A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

The Collective Asteroid of Human History

Worlds end. Every day. We all die sooner or later. When you get to my age, it’s a subject that can’t help but be on your mind.  

What’s unusual is this: it’s not just increasingly ancient folks like me who should be thinking such thoughts anymore. After all, worlds of a far larger sort end, too. It’s happened before. Ask the dinosaurs after that asteroid hit the Yucatán. Ask the life forms of the Permian era after what may have been the greatest volcanic uproar the planet ever experienced. 

According to a recent U.N. global assessment report, up to one million (that’s 1,000,000!) species are now in danger of extinction, thanks largely to human actions. It’s part of what’s come to be called “the sixth extinction,” a term that makes the point all too clearly. Except in our ability to grasp (or avoid grasping) our seeming determination to wipe away this version of the world, we’re in good company. Five great moments of obliteration preceded us on Planet Earth. 

And by the way, that impressive figure for endangered species should probably be upgraded to at least one million and one (1,000,001!). As anthropologist Richard Leakey said years ago, “Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” In other words, it’s evidently not enough for us to turn ourselves into the modern equivalent of the asteroid that took down the dinosaurs, ending the Cretaceous period. It looks as if, in some future that seems ever closer, we might be our own asteroid, the one that will collapse human civilization as we’ve known it.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Orwell Revisited in the Age of Trump

I, Winston Smith… I mean, Tom Engelhardt… have not just been reading a dystopian novel, but, it seems, living one — and I suspect I’ve been living one all my life.

Yes, I recently reread George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel, 1984. In it, Winston Smith, a secret opponent of the totalitarian world of Oceania, one of three great imperial superpowers left on planet Earth, goes down for the count at the hands of Big Brother. It was perhaps my third time reading it in my 75 years on this planet.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a certain fascination for dystopian fiction. It started, I think, with War of the Worlds, that ur-alien-invasion-from-outer-space novel in which Martians land in southern England and begin tearing London apart. Its author, H.G. Wells, wrote it at the end of the nineteenth century, evidently to give his English readers a sense of what it might have felt like to be living in Tasmania, the island off the coast of Australia, and have the equivalent of Martians — the British, as it happened — appear in your world and begin to destroy it (and your culture with it).

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Turning 75 in the Age of Trump

As I turn 75, there’s no simpler way to put it than this: I’m an old man on a new planet — and, in case it isn’t instantly obvious, that’s not good news on either score.

I still have a memory of being a camp counselor in upstate New York more than half a century ago. I was perhaps 20 years old and in charge of a cabin of — if I remember rightly — nine-year-old campers. In other words, young as they were, they were barely less than half my age. And here’s what I remember most vividly: when asked how old they thought I was, they guessed anything from 30 to 60 or beyond. I found it amusing largely because, I suspect, I couldn’t faintly imagine being 60 years old myself. (My grandmother was then in her late sixties.) My present age would have been off the charts not just for those nine year olds, but for me, too. At that point, I doubt I even knew anyone as old as I am now.

Yet here I am, so many decades later, with grandchildren of my own. And I find myself looking at a world that, had you described it to me in the worst moments of the Vietnam War years when I was regularly in the streets protesting, I would never have believed possible. I probably would have thought you stark raving mad. Here I am in an America not just with all the weirdness of Donald Trump, but with a media that feeds on his every bizarre word, tweet, and act as if nothing else were happening on the face of the Earth. If only.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Why Is American Aggression Missing in Action?

Headlined “U.S. Seeks Other Ways to Stop Iran Shy of War,” the article was tucked away on page A9 of a recent New York Times. Still, it caught my attention. Here’s the first paragraph:

“American intelligence and military officers are working on additional clandestine plans to counter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, pushed by the White House to develop new options that could help deter Tehran without escalating tensions into a full-out conventional war, according to current and former officials.”

