The “Revolution of ’89” Reassessed

Thirty years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his first State of the Union Address, the first post-Cold War observance of this annual ritual. Just weeks before, the Berlin Wall had fallen. That event, the president declared, “marks the beginning of a new era in the world’s affairs.” The Cold War, that “long twilight struggle” (as President John F. Kennedy so famously described it), had just come to an abrupt end. A new day was dawning. President Bush seized the opportunity to explain just what that dawning signified.

“There are singular moments in history, dates that divide all that goes before from all that comes after,” the president said. The end of World War II had been just such a moment. In the decades that followed, 1945 provided “the common frame of reference, the compass points of the postwar era we’ve relied upon to understand ourselves.” Yet the hopeful developments of the year just concluded — Bush referred to them collectively as “the Revolution of ’89” — had initiated “a new era in the world’s affairs.”

While many things were certain to change, the president felt sure that one element of continuity would persist: the United States would determine history’s onward course. “America, not just the nation but an idea,” he emphasized, is and was sure to remain “alive in the minds of people everywhere.”

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

No, That’s Not a Typo

Yes, our infrastructure stinks, our schools are failing, this country’s a nightmare of inequality, and there’s a self-promoting madman in the White House, so isn’t it time to take pride in the rare institutional victories America has had in this century? Arguably, none has been more striking than the triumphal success of the American war system.

Oh, you’re going to bring that up immediately? Okay, you’re right. It’s true enough that the U.S. military can’t win a war anymore. In this century, it’s never come out on top anywhere, not once, not definitively. And yes, just to get a step ahead of you, everywhere it’s set foot across the Greater Middle East and Africa, it seems to have killed startling numbers of people and uprooted so many more, sending lots of them into exile and so unsettling other parts of the world as well. In the process, it’s also had remarkable success spreading failed states and terror groups far and wide.

Al-Qaeda, whose 19 suicidal hijackers so devastatingly struck this country on September 11, 2001, was just a modest outfit then (even if its leader dreamt of drawing the U.S. into conflicts across the Islamic world that would promote his group big time). Nineteen years later, its branches have spread from Yemen to West Africa, while the original al-Qaeda still exists. And don’t forget its horrific progeny, the Islamic State, or ISIS (originally al-Qaeda in Iraq). Though the U.S. military has declared it defeated in its “caliphate” (it isn’t, not truly), its branches have multiplied from the Philippines deep into Africa.

How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory

Donald Trump was born in June 1946, the son of a wealthy New York real estate developer. I was born thirteen months later in Normal, Illinois. My parents, both World War II veterans, were anything but wealthy. At the time of my birth, my father was attending college on the GI Bill, with my mother, a former army nurse, working to keep our family afloat. In most respects, Trump and I had (and have) almost nothing in common.

Yet however the particulars may have differed, he and I were, in another sense, born in the same place, governed by certain identifiable propositions. Just then beginning to assume concrete form, those propositions informed post–World War II America. They described a way of life and defined what it meant to be an American. They conferred prerogatives and apportioned benefits. And not least of all, they situated the United States in the stream of history. Metaphysically, even though we have never met, Trump and I are kin—white heterosexual males who came of age at a time when white heterosexual males were granted first claim on all the privileges heralded by an American Century just then hitting its stride.

At the time of his birth and mine, ordinary Americans, whatever their race, gender, or sexual orientation, wanted nothing more than to move past the trials of the recent past, and the sooner the better. Mobilizing the nation for total war, a process directed from Washington, had taken years to accomplish. Demobilization, driven from the bottom up, occurred virtually overnight as the armed forces of the United States all but disintegrated. In the wake of Japan’s surrender in September 1945, an eruption of civil disobedience unlike any in U.S. history swept through the ranks of the armed forces, an event all the more remarkable in that it was without structure or leaders. America’s citizen soldiers were done with war and done with taking orders. With millions of GIs demanding to shed their uniforms and their loved ones echoing those demands, authorities in Washington had no option but to comply.1

Kill Anything That Moves

U.S. “Plans” for the Afghan War Might Prove a Crime Against Humanity

On February 4, 2002, a Predator drone circled over Afghanistan’s Paktia province, near the city of Khost. Below was al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden — or at least someone in the CIA thought so — and he was marked for death. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it later, both awkwardly and passively: “A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired.”  That air-to-ground, laser-guided missile — designed to obliterate tanks, bunkers, helicopters, and people — did exactly what it was meant to do. 

