Tom Engelhardt

Will climate change ever become the crucial issue in American elections?

Believe me, it’s strange to be an old man and feel like you’re living on a new planet. On November 7th, the day before the midterm elections, I took my usual afternoon walk in New York City and I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt! That was a first for me. And no wonder, since it was 76 degrees out — beautiful, but eerie. After all, that’s just not November weather.

By then, in fact, a distinctly unseasonal heat wave that, the previous week, had hit the country from the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast was spreading across the Eastern U.S. from Tallahassee, Florida (a record-tying 88 degrees) to Burlington, Vermont (a record 76 degrees). Temperatures ranged from 15 to 25 degrees above normal. And yet, in a sense, this was nothing new. The worst megadrought in 1,200 years has held the West and Southwest in its grip for what seems like eons now and has evidently been moving toward the middle of the country (with the Mississippi River becoming an increasingly dried-up mud puddle).

Meanwhile, Nicole, a rare November hurricane that formed in the Caribbean, would, sadly enough, spare Mar-a-Lago. However, a distraught Donald Trump, riding it out there (despite state evacuation orders), would react angrily to the political hurricane that clobbered Florida on November 8th when Ron DeSantis swept to a resounding victory amid chants of “two more years!” Meanwhile, thanks in part to already rising sea levels, Nicole would further erode Florida’s coastline in a telling fashion.

I know, I know, the real story last week was the changing political weather in this country: the angry Donald, Ron De-Sanctimonious, the Red Wave that proved barely a trickle; the surprising importance of abortion to the election campaign; the losses of so many Trumpian election deniers; those endless vote counts that left the Senate miraculously still in the hands of the Democrats and the House barely in those of… well, god knows who the Republicans really are anymore — all of it grabbed our attention big time and, given what’s at stake, why shouldn’t it have?

In a way, Nicole was nothing compared to the tropical storm of political news that swamped us during an election season in which so many Trumpists, including “Doc” Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, suffered losses that shocked the former president. They also left some Republicans lambasting him for the first time — Liz Cheney aside — in years, even as he announced his next presidential run.

How our political world does change every now and then (even if only sort of) to the surprise of pollsters and political commentators alike. I mean who, in recent years, would have dared predict that, in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, the Murdoch-owned tabloid, the New York Post, would mock Donald Trump on its front page? It featured him as an egg-shaped “Trumpty Dumpty” teetering at the edge of a wall with the headline “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall — can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?”

And yet, sadly enough, you could also say that, for all the hoopla, in certain ways our political system doesn’t change. At least, not faintly fast enough. In case you hadn’t noticed, for example, there was one issue that couldn’t loom more ominously in this all-American world of ours, that couldn’t be more crucial to our future lives, and that was missing in action during this election season. I’m thinking, of course, about climate change, the ominous overheating of this planet thanks to the greenhouse gasses that continue to spew into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. This very year, it looks as if fossil-fuel emissions will once again rise to record levels. By the end of 2022, an estimated 36.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (or more) will have headed for that atmosphere on a planet already feeling the heat, literally and figuratively, in a historic (or, under the circumstances, perhaps I mean a-historic) way.

Missing in Action in Election 2022

Honestly, how strange this election truly was, don’t you think? And not simply because of Donald Trump and the election-denying candidates he backed. When I consider this planet, the only one we humans have (at least as yet), I find it all too unnerving that climate change didn’t make it into the midterms in any significant, or even discernible, fashion.

I’m talking about the very planet on which the heat is increasing in an ever more striking way. Ice is melting from alpine heights to polar glaciers; rising sea levels are imperiling ever more coastal areas; previously unimaginable kinds of flooding are occurring from Pakistan to Nigeria; and record droughts have settled in across much of the northern hemisphere, while famine — actual starvation — is becoming a part of life in an increasingly parched horn of Africa. Meanwhile, more people are probably being driven from their homes and lives, not just by us humans but by nature itself, and are on the move than at any recent moment in our history.

Worse yet, we know enough — or perhaps I mean should know enough — to realize that life as we once experienced it (note the past tense!) is heading for the history books. In the worst sense imaginable, whether we care to notice or not, we all now find ourselves on a new planet. The scientists who follow this closely have been informing us of just that for years now, as has António Guterres, the head of the United Nations. Here’s the news in a nutshell: it’s only going to get precipitously (as in going off the edge of a cliff) worse, especially if humanity doesn’t take collective action in the coming years to bring the burning of fossil fuels under far greater control, while increasing the use of renewable energy sources significantly.

And all of that should help explain why, when it comes to those midterm elections, I’m left with a giant question mark that has nothing to do with Donald Trump. Given how obvious and ominous our global situation already is, why did climate change not grip American voters the way abortion did? (After all, there was a Supreme Court ruling against the Environmental Protection Agency regulating the release of greenhouse gasses, just as there was one against Roe v. Wade.)

Why was the possibility of our planet becoming ever less livable not at the top of the list of issues in the 2022 midterms? Why weren’t politicians spending their time discussing the subject? Why wasn’t it part of every stump speech, at least for the candidates who weren’t Trumpublicans?

It should be the issue of the moment, the week, the month, the year, the decade, the century, shouldn’t it? Admittedly, post-election, Nancy Pelosi did take out after Trump and crew on the issue of climate-change denial, as well she should have, but that was a rare moment indeed. And, to give him credit, Joe Biden has worked hard to pass significant climate legislation (even if, thanks in part to the war in Ukraine, his administration has also allowed fossil-fuel extraction to ramp up).

You want an election “issue”? Honestly, when you think about how an ever more overheated planet is going to affect our children and grandchildren, shouldn’t global warming have been right at the top of any list? And why wasn’t its absence considered the mystery of our times, perhaps of all times?

One much-commented-upon surprise of the midterm election season was the turnout of Generation Z voters in a non-presidential year and how significantly their votes skewed Democratic. And yes, we know from polling that Gen-Z voters did indeed have climate change on their minds in a way their elders evidently didn’t. We know that, for them, it was right up there with (or just behind) abortion, protecting democracy, and inflation. And that’s not nothing.

