Let me start 2022 by heading back — way, way back — for a moment.
It’s easy to forget just how long this world has been a dangerous place for human beings. This was something I thought about recently when I found a little memoir that Aunt Hilda had written decades ago in a small notebook. In it, she commented in passing: “I was graduated during that horrible flu epidemic of 1919 and got it.” Badly enough, it turned out, to mess up her entry into high school. She didn’t say much more.
But I was still shocked. In all the years when my father and his sister were alive and, from time to time, talked about the past, never had they (or my mother, for that matter) mentioned the disastrous “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1920. I hadn’t the slightest idea that anyone in my family had been affected by it. In fact, until I read John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, I hadn’t even known that a pandemic devastated America (and the rest of the world) early in the last century — in a fashion remarkably similar to, but even worse than, Covid-19 (at least so far) before essentially being tossed out of history and the memory books of most families.
This should be shocking to anyone. After all, at that time, an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population, possibly 50 millionPeople died from the waves of this dreaded illness, often in terrible ways, and were sometimes buried in this country. mass graves. Meanwhile, some of the controversies we’ve experienced recently over, for instance, maskingThe world went on in a similar bitter manner before the global disaster was overthrown and forgotten. Nearly no one I know whose parents were victims of that horror had ever heard about it growing up.
Ducking and Covering
My aunt’s brief comment was, however, a reminder to me that we’ve long inhabited a perilous world and that, in certain ways, it’s only grown more so as the decades have passed. It made me think about how, like the World War I flu, we often forget or at least conveniently ignore such horrors.
In my youth and childhood, I was witness to the nuclear devastation of HiroshimaAnd NagasakiThis country built a formidable nuclear arsenal in the early 1970s and was soon followed by the Soviet Union. We’re talking about weaponry that could have destroyed this planet many times over and, in those tense Cold War years, it sometimes felt as if such a fate might indeed be ours. I can still clearly remember. hearing President John F. Kennedy on the radio as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 began — I was a freshman in college — and thinking that everyone I knew on the East Coast, myself included, would soon be toast (and we almost were!).
For a better understanding of this potential fate, consider that the U.S. military was founded only two years ago. developedYou can find more information at Single Integrated Operational PlanFor nuclear war against China and the Soviet Union. In it, a first strike of 3,200 nuclear weapons would be “delivered” to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities. If all went “well,” those would have ceased to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured — and, given what wasn’t known about the effects of radiation then, not to speak of the “nuclear winter” such an attack would have created on this planet, that was undoubtedly a grotesque underestimate.
When you think about it now (if you ever do), that plan and — to steal Jonathan Schell’s famed phrase — the fate of the earth that went with it should still stun you. Armageddon was left to the gods until August 6, 1945. In my youth, however, the possibility of a human-caused, world-ending calamity was hard to forget — and not just because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In school, we took part in nuclear drills (“ducking and covering” under our desks), just as we did fire drills, just as today most schools conduct active-shooter drillsFearing a mass shooting on the premises, they feared for their safety. You would also pass other pedestrians while walking. the symbolFor a nuclear shelter, while regularly reporting on people by the media arguingDiscuss whether they should let their neighbors in their backyard shelters during a nuclear attack or arm themselves to keep their family safe.
However, even before the Cold War ended the idea that we could all be blasted from this planet faded away, while the weaponry itself continued to dominate the minds of many. spreadAround the world. Just ask yourself: In these pandemic days, how often do you think about the fact that we’re always just a trigger finger or two away from nuclear annihilation? And that’s especially true now that we know that even a regional nuclear war between, say, India and Pakistan could create a nuclear-winter scenarioThere are billions of people who could starve to death.
Yet, this country still plans to invest almost $2 trillion in what’s called the “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal, except for news about a potential future Iranian bomb (but never Israel’s actual nukes), such weapons are seldom on anyone’s mind. For now, the nuclear-style end to the world is almost forgotten.
The Good-Old Nation Building Urge
The 1918 pandemic is still the terror that consumes us all. And another terror has come with it: the nightmare of today’s anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, anti-social distancing, anti-whatever-crosses-your-mind version of the Republican Party, so extreme that its mask-less followers will even booFormer President Donald Trump suggested they get vaccinated.
The question is: What are the real leaders of the Republican Party? What kind of terror are they promoting? In a sense, the answer’s anything but complicated. In an all-too-literal way, they’re murderers. Given the urge of Republican governors and other legislators, national and local, to cancel vaccination mandates, stop school-masking, and the like, they’ve functionally become serial killersThe disease equivalents to our endless rounds of endless round of mass shooters. Let’s not forget about that for a second. OtherWhat do they represent?
