Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Mother, should I build the wall?
Mother, should I run for President?
Mother, should I trust the government?
Mother, will they put me in the firing line?
Is it just a waste of time?
– Pink Floyd
My eighteenth birthday fell on November 9, 1989. I woke that morning and came downstairs with three simple tasks to achieve: go to school, eat some birthday cake, and go to the Post Office to register for the Selective Service as required by law. I sat down at the breakfast table, flipped over the copy of the Boston Globe my mother left out, and there it was: a banner headline announcing the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I got all my tasks done that day – school was predictably dull, my friends got me a carrot cake, and the Selective Service registration took all of five minutes – but everything looked and felt somehow different, new, bigger, stranger. I was eighteen for the first time in history, and I had just registered for the draft, which meant that I was officially eligible for military service should the occasion arise, but both of these facts had come against the backdrop of thousands of eager Germans using sledgehammers, picks and their bare hands to smash down an edifice that had come to define the harsh reality of the Cold War for decades.
I was eighteen, and the world had changed beneath my feet. The Cold War was all but over, fears of nuclear annihilation had receded, and from that point on the discussion turned from brinkmanship and superpower stare-downs to peace dividends and military draw-downs. Everything was going to change, of course, because the forty-year global paradigm represented by that wall was literally crumbling before our eyes.
That was then, and this is now, and on balance, matters are exactly as polarized, bloody and costly now as they were then. If you told someone twenty years ago that the year 2009 would look and feel very much like 1989, they would not have believed you, because of course everything was going to change after the end of the Cold War. Yet here we are, right in the middle of the same old madness.
A short refresher on the Cold War: the aftermath of World War II left the US and its European allies in a state of hyper-militarized, nuclear-armed tension with Stalin’s hyper-militarized Soviet Union. The map of the world had been scrambled by the war, and the first great postwar contest came when these great powers began growling at each other over how to redraw that map, over who got what, and most importantly, who would get pushed back from the conquests made during the overthrow of the Nazi regime. The Soviets controlled vast swaths of Eastern Europe all the way to Germany, and this did not sit well with the West.
The true beginning of the Cold War can be marked by the transmission of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” in February 1946. Kennan, the US minister-counselor on Moscow, had grown increasingly disturbed by Josef Stalin and what he perceived as an aggressive and dangerous Soviet Union, and prepared a huge document explaining his concerns, which he transmitted to Washington. That document, and the fears it inspired, led to the policy of “containment” regarding the USSR, the establishment of the Truman Doctrine, and the passage of the 1947 National Security Act. Over the next 44 years, until the final dissolution of the USSR in 1991, reality was defined by those policies, and the Cold War raged through dozens of nations, crises and conflicts that combined to radically re-create the world.
Hindsight can all too often become a cheap parlor game, and laying blame is slightly easier than getting out of bed in the morning, but all these decades later, those of us looking back can point to any number of Cold War decisions and tactics that did far more harm than good. Vietnam, our close relationship with Saddam Hussein, the arms sales to Iran, our terrible adventures in South and Central America: the list is long and bloody, and most importantly, profitable.
For many, the core element of the Cold War was the permanent state of fear and conflict that defined the age. George Orwell’s “1984” described a world where WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, and of course, BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. In other words, the permanent state of conflict during the Cold War was in fact a state of peace, the freedoms surrendered in the process were actually liberating, asking questions or resisting was a sign of dangerous weakness, and finally, we are being watched.
Through it all, a small number of people who controlled what President Eisenhower described as the “military-industrial complex” became fabulously wealthy from the explosion of so-called “defense spending” that was at the heart of the Cold War conflict. The US military, already huge and expensive after WWII, became even more enormous as the years went by, the defense industry supped on trillions of taxpayer dollars under the auspices of making us safe, and through this spending became unimaginably powerful and influential over all aspects of American culture and society. Their influence became so powerful, in fact, that President Eisenhower was compelled to warn the American people during his farewell address:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Eisenhower’s warnings went unheeded, the Vietnam War became a 25-year payday for the defense industry, augmented wildly by the race to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and the so-called “Star Wars” program, and the Cold War ground on for many years longer than it should have because the money was so good, because the people making that money exerted their awesome influence to make sure the party never ended. Until it did, beginning on that November day I turned eighteen, when the Wall came tumbling down.
Twenty years ago, it looked like everything was going to change. The need to spend countless billions to arm ourselves against an aggressive Soviet foe was gone, leaders started talking about how to spend the “peace dividend” that would come from all the money we didn’t have to spend, and all of a sudden, a defense industry that had fattened itself for so long on our tax dollars was looking down the barrel of a brave, new, less-lucrative world.
What happened to that future? Strangely enough, the Cold War happened to that future. The decision to stand with Saddam Hussein against the Iranian regime led to the first Gulf War, and then the second. The decision to arm, train and fund the Afghan mujeheddin led to the establishment of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which became the catalyst for the new Cold War, a.k.a. the “War on Terror.” The use of fear to control the populace and convince them that billions of tax dollars were better spent on bombs and guns than schools and infrastructure, so effective during the Cold War, came back into play with a fearsome vengeance.
Two decades later, the Wall has been rebuilt right under our noses. We are in a permanent state of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this state of affairs has been transmogrified into the insidious notion that we are safe and at peace because of it. We are expected to surrender our personal liberties to the NSA and other government agencies in order to keep us safe. We are a culture that allows mind-bending fallacies to our national discourse in the name of keeping us strong in the face of yet another terrible foe. We are certainly all being watched, or at least we suspect this is so. And, O my Lord, how the money is rolling in for the same defense industry that was paid so handsomely during the last state of permanent war we were forced to endure.
Everything is different, but nothing has changed.