In fact, as Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment website, “According to a recent Blue Shield poll, some 75% of youth in America report that they have had panic attacks, depression, anxiety, stress, and/or feelings of being overwhelmed when considering the issue of climate change. Globally, many of these young people are even afraid to bring children into the world that is being produced by our high-carbon styles of life.”

Personally, I’m with them when it comes to anxiety. When I think about the world my children and grandchildren are now likely to inherit, it leaves me distinctly depressed, stressed, and — yes — overwhelmed. And when I think that, in 2022, global warming wasn’t a significant issue, not even for Trumpublicans to attack, those feelings only multiply.

Left in the Dust of History

I mean, forget the melting Alps in Switzerland or the melting glaciers in the Himalayas; forget the missing water supplies in parched, overheated Jordan, or the spring temperatures that soared to 120 degrees and above in India and Pakistan; ignore the 500-year record drought that engulfed Europe, drying up the Rhine and other rivers, and the soaring temperatures that, last summer, turned even China’s mighty Yangtze River into a giant mudflat; ignore the record melt of Greenland’s ice sheet this September or the coming total disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic (with an accompanying rise in global sea levels), and just think about a few basics in our own country, which has reportedly warmed 68% faster than the planet as a whole over the last half century. Approximately four decades ago, extreme weather disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage occurred in the United States on average once every four months. Now, it’s once every three weeks. Doesn’t that tell you something?

And what, I wonder, will it be like four decades from now when the Gen-Zers are at least somewhat closer to my age? Meanwhile, that western mega-drought continues, wildfires grow increasingly severe, coastal areas are battered ever more fiercely by storms that, crossing overheated waters, only grow ever stronger, seasons become hotter, and… but let me just stop there.

I mean, you get the idea, right? And count on one thing: someday, perhaps even in 2024, America’s elections are finally going to heat up, too — and I’m not just thinking about Humpty Trumpty or Ron DeSantis. Count on this, too: climate change on its present course ever upwards is going to become the true inflation of the future, as well as an issue, possibly the issue, in any election season. Republican weaponizing of it will end and how politicians respond to it will matter in their vote count (assuming, of course, that some version of American democracy is still in place in that perilous future of ours).

If you once rejected the very idea of climate change — yes, you Donald Trump and you Ron DeSantis! — you’ll be an object of bitter mockery and ridicule. If you supported billionaires who, flying on their own private jets, put striking amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, you’ll pay for it politically. If you urge that more coal, oil, or natural gas be produced, you won’t have a chance in any election season.

Whether we truly know it or not, whether we accept it or not, whether we paid the slightest attention to COP27, the recent U.N. climate meeting in Egypt, or not, trust me on one thing: the perilous heating of this planet is the topic that will, sooner or later, leave all others in the dust. New cold wars and hot wars will make no sense whatsoever in such a future. After all, we’re now on a tipping-point planet. Or rather, let me put it this way: either attention to climate change will leave all else in the dust or climate change itself will leave us all in the dust, and how truly sad that would be!

Climate change and nuclear weapons: A race toward humanity's chemical obituary

Oddly enough, I’ve read obituaries with fascination from the time I was quite young. And yet, in all these years, I’ve never really reflected on that fact. I don’t know whether it was out of some indirect fascination with death and the end of it all or curiosity about the wholeness (or half-ness or brokenness) of an individual life in full. But here’s the odd thing: in all that time — put it down to the charm of youth or, later, perhaps a lingering sense of youthfulness or, at least, agelessness — I never really thought about my own obituary. Like so many of us when younger, I simply couldn’t imagine my own death. Against all reason, it seemed strangely inconceivable.

Now, at 78, I find that obituaries are again on my mind — and not just because people I knew are being featured in them all too often these days or for that other all-too-obvious reason, which I hardly need to spell out here. As a matter of fact, if you put my last name or yours into a search engine, you may be surprised at how many obituaries come up. It turns out, in fact, that Engelhardts have been dying for centuries now.

After all, the one obituary you can’t really have is your own; at least, not unless you decide to write it yourself or you’re so well known that a newspaper obit writer interviews you as one of the “pre-dead” while you’re still kicking. Of course, for the best known among us, such pieces, as at the New York Times, are prepared and written well in advance because the one thing we do know, whether we think about it or not, accept it or not, is that we all will indeed die.

Nuclear Winter or a Climate-Change-Induced Nuclear Summer?

Let’s not be shy. If there’s one word that comes to mind (mine anyway) at the moment, it’s madness. And no, believe it or not, I’m not even thinking about Donald Trump or the crazed crew of election deniers, QAnon conspiracy believers, and white nationalists who have become the essence of the Republican Party and may sweep to victory, at least in the House of Representatives, only days from now. And no, neither am I thinking about the Trumpist-leaning Supreme Court that might single-handedly (or perhaps hand in hand with all too many voters on November 8th) send us even further down the road to autocracy or at least to an eternally Republican-controlled mania-ocracy.

From the time we left our Neanderthal cousins in the dust, the story of humanity is tens of thousands of years old; and our history — you know, since we first began herding other creatures, raising crops, and arming ourselves to the teeth — is thousands of years old. In all those eons, we discovered so many things, both uplifting and down-thrusting. But perhaps, looking back (if, given our present circumstances, anyone’s even bothering), the most remarkable thing may be that we discovered — once quite purposely and once without at first even noticing that we’d done so — two different ways to do ourselves in. And, believe me, I’m using that word advisedly, given the Elizabethan moment that passed only recently, leaving so many of us watching a “news” spectacle that was her obituary and nothing else but that for what seemed like ever and a day. Now, of course, the former British queen is gone not just from our world but from that news cycle, too. Not a trace of her remains. Nothing, it seems, lasts long these days, Donald Trump aside. And if things continue to go ever wronger on this planet of ours — and I wouldn’t Truss (joke, joke) that they won’t — it’s possible that she could indeed prove to be the last queen.

