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How Old Will You Be When The US Goes Down?

A World Made by War

How Old Will You Be When the American War State Goes Down?

By Tom Engelhardt

When you look at me, you can’t mistake the fact that I’m of a certain age. But just for a moment, think of me as nine years old. You could even say that I celebrated my ninth birthday last week, without cake, candles, presents, or certainly joy.

I’ve had two mobilized moments in my life. The first was in the Vietnam War years; the second, the one that leaves me as a nine-year-old, began on the morning of September 11, 2001. I turned on the TV while doing my morning exercises, saw a smoking hole in a World Trade Center tower, and thought that, as in 1945 when a B-25 slammed into the Empire State Building, a terrible accident had happened.

Later, after the drums of war had begun to beat, after the first headlines had screamed their World-War-II-style messages (“the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century”), I had another thought. And for a reasonably politically sophisticated guy, my second response was not only as off-base as the first, but also remarkably dumb. I thought that this horrific event taking place in my hometown might open Americans up to the pain of the world. No such luck, of course.

If you had told me then that we would henceforth be in a state of eternal war as well as living in a permanent war state, that, to face a ragtag enemy of a few thousand stateless terrorists, the national security establishment in Washington would pump itself up to levels not faintly reached when facing the Soviet Union, a major power with thousands of nuclear weapons and an enormous military, that “homeland” — a distinctly un-American word — would land in our vocabulary never to leave, and that a second Defense Department dubbed the Department of Homeland Security would be set up not to be dismantled in my lifetime, that torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) would become as American as apple pie and that some of those “techniques” would actually be demonstrated to leading Bush administration officials inside the White House, that we would pour money into the Pentagon at ever escalating levels even after the economy crashed in 2008, that we would be fighting two potentially trillion-dollar-plus wars without end in two distant lands, that we would spend untold billions constructing hundreds of military bases in those same lands, that the CIA would be conducting the first drone air war in history over a country we were officially not at war with, that most of us would live in a remarkable state of detachment from all of this, and finally — only, by the way, because I’m cutting this list arbitrarily short — that I would spend my time writing incessantly about “the American way of war” and produce a book with that title, I would have thought you were nuts.

But every bit of that happened, even if unpredicted by me because, like human beings everywhere, I have no special knack for peering into the future. If it were otherwise, I would undoubtedly now be zipping through fabulous spired cities with a jetpack on my back (as I was assured would happen in my distant youth). But if prediction isn’t our forte, then adaptability to changing circumstances may be — and it certainly helps account for my being here today.

I’m here because, in response to the bizarre spectacle of this nation going to war while living at peace, even if in a spasmodic state of collective national fear, I did something I hardly understood at the time. I launched a nameless listserv of collected articles and my own expanding commentary that ran against the common wisdom of that October moment when the bombing runs for our second Afghan war began. A little more than a year later, thanks to the Nation Institute, it became a website with the name TomDispatch.com, and because our leaders swore we were “a nation at war,” because we were indeed killing people in quantity in distant lands, because the power of the state at home was being strengthened in startling ways, while everything still open about our society seemed to be getting screwed shut, and the military was being pumped up to Schwarzeneggerian dimensions, I started writing about war.

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