The Year it All Changed


2. 2001

1. 1989

In this article in yesterday's New York Times, there is a discussion about the problem with using ammunition designed to pierce Soviet body armor to fight Taliban soldiers. Apparently these old schoolbullets don't do the same degree of damage on men in threadbare cotton and wool. They just pass right through. A number of thoughts run flicker across the mind, but front and centre is: Soviet body armor? Really? Isn't that war over?

I know it is. I remember it ending. I was almost there.

Twenty years ago, in 1989, I was a high-school dropout in the process of developing a bad substance abuse problem, a bad attitude and participating in some bad career choices. Desperate for a change, I made plans to travel. Europe on $25 a day was still possible. For reasons that are lost within the whirlpools of a fading memory (see substance abuse problem above), I decided that I wanted to start in Germany. My plan was to leave at the beginning of November and visit the Berlin wall.

It was a very odd year. At the time it was hard to get perspective but it definitely felt like the world was waking up from a slumber. In hindsight, it was a full-fledged chaos of historic proportions - the world was awakening from the dead.

By the end of May of that year, Reagan was gone, Hirohito was dead, the last Soviet troops had left Afghanistan, cold fusion had been discovered, Solidarity had been legalised and the Goddess of Democracy had appeared in Tiananmen Square. In June, the devastating news about the massacre in Beijing was tempered by the optimism of elections in Poland and growing freedoms in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. By the end of summer, massive demonstrations in the Baltic States and the collapse of Hungarian border with Austria and East Germany were creating seismic rumblings.

And then, in November, it all just collapsed. At the beginning of the month there was an iron curtain, a Berlin wall and a cold war and by the end there was a new Europe. Everything that had defined the previous fifty years was gone. Poof.

I just could not get my act together and make it to Germany. I could see what was happening. I wanted to be there. But I just could not process it fast enough. Instead of standing in the middle of it all in Berlin, I spent my winter slinging bad, grey steaks at a grey, bad steak restaurant. The tumult of it all froze me out.

In the intervening 20 years, I have often wondered if my own paralysis is not a telling metaphor for the geopolitical stasis that followed. America, in hindsight, was simply not ready for the consequences of victory. Without a Soviet counterpart, they lost their way. Alternatingly, trying too hard to be the only global superpower or not trying hard enough. A certain ennui set in. Then arrogance. Then hubris. Then folly. And more folly. And more folly. Did I mention folly?
I like to think that I have caught up to events. That I have moved on. I shook myself out of the torpor that had plagued me. I have given up fatties for fattoi. I got my degree. Then another. I work for a living. I do alright. I make my own way.

But, if the truth be told, sometimes I catch my eye in the mirror and wonder what might have been. Or, worse, I am distracted with a nostalgia for that much simpler time when the choices I had to make were, in so many ways, an accurate reflection of who I really was.

Maybe I am not alone. Maybe that explains the ammunition in the M-16s. - Beta

2. 2001

In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Cold War ended, and famously, history came to an end. Liberal democracy and its free-market capitalist system had triumphed, and so history had reached its ultimate objective.

Of course, it didn't quite turn out that way. President George Bush Senior announced a New World Order, but it quickly became a messy and more complicated world. History somehow kept marching on. It is perhaps true, as Beta suggests, that America was "not ready" for victory. But another take on this is that Americans, and indeed people generally, are not ready for complexity and randomness in the system. And what we have seen more recently is an illustration of two related and old truths.

First, we like stable and grand struggles of good versus evil. It helps to define us. Ever since we created God and Satan, we have ordered our world in this way - and then engaged in heroic crusades against infidels. These crusades have been horrific, leading to endless misery and suffering, but they nonetheless imposed a stability on our external relations, provided a self-righteous sense of our own identity, even provided a false basis for a nobleness of purpose. Whether it be the Persians, the Mohammadins, the Mongolian hordes, heathen savages, fuzzy wuzzy Zulus, the Frogs, the Hun, the Nips, the Gooks, the Commies, or the Klingons - we always need a "them" opposed to our "us".

When the wall fell and the Cold War ended, we were confronted with a messy complex world with no enemy to give it order, direction, purpose. We drifted. We looked for new enemies - Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler, but he just wasn't really up for the job.

But we didn't have to wait too long. Just twelve years actually - half a generation. With a terrorist attack on a beautiful summer day in 2001, we were back in business. George Junior could jettison Dad's New World Order, and direct all the energy of the United States towards creating a new world dichotomy. Communism, which had replaced Fascism, could now be replaced with Islamic Fundamentalism (or, Islamofascism for those who understood neither).

And so we are still in the midst of two wars commenced as part of that crusade. And herein lies the second old truism, one also alluded to by Beta. It is captured in the aphorism "Generals are doomed to always fight the last war". The classic example is the French reliance upon the Maginot Line, constructed after World War I to defend against the kind of infantry attacks of that war. The German forces of Hitler, employing the Blitzkieg strategy enabled by armour, simply went around the Line and took France in record time.

And so in Afghanistan, we are poised to invest more heavily in a counter-insurgency war. The kind of war we learned how to fight, in the dying days of our loss of Vietnam. In Vietnam, of course, we were still fighting World War II and Korea. Now in Afghanistan, we are applying Vietnam, but in a struggle that is really against a trans-national terrorist movement with no real geographical center of gravity. But no matter, it is at least the manifestation of our fight against evil, our crusade against the Islamic radicals who are intent on world conquest. Or something like that.

Maybe one day we will learn to live with complexity. It might make for a better world. - Gamma.



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