As I’m sure you already know, those two discoveries I’m thinking about are nuclear weapons and climate change. Each of them should be on all our minds right now for reasons almost too obvious to enumerate. Our own president recently chatted privately with Democratic Party donors about the possibility that we might indeed face “Armageddon” (his word, not mine) for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. That would be thanks to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Russian president’s threat (“this is not a bluff“) to use nuclear weapons for, as he himself pointed out, the first time since the United States ended World War II by obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a sense, however, whether Putin ever uses those “tactical” nuclear weapons or not, he has, in his own uniquely deplorable fashion, already nuked this planet. His decision to invade Ukraine and, after an eight-month disaster (including the especially dangerous occupation of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant), only increase the level of destruction, while evidently looking for no off-ramp whatsoever, has sent energy politics in the worst possible direction. Some desperate European countries have already turned back to coal power; militaries are burning ever more fossil fuels; gas prices have been soaring globally; and what modest attention was focused on the broiling of this planet and the very idea of the major powers cooperating to do anything about it now seems like a fantasy from some past universe.

It evidently doesn’t matter that a combination of fearsome monsoons and growing glacial melt flooded one-third of Pakistan in an unparalleled fashion; that record heat and drought was last summer’s reality across much of the northern hemisphere; that Hurricane Ian only recently leveled parts of Florida in what should have been, but given where we’re heading, won’t be a once-in-500-year fashion; that a mainstream website like Politico can now refer to our country as “the United States of Megadrought“; or that rivers from the Yangtze to the Mississippi are drying up in a historic manner. Worse yet, that’s just to start down a far longer list of climate horrors. And I almost forgot to mention that the giant fossil-fuel companies continue to live on another planet from the rest of us. Call it profit heaven.

Returning to the subject of obituaries, you could, of course, have written a group one for the approximately one billion sea creatures that died last summer, thanks to a record heat wave on Canada’s Pacific coast, or another based on the recent report that, since 1970, the population of fresh-water species on this planet has fallen by a startling 83%. In fact, if you’re in an obituary-writing mood and thinking of the pre-dead, don’t forget the emperor penguin. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that classic creature is threatened with extinction by the end of this century thanks to the increasing loss of the sea ice it needs to exist on a fast-warming planet.

So, give the Vlad full credit. His invasion of Ukraine refocused the attention of the world on that other way we’ve come up with to do ourselves in: those nuclear weapons. In short, he’s helped take our minds off climate change at the worst possible moment (so far), even as his war only increases the level of greenhouse gases heading into the atmosphere. Well done, Mr. President!

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, according to a recent United Nations report, of the 193 nations which, in 2021, agreed to step up their efforts to fight climate change, only 26 have followed through so far (and even some of those in an anything but impressive fashion). In other words, our future — should we ever get there — will be blistering. The Earth is now on track to warm not by the 1.5 degrees Celsius the 2015 Paris climate accord made its ultimate temperature, but a potentially broiling 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by century’s end.

Even before the Ukraine war began, the powers that be were paying all too little attention to how we could do ourselves (and so many other species) in by overheating the planet. Worse yet, the major powers of the old Cold War were already “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals — in the case of the United States, to the tune of more than a trillion dollars over the coming decades. That will include a mere $100 billion to create a “next generation” intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the LGM-35A Sentinel, undoubtedly because it’s meant to stand guard over hell on earth. Meanwhile, the rising power on the planet, China, is rushing to catch up. And now, with a war underway in Europe, “dirty bombs” and far worse are seemingly back on the playing fields of history.

Here, I suspect, is the strangest thing of all. We now know that we’re quite capable of doing something humanity once left to the gods — creating a genuinely apocalyptic future on this planet. With our weaponry, we already have the ability to induce a “nuclear winter” (in which up to five billion of us could starve to death) or, with greenhouse gases, to fry this planet in a long-term way via, to coin a new phrase, a climate-change-induced nuclear summer.

And that — don’t you think? — should already have been game-changing information.

And yet, despite the Greta Thunbergs of this world when it comes to climate change, these days, there are no significant equivalents to her or, say, 350.org or the Sunrise Movement when it comes to nukes. Worse yet, despite the growing green movement, the fact that we’re already in the process of making Earth an increasingly unlivable place seems not to have fazed so many of those in a position to run things, whether nationally or corporately. And that should stun us all.

An Ultimate Obit?

Give humanity credit. When it comes to our urge to destroy, we seem to see no limits, not even those of our own existence. I mean, if you really had the desire to write a communal obituary for us, one logical place to start might indeed be with the invasion of Ukraine at a time when the planet was already beginning to broil. Honestly, doesn’t it make you want to start writing obituaries not just for our individual selves, but for all of the pre-dead on a planet where the very idea of mass killings could, in our future, gain a new meaning?

And in that context, if you want to measure the madness of the moment, just imagine this: It’s quite possible that a political party largely taken over by that supreme narcissist, Donald Trump, the Me-Man of history, could win one or both houses of Congress in this country’s coming midterm elections and even the presidency again in 2024. Given that the U.S. is one of the planet’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters, that would, of course, help ensure a fossil-fuelized future hell. The Donald — like his authoritarian cohorts elsewhere — could be the ultimate god when it comes to our future destruction, not to speak of the future of so many other beings on this planet. Think of him and his crew as potentially the all-too-literal ultimate in (un)civilization.

After all these thousands of years — a long, long time for us but not for planet Earth — the question is: Should we aging types begin thinking not just about our own obituaries (“He was born on July 20, 1944, in New York City, on a planet engulfed in war….”) but humanity’s? (“Born in a cave with their Neanderthal and Denisovan cousins…”)

Everything, of course, ends, but it doesn’t have to end this way. Yes, my obituary is a given, but humanity’s should be so much less so. Whether that proves true or not is up to us. When it comes to all of this, the question is: Who will have the last word?

Burning books (or rather book companies): A publisher's retrospective

No one listened better than Studs. For those of you old enough to remember, that’s Studs Terkel, of course. The most notable thing about him in person, though, was this: the greatest interviewer of his moment, perhaps of any moment, never stopped talking, except, of course, when he was listening to produce one of his memorable bestselling oral histories — he essentially created the form — ranging from Working and Hard Times to The Good War.

