Nation (un)building and planet (un)building, American-style.
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. I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon a little memoir my Aunt Hilda scrawled, 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 says little more about it.
Still, I was 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.
That should stun anyone. After all, at that time, an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population, possibly 50 million people, reportedly died of the waves of that dreaded disease, often in horrific ways, and, even in this country, were sometimes buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, some of the controversies we’ve experienced recently over, for instance, masking went on in a similarly bitter fashion then, before that global disaster was chucked away and forgotten. Almost no one I know whose parents lived through that nightmare had heard anything about it while 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 also left me thinking about how, as with that deathly flu of the World War I era, we often forget (or at least conveniently set aside) such horrors.
After all, in my childhood and youth, in the wake of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this country began building a staggering nuclear arsenal and would soon be followed on that path 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 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!).
To put that potential fate in perspective, keep in mind that, only two years earlier, the U.S. military had developed a Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China. 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. After all, until August 6, 1945, Armageddon had been left to the gods. 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 drills, fearing the possibility of a mass killing on the premises. Similarly, while out walking, you would from time to time pass the symbol for a nuclear shelter, while the media regularly reported on people arguing about whether, in the case of a nuclear alert, to let their neighbors into their private backyard shelters or arm themselves to keep them out.
Even before the Cold War ended, however, the thought that we could all be blasted off this planet faded into the distant background, while the weaponry itself spread around 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 scenario in which billions of us might end up starving to death.
And yet, even as this country 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. At least for now, the end of the world, nuclear-style, is essentially forgotten history.
That Good-Old Nation-Building Urge
Right now, of course, the exhausting terror on all our minds is the updated version of that 1918 pandemic. 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 boo former President Donald Trump for suggesting they get vaccinated.
The question is: What do most of the leaders of the Republican Party actually represent? What terror do they embody? 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 killers, the disease equivalents of our endless rounds of mass shooters. But putting all that aside for a moment, what else 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. Like their neocon supporters, they were convinced that, with the Soviet Union relegated to the history books, the world was rightfully theirs to shape however they wished. 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. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld 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, of course, referring not simply to al-Qaeda, whose hijackers had just taken out the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, but to the autocratic ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, who had nothing whatsoever to do with that 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.
Of course, we now know all too well that the most powerful country on the planet, through its armed might and its uniquely well-funded military, would prove incapable of building anything, no less a new set of national institutions in far-off lands that would be subservient to this country. In great power terms, left alone on Planet Earth, the United States would prove to be the ultimate (un)builder of nations, a dismantler of the first order 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 strangest thing of all, though, was this: somehow, that powerful, all-American, twenty-first-century urge not to build but unbuild nations seems to have migrated home from our global war on (or, if you prefer, for) terror. As a result, while anything but an Iraq or Afghanistan, the United States has nonetheless begun to resemble a nation in the process of being unbuilt.
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. Without the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to speak of the ongoing war against ISIS, al-Shabaab, and other proliferating terror outfits, without the siphoning off of our money into an ever-expanding military-industrial complex and the radical growth of inequality in this country, a former bankruptee and con man would never have found himself in the Oval Office. It would have been similarly inconceivable 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, in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected to unbuild a country already beginning to come apart at the seams. In other words, he shouldn’t have been the shock that he was. A presidential version of autocracy had been growing here before he came near the White House, or how would his predecessors have been able to fight those wars abroad without the slightest input from Congress?
And now, of course, this nation is indeed being unbuilt big time by Republicans with the help of that former president and failed coupster. They already have a stranglehold on all too many states with the possibility of taking back 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 typhoon in the Philippines to staggering flooding in parts of Brazil 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 tornados of an unprecedented sort to winter heat waves to 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-?? and the Climate Crisis of 1900-21?? 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.
By Tom Engelhardt