As it happened, though (and not for the first time in its history either), the CIA got it wrong. It wasn’t Osama bin Laden on the receiving end of that strike, or a member of al-Qaeda, or even of the Taliban. The dead, local witnesses reported, were civilians out collecting scrap metal, ordinary people going about their daily work just as thousands of Americans had been doing at the World Trade Center only months earlier when terror struck from the skies.

In the years since, those Afghan scrap collectors have been joined by more than 157,000 war dead in that embattled land. That’s a heavy toll, but represents just a fraction of the body count from America’s post-9/11 wars. According to a study by the Costs of War Project of Brown University’s Watson Institute, as many as 801,000 people, combatants and noncombatants alike, have been killed in those conflicts. That’s a staggering number, the equivalent of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But if President Donald Trump is to be believed, the United States has “plans” that could bury that grim count in staggering numbers of dead. The “method of war” he suggested employing could produce more than 20 times that number in a single country — an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Or Is He the Third?

Here’s the question at hand — and I guarantee you that you’ll read it here first: Is Donald Trump the second or even possibly the third 9/11? Because truly, he has to be one or the other.

Let me explain, and while I do, keep this in mind: as 2019 ends, thanks to Brexit and the victory of Boris Johnson in Britain’s recent election, the greatest previous imperial power on this planet is clearly headed for the sub-basement of history. Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, now Russia, remains a well-sauced Putinesca shadow of its former self. And then, of course, there’s the country that, not so long ago, every major American politician but Donald Trump proclaimed the most exceptional, indispensable nation ever.

As it happens, the United States — if you didn’t catch the reference above — has been looking a bit peaked lately itself. You can’t say that it’s the end of the road for a land of such wealth and staggering military power, enough to finish off several Earth-sized planets. However, it’s clearly a country in decline on a planet in the same condition and its present leader, Tariff Man, however uniquely orange-faced he may be, is just the symptom of the long path to hell in a handbasket its leadership embarked on almost three decades ago as the Cold War ended.

The U.S. Military on a Planet From Hell

It was Monday, March 1, 2032, and the top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were poised, as they are every year around this time, to deliver their annual “posture statement” on military readiness before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As the officers waited for the committee members to take their seats, journalists covering the event conferred among themselves on the meaning of all the badges and insignia worn by the top brass. Each of the officers testifying that day — Generals Richard Sheldon of the Army, Roberto Gonzalez of the Marine Corps, and Shalaya Wright of the Air Force, along with Admiral Daniel Brixton of the Navy — sported chestfuls of multicolored ribbons and medals. What did all those emblems signify?

Easy to spot were the Defense Distinguished Service and Legion of Merit medals worn by all four officers. No less obvious was the parachutist badge worn by General Sheldon and the submarine warfare insignia sported by Admiral Brixton. As young officers, all four had, of course, served in the “Forever Wars” of the earlier years of this century and so each displayed the Global War on Terror Service Medal. But all four also bore service ribbons — those small horizontal bars worn over the left pocket — for campaigns of more recent vintage, and these required closer examination.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

The Age of Trump, the End of What?

French king Louis XV reputedly said, “Après moi, le déluge.” (“After me, the flood.”) Whether that line was really his or not remains unclear, but not long after his death did come the French Revolution. We should be so lucky! Our all-American version of Louis XV, Donald I, is incapable, I suspect, of even imagining a world after him. Given the historically unprecedented way he’s covered by the “fake” or “corrupt” news media, that “enemy of the people,” I doubt they really can either.

Never, you might say, have we, as a nation, been plunged quite so fully not just into the ever-present, but into one man’s version of it. In other words, for us, the deluge is distinctly now and it has an orange tint, a hefty body, and the belligerent face of every 1950s father I ever knew — my own, in his angrier moods, included — as well as of redbaiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Of course, you have to be at least as old as me to remember that Trump-anticipating political showman and his own extreme moment. After all, in distinctly Trumpian fashion (though without Twitter), he accused President Truman’s secretary of defense, George Marshall, and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, of being Russian agents. As McCarthy said at the time, “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy (whose aide, Roy Cohn, was once Donald Trump’s mentor) offers a reminder that Trumpian-style personalities were not unknown in our history and that, in the case of McCarthy, their antics were, however minimally by twenty-first-century standards, actually televised.