I still remember him calling my house. He was old, his hearing was going, and he couldn’t tell that my teenage son had rushed to answer the phone, hoping it was one of his friends. Instead, finding himself on with Studs talking a mile a minute, my son would begin yelling desperately, “Dad! Dad!”

With that — and a recent publishing disaster — in mind this morning, I took my little stepladder to the back of my tiny study, put it in front of my bookcase and climbed up until I could reach the second to the top shelf, the one that still has Studs’s old volumes lined up on it. Among others, I pulled down one of his later oral histories, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. In its acknowledgments, I found this: “Were it not for Tom Engelhardt, the nonpareil of editors, who was uncanny in cutting the fat from the lean (something I found impossible to do) and who gave this work much of its form, I’d still be in the woods.”

And that still makes me so proud. But let me rush to add that, in the years of his best-known work when I was at Pantheon Books (1976 to 1990), I was never his main editor. That honor was left to the remarkable André Schiffrin who started Studs, like so many other memorable authors, on his book career; ran that publishing house in his own unique way; found me in another life; and turned me into the editor he sensed I already naturally was.

For me, those were remarkable years. Even then, André was a genuinely rare figure in mainstream publishing — a man who wanted the world to change, a progressive who couldn’t have been a more adventurous publisher. In fact, I first met him in the midst of the Vietnam War, at a time when I was still an Asian-scholar-to-be and involved in organizing a group, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, that had produced an antiwar book, The Indochina Story, that André had decided to publish.

In my years at Pantheon, he transformed me into a book editor and gave me the leeway to find works I thought might, in some modest fashion, help alter our world (or rather the way we thought about it) for the better. Those included, among others, the rediscovery of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s early-twentieth-century utopian masterpiece Herland; the publishing of Unforgettable Fire, Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors (not long before, in the early 1980s, an antinuclear movement in need of it would arise in this country); Nathan Huggins’s monumental Black Odyssey; Eduardo Galeano’s unique three-volume Memory of Fire history of the Americas; Eva Figes’s novel Light; John Berger’s Another Way of Telling; Orville Schell’s “Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!”: China Encounters the West; and even — my mother was a cartoonist — the Beginner’s comic book series, including Freud for Beginners, Marx for Beginners, Darwin for Beginners, and, of course, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, to mention just a modest number of works I was responsible for ushering into existence here in America.

The Second Time Around

What a chance, in my own fashion and however modestly, to lend a hand in changing and improving our world. And then, in a flash, in 1990 it all came to an end. In those years, publishing was already in the process (still ongoing) of conglomerating into ever fewer monster operations. Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast and no fan of progressive publishing, had by that time taken over Random House, the larger operation in which Pantheon was lodged and he would, in the end, get rid of André essentially because of his politics and the kind of books we published.

We editors and most of the rest of the staff quit in protest, claiming we had been “Newhoused.” (Writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Kurt Vonnegut would join us in that protest.) The next thing I knew, I was out on the street, both literally and figuratively, and my life as a scrambling freelancer began. Yes, Pantheon still existed in name, but not the place I had known and loved. It was a bitter moment indeed, both personally and politically, watching as something so meaningful, not just to me but to so many readers, was obliterated in that fashion. It seemed like a publishing version of capitalism run amok.

And then, luck struck a second time. A few years later, one of my co-editors and friends at Pantheon, Sara Bershtel, launched a new publishing house, Metropolitan Books, at Henry Holt Publishers. It seemed like a miracle to me then. Suddenly, I found myself back in the heartland of mainstream publishing, a “consulting editor” left to do my damnedest, thanks to Sara (herself an inspired and inspiring editor). I was, so to speak, back in business.

And as at Pantheon, it would prove an unforgettable experience. I mean, honestly, where else in mainstream publishing would Steve Fraser and I have been able to spend years producing a line-up of books in a series we called, graphically enough, The American Empire Project? (Hey, it even has a Wikipedia entry!) In that same period, Sara would publish memorable book after memorable book like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Thomas Frank’s What‘s the Matter with Kansas?, some of which made it onto bestseller lists, while I was putting out volumes by authors whose names will be familiar indeed to the readers of TomDispatch, including Andrew Bacevich, James Carroll, Noam Chomsky, Michael Klare, Chalmers Johnson, Alfred McCoy, Jonathan Schell, and Nick Turse. And it felt comforting somehow to be back in a situation where I could at least ensure that books I thought might make some modest (or even immodest) difference in an ever more disturbed and disturbing America would see the light of day.

I’ve written elsewhere about the strange moment when, for instance, I first decided that I had to publish what became Chalmers Johnson’s remarkable, deeply insightful, and influential book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire on the future nightmares my country was then seeding into the rest of the planet. Think, for instance, of Osama bin Laden who, Johnson assured his readers well before 9/11 happened, we had hardly heard the last of. (Not surprisingly, only after 9/11 did that book become a bestseller!) Or consider Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which I published in 2003. So many years later, its very title still sums up remarkably well the dilemma we face on a planet where what’s on the mind of top foreign policy officials in Washington these days is — god save us! — a new cold war with China. We’re talking, in other words, about a place where the two major greenhouse gas emitters on Planet Earth can’t agree on a thing or work together in any way.

The Second Time Around (Part 2)

But let me not linger on ancient history when, just the other day, it happened again. And by it I mean a new version of what happened to me at Pantheon Books. It’s true that because, in my later years, TomDispatch has become my life’s work, I hadn’t done anything for Metropolitan for a while (other, of course, than read with deep fascination the books Sara published). Still, just two weeks ago I was shocked to hear that, like Pantheon, Metropolitan, a similarly progressive publishing house in the mainstream world, was consigned to the waves; its staff laid off; and the house itself left in the publishing version of hell.

Initially, that act of Holt’s, the consigning of Metropolitan to nowhere land, was reported by the trade publication Publisher’s Weekly, but count on one thing: more is sure to come as that house’s authors learn the news and respond.

After all, like Pantheon, at the moment of its demise, it was a lively, deeply progressive operation, churning out powerful new titles — until, that is, it was essentially shut down when Sara, a miraculous publisher like André, was shown the door along with her staff. Bam! What did it matter that, thanks to her, Metropolitan still occupied a space filled by no other house in mainstream publishing? Nothing obviously, not to Holt, or assumedly Macmillan, the giant American publishing conglomerate of which it was a part, or the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group that owns Macmillan.

