Archive for the ‘1984’ Tag



John Chuckman

Death in America does not come easily. That is, unless you are homeless or live on an Indian reservation or in one of the nation’s vast urban ghettos or are one of tens of millions of working poor with the kind of health insurance that features exceptions instead of coverage. In all these cases, likely few will note your passing. Losers don’t count in America, except at Fourth-of-July speeches by congressmen in tight races.

Anyone living in the United States must acclimatize to massive public displays of grief. Actually, “public displays of grief” is an inadequate term, for, apart from their Hollywood production values, they seem often to have a starkly political character.

But the subject is complex, and some of its ridiculous aspects reflect a society where beauty contests for five-year-olds in mascara and half-time football shows are cultural events. There is also a business aspect, for grief like everything in America serves the greater “entrepreneurial spirit.”

And there is, amidst all the mess and clutter, a sense of loneliness and anger that comes through, the echoes of life in a society of flourishing Social Darwinism. This last aspect will be the subject of a future essay.

Have you ever noticed the way Americans refer to any event involving death as a “tragedy?” This usage reflects the attitude of people who think they’ve banished death in their child-like enjoyment of measureless entitlements. Death must be really special, and so it is always a “tragedy.”

This word usage also reflects the political correctness that muffles all discussion of serious topics in America with a dense, fluffy coating of euphemism. It’s callous to talk honestly about something like death in America. Such talk may even qualify as being unpatriotic.

Now, “tragedy” has a very specific meaning, and it has nothing to do with accidents or unhappiness or even tears. It has to do with heroic attempts at something worthy despite the fates having ruled that one must fail. All sense of this powerful word is lost in contemporary America.

When first built, the Vietnam memorial was a remarkably dignified statement of grief, that seemed, with its low profile, simple design, and dark color, to speak to both the shame and loss of a pointless war. It was a miracle that anything so thoughtful came out of those years of insane violence.

But the dignity couldn’t last long. Clumps of statues – including figures carefully representing every identifiable marketing segment of the voter population, always excepting gays and Arabs – are springing up like toadstools after a period of warm rain. And, of course, there has to be an “information center.” Dignity is gradually giving way to the ambiance of a Niagara Falls gift shop.

Endless photographs of people rubbing names onto paper or touching the surface with tremulous fingers or leaving teddy bears, an entire small library of coffee-table books full of such pictures, have almost turned the wall into an official national how-to display center for grief.

The private acts of individuals grieving are, or should be, just that, private. Overly-photographed, overly-televised, overly-written-about acts are not private, they are public – and not the public of solemn ceremony, but the public of performance or advertising. Americans often no longer seem to understand this distinction, or, as with so many things, they want it both ways.

We also have a fake wall that tours the country on a truck, as well as several hundred local mini-walls and fake walls in cities, towns, and states that feature subsets of the names on the wall in Washington. I am sure there are people who imitate what they’ve seen repeated over and over in magazines, movies, and on television when the fake wall pays a visit at the local Wal-Mart parking lot. Tremulous fingers rub names on a plastic wall inside a truck.

To placate veterans of another hideous, pointless war, “the Korean conflict,” yet another wall was built – this one far less subtle or interesting, perhaps reflecting its being a rushed after-thought. This one unfortunately resembles a huge Russian-gangster tombstone with faces etched on dark granite. It comes with an army of life-size aluminum soldiers, “Joes,” (wasn’t that the name used by the cute little Korean lads always asking the generous Americans for chocolate in all the “B” movies about Korea?) grimly trudging along.

Soon we will have the grandest memorial of all – a gigantic pile of rock slabs and flags and men’s and ladies’ rooms honoring World War II. The artist’s renderings suggest a bowling-tournament trophy built on the scale of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. This eyesore is to be assembled after fleets of Sikorsky helicopters drop the required eighteen million pounds of granite dead center of The Mall in Washington.

Support for this one came right from the grass roots, from the sale of t-shirts and baseball caps at Wal-Mart and smoky beer-socials at veterans’ posts. The resulting memorial has everything you’d expect short of beer-bellied figures in baseball caps and XXX t-shirts labeled “Proudly Made in the U.S.A.,” but, who knows, that may come over time.

