July 02, 2009

Happy Fourth

After I finish Halberstam's majestic The Fifties, I think I'll read Kevin Starr's Golden Dreams, which covers California during the same era. It was my late, great cousin Jim Houston, writer and highly-practical philosopher, who taught me that when one's own times fail to satisfy, it's best to revert mentally to some earlier epoch when life seemed better. Jim went all the way back to the turn of the last century, 1890 to 1910, what the Parisians may have called La Belle Epoque. Before the First World War, before income tax, before all the improvements to modern life which have made it largely unlivable.

Usually when one expresses such an opinion, one is met immediately with the objection that modern improvements in health care, and particularly the eradication of many infectious diseases and improvements in surgical techniques, make such nostalgia silly and misplaced. An intellectually honest person must yield to the truth of some of this; although I would say that human life span, as opposed to expectancy, has remained largely unchanged over the last few thousand years or so. About 85 to 95 years is the human life span, and probably the best predictor of a long life is the fact that you're alive at a certain age. My Southern relatives tended to achieve this life span almost to a person, and it's fatuous to think that modern medicine "allowed" them to live as long as they did. It's really more tautological than that. They lived long lives because they were long-lived people. When your German Shepherd goes to that Great Kennel in the Sky at age twelve, you do not ascribe it to the wonderful work done by his vet. You figure it's because he lived out his normal life span.

I find myself becoming more of a Luddite as I age, perhaps in keeping with the masthead of this blog. I think all of our mediated experiences of reality have turned back against us: television, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones and Blackberrys, texting, e-mail, video games. We've let the world turn into a shit pile because we don't pay that much attention to the Real Thing, just reality as represented in pixel images. How could the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exist without anyone even talking about it? How could there be 600,000 pieces of trash orbiting the Earth? California's broke, and one of the first cost-saving measures proposed by our Austrian governor is to close all the state parks, maybe on the realistic notion that no one will notice that all the preserves of nature have become suddenly inaccessible. We can still watch them on TV, I guess.

Anyway, while wandering around in the past, I came across this remarkable quote in Halberstam's book:

"Years later, when Ike gave his farewell speech warning against the power of the military-industrial complex, he was much heralded; but the truth was that such views were always the bedrock of his philosophy. He was the second President who had to make difficult choices about complex and expensive weapons systems. He worried about the potential drain on the economy, and he believed that the Joint Chiefs cared little or nothing about the dangers of inflation. He spoken often in private about the danger of spending so much on weaponry and defense and in the process destroying the economy and thus weakening the country these weapons were going to protect. The federal budget, he liked to say, had risen from $4 billion a year in 1932 to $85.5 billion in 1952 - with some 57 percent of that increase going to the Pentagon. 'This country," he once noted, 'can choke itself to death piling up expenditures just as surely as it can defeat itself by not spending enough for protection.' Defense spending, he believed quite passionately, was dead weight; it was inflationary and subtracted from the nation's vitality rather than added to it."

I don't think anyone can say with a straight face that the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, the supervisor of D-Day, did not know an awful lot about wars and the military. Now it's a commonplace for the Commander in Chief to defer to the judgment of the generals. What matter are the opinions of the "commanders on the ground" in our endless theaters of war. Obama now has his war of choice, Afghanistan, and he gets to play army, with real lives at stake, in a Marine assault in Helmand Province. He wants to root out the Taliban and their illicit drug trade so that the warlords can return and resume running the drug trade under a regime with free elections, and so that Osama bin Laden, who left eight years ago, cannot be harbored by the Taliban. While we're in Afghanistan we will also kill all the al-Qaeda terrorists, and I believe it is very obliging of these terrorists, very thoughtful even, to gather in one narrow corridor of the world so we can kill them all at once, and not disperse to, say, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the Sudan, Yemen, the UAE, Kuwait and other Muslim countries. Life imitates old jokes, like the one about the guy who drops his car keys in a parking lot at night and asks his friend to help. His friend walks around in circles at the far end of the lot. "I think I dropped them around here," the first guy says. The friend answers, "Yeah, but the light is better over here."

Eisenhower's warning is now a very faint echo from the past. No one even talks about military spending anymore - it's a given, an untouchable, our raison d'etre, as Lafayette, who did so much so long ago to put us on the map, might have said.

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