“We used to have drills for the atomic bomb.” That is what has stuck with me for all these years, the notion that at most of the modern history of our nation, we as a people have been terrified of total annihilation for more than 40 years.
My father’s generation, the Baby Boomers, have seen the effects of the Cold War on the United State’s mentality longer than any other generation. When I was younger, I used to think it was insane, the idea that for a point in time there was a nation that was not only as strong as the US, but as committed as us to the arts, sciences, but most obviously, their military. When the Cold War reached its apex in the early 60’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was never a stronger sense of fear in our country not just for our fate, but the fate of the entire world.
That sense of fear is what encapsulated our drive for surviving our conflicts with the Soviets. We didn’t want to listen to Joseph McCarthy during the 50’s, we were afraid to do anything else. We didn’t want to launch the Bay of Pigs, we were afraid to do anything else. We didn’t want to enter Vietnam, we were afraid to do anything else. This governance of fear, is what defined the Cold War. The threat of Communism, however real or exaggerated you believe it was, was not the Cold War. The Cold War is not a period in our history that is remembered by us as a war of ideologies as it is today in textbooks, it was the dependence on fear that we embraced, not just for our follies, but also our triumphs. Sputnik launched our scientists into a race to the moon, and we won. As we saw military threats arise, we have created technologies in response that continue to shape our lives to this day. Movies like Dr. Strangelove, songs like Imagine, would not exist if it weren’t for this time in our culture. The Cold War, was a time in our history that was arguably as defining if not more so than our own inception, it was a rebirth. Technology, culture, military, all flourished in the world with the US as it’s leader. And the funny thing is, this is still the case.
When 9/11 happened, it wasn’t something that I was immediately aware of. I was around 7 years old at the time, not exactly the ideal age to find out that the country was bombed by suicidal terrorists. My father was working in New York at the time, and really, that sweetened the deal. When I first learned about the tragic event, it was around a year later. I didn’t really know what to think, it was more just a thing that happened. I was too young to understand what happened, just that men destroyed the World Trade Center, a giant skyscraper in New York. When the Iraq War started, again I was too young to understand what was going on, let alone the ramifications. When I was young, the only countries I was immediately aware of were in Europe, except for perhaps Israel. It wasn’t until I was twelve that I became more opinionated about our current affairs. Like a good little liberal in the aughts, I thought Bush was a stinking idiot and that the “war” was a waste of time. I didn’t really know why I thought that way, I just did. There was something so innately stupid to me though, so confusing, having a war against a country but not really, and going after a terror organization all over the world, but not really. Why are we declaring war against Al Qaeda specifically, to me, that was as if we were declaring war against a political affiliation more than anything. The war I was most familiar with, World War II, had clear lines of who was essentially good and who was bad. When I learned more about Vietnam, the more it became evident that this was a comparable conflict, something more akin to what was going on in the Middle East. Our justification to enter Vietnam, a country we couldn’t even find on the damn map, was that we had to stop the imminent threat of Communism. The prevailing geopolitical theory being the Domino Theory; if Vietnam were to fall along with Cambodia and Laos, the rest of southeast Asia would be soon to fall. In retrospect, I understand why it made sense to the country. Communism as an ideology was so vast in scope already, inherently deriving its power from it being approachable to the third world, that of course Vietnam could succumb to it. The problem was though, there was no monolithic Communism. Maoism, Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Bolsheviks, Democratic Socialists, People’s Democratic Republics, for such a radical concept, there wasn’t much keeping these new versions of Marxism from developing naturally in their respective environments. This was the failure of the “Domino Theory”, the idea that one version of governance, of cultural and ideological values and laws, would apply to Cuba and Vietnam the same way it does in China and Russia. The flaw of the idea that Communism would take over nations, was the fact that there were nations, each with their own identities, histories, and conflicts that generated the borders that separate them today.
The most striking aspect of the war to me, however, was the sense that there wasn’t a clear objective to be accomplished. It was as if the war was more of a response than a retaliation, we had no economic, geographical, or cultural ties to the nation. The government of Saigon wasn’t even trusted by us, continuously acting without our cooperation, even though they were viewed as a Western puppet state. Why were we there? As these questions arose, they seemed to mirror my thoughts on Afghanistan. In the end, we were there and we didn’t ever want to be. We went to war but we didn’t declare war. We have no connections to this country, this conflict, this culture. Officially, we were there as a response to terrorist organization Al Qaeda, as they were representative of the perpetrators of the attacks on 9/11. But we weren’t fighting Al Qaeda, we were also fighting the Taliban, the ruling organization of Afghanistan. We installed our own puppet government, and tried to establish a democracy within a nation that was beginning to embrace radical Islam. Again, it became muddled who we were really fighting and for what. Only as I got older did I begin to form my own ideas about what this conflict was all about.