How strange that we’re in a world where two such publishing houses, among the best and most politically challenging around, could find that there simply was no place for them as progressive publishers in the mainstream. André, who died in 2013, responded by launching an independent publishing house, The New Press, an admirable undertaking. In terms of the Dispatch Books I still put out from time to time, I find myself in a similar world, dealing with another adventurous independent publishing outfit, Haymarket Books.

Still, what an eerie mainstream we now inhabit, don’t we?

I mean, when it comes to what capitalism is doing on this planet of ours, book publishing is distinctly small (even if increasingly mashed) potatoes. After all, we’re talking about a world where giant fossil-fuel companies with still-soaring profits are all too willing to gaslight the public while quite literally burning the place up — or perhaps I mean flooding the place out. (Don’t you wonder sometimes what the CEOs of such companies are going to tell their grandchildren?)

So the consignment of Metropolitan Books to the trash heap of history is, you might say, a small matter indeed. Still, it’s painful to see what is and isn’t valued in this society of ours (and by whom). It’s painful to see who has the ability to cancel out so much else that should truly matter.

And believe me, just speaking personally, twice is twice too much. Imagine two publishing houses that let me essentially find, edit, and publish what I most cared about, what I thought was most needed, books at least some of which might otherwise never have made it into our world. (The proposal for MAUS, for instance, had been rejected by more or less every house in town before it even made it into my hands.)

Yes, two progressive publishing houses are a small thing indeed on this increasingly unnerving planet of ours. Still, think of this as the modern capitalist version of burning books, though as with those fossil-fuel companies, it is, in reality, more like burning the future. Think of us as increasingly damaged goods on an increasingly damaged planet.

In another world, these might be considered truly terrible acts. In ours, they simply happen, it seems, without much comment or commentary even though silence is ultimately the opposite of what any decent book or book publisher stands for.

You know, it suddenly occurs to me. Somebody should write a book about all this, don’t you think?

How the American Dream became the American Scream

Living in a Sci-fi World: How the American Dream Became the American Scream

Honestly, if you had described this America to me more than half a century ago, I would have laughed in your face.

Donald Trump becoming president? You must be kidding!

If you want a bizarre image, just imagine him in the company of Abraham Lincoln. I mean, really, what’s happened to us?

Not, of course, that we haven’t had bizarre politicians in Washington before. I still remember watching the mad, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy on our new black-and-white television set in April 1953. He was a brute and looked it (though, to my nine-year-old mind, he also seemed like every belligerent dad I knew). Still, whatever he was, he wasn’t president of the United States. At the time, that was former World War II military commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.

And whatever McCarthy might have been, he wasn’t a sign of American (or planetary) decline. The Donald? Well, he’s something else again. In some ways, he could be considered the strangest marker of decline in our history. After all, when he entered the Oval Office, he took over a country whose leaders had long considered it the greatest, most powerful, most influential nation ever.

Think of him, if you will, as the weirdest seer of our times. To put him in the context of the science fiction I was reading in the previous century, he might be considered a genuine Philip K. Dick(head).

As I wrote in April 2016 in the midst of Trump’s initial run for the presidency, he was exceptional among our political class and not for any of the obvious reasons either. No, what caught my attention was that slogan of his, the one he had trademarked in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012: Make America Great Again, or MAGA. The key word in it, I realized then, was that again. As I noted at the time, he was unique in a presidential race not just as a bizarre former TV personality or even a successful multiple bankruptee, but as “the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline.” In his own way, he had his eye — and what an eye it was! — on a reality no other politician in Washington even dared consider, not when it came to the “sole superpower” of planet Earth. He was, after all, insisting then that this country was no longer great.

Trump proved to be a one-of-a-kind candidate (not that he wouldn’t have been without that MAGA slogan). And as we now know, his message, which rang so few bells among the political class in Washington, rang all too many in the (white) American heartland. In other words, Donald Trump became the prexy of decline and what a decline it would be! According to one recent survey, half of all Americans, in this increasingly over-armed country of ours, have come to believe that an actual civil war is on the way in the near future.

Think of the miracle — if you don’t mind my using such a word in this context — of Donald Trump’s presidency this way: in some sense, he managed to turn not just Republicans but all of us into his apprentices. And those years of our apprenticeship occurred not just in an increasingly crazed and violent America, but on an ever stranger, more disturbed planet.

Yes, once upon a time I read sci-fi novels in a way I no longer do and felt then that I was glimpsing possible futures, however weird. But believe me, what’s happening today wouldn’t have passed as halfway believable fiction in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

So, let me say it again: honestly, Donald Trump?

Our Liz

Having lived through the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s (often enough in the streets) and the madness of the American war of destruction in Vietnam, it’s strange to spend my waning years in a country where the main protest movement, the Trumpist one, represents a nightmare of potential destruction right here at home. And by “right,” of course, I mean wrong beyond belief. It’s led, after all, by a superduper narcissist who wouldn’t qualify as a fascist only because he prefers fans to followers, apprentices to jackbooted thugs. As the events of January 6, 2021, showed, however, he wouldn’t reject them either. In an earlier moment, in fact, he urged such thugs to “stand back and stand by.”

You know that you’re in a world from hell when the heroine of this moment is the politically faithful daughter of a former vice president who, along with President George W. Bush, used the 9/11 attacks to usher us into wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as into the expansive Global War on Terror — who, that is, remains an unindicted war criminal first class. Keep in mind as well that, before she became our Liz, she voted against impeaching President Trump in 2019 and voted for his programs (if you can faintly call them that) a mere 93% of the time.

And mind you, all of this is just scratching the surface of our world from hell.

Not even in my worst nightmares of half a century ago was this the American world I imagined. Not for a day, not for an hour, not for a second did I, for instance, dream of American school guards armed with assault rifles. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I was born, of course, into an America on the rise in which you could still imagine — it seems ridiculous to use the word today — progress toward a genuinely better world of some sort. That world is evidently now something for the history books.