What the U.S. Military Will Be Doing in a Climate Crisis Future

The Situation Room, October 2039: the president and vice president, senior generals and admirals, key cabinet members, and other top national security officers huddle around computer screens as aides speak to key officials across the country. Some screens are focused on Hurricane Monica, continuing its catastrophic path through the Carolinas and Virginia; others are following Hurricane Nicholas, now pummeling Florida and Georgia, while Hurricane Ophelia lurks behind it in the eastern Caribbean.

On another bank of screens, officials are watching horrifying scenes from Los Angeles and San Diego, where millions of people are under mandatory evacuation orders with essentially nowhere to go because of a maelstrom of raging wildfires. Other large blazes are burning out of control in Northern California and Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State. The National Guard has been called out across much of the West, while hundreds of thousands of active-duty troops are being deployed in the disaster zones to assist in relief operations and firefighting.

With governors and lawmakers from the affected states begging for help, the president has instructed the senior military leadership to provide still more soldiers and sailors for yet more disaster relief. Unfortunately, the generals and admirals are having a hard time complying, since most of their key bases on the East and West Coasts are also under assault from storms, floods, and wildfires. Many have already been evacuated. Naval Station Norfolk, the nation’s largest naval base, for example, took a devastating hit from Monica and lies under several feet of water, rendering it inoperable. Camp Pendleton in California, a major Marine Corps facility, is once again in flames, its personnel either being evacuated or fully engaged in firefighting. Other key bases have been similarly disabled, their personnel scattered to relocation sites in the interior of the country.

The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change

Shortly after assuming the presidency in 2017, Donald Trump rescinded Executive Order 13653, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” a measure that had been signed by President Barack Obama in late 2013. The Obama order, steeped in the science of climate change, instructed all federal agencies to identify global warming’s likely impacts on their future operations and to take such action as deemed necessary to “enhance climate preparedness and resilience.” In rescinding that order, Trump asserted that economic competitiveness—involving, among other things, the unbridled exploitation of America’s oil, coal, and natural gas reserves—outweighed environmental protection as a national priority. Accordingly, all federal agencies were instructed to abandon their efforts to enhance climate preparedness and to abolish any rules or regulations adopted in accordance with Executive Order 13653.1 Most government agencies, now headed by Trump appointees, heeded the president’s ruling. One major organization, however, carried on largely as before: the U.S. Department of Defense.

In accordance with the 2013 Obama directive, the Department of Defense (DoD) had taken significant steps to mitigate its contributions to global warming, such as installing solar panels on military installations and acquiring electric vehicles for its noncombat transport fleet. More important, the Pentagon leadership, in a January 2016 directive, had called on the military services to assess “the effects of climate change on the DoD mission” and act where necessary to overcome “any risks that develop as a result of climate change.”2 All those endeavors, presumably, were to be suspended following President Trump’s 2017 decree. But while discussion of climate change has indeed largely disappeared from the Pentagon’s public statements, its internal efforts to address the effects of global warming have not stopped.3 Instead, a close look at Pentagon reports and initiatives reveals that many senior officers are convinced that climate change is real, is accelerating, and has direct and deleterious implications for American national security.4

Kill Anything That Moves

Castle Black, the Syrian Withdrawal, and the Battle of the Bases

They called it Castle Black, an obvious homage to the famed frozen citadel from the HBO series Game of Thrones. In the fantasy world of GoT, it’s the stronghold of the Night’s Watch, the French Foreign Legion-esque guardians of the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms.

This Castle Black, however, was all too real and occupied by U.S. Special Operations forces, America’s most elite troops. In its location, at least, it was nearly as remote as its namesake, even if in far warmer climes — not on the northern fringe of Westeros but at the far edge of eastern Syria.

