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.

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.

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.

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.)

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, […]