Donald Trump has been blowing things up. But no, this is not quite right, as Donald Trump is just some fat septuagenarian. He, as himself, has as much power to rain fire from the sky as I do. This time last year, he couldn’t have blown up his own toilet without getting the approval of a municipal bureaucrat. Now he can, and on his own authority, cause great machines of destruction to be hurled across the seas and crash into other people. This is nothing short of miraculous, we have wrapped him in political majesty, and now, in many of the most important circumstances one can imagine, his word is a law unto itself. But political majesty doesn’t belong to its holder, anymore than the rain belongs to me because a few drops hit my skin, or I may be soaked in it. These are our bombs, and our battle cruisers, and our planes. So, it is more true to say that WE have been blowing things up. Liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, rich and poor.
The question then has to be asked: Why are we blowing things up? And why can we never seem to stop. I remember the day the present unending war began, I was 10 years old in the fifth grade, two planes had crashed into buildings and everyone was afraid. I did not know, and I could not understand, that a week later, while everyone was still afraid; George W. Bush, an old man living in a white house, was being authorized to do whatever he felt he needed to so that terror might be banished from the earth. Since that day, we have filled prisons in Cuba and other hidden places with captives from the global battlefield. Immediately after George W. Bush was given the power to bomb away terror, he immediately began raining destruction on Afghanistan, a country I had never heard of and most American adults couldn’t and can’t readily find on a map. Mountainsides seemed to crumble into valleys, only to transition into videos of dusty men in beige fatigues on jungle gyms set against the background of a pale, cloudless sky. Since then, and it will be sixteen years this September, we’ve stacked incalculable casualties and wrought destruction on a scale which would boggle our minds if we sought to conceive it. And yet, terror lives. In fact, The United States of America, as a global power, is more closely allied with it than it has ever been. We have been at war for over 3/5s of my life, and the end seems no closer than it seemed in September 2001, there is always a new theater, a new arena in which to flex our might. Aside from the spectacular moments, there is the constant barrage in faraway places we still have not heard of, and we no doubt quickly realize that if we were to keep track, we’d have no time for anything else. The question which this experience has brought to mind is not: Will this end? But, can it end? To figure out how we got here, we must retrace our steps.
Like most Americans, I was taught a version of history, particularly American history, which was mostly rubbish. From the age of 5 until 16 when I began to seriously question, I was fed and ravenously consumed a version of American history which was among the purest forms of propaganda. Millions of otherwise reasonable people believe it, thought it is almost entirely fiction. I can yet darkly remember what such lies do to the rational faculties. I recall during the days of my deception, musing, without the slightest hint of irony, about how amazing it was that America had always been on the right side of history. What makes this most remarkable, is that I knew about slavery, had some inkling about Jim Crow and knew that this hemisphere was once populated by a different people than the ones which populate it now, and that the descendants of these people were rarely seen. Yet, so totalitarian was the propaganda, that I considered these minor, unimportant facts, without even realizing that I did, and not upon any rational reflection, but because I implicitly assumed that I could rely on my schooling to show me what was important. The mythos around the two world wars (so far) was central to this conditioning.
Later on I would be taught about the complex of alliances which turned a murder in Sarajevo into a continental war. I learned of the American people’s supposed ardor to stay out of the war and how they were spurred to gallant intervention by the sinking of the Lusitania and how our insertion was almost immediately followed by the end of the war. The lesson here seemed to be: When America stays within its own borders, the world suffers. The humble, insular American people would need to be twice-taught this lesson and only fully entered the second world war when provoked by an(other) imperial power, Japan. And while the shining city sat in quietism, a madman across the sea slaughtered Jews by the millions. Of course, that shiploads of these Jews were turned away from our shores, an effective death sentence for many, doesn’t manage to fit into the myth. After this, it seemed the lesson had been learned, that America could not afford to stay out of global affairs because the world could not govern itself. To secure European peace we built NATO, to secure world peace, the UN. But, as we always learned in the ensuing chapter, there was one more monster to banish, the specter of communism was haunting the earth.