Building ugly, expensive memorials is not limited to Washington. Nor is their subject matter limited to war. Walls of names at one time threatened to become as commonplace as fried-chicken outlets. Several airline crashes have their own versions.

Now, other conceptions have come into vogue, perhaps inspired by the massive aluminum “Joes” of the Korean-conflict memorial. For example, we have a memorial with scores of concrete posts down in a Florida swamp in memory of an airline crash.

If we were to build something like this for every victim of every crash (about 50,000 Americans die in automobile crashes alone each year), memorials would soon represent a serious pedestrian hazard, with people tripping over them or banging into them while talking on cell-phones.

But the strangeness of America’s public grief goes far beyond strange memorials. We have people who gather, in Busby Berkley re-creations of 1970 flower-child scenes, to throw flowers into the ocean years after the crash of an airliner or to light candles in bottles along miles of shore – not private, spontaneous acts of grieving, but choreographed displays, carefully documented on film to become spots on the evening news or the covers of magazines. Grieving here becomes an avenue to Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

Being a victim – or part of the subset, survivor – opens new prospects for even the humblest. Victims are interviewed, photographed, appear on day-time talk shows, travel, have books written about them, and often go on lecture circuits. They may even have agents. It’s pretty heady stuff, and it sure beats what most people do for a living.

Indeed, there is an almost irresistible movement in America to raise being a victim to the status of a profession. It is already an occupation.

Soon one or two dozen of America’s countless weird little colleges – places like the Bull Connor Memorial College for Christian Gentlemen, or the New Jersey Turnpike Drive-Through College for the Performing Arts – will offer courses and even degrees in victimhood and survivorship. Why not? You can get a degree in circus in America. Or a degree in recreational leadership. Or a degree in nothing. Four-year B.V.s just seem too good a business opportunity to be missed.

Most people in the world, following the loss of a loved one, seek peace or solace or some other definite and recognizable state of being. But in America, people seek “closure.” The quest to find an acceptable personal meaning for this undefined, self-help-book term is the starting point for many a career as victim or survivor.

Closure may come quickly or never – it is a very flexible concept, allowing for short, meteoric careers or more sustained, long-term ones. Some captives of the American embassy in Iran went on for more than a decade talking and writing about little more than being on the receiving end of what American armed forces are doing to Al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba.

For about a year or two, every relative of every person affected by the Oklahoma City bombing was interviewed so many times that every ounce of pathetic remembrance was drained from them. I used to wince as soon as I heard the lead-in for another of these on National Public Radio. There was this awful mental image of reporters squeezing the ragged, pulpy scraps of an exhausted lemon to get a last drop of juice.

Of course, there are Oklahoma City victim support groups and associations of every description plus survivors’ reunions and home-coming events. Grief
counselors – another field for combining grief and profit in America -streamed in for weeks, jamming the town’s airport and bus station. And probably upwards of four hundred books were published by and about victims. Victims can spend the rest of their lives just reading about themselves.

Again in Oklahoma City, there is the unavoidable colossal memorial – this time, it consists of a fleet of giant, ugly chairs that look as though no one would ever have wanted to sit on one.

Undoubtedly, the terrorist attack on New York will top all previous grief-events for intensity of as well as endurance. This promises to go on for decades. We already have decals, official logos, baseball caps, t-shirts, shorts, lapel pins, books, videos, electronic games, and framed prints. It is well on its way to spawning a major new industry of survivor-souvenirs and memorabilia. And a stupendous memorial is almost certainly in the works. Perhaps Disney will do a plastic copy to minimize the diversion of tourists to New York.

Now, don’t misunderstand. When the terrorists attacked, America deserved the world’s sympathy and help, and she richly received it. But now, quite apart from its being well past time for a grossly self-indulgent people “to get a life,” the country’s brutal, stupid response – undoubtedly killing more innocent people than died in the attack itself and causing more misery than can be imagined in such a poor land – means she has relinquished further claims to the world’s sympathy.