Think of Donald Trump as an all-too-literal sign of the times at a moment when about 70% of Republicans consider the last election to have been stolen and Joe Biden an illegitimate president. Perhaps 40% of them also believe that violence against the government can sometimes be justified. This in a country that had long fancied itself as the greatest of all time.

And if you really want a little sci-fi madness that would, in the 1960s, have blown my mind (as we liked to say then), consider climate change. As we argue like mad about the last election, while Trumpists pursue local secretary-of-state positions (not to speak of governorships) that could give them control over future election counts, as Americans arm themselves to the teeth and democracy seems up for grabs, let’s not forget about the true nightmare of this moment: the desperate warming of this planet.

Yes, “our” Earth is burning in an all-too-literal way — and flooding, too, with “superstorms” in our future. And don’t forget that it’s melting as well at a rate far more extreme than anyone imagined once upon a time. Recent research on the Arctic suggests that instead of warming, as previously believed, at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, it’s now heating four times as fast. In some areas, in fact, make that seven times as fast! So, in the future, see ya Miami, New York, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, and other coastal metropolises as sea levels rise ever faster.

Kissing the Planet Goodbye?

Honestly, you’d hardly know it in parts of this country and among Republicans (even if that party’s key figures were, once upon a time, environmentalists), but this planet is literally going down — or maybe, in temperature terms, I mean up — in flames.

Greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and certain heads of state, like Donald Trump in his White House days, remain remarkably dedicated to emitting yet more of them. The Mexican president is one example, the Russian president another. And you no longer have to turn to science fiction to imagine the results. An unnerving sci-fi-style future is becoming the grim present right before our eyes. This summer, for instance, Europe has seen unparalleled heat and drought, with both Germany’s Rhine River and Italy’s Po River drying up in disastrous fashion. And just to add to the mix, parts of that continent have also seen storms of a startling magnitude and staggering flooding.

Meanwhile, China has been experiencing a devastating more-than-two-month-long set of heat waves with record temperatures and significant drought, all of which has proved disastrous for its crops, economy, and people. And oh yes, like the Rhine and Po, the Yangtze, the world’s third-largest river, is drying up fast, while the heat wave there shows little sign of ending before mid-September. Meanwhile, the American southwest and west continue to experience a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen on this continent in at least 1,200 years. Like the Rhine, Po, and Yangtze, the Colorado River is losing water in a potentially disastrous fashion, while the season for heat waves in the United States is now 45 days longer than in the 1960s. And that’s only to begin recording planetary weather catastrophes. After all, I haven’t even mentioned the ever-fiercer wildfires, or megafires, whether in Alaska, New Mexico, France, or elsewhere; nor have I focused on the increasingly powerful hurricanes and typhoons that have become part of everyday life (and destruction and death).

So, isn’t it a strange form of science fiction that, in response to such a world, such a crisis, one that could someday signal the end of civilization, the focus in this country is on Donald Trump and company? Don’t you find it odd that the two greatest greenhouse gas emitters and powers on the planet, the United States and China, have responded in ways that should appall us all?

Joe Biden and his top national-security officials have continually played up the dangers of the rise of China, put significant energy into developing military alliances against that country in the Indo-Pacific region, and functionally launched a new Cold War, more than 30 years after the old one went to its grave. In addition, Nancy Pelosi, a number of other congressional representatives, and even state ones have pointedly visited the island of Taiwan, purposely infuriating the Chinese leadership. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has ever more regularly sent its vessels through the Taiwan Strait and aircraft carrier task forces into the South China Sea.

For its part, China’s officialdom, while continuing to push the building of coal-fired power plants, has recently launched military demonstrations of an escalating sort against Taiwan, while preparing to join Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the second year in a row in “military exercises,” even as the war in Ukraine, a first-class carbon disaster, goes on and on and on. At the same time, furious about those Taiwan visits from Washington, China’s leaders have essentially cut off all relations with the U.S., including any further discussions about how to cooperate in dealing with climate change.

So, a second cold war amid a growing climate disaster? If you had put that into your sci-fi novel in 1969, it would undoubtedly have seemed too absurd a future to be publishable. You would have been laughed out of the room.

Admittedly, the history of humanity has largely been a tale of the triumph of the unreasonable. Still, you might think that, as a species, we would, at a minimum, not actively opt for the destruction of the very planet we live on. And yet, think again.

At least the Biden administration did recently get a bill through Congress (despite the opposition of every Trumpublican) that dealt with global warming in a reasonably significant way and the president may still invoke his executive powers to do more. It’s true as well that the Chinese have been working hard to create ever less expensive alternative energy sources. Still, none of this takes us far enough. Not on this planet. Not now.

And keep in mind that, were a desperate and disparate America to elect Donald Trump again in 2024 (by hook or crook), the country that historically has put more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than any other land, might be kissing the planet we’ve known goodbye.

Believe me, it’s strange to find myself remembering a long-gone world in which the major destruction was happening thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I mean, that was bad enough to get me into the streets then. Now, however, the destruction we’re significantly responsible for is happening right here, right where you and I both live, no matter where that might be.

What we’re watching is a tragedy of an unparalleled sort in the making for our children and grandchildren, which leaves me sad beyond words. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a sci-fi novel I’d rather not read and a sci-fi life I’d rather not be living.

The rise and fall of everything

I find nothing strange in Joe Biden, at 79 (going on 80), being the oldest president in our history and possibly planning to run again in 2024. After all, who wouldn’t want to end up in the record books? Were he to be nominated and then beat the also-aging Donald Trump, or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or even Fox News’s eternally popular Tucker Carlson, he would occupy the White House until he was 86.

Honestly, wouldn’t that be perfect in its own way? I mean, what could better fit an America in decline than a president in decline, the more radically so the better?

Okay, maybe, despite the Republican National Committee’s clip on the subject, when Joe Biden had to be guided to that red carpet in Israel, it wasn’t because he was an increasingly doddering old guy. Still…

I mean, I get it. I really do. After all, I just turned 78 myself, which leaves me only a year and four months behind Joe Biden in the aging sweepstakes. And believe me, when you reach anything close to our age, whatever White House spokespeople might say, decline becomes second nature to you. In fact, I’m right with Joe on that carpet whenever someone brings up a movie I saw or book I read years ago (or was it last month?) and I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I say to any of you of a certain age, Joe included: Welcome to the club!