Let me try to answer that question in an indirect way by starting not with the terror they now represent but with America’s “Global War on Terror.” It was, of course, launched by President George W. Bush and his top officials in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. They believed that the world was theirs to control, and the Soviet Union had been relegated to history, just like their neocon friends. The United States was often referred to then as the “sole superpower” on Planet Earth and they felt it was about time that it acted accordingly. Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense suggested to his aides in the ruins of the Pentagon on 9/11, “Go massive — sweep it all up, things related and not.”
He was referring to al-Qaeda’s hijackers who had just destroyed the World Trade Center and part the Pentagon. But he was also referring to Saddam Hussein, the autocratic ruler in Iraq, who had nothing to do with the terror group. In other words, to those then in power in Washington, that murderous assault offered the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how, in a world of midgets, the globe’s military and economic giant should act.
It was a moment, as the phrase then went, for “nation building” at the point of a sword (or a drone) and President Bush (who had once been against such efforts) and his top officials came out for them in a major way. As he put it later, the invasion of Afghanistan was “the ultimate nation-building mission,” as would be the invasion of Iraq a year and a half later.
We all know that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, thanks to its armed might, and its ability to mobilize it. uniquely well-fundedThe United States military would prove incapable of building anything, not even a new set, of national institutions in distant lands that would be subservient. In terms of great power, the United States would be the ultimate (un-)builder and dismantler globally. Compared to Saddam’s Iraq, that country is today a chaotic mess; while Afghanistan, a poor but reasonably stable and decent place (even home to the “hippy trail“) before the Soviets and Americans fought it out there in the 1980s and the U.S. invaded in 2001 is now an almost unimaginable catastrophe zone.
The Republican Party Unbuilds America
Perhaps the most odd thing was this: That powerful, all-American urge not to build but to unbuild nations seems somehow to have migrated home (or, if you prefer, for) terror. The United States, while not in an Iraq or Afghanistan, has begun to resemble a nation still in the process of being built.
I haven’t the slightest doubt that you know what I mean. Think of it this way: thank god the party of Donald Trump was never called the Democratic Party, since it’s now in the process of “lawfully” (law by striking law) doing its best to dismantle the American democratic system as we’ve known it and, as far as that party’s concerned, the process has evidently only begun.
Keep in mind that Donald Trump would never have made it to the White House, nor would that process be so advanced if, under previous presidents, this country hadn’t put its taxpayer dollars to work dismantling the political and social systems of distant lands in such a striking fashion. The invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the ongoing war against ISIS, al-Shabaab and other proliferating terror groups would have been impossible without the siphoning offInvesting our money in an ever-expanding military industrial complex and the radical growth inequalityIn this country, a former bankrupteeCon man would never have found himself in Oval Office. It would have been equally impossible that, more than five years later, “as many as 60% of Republican voters [would] continue to believe his lies” in an essentially religious fashion.
In a sense, Donald Trump was elected in November 2016 to unbuild a nation that was already falling apart at the seams. In other words, he shouldn’t have been the shock that he was. He was not the first to see a presidential version of autocracy. How could he have been able, without any input from Congress, to fight those wars overseas?
Now, the Republicans are working hard to destroy this nation, with the help and support of that failed coupster and former president. They have already established a stranglehold over many states and are likely to retake Congress in 2022, and the presidency in 2024.
And let’s not forget the obvious. Amid a devastating pandemic and nation-unbuilding on an unnerving scale here at home, there’s another kind of unbuilding going on that couldn’t be more dangerous. After all, we’re living on a planet that is itself being unbuilt in striking ways. In the Christmas season just past, for instance, news about the extremes of weather globally — from a devastating typhoonToppings in the Philippines floodingIn Brazil, in some parts to the possible melting of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica — has been dramatic, to say the least.
Similarly, in this country in the last weeks of 2021, the word “record” was attached to weather events ranging from tornadosWinter is of a rare kind heat wavesTo blizzards and drenching rains to — in Alaska of all places — soaring temperatures. And so it goes, as we face an unprecedented climate emergency with those Republicans and that “moderate” Democrat Joe Manchin all too ready not just to unbuild a nation but a world, aided and abetted by the worst criminals in history. And no, in this case, I’m not thinking of Donald Trump and crew, bad as they may be, but of the CEOs of the fossil-fuel companies.
So, here’s what I wonder: Assuming Armageddon doesn’t truly arrive, leaving us all in the dust (or water or fire), if you someday tell your grandchildren about this world of ours and what we’ve lived through, will the Pandemic of 2020-?? What about the Climate Crisis of 1900-21?? Will they be forgotten? Many decades from now, might such nightmares be relegated to the scribbled notes found in some ancient relative’s account of his or her life?
As 2022 begins, I can only hope so, which, in itself, couldn’t be a sadder summary of our times.