It’s hard to sympathize with people who insist on the very special, precious, eternal nature of their own loss, while failing even to notice what they do to others. The moral values here closely resemble those of certain survivors or victims in Texas who parade outside the prison during an execution and excitedly talk to newsmen about the closure someone’s death is bringing to their lives.

Closure on this one is going to be right off the scale and probably will take generations. At the heart of the matter, as someone perceptively noted, is that Americans want to be liked and just cannot understand why someone dislikes them so much. They could easily learn why if they only would listen to others, but that will not happen.

Not listening is something of a national characteristic, and there’s almost a sense of pride attached to it. But then, Americans are proud of a lot of loopy things, like the fact that B-2 bombers are such neat-looking, high-tech planes – totally ignoring the fact that each copy costs them about forty top-quality, well-equipped high schools and requires maintenance for every hour’s flying equal to the total annual salaries of several teachers.

Besides, the entire workforce of government and corporate media labor mightily day and night to keep emotions on the boil. CNN stupidly blares from every office and public place much like the tele-screens in 1984 reporting approved details of Oceania’s endless war. Outsiders are certainly not welcome. At all. Unless, of course, they’re sending troops or money.

There is simply no perspective in any of this. Every four or five years, Americans killing Americans generate enough names to fill the Vietnam memorial in Washington. They murder the same number of people who died in the World Trade Center every few months.

Indeed, until a recent, not well-understood decline in American homicides, this figure was enough killings just-over every two years to fill a new wall. Enough killings to equal the carnage of the World Trade Center about every six weeks (just a few years ago, murders ran at 1800 a year for New York city alone). That rate of killing created the equivalent of ten Vietnam walls in the first couple of decades after the war – all filled with names of Americans killed by Americans.

In the same state where tens of millions were spent on the Oklahoma City memorial, there is no memorial to, nor even much memory of, twice as many black Americans slaughtered in Tulsa by insane white mobs and dumped into mass graves during a rampage in the 1920s. Even their property was stolen, just as was the case for Japanese-American internees of concentration camps about twenty years later. Nor is there a memorial in the state of Florida where a similar event occurred.

The colossal brutality of American slavery receives no adequate memorial. The re-creations of slave auctions at colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, actually help soften the image of slavery, but even these silly play-acts by summer students in gingham are quite recent. Slavery at virtually all national historic sites was simply ignored.

Imagine the real auction blocks with slaves stripped naked to display their muscles. Or, in the case of females, to show other assets of interest to isolated plantation owners. Imagine the chained slaves defecating like horses as they are driven to or from the market in gangs. Imagine the stinking holds of ships where they were packed like cord wood, with the substantial numbers who died or got sick in shipment being tossed overboard as they were discovered. America has never come to terms with the immensity of slavery. Where’s the huge and piteous memorial owing here?

Something like two thousand kids a year are killed by child abuse in the United States – that’s another wall full of names since the end of the war in Vietnam – all children. But there is no wall provided.

Of course, the deaths of children and the documented abuse of literally hundreds of thousands more every year, doesn’t stop “pro-life” folks from weeping over fetuses. Never mind all those real kids in pain and difficulty, never mind all the homeless, never mind all the runaways and child prostitutes, and never mind all the families whose lives are no more than emotional vacuums – they’re murdering fetuses!

The bizarre outer limits of grief culture were
reached when dozens of Americans gathered in
Washington to weep over stem cells. Most of the
mourners likely wouldn’t be able to offer a coherent
definition of a stem cell, but that fact
didn’t get in the way of their much photographed and
televised grief. It wouldn’t surprise me if these
people announce a special memorial to stem cells
killed in New York labs by the terrorist attack.

Now, the discovery that a few middle-class children accidentally were killed each year by air bags created waves of publicity and demands for change. And change in the regulations came quickly. But the murder of an American child every few hours (until the recent decline, but the number is still shameful), often at the hands of another child in urban ghettos, generated only a flat-line graph on the monitor of national concern.

Executions in the United States elicit sympathy from some, but the death penalty is popular. Candidate Bush saw no political risk in making sophomoric remarks about people waiting to be executed in Texas. And there’s a well-known picture of him smirking during a remark about the upcoming death of a particular inmate.

