Tom Engelhardt was born in the US in 1944. He didn't expect to make it to 2008. He expected even less the way that history has worked out for his nation.
The end of the American age of denial.......
Welcome to the real world!
By Tom Engelhardt
"Let me start this way: if, on the evening of 22 October 1962, you had told me that in 2008 America's most formidable enemy would be Iran, I would have been flabbergasted.
On that October evening, President John F Kennedy went before the nation - I heard him on the radio - to tell us all that Soviet missile sites were just then being prepared on the island of Cuba with "a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere". When fully operational, those nuclear-tipped weapons would reach "as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada , and as far south as Lima , Peru ".
I knew what Hudson Bay, far to the north, meant for me. "It shall be the policy of this nation," Kennedy added, "to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." And he ended: "My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred..."
No one could mistake the threat: global nuclear war. Few of us listeners had seen the 1960 top-secret SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) in which the US military had made its preparations for a massive first strike of 3,200 nuclear weapons against the communist world. It was supposed to take out at least 130 cities, with estimated casualties approaching 300 million; but we knew well enough what might be coming. I had seen versions of it in the movies, even if the power to destroy on a planetary scale was transposed to alien worlds, or imputed to strange alien rays or rampaging radioactive monsters. Now, here it was in real life, my life, and the special effects were likely to be me, dead.
It was the single moment in my life - which tells you much about the life of an American who didn't go to war in some distant land - when I truly imagined myself as prospective burnt toast. I really believed that I might not make it out of the week, and I was then a freshman in college, just 18 and still wondering when life was slated to begin.
Between 1939 and 2008, across much of the world, few people could claim to have escaped quite so lightly. Had you whispered in my ear the news about our enemies still distant decades away, the Iranians, the - are you kidding? - Iraqis, or a bunch of fanatics in the backlands of Afghanistan and a tribal borderland of Pakistan ... Death from Waziristan? I don't think so.
Truly, if I had been convinced that this was "my" future - that I would have a future - I might have dropped to my knees in front of that radio and thanked my lucky stars; or perhaps I would have laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. ("The absurd" was then a major category in my life.) Fanatics from Afghanistan? Please...
That we're here now, that the world wasn't burnt to a crisp in the long superpower standoff of the Cold War, still seems little short of a miracle to me, a surprise of history that offers hope - of a sort.
The question is why, with this in mind, don't I feel better, more hopeful now?
Our present, if offered as a plot to sci-fi movie directors of that long-gone era, would surely have been judged too improbable for the screen. Yet that's what came about, and the planet is still here.
Consider the fate of the US military base at Guantanamo - an extra-special symbol of that "special and historical relationship" mentioned by Kennedy between the small island of Cuba and its giant "neighbour" to the northwest. He announced that he was reinforcing the base, even as he was evacuating dependants from it. And yet it survived the Cuban missile crisis unscathed.
Some four decades later it was still in such a special and historical relationship with Cuba that the Bush administration was able to use it to publicly establish all its new categories of off-shore injustice - its global mini-gulag of secret prisons, public policies of torture, detention without charges, disappearances.
Back in the 1950s, only Nazis, members of the Japanese imperial army, and KGB agents could publicly relish torture on screen. An unexpected longevity.
Back in 1962, I could no more have imagined myself living to be 64 than I could have imagined living through "World War IV" (as one set of neocons loved to call President Bush's Global War on Terror), to be fought mainly against thousands of Islamist fanatics scattered around the planet and an "axis of evil" consisting of three relatively weak regional powers. I expected bigger, far worse things.
When it came to war, the history of most of the last century pointed exponentially in the direction of a cataclysm, with few or no survivors. I was born, after all, in 1944, just a year before the US atomically incinerated Hiroshima and then followed up by obliterating the city of Nagasaki , and World War II ended.
Victory arrived, but amid scenes of planetary carnage, genocide, and devastation previously unimaginable.
In these last years, the Bush administration has regularly invoked the glories of the US role in World War II and of the occupations of Germany and Japan that followed.
From the point of view of the US , however, World War II was mainly a "world" war in the world that it mobilised, not in the swath of the planet it turned into a charnel house.