Today, the real Castle Black and most of the archipelago of U.S. outposts only recently arrayed across the Syrian frontier are emptying out, sit abandoned, or are occupied by Russian and Syrian troops. At least one — located at the Lafarge Cement Factory — lies in partial ruins after two U.S. Air Force F-15 jets conducted an airstrike on it. The purpose, according to Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the U.S.-led military coalition fighting ISIS, was to “destroy an ammunition cache, and reduce the facility’s military usefulness.”

“Only yesterday they were here and now we are here,” a Russian journalist announced after taking selfies at the abandoned base at Manbij where U.S. forces had served since 2015 alongside allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters. “It appears as though the U.S. servicemen fled in their armored vehicles,” said another reporter with RT’s Arabic service, as she walked in front of American tents and equipment at the hastily abandoned outpost. Photographs show that when U.S. troops bugged out, they also left behind other standard stuff from American bases abroad: “crude dick drawings,” a football, fridges stocked with Coca-Cola, an open package of animal crackers, a can of Pringles, and a paperback copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Living a Mixed Metaphor

There can be no question about it. Donald Trump is Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. “Off with his head!” was the president’s essential suggestion for — to offer just one example — a certain whistleblower who fingered him on that now notorious Ukrainian phone call. And if The Donald hasn’t also been playing the roles of White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and other characters from Carroll’s classic nineteenth century children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then tell me what he’s been doing these last years.

Unfortunately, in attempting to explain the Trumpian world we’ve been plunged into, I’m not Lewis Carroll. If only I were! Still, I realized recently that, like Alice, I had gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and was still falling, falling as if into a deep, deep well or through the very center of the Earth. Now Alice, if you remember, first had to follow a White Rabbit with pink eyes who rushed by wearing a waistcoat, suddenly pulled a watch from its pocket, and said to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” It then disappeared down that memorably large rabbit hole by a riverbank near her house in nineteenth-century England.

Willingly or not, I — and here, I suspect, I speak for most of the rest of us, too — had little choice, given election 2016, but to follow our own rabbit down a twenty-first-century version of that rabbit hole. It goes without saying that our rabbit, that famed impresario of (un)reality TV shows, was distinctly a white rabbit, too. (After all, he would be the first to assure you that he’s no “Mexican rapist,” nor a compatriot of the recently dead Congressman Elijah Cummings whom he labeled a “brutal bully” representing a “rat and rodent infested” district of Baltimore.)

Donald Trump and the Ten Commandments (Plus One) of the National Security State

Let us stipulate at the outset that Donald Trump is a vulgar and dishonest fraud without a principled bone in his corpulent frame. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, President Trump appears intent on recalibrating America’s role in the world. Initiating a long-overdue process of aligning U.S. policy with actually existing global conditions just may prove to be his providentially anointed function. Go figure.

The Valhalla of the Indispensable Nation is a capacious place, even if it celebrates mostly white and mostly male diversity. Recall that in the eighteenth century, it was a slaveholding planter from Virginia who secured American independence. In the nineteenth, an ambitious homespun lawyer from Illinois destroyed slavery, thereby clearing the way for his country to become a capitalist behemoth. In the middle third of the twentieth century, a crippled Hudson River grandee delivered the United States to the summit of global power. In that century’s difficult later decades, a washed-up movie actor declared that it was “morning in America” and so, however briefly, it seemed to be. Now, in the twenty-first century, to inaugurate the next phase of the American story, history has seemingly designated as its agent a New York real estate developer, casino bankruptee, and reality TV star.

In all likelihood, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan would balk at having Donald Trump classified as their peer. Yet, however preposterously, in our present moment of considerable crisis, he has succeeded them as the nation’s Great Helmsman, albeit one with few ideas about what course to set. Yet somehow Trump has concluded that our existing course has the United States headed toward the rocks.  He just might be right.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

It’s Not Just Britain Headed for the Subbasement of Imperial History

Donald Trump may prove to be the ultimate Brexiteer. Back in August 2016, in the midst of his presidential campaign, he proudly tweeted, “They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” On the subject of the British leaving the European Union (EU) he’s neither faltered nor wavered. That June, he was already cheering on British voters, 51.9% of whom had just opted for Brexit in a nationwide referendum. They had, he insisted, taken “their country back” and he predicted that other countries, including you-know-where, would act similarly. As it happened, Mr. “America First” was proven anything but wrong in November 2016.