America is still the only country to have used a genuine “weapon of mass destruction.” Twice. On civilians. Not much grief is ever expressed over that.
Actually, quite the opposite, as we are reminded at every commemoration of Pearl Harbor that the few thousand Americans killed in an attack on a military base more than justified the mass incineration of women and children, hospitals and schools.

One especially sensitive American reader recently wrote to tell me that the entire Middle East should have been reduced to radioactive glass after the attack on the World Trade Center, and that I should just mind my own business about it. Needless to say, such expressions of grief are touching.

Three to four million Southeast Asian people perished in the insane orgy of killing Americans call the Vietnam War, three hundred thousand went missing, and, over the years since, thousands of farmers have been crippled or killed by the mines and unexploded bombs left behind. Not to mention the unholy effects of an ocean of Agent Orange bubbling and gurgling its way through the water tables of Southeast Asia.

And yet, a quarter-century after that holocaust, there were news stories about whether the Vietnamese were being sufficiently cooperative in finding sets of American remains. Remains that by that time and in that place were surely nothing more than dust, buttons, and dental fillings.

This was just one of many demeaning rituals the American establishment put the Vietnamese through because of their intense rage at losing the war. But this absurd ritual of digging for dust and buttons was possible and took meaning precisely because Washington could exploit strange American attitudes towards death – virtually encouraging the pitiful, hopeless belief by a portion of the public in the survival of missing men – to support a vicious policy.

Every three days, cigarettes kill as many Americans as died in the World Trade Center. Does the Congress take serious action to suppress or better control cigarette smoking? Not really. Other countries have been far more imaginative and aggressive.

America’s courageous legislators leave most of the responsibility to the courts with state lawsuits whose very settlements presume continued heavy smoking and whose proceeds often are not even spent on smoking or health.

Now compare the daily, genuine menace of cigarettes with the threat of terrorism.

Despite the World Trade Center, an American’s chances of dying from terror are just about equal to slipping on a banana in the bathtub during a thunderstorm. Almost nonexistent.

Here was one event involving three thousand people out of a population of two hundred and eighty million, one event spread over a period of many decades of America’s controversy-filled dominance in world affairs. And that one event involved a series of unrepeatable favorable circumstances for the perpetrators, circumstances which actually reflect on the same glorious legislators’ unwillingness to attend to business before by mandating such simple measures as locked cabins and more professional inspection staff.

Yet after that one event, the good old boys in Congress instantly passed police-state legislation, negated many Constitutional protections, launched an undeclared war, ignored the Geneva Conventions, and stand ready to spend countless billions more.

It truly does make a remarkable difference who dies and under what circumstances in America.



High-Tech Puritanism’s Future


How did carpet-bombing Afghan villages and conducting air strikes against Taliban prisoners represent the actions of a free people, of a great democracy? The forces of darkness required an immediate, crushing response rather than any mere effort at securing justice through diplomacy and existing international institutions.

However disturbing to some, the answer does accurately reflect important American attitudes about the War in Afghanistan. The success of the war, as measured by the fairly rapid change in that country’s government and quite apart from what will almost certainly prove a failure to end terrorism, may well usher in a dangerous and bizarre era of international relations.

Since the collapse of the Cold War, America has addressed the world with a new emphasis on democracy and human rights. We enjoy official pronouncements on these precious concepts at fairly regular intervals, although they are often used in ways that resemble chamber-of-commerce boosterism, trade-concession negotiations, or just plain advertising and leave one’s hunger for worthy principles in international affairs satisfied only by the taste of flat beer or stale bread.

Apart from the statements’ too-often self-serving nature, and apart from their considerable selectivity and inaccuracy, they generally contain an implicit assumption that democracy is always and everywhere good. But this is far from being true. Democracy is subject to the same arbitrary and unjust measures as every other form of government, requiring only the shared prejudices, hatreds, or selfishness of a bare majority to inflict pain on others.

The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution exists precisely to protect people from the tyranny of a majority. But even a Bill of Rights often does not protect against injustice, for such tyrannies have existed through much of American history. Those held in slavery for most of America’s first century were held in a revised form of servitude for a second century precisely by the tyranny of a majority of voters. And the proverbial tyrant-sheriff or judge in backwater rural America or crooked machine-politician in larger cities has inflicted injustice on countless Americans, including stealing their votes and corrupting their courts, despite the high-sounding principles of the Bill of Rights.