The US (along with the rest of the New World) was left untouched by both "world" wars. Other than a single attack on the US fleet at Hawaii , thousands of miles from the mainland, on 7 December 1941, the brief Japanese occupation of a couple of tiny Aleutian islands off Alaska , a U-boat war off its coasts, and small numbers of balloon fire bombs that drifted from Japan over the US west, this continent remained peaceable. For Americans, I doubt that the real import of that phrase world war -of the way the industrial machinery of complete devastation enveloped much of the planet in the course of the last century - ever quite came home.
War had remained a locally or regionally focused affair for much of history. And in the decades before World War I, it was largely fought on the global peripheries by European powers testing out the industrial technology of mass slaughter - the machine gun, the airplane, poison gas, the concentration camp - on no one more significant than benighted "natives" in Iraq, the Sudan, or German Southwest Africa.
This was hardly worthy of notice until, in 1914, Europeans began killing other Europeans by similar means and in staggering numbers. While the American Civil War had offered a preview of war, industrial-style, World War I offered the first full-scale demonstration of what industrial warfare meant in the heartlands of advanced civilisation. The machine gun, the airplane, and poison gas decimated a generation of European youth, while the tank, wheeled into action in 916, signalled rapid arms advances to come. Nonetheless, that war, even as it touched the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, wasn't quite imagined as a "world war" while still ongoing.
At the time, it was known as the Great War.
Though parts of Tsarist Russia were devastated, the signature style of destruction was focused on a strip of land not more than a few miles wide at any moment that stretched from the Swiss border to the Atlantic Ocean, running largely through France.
There, on "the Western front" for four years, opposing armies fought - to appropriate an American term from the Vietnam War - a "meat grinder" of a war. "Fighting" hardly covered the event. It was a paroxysm of death and destruction. That modest expanse of land was bombarded by many millions of shells and everything built on, or growing upon it, was levelled, and millions of young men - many tens of thousands on single days - were slaughtered.
The Great War ended in 1918 with a bitter peace in the West, while, in the East, amid civil war, the Bolsheviks came to power.
The semi-peace that followed turned out to be little more than a two-decade armistice. We're talking here about "the war to end all wars". If only.
Destruction on a global scale World War II put that "I" on the Great War and turned it into the First World War. Twenty years later, when "II" arrived, the world was industrially and scientifically prepared for new levels of destruction. WWII might be imagined as the extended paroxysm of violence on that few-mile strip of the Western Front scientifically intensified (air power had begun to come into its own). The destruction on the Western Front could now be imposed on whole countries (Japan), whole continents (Europe), expanses of space (all of Russia from Moscow to the Polish border). Where there had once been civilisation, little would be left but bodies, rubble, and human scarecrows striving to survive.
With the Nazi organisation of the Holocaust, even genocide would be industrialised and poison gas put to far more efficient use the second time around. This was a form of "globalisation" though its true nature is seldom much considered when Americans highlight the experiences of the "greatest generation". And no wonder. Except for those soldiers fighting and dying abroad, it wasn't experienced by Americans.
It's hard to believe now that, in 1945, the European civilisation that had experienced a proud peace from 1871-1914 while dominating two-thirds of the planet lay in ruins. It was the "Third World War" that took up almost the first half-century of my own life, and seemed to be coming to culmination in the Cuban missile crisis. Had the logic of the previous wars been followed, war's destruction would have been exponentially upped once again.
The technology - A- and H-bombs, the air fleets to go with them, and of course nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles was certainly put in place to transform the whole planet into a version of those few miles of the Western Front, 1914-18. After a nuclear exchange between the superpowers, much of the world could well have been burnt to a crisp, and a global winter induced that might have sent us in the direction of the dinosaurs. The logic of war's developing machinery seemed to be leading inexorably in just that direction. Otherwise, how do you explain the way the US and the Soviet Union could not stop upgrading and adding to their nuclear arsenals until the US had about 30,000 weapons in the mid-1960s, and the Soviets about 40,000 in the 1980s.
It was as if the two powers were preparing for the destruction of many planets. This is what World War III, whose name would have had to be given prospectively, might have meant (and could still mean). It was but a generation from the first flight of the Wright brothers to the 1,000-bomber raid. In 1903, one fragile plane flies 120 feet. In 1911, an Italian lieutenant in an only slightly less fragile plane drops a bomb on an oasis in North Africa. In 1944 and 1945 those 1,000-plane air armadas take off to devastate German and Japanese cities. On 6 August 1945, all the power of those armadas is compacted into the belly of a lone B-29, the Enola Gay, which drops its single bomb on Hiroshima, destroying the city and many of its inhabitants. Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay, was born only 12 years after the first rudimentary plane took to the air. And only seven years after Japan surrendered, the first H-bomb was tested. It was this world of war from which, in 1945, the US emerged triumphant.
