Our world on fire, in a nutshell: Here are 4 of the defining stories of 2021
Whether the pandemic that’s swept the world started from a bat or not, as 2021 ends, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all far battier than we were when it began.
In my neighborhood at least, as this year draws to a close, that old Lone Ranger line, “Who was that masked man?,” again applies to just about anyone. In fact, as Delta cases rise in New York City and Omicron arrives on the scene in a startling fashion, indoor mask wearing in my own apartment building — from the halls to the elevators to the laundry room — has been reinstituted (not that I ever stopped) and the city’s indoor public-mask mandate is also being restored.
It’s been that sort of a year, but sadly, as we know, not everywhere in this all-too-unmasked, unvaccinated, disputatious, confrontational, conspiratorial, unnerved, and disturbed country of ours. A year of illness, death, mourning, and ever-increasing political chaos on a striking, if not unparalleled, scale threatens the American system as we’ve known it. Meanwhile, a new kind of weather threatens the world as we’ve known it.
Happy new year? I don’t quite think so.
Admittedly, my wife and I are vaccinated and boosted. And yet, as well-over-65s, we’re still first-class Covid targets, living through the end of year two of a pandemic that’s been disastrous for Americans of our age in a country that’s experienced its own kind of devastation, not just medically but politically.
Meanwhile, life goes on in its own strange fashion. It’s that season when you send pictures of your family to friends. But as 2021 ends, even the Yuletide family photo has gained an unnerving post-Kyle Rittenhouse meaning. I’m referring, of course, to the “family photo” that Kentucky Republican Representative Thomas Massie (who, in April, introduced a bill in Congress to allow 18-20 year-olds to buy handguns) tweeted out. He, his wife, and his kids, a Christmas tree in the background, are all armed with either a machine gun or a military-style semi-automatic rifle under the message “Merry Christmas! ps. Santa, please bring ammo.” In other words, think of it as a new definition of both Christmas “presents” and Christmas presence.
This, by the way, happened just days after the headline-grabbing slaughter of four teenage students in a Michigan high school by a disturbed 15-year-old whom his parents had given a semiautomatic handgun. And lest you think that Congressman Massie’s seasonal tweet was a one-off event rather than a sign of the world we’re increasingly living in, consider the photo that Colorado Republican Representative Lauren Boebert soon tweeted out of her four even younger kids, posed around her, also against the backdrop of a Christmas tree, armed to the teeth with similar weaponry.
In that cheery seasonal context and in the country that leaves the rest of the world in the dust when it comes to an armed citizenry, take a moment to consider a recent poll showing that 30% of Republicans, 11% of Democrats, and 17% of independents agree with this statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
All this, mind you, amid what once would have been considered bizarre talk of a stolen election (at least two-thirds of Republicans think it was); coup planning, past and future; and Republican-controlled state legislatures visibly working to alter the electoral system (both who can vote and who can count and judge that vote) to ensure their own future victories. We’re talking about the all-too-literal theft of elections-to-come and potentially of the future itself. And no, none of you reading this will be faintly shocked by any of it or by the rise of a “Stop the Steal” Republican Party that has every intention of giving thievery a new meaning in this country. Why should you be? By now, it’s the warp and woof of our all-American lives.
And yes, at 77, I got my Pfizer booster shot in October and, no, in all these careful months, I haven’t gotten Covid-19 in any of its variants (yet), thank god, or had a friend die of it, though I do have two friends with horrific cases of long Covid. Still, looking back on 2021, when I was luckier than so many Americans my age, I find I have a million — and note that number please! — things to say about this all-too-dismal past year at a time when Americans have been involved in a pandemic of wars without vaccines for any of them and of fossil-fuel burning with no (immediate) vaccine for it either.
I wouldn’t even try to sum up this bizarre year of ours. Here, though, are four (million) of my own takeaways from 2021, a classic hell-on-Earth year that, if worse weren’t potentially on the horizon, could perhaps be quickly forgotten. But with the urge not to depress you utterly, before the bad news pours in, let me start with one upbeat story, one bit of good news!
Yes, it’s true that, according to the Costs of War project, close to a million people have died violently in the various conflicts launched thanks to this country’s post-9/11 “war on terror” — or rather war of terror — in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Still, despite what so many TomDispatch writers (and yours truly) expected, as 2021 ends, America’s war in Iraq has truly come to an end, too. On December 9th, President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi reached an agreement on the subject. Subsequently, the Pentagon announced that, almost two decades after this country so disastrously invaded and occupied Iraq (Mission Unaccomplished!), launching the process that created the Islamic State, or ISIS, the American “combat mission” there has officially ended. So long! Farewell! Bye-bye!