It’s strange, if not eerie, to be living through the decline of my country — the once “sole superpower” on Planet Earth — in the very years of my own decline (even if Fox News isn’t picking on me). Given the things I’m now forgetting, there’s something spookily familiar about the decline-and-fall script in the history I do recall. As Joe and his top officials do their best to live life to the fullest by working to recreate a three-decades-gone Cold War, even as this country begins to come apart at the seams, all I can say is: welcome to an ever lousier version of the past (just in case you’re too young to have lived it).

Since the disappearance of the Neanderthals and the arrival of us, tell me that decline hasn’t been among the most basic stories in history. After all, every child knows that what goes up, must… I don’t even have to complete that sentence, do I, whatever your age? Thought of a certain way, decline and fall is the second oldest story around, after the rise and… whatever you want to call it.

Just ask the last emperors of China’s Han dynasty, or the once-upon-a-time rulers of Sparta, or Romulus Augustulus, the last head of the Roman Empire (thanks a lot, Nero!). But here, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, that ancient tale has a brand-new twist. After all that time when humanity, in its own bloody, brutal fashion, flourished, whether you want to talk about the loss of species, the destruction of the environment, or ever more horrific weather disasters arriving ever more quickly, it’s not just the United States (or me) going down… it’s everything. And don’t think that doesn’t include China, the supposedly rising power on Planet Earth. It also happens to be releasing far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country right now and suffering accordingly (even if the falling power of this moment, the United States, remains safely in first place as the worst carbon emitter of all time).

So, unless we humans can alter our behavior fast, it looks like only half our story may soon be left for the telling.

The Rise and Fall of Tom Engelhardt (and So Much Else)

To speak personally, I find myself experiencing three versions of that ultimate story: that of my own fall; that of my country; and that of an increasingly overheating planet as a habitable place for us all. With that in mind, let me take you on a brief trip through those three strangely intertwined tales, starting with me.

I was born in July 1944 into an America that had been roused from a grotesque depression, the “Great” one as it was known, and was then being transformed into a first-rate military and economic powerhouse by World War II. (My father was in that war as, in her own fashion, was my mother.) That global conflict, which mobilized the nation in every way, wouldn’t end until, more than a year later, two American B-29s dropped newly invented weapons of disastrous destructive power, atomic bombs, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more or less obliterating them. In those acts, for the first time in history, lay the promise of an ultimate end to the human story of a sort once left to the gods. In other words, V-J (or Victory over Japan) Day instantly had an underside that couldn’t have been more ominous.

I was born, then, into a newly minted imperial power already exhibiting an unparalleled global punch. Soon, it would face off in a planet-wide struggle, initially focused on the Eurasian continent, against another superpower-in-the making, the Soviet Union (and its newly communized Chinese ally). That would, of course, be the not-quite-world war (thanks to the threat of those nuclear weapons, multiplied and improved many times over) that we came to call the Cold War. In it, what was then known as the “free world” — although significant parts of it were anything but “free” and the U.S. often worked its wiles to make other parts ever less so — was set against the communized “slave” version of the same.

In the United States, despite fears of a nuclear conflict that left children like me “ducking and covering” under our school desks, Americans experienced the hottest economy imaginable. In the process, an ever wealthier society was transformed from a good one into — as President Lyndon Johnson dubbed it in 1964 — the Great Society. Despite “red scares” and the like, it was one that would indeed prove better for many Americans, including Blacks in the wake of a Civil Rights Movement that finally ended the Jim Crow system of segregation that had succeeded slavery.

In the process, the U.S. developed a global system around what was then called the “Iron Curtain,” the lands the Soviet Union controlled. It would be anchored by military bases on every continent but Antarctica and alliances of every sort from NATO in Europe to SEATO in Southeast Asia, as well as secretive CIA operations across much of the globe.

As for me, I, too, was still rising (though sometimes, as in the Vietnam years, in full-scale protest against what my country was doing in the world), first as a journalist, then as an editor in publishing. I even wrote a version of the history of my times in a book I called The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Little did I know then quite how disillusioning the world we were creating would turn out to be. Meanwhile, in the 1980s and ’90s, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, during what came to be known as the neoliberal moment, another kind of rise became more evident domestically. It was of a kind of corporate wealth and power, as well as a growing inequality, previously unknown in my lifetime.

In 1991, when I was 47 years old, the Cold War suddenly ended. In 1989, the Red Army had limped home from a decade-long disastrous war in Afghanistan (from which, of course, Washington would turn out to learn absolutely nothing) and the Soviet Union soon imploded. Miracle of miracles, after nearly half a century, the United States was left alone and seemingly victorious, “the sole superpower” on Planet Earth.

The former bipolar world order was no more and, in the phrase of conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, we were now in “the unipolar moment.” Uni because there was only one power that mattered left on this planet. Admittedly, Krauthammer didn’t expect that uni-ness to last long, but too many politicians in Washington felt differently. As it turned out, the top officials in the administrations of Bush the elder and then Bush the younger had every intention of turning that moment of unparalleled global triumph into a forever reality. What followed were wars, invasions, and conflicts of every sort meant to cement the global order, starting with President George H.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, which (sadly enough) came to be known as the first Gulf War.

Hence, too, the missing “peace dividend” that had been promised domestically as the Cold War ended. Hence, too, after “peace” arrived came the never-ending urge to pour yet more taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon, into a “defense” budget beyond compare, and into the weapons-making corporations of the military-industrial complex, no matter what the U.S. military was actually capable of accomplishing.

All of this was to be the global legacy of that sole superpower, as its leaders worked to ensure that this country would remain so until the end of time. A decade into that process, horrified by the response of Bush the younger and his top officials to the 9/11 attacks, I created TomDispatch, the website that would see me through my own years of decline.

Bankruptcy, Inc.