Note that “Iranian aggression.” The rest of the piece, fairly typical of the tone of American media coverage of the ongoing Iran crisis, included sentences like this: “The C.I.A. has longstanding secret plans for responding to Iranian provocations.” I’m sure I’ve read such things hundreds of times without ever really stopping to think much about them, but this time I did. And what struck me was this: rare is the moment in such mainstream news reports when Americans are the “provocative” ones (though the Iranians immediately accused the U.S. military of just that, a provocation, when it came to the U.S. drone its Revolutionary Guard recently shot down either over Iranian air space or the Strait of Hormuz). When it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror, I think I can say with reasonable confidence that, in the past, the present, and the future, the one phrase you’re not likely to find in such media coverage will be “American aggression.”

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Then What’s the Disease?

Don’t try to deny it! The political temperature of this country is rising fast. Call it Trump change or Trump warming, if you want, but grasp one thing: increasingly, you’re in a different land and, whatever happens to Donald Trump, the results down the line are likely to be ever less pretty. Trump change isn’t just an American phenomenon, it’s distinctly global. After all, from Australia to India, the Philippines to Hungary, Donald Trumps and their supporters keep getting elected or reelected and, according to a recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans think Trump himself will win again in 2020 (though, at the moment, battleground-state polls look grim for him).

Still, whether or not he gets a second term in the White House, he only seems like the problem, partially because no president, no politician, no one in history has ever gotten such 24/7 media coverage of every twitch, tweet, bizarre statement, falsehood, or fantasy he expresses (or even the clothes he wears). Think of it this way: we’re in a moment in which the only thing the media can’t imagine saying about Donald Trump is: “You’re fired!” And believe me, that’s just one sign of a media — and a country — with a temperature that’s anything but 98.6.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Living in a Nation of Political Narcissists

In this country, reactions to the Mueller report have been all-American beyond belief. Let’s face it, when it comes to election meddling, it’s been me, me, me, 24/7 here. Yes, in some fashion some set of Russians meddled in the last election campaign, whether it was, as Jared Kushner improbably claimed, “a couple of Facebook ads” or, as the Mueller report described it, “the Russian government interfer[ing]… in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Or How to Solve the Border and China Problems in One Swell Foop

Call me crazy, if you want, but I think I see how to do it! We have two intractable issues, one intractable president, and an intractable world, but what if it weren’t so? What if those two intractable problems could be swept off the table by a single gesture from that same intractable man? As a start, consider the problem of President Trump’s embattled “great, great wall,” the one to be built across 1,000 (or is it 2,000?) miles of our southern border, the one that so obsesses him, filling every other hour of his tweet-storming day, the one that a recalcitrant Mexican government refused to pay for, that Congress wouldn’t pony up the money for, and that striking percentages of Americans don’t want to fund either. As for turning it into a national emergency, that’s only going to line the pockets of law firms, not build the “big, fat, […]

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Afghanistan and the Implosion of America

As I approach 75, I’m having a commonplace experience for my age. I live with a brain that’s beginning to dump previously secure memories — names, the contents of books I read long ago (or all too recently), events, whatever. If you’re of a certain age yourself, you know the story.

Recently, however, I realized that this experience of loss, like so much else in our world, is more complex than I imagined. What I mean is that such loss also involves gain. It’s turned my mind to, and made me something of an instant expert on, one aspect of twenty-first-century America: the memory hole that’s swallowed up parts of our all-too-recent history. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether aging imperial powers, like old men and women, have a tendency to discard what once had been oh-so-familiar. There’s a difference, though, when it comes to the elites of the aging empire I live in at least. They don’t just dump things relatively randomly as I seem to be doing. Instead, they conveniently obliterate all memory of their country’s — that is, their own — follies and misdeeds.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Honestly, This Could Get a Lot Uglier

Sixty-six million years ago, so the scientists tell us, an asteroid slammed into this planet. Landing on what’s now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, it gouged out a crater 150 kilometers wide and put so much soot and sulfur into the atmosphere that it created what was essentially a prolonged “nuclear winter.” During that time, among so many other species, large and small, the dinosaurs went down for the count. (Don’t, however, tell that to your local chicken, the closest living relative — it’s now believed — of Tyrannosaurus Rex.)