After all this time, isn’t that an amazing gift? Oh, wait a minute, someone’s whispering something in my ear. Whoops, let me add a small footnote to the above. Mind you, the last thing I want to do is mess with your newly cheery mood, but the 2,500 American “combat” troops in Iraq aren’t actually leaving that country — not a single one of them, it seems. From now on, though, their “mission” is being relabeled not as a “combat” but an “advise, assist, and enable” one. Oh, and those 900 or so U.S. troops in Syria (did you even know they were still there?) aren’t evidently going anywhere either, though no one bothers to announce anything about them. (Why bother? It’s just messy old Syria after all.)
As a New York Times headline put it, bluntly enough, “U.S. Announces End to Combat Mission in Iraq, but Troops Will Not Leave.” There! Almost 20 years after the disastrous U.S. invasion that created so much still ongoing chaos, death, and destruction, it’s all over but the leaving and, mind you, just to put things in perspective, that’s the good news in 2021.
Okay, 20 years after invading Afghanistan, the U.S. military actually did leave that country. In doing so, it suffered a grim and chaotic defeat of the first order. Meanwhile, the enemy it had fought there all those years, the Taliban, took over Kabul and a country in utter devastation and despair. As they departed in August, U.S. forces offered one final, all-too-symbolically on target — that is, completely mistargeted — goodbye kiss: a Hellfire-missile strike against a supposed agent of ISIS-K (the Islamic State of Afghanistan) that actually killed 10 innocent Afghans, including seven children. It was a symbolically catastrophic summing up of the American years there — remember all those wedding parties slaughtered? — for which the U.S. military recently decided to punish none of its personnel involved. Heaven forbid! In such situations, it couldn’t be clearer that, even 20 years later, no blame should be cast or responsibility handed out. That deadly drone strike was, as the Air Force Inspector General put it, “an honest mistake.”
And that was the good news when it came to Afghanistan. The country the U.S. left behind to the Taliban after all those decades of supposedly building an Afghan democracy and an Afghan military, while constructing highways to nowhere and gas stations in the middle of nowhere (to the tune of at least $146 billion), is now an almost unimaginable disaster zone. There’s barely a government with no access to funding (most of it frozen by the U.S.), a severe climate-change-induced drought, ever fewer jobs, ever more virulent outbreaks of disease, and ever less food — and that’s putting the situation mildly. It’s estimated that, if nothing further is done by the world, at least one million Afghan children could starve to death there this winter and millions more Afghans could die from starvation and a combination of diseases so outlandish as to be almost unimaginable. As the Guardianreported,
“There are six simultaneous disease outbreaks: cholera, a massive measles outbreak, polio, malaria, and dengue fever, and that is in addition to the coronavirus pandemic… As families struggle to put nutritious food on the table and health systems are further strained, millions of Afghan children are at risk of starvation and death.”
Think of that (and so much else) as the toll from a disastrous American war launched in response to the deaths of 3,000 Americans at the hands of 19 mostly Saudi al-Qaeda hijackers. In other words, our country have given the Afghans their own 9/11, 9/12, 9/13, and so on into the distant future. From the moment the first U.S. planes began bombing there in October 2001 to that final Hellfire missiling of those seven children in Kabul, the Afghan War was a nightmare. Now that American troops (and diplomats) are gone, our country has simply tossed it on the trash heap of history, with no one, of course, held responsible for either those final deaths, the disaster left behind, or any of the carnage sure to follow.
At worst, it was all an honest mistake, right? If you don’t think so, just have the inspector general check it out for you. Meanwhile, as 2021 ends, move on and let those Afghan kids starve to death. It’s almost three months since “our” war finally ended and what could we possibly be responsible for there now? These days, it’s the Taliban’s responsibility, right?
Or think of it this way: the 9/11 attacks led the administration of President George W. Bush to launch a devastating set of conflicts, some still ongoing, whose crescendo could be a million or more dead Afghan kids. But here’s the strange thing: when a devastating pandemic arrived in the richest country on the planet, we proved remarkably incapable of organizing a successful War on Covid and instead went to war among ourselves over it. (Typically enough, for example, at least 60% of Republicans are still against public mask mandates.)