On a planet many of whose great cities were now rubble, a world of refugee camps and privation, a world destroyed, the US was untouched.
The world war had levelled all its rivals and made the US a powerhouse of economic expansion. That war and the atomic bomb had ushered in a golden age of abundance and consumerism. All the deferred dreams and desires of depression and wartime America - the washing machine, the TV set, the toaster, the automobile, the suburban house -were available to significant numbers of Americans.
The US military began to demobilise and the former troops returned not to rubble, but to new tract homes and GI Bill educations.
And yet all of this was shadowed by our own "victory weapon", by the dark train of thought that led quickly to scenarios of our own destruction in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, in movies, and on TV, as well as in novels that took readers beyond the end of the world and into landscapes involving irradiated futures filled with mutants and survivalists.
The young found themselves plunged into a mordant, yet thrilling, world of "triumphalist despair". At the economic and governmental level, the 24/7 world of sunny consumerism merged with the 24/7 world of dark atomic alerts, of nuclear-armed planes ready to take off to obliterate the Soviets.
The peaceable giants of consumer production now doubled as the militarised giants of weapons production. A Military Keynesianism drove the US economy toward a consumerism in which desire for the ever-larger car and missile, electric range and tank, television console and atomic submarine was wedded in single corporate entities. The companies - General Electric, General Motors and Westinghouse, among others, producing the icons of the home were also major contractors developing the weapons systems ushering the Pentagon into its own age of abundance.
In the 1950s it seemed natural for Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, to become secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration, just as retiring generals and admirals found it natural to move into the employ of corporations they had only recently employed on the government's behalf. Washington, headquarters of global abundance, was also transformed into a planetary military headquarters.
By 1957, 200 generals and admirals as well as 1,300 colonels or naval officers of similar rank, retired or on leave, worked for civilian agencies, and military funding spilled over into a Congress that redirected its largesse to districts nationwide. Think of all this as the beginning not so much of the American (half) Century, but of an American Age of Denial that lasted until 11 September 2001, the day that "changed everything." Perhaps not "everything", but it's clearer now just what the attacks of that day did change - and of just how terrible, how craven, but unsurprising the response to it was.
The dates 1945-2001 mark 56 years in which life was organised to safeguard Americans from an "atomic Pearl Harbour " from the thought that two great oceans were no longer protection enough for this continent, that the US was now part of a world capable of being laid low. In those years, the sun of good fortune shone steadily on the US even as its newspapers began drawing concentric circles of destruction around American cities and imagining their future in ruins. This is the shadow story of that era, like those mementos mori skulls placed amid cornucopias in old Dutch still-life paintings.
In those decades, the "arms race" never abated, not even long after both superpowers had a superabundant ability to take each other out. World-ending weaponry was being constantly "perfected". Nonetheless, Americans preferred most of the time not to think too much about "the unthinkable" and what it meant for them.
As the 1980s began, in a surge of revulsion at decades of denial, a vast anti-nuclear movement briefly arose - in 1982, three-quarters of a million people marched against such weaponry in New York City - and President Ronald Reagan responded with his lucrative (for the weapons industry) fantasy scheme of lofting into space an "impermeable shield" against nuclear weapons, his "Star Wars" programme.
And then, as startling as it was unexpected, in 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev almost made such a fantasy come true, not in space, but here on Earth. They came to the brink of a genuine programme to move decisively down the path to the abolition of such weapons. It was the most hopeful almost-moment of a terrible century, and it failed.
To the amazement, even disbelief, of official Washington , and thanks largely to Gorbachev, who consciously chose a path of non-violence, the USSR soon disappeared, and peaceably at that, after four decades of nuclear standoff in a fully garrisoned MAD (mutually assured destruction) world.
You could measure the era of denial up to that moment both by the level of official resistance to recognising this obvious fact and by the audible sigh of relief in this country. Finally, it was all over. It was called "victory", though it would prove anything but.
And only then did the MADness really begin.
