Andrew Bacevich, How We Got Here
It’s easy to forget just how scary the “good times” once were. I’m talking about the 1950s, that Edenic, Father-Knows-Best era that Donald Trump now yearns so deeply to bring back in order to “make America great again.” Compared to the apocalyptic fears of those years, present American ones would seem punk indeed, if it weren’t for the way our 24/7 media blow them out of all proportion. I’m thinking, of course, mainly about terror attacks by various “lone wolves” that tend to dominate the news. You know, the disturbed individuals who pick up a butcher knife or assault rifle and head for the nearest mall or club or college campus, or point a deadly vehicle toward a crowd with mayhem and murder in mind. In 2016, in our increasingly securitized world (and language), such individuals have even gained their own official acronym: homegrown violent extremists, or HVEs.
If I think back to the nightmares of my own childhood, fears about the depredations of HVEs don’t add up to a hill of beans. As a boy, I well remember the 1950s version of such hysteria and it concerned the obliteration of the city I lived in via a Cold War nuclear confrontation (of the sort that did indeed come close to happening). Like Bert the Turtle, at school we kids all “ducked and covered” in atomic drills. With Conelrad blasting from the radio on my teacher’s desk, I can remember crouching beneath my own, hands pathetically over my head, as if I could truly protect myself from an atomic attack. Outside sirens screamed and the activities of city life came to a halt.
For those of us who grew up then, just under nostalgic memories of the golden Fifties lies a vision of a world in ashes. Of course, we children had only a vague idea of what exactly had happened beneath the mushroom clouds that rose in August 1945 over two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we knew enough to realize that the message being delivered was not of safety but of ultimate vulnerability. In those moments (and the nuclear nightmares that, at least in my own life, went with them), the country secretly prepared the way for the Sixties, indicating that just below the surface of American triumphalism lay a vision of potentially horrifying defeat.
In our recent history, however, the most dangerous moment of all may have been one of next to no fears, only of expectations for the glories of an all-American world. I’m thinking of the years TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, returns to today, the ones after the Berlin Wall was first breeched and the Soviet Union, that “evil empire” of Cold War fame, simply vanished, leaving behind only… well, us. That was the moment when the political and intellectual elite who had fought the Cold War and the corporate elite, including the warrior corporations of the military-industrial complex who had risen to power and fortune inside it, were suddenly staggered to discover that there seemed to be no one left to oppose them, nothing to stop them from doing their damnedest.
It was quite a moment, as Bacevich recalls, and it led us fearlessly (so to speak) into our present situation, which he aptly labels “the void.” Given where we’ve ended up in the age of Donald Trump, maybe all of us might have been better off tormented by a few more fears and fantasies of destruction, not construction. Tom
The Age of Great Expectations and the Great Void
History After “the End of History”
By Andrew J. Bacevich
The fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 abruptly ended one historical era and inaugurated another. So, too, did the outcome of last year’s U.S. presidential election. What are we to make of the interval between those two watershed moments? Answering that question is essential to understanding how Donald Trump became president and where his ascendency leaves us.
Hardly had this period commenced before observers fell into the habit of referring to it as the “post-Cold War” era. Now that it’s over, a more descriptive name might be in order. My suggestion: America’s Age of Great Expectations.
Forgive and Forget
The end of the Cold War caught the United States completely by surprise. During the 1980s, even with Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin, few in Washington questioned the prevailing conviction that the Soviet-American rivalry was and would remain a defining feature of international politics more or less in perpetuity. Indeed, endorsing such an assumption was among the prerequisites for gaining entrée to official circles. Virtually no one in the American establishment gave serious thought to the here-today, gone-tomorrow possibility that the Soviet threat, the Soviet empire, and the Soviet Union itself might someday vanish. Washington had plans aplenty for what to do should a Third World War erupt, but none for what to do if the prospect of such a climactic conflict simply disappeared.
Still, without missing a beat, when the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the Soviet Union imploded, leading members of that establishment wasted no time in explaining the implications of developments they had totally failed to anticipate. With something close to unanimity, politicians and policy-oriented intellectuals interpreted the unification of Berlin and the ensuing collapse of communism as an all-American victory of cosmic proportions. “We” had won, “they” had lost — with that outcome vindicating everything the United States represented as the archetype of freedom.
From within the confines of that establishment, one rising young intellectual audaciously suggested that the “end of history” itself might be at hand, with the “sole superpower” left standing now perfectly positioned to determine the future of all humankind. In Washington, various powers-that-be considered this hypothesis and concluded that it sounded just about right. The future took on the appearance of a blank slate upon which Destiny itself was inviting Americans to inscribe their intentions.
American elites might, of course, have assigned a far different, less celebratory meaning to the passing of the Cold War. They might have seen the outcome as a moment that called for regret, repentance, and making amends.
After all, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, or more broadly between what was then called the Free World and the Communist bloc, had yielded a host of baleful effects. An arms race between two superpowers had created monstrous nuclear arsenals and, on multiple occasions, brought the planet precariously close to Armageddon. Two singularly inglorious wars had claimed the lives of many tens of thousands of American soldiers and literally millions of Asians. One, on the Korean peninsula, had ended in an unsatisfactory draw; the other, in Southeast Asia, in catastrophic defeat. Proxy fights in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East killed so many more and laid waste to whole countries. Cold War obsessions led Washington to overthrow democratic governments, connive in assassination, make common cause with corrupt dictators, and turn a blind eye to genocidal violence. On the home front, hysteria compromised civil liberties and fostered a sprawling, intrusive, and unaccountable national security apparatus. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex and its beneficiaries conspired to spend vast sums on weapons purchases that somehow never seemed adequate to the putative dangers at hand.
Rather than reflecting on such somber and sordid matters, however, the American political establishment together with ambitious members of the country’s intelligentsia found it so much more expedient simply to move on. As they saw it, the annus mirabilis of 1989 wiped away the sins of former years. Eager to make a fresh start, Washington granted itself a plenary indulgence. After all, why contemplate past unpleasantness when a future so stunningly rich in promise now beckoned?
Three Big Ideas and a Dubious Corollary
Soon enough, that promise found concrete expression. In remarkably short order, three themes emerged to define the new American age. Informing each of them was a sense of exuberant anticipation toward an era of almost unimaginable expectations. The twentieth century was ending on a high note. For the planet as a whole but especially for the United States, great things lay ahead.
Focused on the world economy, the first of those themes emphasized the transformative potential of turbocharged globalization led by U.S.-based financial institutions and transnational corporations. An “open world” would facilitate the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people and thereby create wealth on an unprecedented scale. In the process, the rules governing American-style corporate capitalism would come to prevail everywhere on the planet. Everyone would benefit, but especially Americans who would continue to enjoy more than their fair share of material abundance.
Focused on statecraft, the second theme spelled out the implications of . . .