It seemed that at long last, we had learnt our lesson and would finally accede to destiny. Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, South America, Africa; as the colonized threw off their imperial yokes, their continuing participation in the capitalist system could no longer be guaranteed from the metropole (or in the case of South America, as the banana republics fell). Such savages might “fall” to communists. Note the term “fall,” implying that people around the world would be pulled as if by gravity into the communist orbit like mindless objects instead of running to it like human beings possessed of agency, having gotten their fill of the capitalist system. Alternatively, communism was a “disease,” like malaria and typhoid, which the unwitting filth hounds in the formerly colonized countries would succumb to like any epidemic, but for Western intervention. And increasingly, to this day, “Western” means American.
The lesson we are here to learn, is that vigorous action on the part of leaders from Truman to Reagan saved the world from this virulent scourge. On a bipartisan basis and all in the name of a vaguely defined “freedom” which whatever it means, can never mean the freedom to seriously threaten American hegemony or bourgeois capitalism; proxy wars were waged, leaders were assassinated, neutral countries were bombed, jungles were flooded with murderous chemicals; what atrocity could be spared to protect the world from the next great evil? For all this scorching horror, the war was “cold” because few Europeans died. After 41 years of courageous realpolitik, manly stare downs, and clever maneuvering, the Soviet malady, having been rigorously quarantined, eventually collapsed into itself heralding the final triumph of the “Pax Americana.” All would have microwaves, all would be free. During these same years, France and Portugal and other colonial powers sought to hold on to whatever of empire they could by waging brutal anti-colonial wars in Africa. And what is more, America let them, heavily subsidized them and when they failed, was there to help topple Marxist regimes which arose in their wake. Our supposed obligation to maintain peace never seemed to extend into the torture chambers of French Algeria or Portuguese Mozambique.
And this is the great contradiction at the heart of the Pax Americana, if, as Dr. King posited, peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice, then in neither sense has the “Pax Americana” delivered on the “Pax” part (Pax being Latin for peace). Our meddling has been a multiplier and exacerbater of tension and we’ve reduced justice to an advertising slogan to sell our empire. For the last 70 years, America has sought to pull the forces of global history behind it, but the object being towed into place is unwieldy and will never bend to the will of one man, or one nation, or even that of all humanity. This is shown when we observe that our interventions regularly sow the seeds for the next generation of catastrophe which will require our engagement. We’re never able to “fix” anything. Refugee crises are getting worse, the dictatorships we support rot from the inside and are then pushed into history’s garbage dump. Intervention begets more intervention. But if we don’t intervene, the order we enforce unravels still, obviously. So, where does that leave us? Overextended athwart a history which increasingly batters us. As worldwide resentment festers and grows, as a rising standard of living becomes the mother’s milk of revolutionary fervor in the global south as surely as rampaging privation ever was, as the West is destabilized and turns into itself as the colonized refuse to remain petrified in place at the four corners of the globe, as global warming feeds worldwide inequality necessitating increasingly brutal measures abroad, as the old myths slowly but surely begin to lose their magical hold on the metropole’s own lovingly coddled intellectual elite; we find ourselves riding a mighty beast which bleeds itself with every great breath.
The only question for those of us who root for this beast’s death is then: What now? The question of can it end is simple enough, it must. But the system has rebuilt itself after even the most catastrophic setbacks, and it has done so better and stronger. History flows in both directions. We who would have justice, must therefore play the long game. What possibilities will be opened up once American power can no longer be relied upon to secure Western hegemony? There is no new America on the horizon, at least not in the West. We may look to China, formally a revolutionary state, China’s elite benefit as much from the global order as that of any Western state, even as a subordinate partner. Though admittedly, China’s rising middle class pose an internal threat as they increasingly see political freedom as the next status symbol. India, the darling of the post-colonial world, while fully and profitably ensconced in the present order, and seeming to be immune to the kind of bouts of self-assertion which keep China a worrisome partner to the Pax Americana, may be called upon to lead Asia and the world as the second successor to the British empire, after it has received ample assistance in overcoming its own growing pains which will leave it beholden to the old rulers. All this is speculation, but one thing is certain, we cannot expect that the Pax Americana will go quietly, just as the Pax Brittanica did not. The ones who have ruled the past few centuries have all the resources in the world to exercise soft power even as their hard power wanes. Even so, the fall of the Pax presents a probably brief, but potential laden period of staggering possibility. We must not be so distracted by the plane crash that we forget to launch ourselves. The thoughts I have ventured here, I intend to explore in more depth over the coming years, the problem with which we are presented is as difficult as it is all all-important.