The rise of radical Islam as a political force was marked by the fall of Communism. The movie Charlie Wilson’s War actually is my recommendation for new learners of Middle Eastern policy. As the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the retaliation was emboldened by fighters under Osama Bin Laden, not really who we come to empathize with as a freedom fighter in modern times. It made sense for radical Islam to take effect, Communism was seen as an unholy, godless, construct by not just us in the West, but the goat herders of the Afghan mountains. Religion was still embraced by this civilization as the prevailing ideology, so under fear of destruction, it became galvanized, and grew. Al Qaeda brought with it not radical Islam, but to a greater extent political Islam to the Arab world, and is now the prevalent trend in ideological thought in that region. The “Arab Spring” has brought our attention to institutions such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who have taken form as the voice of the people in a time of fear, unrest, and revolution in the Arab world. Just as Communism rose with the falling of the Czars, so has Islamic theocracy risen with the fall of the dictators. For the past 15 years, we have seen the Middle East as our new area of conflict, radical Islam/terrorism as our new ideological rival, and our new threats coming not from outside forces but internal turmoil. As we progressed into the 21st century, these ideas have been at the forefront of our foreign policy as a whole. The ideology of terror is the new rival of the ideology of democracy, just as Communism was before. New ideas entered our lexicon and as they did so did old fears. 9/11 was to many concrete proof that the U.S. was vulnerable, just as we once thought after the Cuban Missile Crisis coincided with the the rise of Communism. Once again, this unshakable sense of fear enveloped the nation that took over everyday life. Afghanistan/Vietnam, Cuban Missile Crisis/9/11, Communism/Terrorism; symbols that defined our existential conflict. But what have these events done to us? As we lose our sense of security, we also lose our sense of freedom along with it. We were once again in an undefined conflict, with an ideology foreign to us, but a sense of the unknown that was familiar. Just as the FBI gained innumerable powers and the executive branch unimaginably rupturing the trust of the people, the NSA has done the same while the legislative branch is at its lowest public approval in modern history. As television advanced the transparency of government policy while also diluting it with potential not yet seen in communications and media, the Internet is doing today. Protests over Afghanistan mirrored Vietnam, shootings and domestic violence have enraptured and enraged suburbia, all the while civil rights and health care have been reevaluated and reinvigorating debate within the homeland. The future of America has never been so uncertain, yet so familiar before. Yet all the while there is this underlying current of fear that has been the subconscious drive for almost everything we do.
“We prepare for shootings”. This is something I don’t want to have to tell my kids at some point but I know for sure will be the conversation. My school didn’t explicitly do it, but we always were wary, always looking for a more secure way to live. My old high school has mandatory lanyards with id cards, something that was to the chagrin of many of my classmates. Around the same time we also weren’t allowed to have food brought in for us by guests, everyone has to sign in, and security guards roam the halls. There was never an explicit reason why we had the lanyards, we always heard it was for our safety. I personally didn’t give a crap, as a kid I went to multiple private schools where uniforms were the norm, in fact I wore the lanyards after school forgetting they were even there. I think the important thing wasn’t the lanyards, but the fact that we didn’t have a clear reason for why we had the lanyards. All of the safety precautions, they advanced for sure but there wasn’t really a reason why. We didn’t have a history of gang fights, the students tended to test well within the state, and we grew up in an upper class environment with well educated teachers and a beautiful campus that stood out as exceptionally clean. We were in Palm Desert, the worst crap that would happen to us would be at Coachella fest. But we still follow these rules as if we need to. Columbine was far away, so was Sandy Hook, and Chicago isn’t even something we can compare to. But we still follow these rules. It’s as if there was some new code, some new way of life that followed suit with all of these events. We try to openly question them, but never really come to any conclusions, and anything we do to try to change anything is usually half assed just because of how jaded we’ve become. If we get Chromebooks to access our homework and assignments, we still get the firewall that doesn’t allow us to use all of Google. But the thing is, as time progresses and as the world changes, the more cycles repeat and the more we see patterns come up in everyday life. The Cold War wasn’t a war, it wasn’t even a conflict between two powers. It was just this sense of overwhelming fear of the unknown that prevailed for years until our projected enemy was defeated. Yet the true fear, this sense that we can’t be in control of everything even if we try, is what we’re truly afraid of. And yet, even though it could just repeat itself all again, we have the potential to be better. Americans have this unique ability that our enemies lack. As the Russians tend to look back at previous glory as a sense of inspiration, ironically ours has been hope for the future. We are our own worst enemies, and also our own inspiration. We had the ability to take advantage of the opportunities the era has given us if we trusted ourselves to not be afraid. And funny thing is, this is still the case.