Polls showed that 90% of Americans approved of our attacking Afghanistan after 9/11. You would, however, be hard pressed to find a poll in which 90% of Americans would agree on much of anything when it came to Covid-19, from vaccinations to masking, social distancing to… well, you name it.
As a result, this country recently passed an official count of 800,000 dead Americans, the highest such death toll on the planet (even as the disease began spiking again in a nation where barely more than 60% of us are fully vaccinated, forget boosters). Worse yet, the real figure, as suggested by a study done last spring when “only” 600,000 of us were officially dead, is now undoubtedly well over a million Americans taken down by Covid.
In our case, though, unlike Afghanistan today, children were rarely the ones dying, it was oldsters like me. About 600,000 of that official American death count of 800,000, or 75% percent, have been 65 years old or older. In other words, a staggering one of every 100 of us in that age range has died from the pandemic.
Isn’t reasonable, then, to ask: Where was the War on Covid when we needed it? Instead, Americans in these years began to go to war with each other.
4. Climate Change
But honestly, there’s only one story that should have been central to our age, even if, sadly enough, most of the time it wasn’t. Rising inflation makes for constant headlines these days, rising temperatures not so much. In fact, as we creep toward an all-too-literal hell on earth, as the heating of the planet and the disasters that go with it — intensifying hurricanes and floods, megadroughts, melting glaciers, heat domes, fires that can make their own weather, you name it — grow ever more severe in ways almost too dramatic to take in, the centrality of climate change, of the fossil-fuelized broiling of this planet, to our future should be too obvious to ignore.
I mean just imagine that, by 2050, according to the latest estimates, hundreds of millions of people (yes, there are those millions again!) could be displaced from their devastated homes and homelands by global warming. By then, it’s even possible that more than a billion of us could have become refugees.
Sadly, at a time when Republican hijinks are headlines daily, when Joe Biden’s dropping poll numbers can be the story of the moment, when the fate of Donald Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is front and center, climate change still seemed like a passing concern for most of 2021. Even when the weather itself was staggering, the climate emergency often was, at best, an afterthought.
Take the monstrous set of tornadoes that swept through Kentucky and five other states just two weeks ago, leaving an unparalleled path of destruction in their wake. Yes, it’s true that not enough is known yet to connect them with utter certainty to climate change. But give me a break, it should have been the first thought that came into the mind of any reporter covering the story (or any viewer watching it), especially since the areas those tornadoes swept through in December were experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures of a record sort, which should have been ominous enough in itself. (Overheated Minnesota would, within days, experience its first December tornadoes ever.)
I watched NBC Nightly News on the evenings after that orgy of devastation and indeed the tornado story was the lead in a big time way. On the first night, December 11th, with Kate Snow on duty, coverage of the horror story in Kentucky and elsewhere lasted a full 15 minutes without commercial break; on the second night, with Lester Holt in charge, 13 minutes — and yet on neither night were the words “climate change” ever mentioned. (They finally came up at the eight-minute mark of the third night.)
And that seemed to catch our world in a nutshell (or perhaps I mean a fireball) in 2021.
And here’s the saddest thing: as the year ends in a country where significant parts of the population, including more than 130 members of Congress (and you know just which party they belong to), still don’t believe there’s a climate emergency or that it’s faintly the issue of our time: it’s perfectly possible that a climate denier and fossil-fuel nut could be elected president again in 2024 (and then you can kiss this world goodbye). And even if that doesn’t happen, keep in mind that few blinked here when, only days after President Joe Biden returned from a global climate-change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where he promised to do his damnedest to get this country off greenhouse-gas-producing power, his administration promptly auctioned off 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed to companies like Exxon, Chevron, and BP for oil and natural gas drilling. That record auction essentially guaranteed more future freak-out weather on a planet in peril. And only recently, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin got a ban on new offshore drilling for gas and oil along this country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts removed from Biden’s Build Back Better bill, only to announce soon after that he wouldn’t vote for the bill anyway.
Oh, and just to end on a cheerier note, as 2021 wound down, the Senate, which can agree on so little, passed almost unanimously the most staggering Pentagon budget of our time. The senators, like their House colleagues, even added an additional $24 billion the Biden administration hadn’t asked for.
So, as 2021 concludes, thanks a million for… well, not much, in all honesty.
Still, let’s hope against hope that, in 2022, we humans can figure out how to refocus on what matters and on the world we genuinely care to create for our children and grandchildren. It may seem unlikely after 12 months like this, but impossible it’s not and that’s a new year’s wish worth having as 2021 finally comes to an end.
Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.
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