Ever since, he’s been remarkably eager to insert himself in Britain’s Brexit debate. Last July, for instance, he paid an official visit to that country and had tea with the queen (“an incredible lady… I feel I know her so well and she certainly knows me very well right now”). As Politico put it at the time, “In just a matter of a few hours, he snubbed the leader of the opposition — who wants a close relationship with the EU after Brexit and if he can’t get it, advocates a second referendum on the options — in favor of meeting with two avid Brexiteers and chatting with a third.” Oh, and that third person just happened to be the man who would become the present prime minister, Brexiteer-to-hell Boris Johnson.

Since then, of course, he’s praised Johnson’s stance — get out now, no deal — to the heavens, repeatedly promising to sign a “very big” trade agreement or “lots of fantastic mini-deals” with the Brits once they dump the European Union. (And if you believe there will be no strings attached to that generous offer, you haven’t been paying attention to the presidency of one Donald J. Trump.) In Britain itself, sentiment about Brexiting the EU remains deeply confused, or perhaps more accurately disturbed, and little wonder. It’s clear enough that, from the economy to medical supplies, cross-Channel traffic snarl-ups to the Irish border, a no-deal Brexit is likely to prove problematic in barely grasped ways, as well as a blow to living standards. Still, there can be little question that the leaving option has been disturbing at a level that goes far deeper than just fear of the immediate consequences.

Kill Anything That Moves

As the World Looks Away, Death Stalks the Democratic Republic of Congo

GOMA, North Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo — The boy was sitting next to his father, as he so often did. He mimicked his dad in every way. He wanted to be just like him, but Muhindo Maronga Godfroid, then a 31-year-old primary school teacher and farmer, had bigger plans for his two-and-a-half-year-old son. He would go to university one day. He would become a “big name” — not just in their village of Kibirizi, but in North Kivu Province, maybe the entire Democratic Republic of Congo. The boy was exceedingly smart. He was, Godfroid said, “amazing.” He could grow up to be a leader in a country in desperate need of them.

Kahindo Jeonnette was just putting dinner on the table when someone began pounding on the front door. “Open! Open! Open!” a man yelled in Swahili. Jeonnette was startled.

The 24-year-old mother of two looked at her husband. Godfroid shook his head. “I can’t open the door unless you say who you are,” she called out.

“I’m looking for your husband. I’m his friend,” came the response.

“It’s too late now. My husband can’t come out. Come back tomorrow,” she replied.

The man shouted, “Then I’m going to open it!” and pumped several bullets into the door. One tore through Godfroid’s left hand, leaving him with just a thumb and two-and-a-half fingers. For a moment, he was stunned. The pain had yet to hit him and he couldn’t quite piece together what had happened. Then he turned his head and saw his tiny son splayed out on the floor.

The grieving parents can’t even bring themselves to utter their late son’s name. “I’ll never forget seeing my baby lying there,” Jeonnette told me, her eyes red and glassy, as we sat in the kitchen of her two-room, clapboard home in a tumbledown area of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. “I close my eyes and that’s all I can see.”

Putting Donald Trump’s Impeachment in Context

There is blood in the water and frenzied sharks are closing in for the kill. Or so they think.

From the time of Donald Trump’s election, American elites have hungered for this moment. At long last, they have the 45th president of the United States cornered. In typically ham-handed fashion, Trump has given his adversaries the very means to destroy him politically. They will not waste the opportunity. Impeachment now — finally, some will say — qualifies as a virtual certainty.

No doubt many surprises lie ahead. Yet the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives have passed the point of no return. The time for prudential judgments — the Republican-controlled Senate will never convict, so why bother? — is gone for good. To back down now would expose the president’s pursuers as spineless cowards. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC would not soon forgive such craven behavior.

So, as President Woodrow Wilson, speaking in 1919 put it, “The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God.” Of course, the issue back then was a notably weighty one: whether to ratify the Versailles Treaty. That it now concerns a “Mafia-like shakedown” orchestrated by one of Wilson’s successors tells us something about the trajectory of American politics over the course of the last century and it has not been a story of ascent.