Review of Donald Guitierrez's Feeling the Unthinkable

This is a recent review on Donald Gutierrez’s new book, Feeling The Unthinkable that I wanted to call to your attention.  I sincerely believe that this book should be read by every American concerned about where our country is headed.

J. Glenn Evans


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Every once in a while a book comes out that all of us should read regardless of age, status or political belief.  The 48 essays and reviews in Feeling the Unthinkable by Donald Gutierrez are a literary feast.  His essays hit in the gut, but his many reviews of other writers’ work introduce us to sources of information of which we need to be aware.  They help you to think and ponder on where we’ve been and where we’re going.  It is an incredibly powerful book from not only a prophet but also an historian and a philosopher that you will not want to miss.

Who would have believed a few years ago that America used torture?  Except for Nazi Germany, it was thought that torture went out in the Middle Ages when the elites used the rack.  Yet now we find that America used waterboarding in the conquest of the Philippines.  In Gutierrez’s review of Alfred W. McCoy’s book, A Question of Torture, it was disclosed that by 1972 the Provincial Interrogations Centers, each directed by CIA personnel, 20,000 Vietcong were murdered in a “pump and dump” practice.  How many were guilty and how many were innocent, nobody knows, except they were fighting a foreign invader.

By the time we got to Iraq and Afghanistan:

A colossal miscarriage of justice behind all this brutal increase of psychological and physical torture emerged when it became clear that, according to military intelligence from allied nations, 70 to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees had been arrested by mistake.  What comes across in this massive injustice is the culpability of a chain of command from the White House lawyers to Rumsfeld to senior military officers like Generals Geoffrey D. Miller and Ricardo Sanchez to ordinary soldiers who followed their orders.  Who takes blame if all this torture came to be proven illegal leads McCoy to the crucial issue of impunity. (63) … McCoy argues, further, that torture is not effective against terrorism, citing the very high number of innocent detainees from whom meager intelligence was coerced at Guantanamo. (64)


If we were not the most powerful nation militarily, our leaders would be brought before the world courts because of Nuremberg crimes.  A quote from Gutierrez’s review of Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot is enough to send shivers up your back when you consider what has recently been happening here in the U.S.

“Both Italian and German fascism came to power legally and incrementally in functioning democracies; both used legislation, cultural pressure and baseless imprisonment and torture, progressively to consolidate power….both aggressively used the law to subvert the law” (119)


In his essay, “The Great Military-Defense Swindle of America,” Gutierrez brings out the numbers, what we and our kids pay into the Military/Industrial Complex: $8 trillion on military expenditures from 1975 to 2000; $21 million for each M1A2 Abrams Tank (the army has 3,000 of them); $850 million for each Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer (the Navy acquired 17 since 1971 for around $11 billion); more recently 7 more Burke destroyers for around $33 billion.  The destroyers cost around $30,000 a day to operate or $11 million a year plus training costs.  Navy 18EF fighter-bombers, called “Super Hornets” cost $80 million each and the Navy wants 1,000 of them.

In the meantime, the Pentagon and its allies in Congress continue to seek rationalization for the mammoth military budget.  Partly this is needed to conceal the enormous contradictions between legitimate military preparedness and the irony of keeping unused defense factories open by designating perfectly suitable ordnance as outmoded to justify spending further billions for ever more high-tech killing weapons.  Thus, the worst thing that could happen to the Pentagon and America’s war industry is peace.  A more fitting definition of a society led by lunatics and greed would be hard to find, at least among nations describing themselves as democratic. (142-143)


Some interesting figures are brought out in Gutierrez’s review of Helen Caldicott, The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex.  The quotation from The Defense Monitor put out by retired military officers reflects what could be done with only one third of the military expenditure:

“Globally the annual military expenditure stands at 780 billion dollars.  The total amount required to provide global health care, eliminate starvation and malnutrition, provide clear water and shelter for all, remove land mines, eliminate nuclear weapons, stop deforestation, prevent global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain, retire the paralyzing debt of developing nations, prevent soil erosion, produce safe, clean energy, stop overpopulation and eliminate illiteracy is only one third that amount–$237.5 billion dollars.” (134-135)


