ventilators, or personal protective equipment for the doctors on the front lines of a crisis that is not a war, but in three months has already killed more than twice as many Americans as have died since the Global War on Terror began on 11 September 2001. The Empire continues to run on autopilot, even as the Republic shelters in place.
Having issued a ban on travel to and from China, the State Department issued one for Europe. Then, for the first time ever, it extended its Level 4 Travel Advisory from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran to the entire globe. Americans living abroad were directed “to arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” I did not return, but I did do something else my eighteen-year-old self promised never to do: I said a prayer. I prayed that the next time I saw Los Angeles, it would not be for a funeral.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.