Rights must be interpreted by courts, and members of any court generally reflect the attitudes and will of those in the majority or at least of that portion of the population that exercises effective power (which at America’s founding was tiny). The times that courts go beyond this fairly pedestrian role are rare and are invariably followed by accusations of having exceeded their authority. And, of course, even bringing issues to court implies the means to do so.

Apartheid South Africa was a democracy for whites that held a majority population of blacks in a form of perpetual bondage. Israel follows almost the same pattern except that the group held in bondage is a minority. But America only spoke out about South Africa’s practices in the last few years of its existence when tremendous international and private-citizen pressure had already been brought to bear. And America has yet to say anything about Israel’s practices.

America’s penchant to criticize, selectively, other forms of government and social arrangements together with new efforts to apply American laws abroad (examples here include: penalties under Helms-Burton against third-party business with Cuba; the abuse of American anti-dumping laws to change previously-negotiated terms of international trade agreements; frequent efforts to extradite citizens of other countries to face American courts; programs to control what farmers in other countries grow; the opening of FBI offices abroad; and, most recently, intense pressures on other countries to change their visa and refugee laws to be more consistent with America’s fairly harsh regime) signal a fervent, new burst of enthusiasm for shaping the world to America’s liking.

The world would almost certainly welcome the sincere application to American foreign policy of liberal principles. I mean, of course, the ringing 18th century meaning of liberal, not the degraded, pejorative that America’s right-wing establishment has worked so hard for decades to make of that word. (The widespread effort to debase the meaning of this fine word by our many commentators and politicians who promote attitude rather than analysis is itself evidence of insincerity concerning principles).

But America’s interventions in the world are shaped by a witch’s brew of self-righteousness, simplistic answers, and the same kind of narrow self-interests that have characterized the interventions of all former great powers. The world’s first (at least superficially) democratic great power, despite the official pronouncements about rights and freedoms, still does not match its interventions to broad principles that most of the world’s peoples would embrace.

An important and overlooked explanation for inconsistent words and actions is the nation’s legacy of Puritanism. This legacy generates the zeal about changing the world to our own liking while ascribing the actions to the very mind of God, at least as revealed through the Holy Writ of our Founding Fathers – Americans often having some difficulty distinguishing between the two.

We are taught in elementary school that the “Pilgrim Fathers” and other extreme, fundamentalist Christian groups came to our shores seeking religious liberty. The textbooks neglect to explain what truly nasty people the various Puritan groups of the 16th and 17th centuries were.

They were despised across much of Europe not so much for their private beliefs but for their intolerance of others’ beliefs and their vicious public behavior. Truly violent pamphlets and sermons about the beliefs of others were standard Puritan fare – most of their contents would meet the most stringent modern standard of hate-speech. Some Puritan groups went well beyond ranting to their own people. They crashed into the church services of other denominations to deliver vitriolic attacks on what was being preached.

And it was Puritan groups in England who, after the Reformation, raged through the beautiful old cathedrals, hacking up statues, destroying historic tombs, and burning priceless works of art that they regarded as idols – actions no different in any detail from recent ones by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

These furious, unpleasant people, dizzy with paranoid feelings of religious persecution, streamed onto the shores of America, hoping to create their own version of society. It was not their intention to permit religious liberty or any other liberty at odds with their harsh dogmas of predestination and damnation of all those not elected by God. It took worldly, late 18th-century skeptics like Jefferson making political alliances with the many schisms that irascible Puritan personalities created to bring the beginnings of what we understand as religious liberty to America.

Patterns of thought and behavior among America’s contemporary conservatives still strongly resemble those of Puritans from three centuries ago. Perhaps the most persistent, and for our theme the most relevant, is the inability to see gradations or subtleties in controversial situations.

You are either right or wrong, saved or damned. There is no middle ground. Note in this regard President Bush’s graceful, memorable words to the world about being either with America or with the terrorists. Thirty years before, during the War in Vietnam, one heard repeatedly, “Love it or leave it,” an ugly expression that has reappeared a few times even in the far less stressful domestic atmosphere of the War in Afghanistan.