Though there was in the US modest muttering about a "peace dividend," the idea of "peace" never caught hold. The thousands of weapons in the US nuclear arsenal, whose existence should have been an embarrassing reminder of the Age of Denial, were pushed further into the shadows and ignored or forgotten. Initially assigned no other tasks, they were placed in strategic limbo and went unmentioned for years. It was clear by the century's end that the "peace dividend" would go largely to the Pentagon.
At the moment when the US might have accepted its own long-term vulnerability and begun working toward a world in which destruction was less obviously on the agenda, the US government instead embarked, like the greatest of Great Powers, on a series of neocolonial wars on the peripheries.
It began building up a constellation of new military bases in and around the oil heartlands of the planet, while reinforcing a military and technological might meant to brook no future opponents.
Orwell's phrase from his novel 1984, "war is peace", was operative well before the second Bush administration entered office. With only one superpower left, the American Age of Denial didn't dissipate. It only deepened and any serious assessment of the real planet we were all living on was avoided. In these years, the world was declared to be "flat" and, on that "level playing field", it was gloriously globalising.
This official Age of Globalisation was proclaimed another sunny era of wonder and abundance. Everyone on the planet would now wear Air Jordan sneakers and Mickey Mouse T-shirts, eat under the Golden Arches, and be bombarded with "information". News was circling the planet almost instantaneously in this self-proclaimed Age of Information. But with the Soviet Union in the trash bin of history - forget that Russia , about to become a major energy power, still held on to its nuclear forces - and the planet, including the former Soviet territories in eastern Europe and central Asia open to "globalising" penetration, few bothered to mention that other nexus of forces which had globalised in the previous century: the forces of planetary destruction.
Don't think that George W Bush was the first to urge us to "sacrifice" by spending our money and visiting Disney World. That was the story of the 1990s and it represented the deepest of all denials. If the world was flat, then why should we drive blissfully right off its edge? The SUV, the subprime mortgage, the McMansion in the distant suburb, the 100-mile commute to work . . . we did it. We paid the price.
And while we were burning oil and spending money we often didn't have, "globalisation" was slowly making its way to the impoverished backlands of Afghanistan.
This brings us almost to our own moment.
To the neocons, putting on their pith helmets and planning their Project for the New American Century, the only force that really mattered in the world was the US military, which would rule the day, and the Bush administration, initially made up of so many of them, agreed. This would prove to be one of the great misreadings of the nature of power in our world. Let me make our own dim and dismal moment short and sweet.
On 11 September 2001 the Age of Denial ended in the vast cloud of ash of the World Trade Centre. Within 24 hours, the site where the towers had gone down was declared to be Ground Zero, a term previously reserved for an atomic explosion.
No city, continent, or planet had been vaporised, but for Americans, secretly waiting all those decades for their "victory weapon" to come home, it briefly looked that way. The shock of discovering for the first time and in a gut way that the continental US, too, could be at some planetary epicentre of destruction was immense.
In the media, apocalyptic moments - anthrax, plagues, and dirty bombs - multiplied and most Americans, still safe in their homes, hunkered down in fear to await doom-laden scenarios that would never happen. Other encroaching realities, ranging from America's "oil addiction" to climate change, would continue to be ignored. In the US this was the real inconvenient truth of these years.
The response to 9/11 was striking and craven in the extreme. Although the Bush administration's Global War on Terror has been pictured many ways, it has never been seen for what it may have been: a desperate and fierce rearguard action to extend the American Age of Denial.
We would show our confidence in the American system by acting as though nothing had happened.
As "commander-in-chief", Bush would wall us in and fight a "global war" to stave off the forces threatening us. That war would be on their soil, not ours, forever and ever, amen. The motto of the Bush administration might have been: pay any price. Others, that is, would pay any price - disappearance, torture, false imprisonment, death by air and land - for us to remain in denial.
A disastrous "war" on terrorism, along with sub-wars, dubbed "fronts", in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be pursued to impose our continuing Age of Denial by force on the rest of the planet (and soften the costs of our addiction to oil). This was to be the new Pax Americana, a shock-and-awe "crusade" launched in the name of US "safety" and "national security".
Almost eight years later, these remain the idols to which American politicians, the media, and many citizens continue to do frightened obeisance.
The message of 9/11 was clear enough. Here is the future of the US; you are about to become part of the painful, modern history of this planet.
And the irony was this: the fiercer the response and the more we tried to force the cost of denial of this central reality on others, the faster history seemed to approach."