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    Front Page
     Aug 2, 2008
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 flabbergasted.

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, 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 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 hopeful, now?

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 survivors.

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 previously unimaginable.

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 

Continued 1 2

 


1. The 'down side' to an attack on Iran

2. Al-Qaeda hails 'revival' in Afghanistan

3. Russia takes control of Turkmen (world?) gas

4. China strengthens its role in Kyrgyzstan

5. The bad side to the 'good war'

6. A reminder for Iran on the revolution

7. Olympics and Opium Wars

8. The cost of socialism

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jul 31, 2008)

 
 



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