So many American minds instinctively follow this pattern of thinking, one suspects it’s in the gene pool. During the insane episode of keeping a little boy away from his father and his country on the basis of ideology, a perceptive Australian wrote in a Sydney paper that he was grateful Australia got the convicts instead of the Puritans.

Americans are convinced they are the modern version of “God’s chosen people.” This identification with the struggles and fortunes of the Old Testament Hebrews was a strong Puritan characteristic. With Americans’ good fortune in growing up on a continent whose vast resources and space and favorable climate have nurtured health and prosperity as well as attracted ambitious and talented people from all over the world, who can fully blame them? A land of milk and honey, if ever there was one.

But much as the successful 17th-century Puritan businessmen typically did, many Americans regard their success as a visible sign of God’s favor. Favor, not blessing, is an important distinction. One is humbled and grateful by blessings, but hubris (or, its rough, earthy equivalent, chutzpah) and arrogance tend to be the less attractive results of believing oneself favored.

While historical events tend more to develop than erupt – eruptions, if you will, reflecting local pressures built up from years of the glacially-paced movements of history’s tectonic plates – the first massive eruption of American Puritanism on world affairs – there were earlier, lesser ones and a history of domestic ones – came with the closing days of World War ll.

Following the titanic, destructive failure of Nazi Germany’s crusade against Bolshevism (a fundamental part of Nazi ideology), America effectively took on the same burden with the Cold War. There was more of a direct connection here than is often realized, since not only German scientists were grabbed up in large numbers for military research but many political and industrial figures, with unmistakable Nazi pasts, were eagerly recruited and assisted after the war by the CIA and its predecessor agency.

This struggle was regarded by America’s establishment as a life-and-death one, much as Hitler’s Germany regarded it. Few Americans today realize how deadly serious it was. The “blacklisting” in Hollywood, featured on film and television as the tragedy of the era, was almost a trivial aspect of the struggle.

Warning the Soviets of America’s willingness to be ruthless was one of the important considerations in the decision to use atomic bombs on civilians in Japan. During the early Fifties, our government seriously planned a pre-emptive atomic strike on the Soviet Union. The full story here remains unknown, but perhaps only the revulsion of allies who learned of this prevented its taking place. (Revulsion at American attitudes and plans may have played a role in motivating some of the many extremely-damaging Soviet spies in Britain at this time).

It is an interesting observation that while classical economists and astute students of history always understood that Soviet-style communism must eventually collapse of its own structural weakness, much like a massive, badly-engineered building on a weak foundation, this knowledge seems not to have influenced American policy during the Cold War. Delenda est Carthago became a terrible, palpable presence in American society. Communism must be defeated because it was godless and failed to recognize the elect nature of America’s way of doing things.

The high-water mark in America’s impulse to wage holy war against the benighted adherents of communism and free their people to buy Coca-Cola and receive the Good Word was undoubtedly the war in Vietnam. While defeat in Vietnam proved a disaster not quite on a scale of Germany’s Götterdämmerung in Russia, it was a humiliating and destructive experience.

I often ask myself what America learned from the Vietnam War. Yes, we now have professional soldiers rather than conscripts. Yes, every congressman has added “boys in harm’s way” to his or her kit-bag of Rotary-Club phrases.

But in a more fundamental sense, I don’t think America learned a great deal. Most of the horror of Vietnam was inflicted on Vietnamese ten thousand miles away, a people who suffered death on a scale only Russians or Jews could appreciate with the equivalent of about fifteen million deaths when scaled to the size of America’s population. While the Vietnamese suffered a virtual holocaust in rejecting the wishes of the favored people, many Americans still believe they are the ones who suffered a massive tragedy, surely an extraordinary example of Puritan-tinged thinking.