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

In a Crippled World, All the News That’s Fit to Splint

Breaking News! — as NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt often puts it when beginning his evening broadcast. Here, in summary, is my view of the news that’s breaking in the United States on just about any day of the week:
Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.
Or rather (in the president’s style):
Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!!!!!!!!

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

An Affair to Remember

Face it: it’s been an abusive time, to use a word he likes to wield. In his telling, of course, it’s he or his people who are always the abused ones and they — the “fake news media” — are the abusers. But let’s be honest. You’ve been abused, too, and so have I. All of us have and by that same fake news media. It isn’t complicated, really. Thanks to them, to those cable news talking heads who never stop yammering about him, to the reporters who clamor over his every word or twitch, he’s always there, 24/7. I know that it’s still called covering the news, but it’s a phrase that no longer faintly fits the situation. Yes, a near majority of Americans voted for him as president, but no one voted to make him a living (and living-room) icon, a never-ending presence not just in our world, […]

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Thoughts on Election Day 2018

Who could forget that moment?  The blue [red] wave — long promised but also doubted — had, however modestly [however massively], hit Washington and [the Democrats had just retaken Congress] [the Republicans had held Congress] [the Democrats had taken the House].  The media, Fox News and the usual right-wing websites aside, hailed the moment. [Fox News and the usual right-wing websites cheered the president on.] Donald Trump’s grip on America had finally been broken [reinforced].  Celebrations were widespread.  Congressional investigations, possibly even impeachment, were only months and a new Congress away [were now a faint memory], and it was then, of course, that the unexpected struck.  It was then that President Trump, citing national security concerns and a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, began the process whose end point we, of course, already know…

Okay, consider that the dystopian me speaking.  We don’t, of course, really know how our story yet ends, not faintly.  While I was writing this piece, I didn’t even know how Tuesday’s vote would turn out, though by the time you read it, you may.  Given the experience of election 2016, it would take a brave [foolish] soul to make a prediction this time around.

I certainly learned a lesson that November.  During the previous months of campaigning that election season, I never wrote a piece at TomDispatch that didn’t leave open the possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidency.  In the couple of weeks before that fateful November day, however, I got hooked on the polling results and on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website and became convinced that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

17 Years of War (and More to Come)

We’re already two years past the crystal anniversary and eight years short of the silver one, or at least we would be, had it been a wedding — and, after a fashion, perhaps it was. On October 7, 2001, George W. Bush launched the invasion — “liberation” was the word often used then — of Afghanistan. It was the start of the second Afghan War of the era, one that, all these years later, still shows no signs of ending. Though few realized it at the time, the American people married war. Permanent, generational, infinite war is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the U.S. military. This October 7th marked the 17th anniversary of that first of so many still-spreading conflicts. In league with various Afghan […]

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

The World According to The Don(ald)

I know you won’t believe me. Not now, not when everything Donald Trump does — any tweet, any insult at any rally — is the news of the day, any day.  But he won’t be remembered for any of the things now in our headlines. No human being, it’s true, has ever been covered the way he has, so what an overwhelming record there should be. News about him and his associates fills front pages daily in a way that only something like a presidential assassination once did and he has the talking heads of cable TV yakking about him as no one has ever talked about anyone. And don’t even get me started on social media and The Donald.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Or How to Fight a War of Ultimate Repetitiousness

Fair warning. Stop reading right now if you want, because I’m going to repeat myself. What choice do I have, since my subject is the Afghan War (America’s second Afghan War, no less)? I began writing about that war in October 2001, almost 17 years ago, just after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. That was how I inadvertently launched the unnamed listserv that would, a year later, become TomDispatch. Given the website’s continuing focus on America’s forever wars (a phrase I first used in 2010), what choice have I had but to write about Afghanistan ever since? So think of this as the war piece to end all war pieces. And let the repetition begin! Here, for instance, is what I wrote about our Afghan War in 2008, almost seven years after it began, when the U.S. Air Force took out a bridal party, including the bride herself and at […]