Page 1 of 3 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Living through the age of denial
By Tom Engelhardt
Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.
- Beatles, When I'm 64
I set foot, so to speak, on this planet on July 20, 1944, not perhaps the best
day of the century. It was, in fact, the day of the failed German officers'
plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
My mother was a cartoonist. She was known in those years as "New York's girl
caricaturist", or so she's called in a newspaper ad I still have, part of a
war-bond drive in which your sizeable bond
purchase was to buy her sketch of you. She had, sometime in the months before
my birth, traveled by train, alone, the breadth of a mobilized but still
peaceable American continent to visit Hollywood on assignment for some magazine
to sketch the stars. I still have, on my wall, a photo of her in that year on
the "deck" of a "pirate ship" on a Hollywood lot drawing one of those
gloriously handsome matinee idols. Since I was then inside her, this is not
exactly part of my memory bank. But that photo does tell me that, like him,
she, too, was worth a sketch.
Certainly, it was appropriate that she drew the card announcing my birth. There
I am in that announcement, barely born and already caricatured, a boy baby in
nothing but diapers - except that, on my head, I'm wearing my father's dress
military hat, the one I still have in the back of my closet, and, of course,
I'm saluting. "A Big Hello - From Thomas Moore Engelhardt," the card says. And
thus was I officially recorded entering a world at war.
By then, my father, a major in the US Army Air Corps and operations officer for
the 1st Air Commando Group in Burma (now Myanmar), had, I believe, been
reassigned to the Pentagon. Normally a voluble man, for the rest of his life he
remained remarkably silent on his wartime experiences.
I was, in other words, the late child of a late marriage. My father, who, just
after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, volunteered for the military, was the sort of
figure that the - on average - 26-year-old American soldiers of World War II
would have referred to as "pops".
He, like my mother, departed this planet decades ago, and I'm still here. So
think of this as ... what? No longer, obviously, a big hello from Thomas Moore
Engelhardt, nor - quite yet - a modest farewell, but perhaps a moderately late
report from the one-man commission of me on the world of peace and war I've
passed through since that first salute.
On imagining myself as burnt toast
Precisely what do I mean to say now that I'm just a couple of weeks into my
65th year on this planet?
Let me start this way: If, on the evening of October 22, 1962, you had told me
that, in 2008, America's most formidable enemy would be Iran, I would have
danced a jig. Well, maybe not a jig, but I'll tell you this: I would have been
On that October evening, president John F Kennedy went before the nation - I
heard him on 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". It was, he said, a "secret, swift and extraordinary
buildup of communist missiles - in an area well known to have a special and
historical relationship to the United States and the nations of 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
certainly knew what Hudson Bay, far to the north, meant for me.
"It shall be the policy of this nation," Kennedy added ominously, "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, in part, this way: "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 looming threat: Global nuclear war. Few of us
listeners had seen the highly classified 1960 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, even without access to that SIOP, we - I - knew
well enough what might be coming. After all, I had seen versions of it,
perfectly unclassified, in the movies, even if the power to destroy on a
planetary scale was transposed to alien worlds, as in that science fiction
blockbuster of 1955 This Island Earth,or imputed to strange alien rays,
or rampaging radioactive monsters. Now, here it was in real life, my life,
without an obvious director, and the special effects were likely to be me,
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 keep in mind, I was then a freshman in college, just 18
years old 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, not in that near three-quarters of a century in which significant
portions of the world were laid low.
Had you, a seer that terrifying night, 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 ... well, it's a sentence that would, at the time, have
been hard to finish. Death from Waziristan? I don't think so.
Truly, that night, if I had been convinced that this was "my" future - that, in
fact, I would have a future - I might have dropped to my knees in front of that
radio from which Kennedy's distinctive voice was emerging and thanked my lucky
stars; or perhaps - and this probably better fits the public stance of an
awkward, self-conscious 18-year-old - I would have laughed out loud at the
obvious 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, well, that still seems little short of a
miracle to me, a surprise of history that offers hope ... of a sort. The
question, of course, is: Why, with this in mind, don't I feel better, more
After all, if offered as a plot to sci-fi movie directors of that long-gone era
- perfectly willing to populate Los Angeles with giant, mutated, screeching
ants (Them!), the Arctic with "The Thing From Another World," and
Washington DC with an alien and his mighty robot, capable of melting tanks or
destroying the planet (Klaatu barada nikto) - our present would surely
have been judged too improbable for the screen. They wouldn't have touched it
with a ten-foot pole, and yet that's what actually came about - and the planet,
a prospective cinder (along with us prospective cinderettes) is, remarkably
enough, still here.
Or to put this in a smaller, grimmer way, consider the fate of the American
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 "neighbor" to the northwest. In that address to the nation in
1962, the president announced that he was reinforcing the base, even as he was
evacuating dependents from it. And yet, like me in my 65th year, it, too,
survived the Cuban Missile Crisis unscathed. Some four decades later, in fact,
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,
its public policies of torture, detention without charges, disappearance, you
name it. None of which, by the way, would the same set of directors have
touched with the same pole. Back in the 1950s, only Nazis, members of the
Japanese imperial Army, and KGB agents could publicly relish torture on screen.
The FOX TV show 24 is distinctly an artifact of our moment.
Paroxysm of destruction only a few miles wide
Of course, back in 1962, even before Kennedy spoke, I could no more have
imagined myself 64 than I could have imagined living through "World War IV" -
as one set of neo-cons loved to call the President's Global War on Terror - a
"war" 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 certainly expected bigger, far worse things. And little
wonder: When it came to war, the full weight of the history of most of the last
century pointed exponentially in the direction of a cataclysm with few or no
From my teen years, I was, you might say, of the Tom Lehrer school of life (as
in the lyrics from his 1959 song, We Will All Go Together When We Go) -
and I was hardly alone:
We will all fry together when we fry.
We'll be french fried potatoes by and by.
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie.
Yes, we will all fry together when we fry ...
And we'll all bake together when we bake,
They'll be nobody present at the wake.
With complete participation
In that grand incineration,
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.
I was born,
after all, just a year and a few weeks before the United States atomically
incinerated Hiroshima and then followed up by atomically obliterating the city
of Nagasaki, and World War II ended. Victory arrived, but amid scenes of
planetary carnage, genocide, and devastation on a scale and over an expanse
In these last years, the George W Bush administration has regularly invoked the
glories of the American role in World War II and of the occupations of Germany
and Japan that followed. Even before then, Americans had been experiencing
something like a "greatest generation" fest (complete with bestselling books, a
blockbuster movie, and two multi-part greatest-gen TV mini-series). From the
point of view of the United States, however, World War II was mainly a "world"
war in the world that it mobilized, not in the swath of the planet it turned
into a charnel house of destruction. After all, the United States (along with
the rest of the "New World") was left essentially untouched by both "world"
wars. North Africa, the Middle East, and New Guinea all suffered incomparably
more damage. Other than a single attack on the American fleet at Hawaii,
thousands of miles from the US mainland, on December 7, 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 American west, this continent remained peaceable and quite
traversable by a 35-year-old theatrical caricaturist in the midst of wartime.
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. There had, of
course, been world, or near-world, or "known world" wars in the past, even if
not thought of that way. The Mongols, after all, had left the steppes of
northeastern Asia and conquered China, only being turned back from Japan by the
first kamikaze ("divine wind") attacks in history, typhoons which repelled the
Mongol fleet in 1274 and again in 1281. Mongol horsemen, however, made their
way west across