In “Attending College Must Be Free Again (For the Country’s Own Good),” Donald Gutierrez brings out the fact that in the 1950s he was able to attend college at the University of California in Berkeley with no tuition.  There was a $35 semester charge described as an Incidental Fee for the use of the gym, campus hospital and a first rate library.  Now the semester tuition is $5000 and $16,000 for a nonresident of the state.  He states that Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law cost almost $18,000 per semester, including living expenses and expensive books.  Private schools are a lot more.  Why this must change:

Extreme financial stress on responsible college students is not only unjust, it is dangerous to the country’s future.  Higher education should be free to all young people who show an aptitude for and aspire to advanced learning and professional or technical training.  Society needs doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, scholars, engineers, lawyers, economists, novelists, poets, and social, political and cultural critics and other experts—now and in the future.  If, however, those high college debt hurdles remain, the consequences are obvious and pernicious: For the most part, only youths from wealthy or comfortable families will be able to afford college, especially quality colleges.  The result will be not only a class-based educational structure—Yale vs. Flatsburg City College—but the hardening of a class-structured society. (177)


We not only have the Military/Industrial Complex, as President Eisenhower warned against, but now the Prison/Industrial Complex that allows corporations to make fortunes on other people’s misery.  Punishment for crime and rehabilitation for return to society are functions of the state and must not be delegated to private enterprise.  It behooves all citizens to be aware of what goes on in prisons.  With our present system of justice, any of us, innocent or guilty, could end up in prison.  Protest an injustice and be labeled a terrorist, you become a victim of indefinite detention, especially if you are nonwhite.  Gutierrez reflects on “The New Electrical Meanspiritedness in America”:

An alarming trend in American prisons is the use of electrical devices on prisoners.  This usage constitutes a serious erosion of what some regard as essential ethical restraint on prison authorities from imposing cruelty on convicts.  In a long 1997 article in the New York Review of Books entitled “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, USA, discussed the increasing use of such devices as stun belts, stun guns, shock batons and electric shields by law enforcement officials to control prisoners. … According to Schulz:

 “Stun belts deliver 50,000 volt shocks to the left kidney which fan out from there through blood channels and nerve pathways.  Shocks can be administered by guards form a distance of up to 300 feet simply by the push of a button.  An 8-second application of shock inevitably knocks a person to the ground and may induce urination, defecation or unconsciousness.” (195)


From his own personal encounters with racism, to the hell of the Nazi death camps, to the reality of war, the global exploitation of the earth’s resources, and worldwide abuses of human rights, Gutierrez reminds us how the past haunts the present.

Gutierrez concludes the collection with a subject dear to me as a poet and writer: “The Power of the Pen.”  From a review of Howard Zinn’s The Zinn Reader, he moves on to the teaching of the humanities in college, fiction, war poems, the concept of “Us” versus “Them”, our mother earth as a living vital force, and finally poetry as both a prophetic and an humanitarian response to the dark side of human nature.  He takes us full circle with the Occupy Movement.

Dozens of books on American imperialist foreign policy and corporate greed have been written.  Some of them may seem general and abstract, and in Gutierrez’s collection of essays in Feeling the Unthinkable, he reviews a number of those books.  Many Americans prefer not to think about the abuses of power by its government, and who can blame them, but reading Gutierrez, we feel our humanity rise, to extend it in empathy toward the victims of American foreign policy, and to know that it is our common humanity that binds us together.  This is the gift of Gutierrez’s collection of essays in Feeling the Unthinkable.


Donald Gutierrez was a member of the University of Notre Dame English Department faculty from 1968 to 1975, then joined the English Department at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. He retired from WNMU in 1994 and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife Marlene Zander Gutierrez. He received a “New Mexico Eminent Scholar Award” in 1989. Gutierrez has published six books of literary criticism, two of which focus on D. H. Lawrence and one on Kenneth Rexroth. He has published over fifty essays and reviews, most of which concern social justice and American state terrorism abroad.


Reviewed by J. Glenn Evans, poet, novelist, activist, and founding director of PoetsWest

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