I was born the day Nazi Germany declared war on the USSR. The United States had not yet entered the war. France had fallen. The British expeditionary force had been evacuated from Dunkirk, Japan was in China. By the time it ended I was old enough to be aware and to remember--the honking horns on the streets on VJ day. Some 70 million people had been killed.
Try counting to 70 million. Imagine someone shot, incinerated, starved--for every number: another person, another human being... gassed, drowned, blown to pieces, vaporized... all that before I turned five. By the time I was seven, the USSR had the bomb. And then came Korea. And the Hydrogen bomb... those glorious unworldly full color photographs in LIFE, spread out on the living room floor... living room
We were preserved from the madness. Quite precisely. M.A.D. Mutually Assured Destruction. Herman Khan of the Rand Corporation used to lecture on the subject. He wrote a book called: ON THERMONUCLEAR WAR. Spelled it all out. Like boys playing chicken, he would say... the game (white) teens played in the innocent 50's. Kids pile into two cars, a mile or so apart, then drive at each other on the same lane... accelerate, faster and faster... see who swerves first. Who's chicken. Kahn said, you want to win that game, you don't want the other side to believe you're sane. You come at them, hurling whiskey bottles out the side, driver with his head out the window blindfolded. The one most convincingly insane--wins. Someone had set a limit to the number of deliverable warheads that, theorectically, would assure their eventual use, by accident if not intent. I think it was something like 10,000. The U.S. had exceeded that number by the 60's... before that, Khruschev and Kennedy showed the world how it was done... playing chicken.
The wars went on. By the dozens. Little wars. The superpowers playing their war games on vicarious battle fields. Testing new generations of weapons. Supplying the combatants. Observing how they worked. For the most part, only the 'little people' died. The poor, the ones no one could see on TV. They didn't speak English... so when they complained, who could understand? The question was--how do you live, how do you pitch your life's tent on a killing field, up to your nostrils in blood? More precisely, how do you choose to remain conscious? And why? The choices: the delusional madness of business as usual in a slaughterhouse--pretending you are not part of the killing machine: the indulgent madness of retiring from the world, pretending that you can retire from the world: or remaining aware, refusing to avert your eyes... but that too, is assuredly madness.
... then it went away. Or seemed to. Of course, it only seemed to if you had missed everything that had happened the first 87 years of the century. Nothing had changed. The major players had changed jerseys... one of them, anyway. But the little wars went on, and the killing went on, and the old heads from the Bad Old Days of the Cold War kept on supplying the weapons and banking the profits and grabbing spoils from the dead. What had changed was how almost universal the blindness, the denial had become. Only a matter of time before the seals began to leak, before the blood began to lap on the placid shores of the sleepwalkers, the innocent killers.
We are all killers. All innocent. All guilty. And very good at forgetting the dead, burying their memory under heaps of flowers, memorials, clarion words, calls to duty... to go on with our lives, with the killing.
Welcome children to the 21st Century.
(From my Journal. Written in the Philly Bar and Grill (now The Fire) October, 2001, the first day of the bombing of Afghanistan. Sports on all four TV's