If you compare America’s less than 60 thousand deaths – about a year and a half’s fatalities on America’s highways spread over ten years of war – to Vietnam’s loss of 3 to 4 million, you realize that the conflict marked a turning point in methods of war and the use of military technology. Our government’s efforts to limit unpopular American casualties – this was, after all, the youth generation of the Sixties intended according to all the advertising and pop magazine articles only to enjoy itself and never think of dying – meant a new reliance on air power and technology. The carpet in the carpet-bombing was in the homes of Vietnamese peasants.

Economists call this a substitution of one factor of production (physical capital) for another (labor) in the production function (in this case, destruction abroad).

This substitution has continued down to the present at an increasing pace. Indeed, the recent, much-criticized proposals of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (I don’t know why, but I am always tempted to call him von Rumsfeld) really amount to an acceleration of the process. More technology, less soldiers mean more precision, less domestic political risk from deaths in conflicts, and, just as in any other industry, more efficiency (“bang for the buck” as the Pentagon so quaintly puts it).

Of course, taken too far, quite apart from possible specialized military implications, this substitution threatens to undermine America’s popular support for the military. “Joining up” with its advanced training opportunities, large benefits towards post-secondary education, and even tolerance for enlisted families and non-uniform life outside daily duties provides an important economic and social option for many young Americans, most of whom, naturally enough, never expect to see combat. For a couple of million people, the armed forces today offer one of the few equivalents of what a secure union job with plenty of benefits in a sound corporation was fifty years ago.

The greatest danger of the Vietnam War to America was that the nation showed genuine signs of beginning to crack apart, just as it actually had done a century before in the Civil War. Changes made in the nature of American interventions since that time reflect more an avoidance of this kind of internal divisiveness than a fundamentally different way of regarding the rest of the human race. They reflect also the unexpected collapse of Lucifer’s evil empire. We now have only the vicious scrambling of lesser demon-princes on which to focus our fury.

However, an increasingly technology-intensive armed forces comes to the rescue for hunting out these lesser varmints. Not only are our chosen enemies generally smaller and weaker, but our ability to reach out with fairly little risk to American lives is vastly improved.

While the Pentagon has not achieved the precision-capability that its spokesmen and supporters almost salivate describing, it has nevertheless come a very long way to delivering overwhelming destruction on selected targets with very little risk to its own pilots or troops, at least in the kinds of places it has been called upon to attack – that is, countries with small economies such as Iraq or Serbia and places still immured in the culture of earlier centuries, such as Afghanistan.

Over the long term, big investments in technology do pay off, as the last ten years of general American prosperity prove, and the military is no different in this regard.

But the ability to kill without being killed reflects a potentially destabilizing influence in world affairs. One of the few universally-true dictums ever uttered is Lord Acton on power.

Immense power in the hands of a people who neither know nor care about the world except as it reflects their own attitudes is inherently dangerous, but this is something Americans have already experienced in the post-war period. Even then, as in Vietnam, the results were often grim.

Given the ability to kill without being killed and with no other power great enough to offer counterbalancing influence, a new, bizarre version of Pax Americana is the prospect for decades ahead – at least until a united Europe, a developed China, and a reinvigorated Russia and Japan can offer effective alternate voices. (As for the influence of Puritanism within American society, only time plus lots of immigration seem likely to have effect).

And I believe this comes with its own built-in tendency towards instability, as people across the globe resent and resist the changes and adjustments expected by America, not only in the sphere of economics through developments in globalized free trade, but in the political and social spheres at an intensity rarely known before, except by unfortunate neighbors in the Caribbean Basin.

America’s inclination to ignore international institutions and to declare people or states as criminals whenever they seriously oppose its demands combined with its ability to punish with impunity unavoidably will increase resentments and bring relations to the boil over much of the world time and time again. New forms of terrorism, or what the dear old CIA has always euphemized as “dirty tricks” where it was doing the terrorizing to promote American interests, seem virtually certain. But wasn’t that what the war in Afghanistan was supposed to end?

Listen carefully to Mr. Bush’s words about a long, complicated war. I don’t think the words advisors have put into his mouth are just about Afghanistan or even about anything so specific as extending the action to Iraq. In effect, I think he’s talking about the kind of perpetual low-grade state of war that was part of Orwell’s vision for 1984. Only it’s not going to be Big Brother that prosecutes it, but the Puritan forces of America’s New Model Army.