Keep in mind that, in those years of supposed triumph, the third decline-and-fall story was just beginning to gain momentum. We now know that climate change was first brought to the attention of an American president, Lyndon Johnson, by a science advisory committee in 1965. In 1977, Jimmy Carter, who two years later would put solar panels on the White House (only to have them removed in 1986 by Ronald Reagan), was warned by his chief science adviser of the possibility of “catastrophic climate change.” And yet, in all the years that followed, remarkably little was done by the sole superpower, though President Barack Obama did play a key role in negotiating the Paris Climate agreement (from which Donald Trump would dramatically withdraw this country).

In its own fashion, Trump’s victory in 2016 summed up the fate of the unipolar moment. His triumph represented a cry of pain and protest over a society that had gone from “great” to something far grimmer in the lifetime of so many Americans, one that would leave them as apprentices on what increasingly looked like a trip to hell.

That narcissistic billionaire, ultimate grifter, and dysfunctional human being somehow lived through bankruptcy after bankruptcy only to emerge at the top of the heap. He couldn’t have been a more appropriate symptom and symbol of troubled times, of decline — and anger over it. It wasn’t a coincidence, after all, that the candidate with the slogan Make America Great Again won that election. Unlike other politicians of that moment, he was willing to admit that, for so many Americans, this country had become anything but great.

Donald Trump would, of course, preside over both greater domestic inequality and further global decline. Worse yet, he would preside over a global power (no longer “sole” with the rise of China) that wasn’t declining on its own. By then, the planet was in descent as well. The American military would also continue to demonstrate that it was incapable of winning, that there would never again be the equivalent of V-J Day.

Meanwhile, the political elite was shattering in striking ways. One party, the Republicans, would be in almost total denial about the very nature of the world we now find ourselves in — a fate that, in ordinary times, might have proven bad news for them. In our moment, however, it only strengthened the possibility of a catastrophe for the rest of us, especially the youngest among us.

And yes, recently West Virginia coal magnate Joe Manchin finally came around (in return for a barrel full of favors for his major donors in the oil and gas industry), but the country that created the Manhattan Project that once produced those atomic bombs is now strangely unrecognizable, even to itself. During World War II, the government had poured massive sums of money into that effort, while mobilizing large numbers of top scientists to create the nuclear weapons that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, in fact, it still puts staggering sums and effort into “modernizing” the American nuclear arsenal.

When it comes to saving the world rather than destroying it, however, few in Washington could today even imagine creating a modern version of the Manhattan Project to figure out effective new ways of dealing with climate change. Better to launch a dreadful version of the now-ancient Cold War than deal with the true decline-and-fall situation this country, no less this civilization, faces.

Admittedly, though I recently stumbled across something I wrote in the 1990s that mentioned global warming, I only became strongly aware of the phenomenon in this century as my own decline began (almost unnoticed by me). Even when, at TomDispatch, I started writing fervently about climate change, I must admit that I didn’t initially imagine myself living through it in this fashion — as so many of us have in this globally overheated summer of 2022. Nor did I imagine that such devastating fires, floods, droughts, and storms would become “normal” in my own lifetime. Nor, I must admit, did I think then that the phenomenon might lead to a future all-too-literal end point for humanity, what some scientists are starting to term a “climate endgame” — in other words, a possible extinction event.

And yet here we are, in a democratic system under unbelievable stress, in a country with a gigantic military (backed by a corporate weapons-making complex of almost unimaginable size and power) that’s proven incapable of winning anything of significance, even if funded in a fashion that once might have been hard to imagine in actual wartime. In a sense, its only “success” might lie its remarkable ability to further fossil-fuelize the world. In other words, we now live in an America coming apart at the seams at a moment when the oldest story in human history might be changing, as we face the potential decline and fall of everything.

One thing is certain: as with all of us, when it comes to my personal story, there’s no turning around my own decline and fall. When it comes to our country and the world, however, the end of the story has yet to be written. The question is: Will we find some way to write it that won’t end in the fall not just of this imperial power but of humanity itself?

When will the pain of climate change become too great to ignore?

Extreme Life Or World War III (IV and V), Climate-Style

In recent weeks, a newly emboldened right-wing Supreme Court struck down a more than century-old New York law restricting the carrying of concealed weapons and a nearly 50-year-old precedent on abortion. Meanwhile, the January 6th Committee has been laying out in graphic televised detail how our last president tried to subvert the 2020 election. Inflation, of course, continues to run riot; gas prices have soared to record levels; the brutal war in Ukraine proceeds neverendingly; the Biden administration looks increasingly hapless; and the president himself ever older and less on target. In sum, our world seems to be in headline-making disorder, while our fate here in this country — thank you, (in)justices Alito and Thomas, not to speak of The Donald and crew! — remains remarkably up for grabs by the worst of us all.

There’s so much heat, in other words, that we seem endlessly in the fires of this political moment. It’s hardly surprising then if, talking about heat, by far the most significant story of our time, undoubtedly of all time, is barely on our radar screens. I mean, let’s get one thing straight, if you hadn’t quite noticed: you and I are already on a different planet. And no, I’m not thinking about being in a new cold war, or Donald Trump and the last presidential election, or Ron DeSantis and the next one, or even the latest round of the never-ending Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m talking about being on a planet already overheating not just politically or militarily, but in the most literal way possible. I’m talking about climate change, of course. And don’t think I’m just focused on the future overheating of this planet either. What I have in mind is this very palpable present. I’m talking about a country, the United States, that, with heat domes over significant parts of it recently, has been breaking seasonal heat records like mad. Phoenix (114), Tucson (111), El Paso (107), and Las Vegas (104) all set June heat records, as did Birmingham, Chicago, Little Rock, Jackson, Memphis, Shreveport, and Nashville. That’s just to start down an ever-lengthening, ever more broiling list, even as the Supreme Court just acted to ensure that ever more greenhouse gas emissions would continue to pour into our atmosphere.

Only recently, itself undoubtedly a first, the National Weather Service Prediction Center warned 100 million Americans — and that’s not a misprint — from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and east to the Carolinas that they should stay indoors due to a dangerous heat wave. And, lest you think I’m ignoring the Southwest and West, let me add that those regions are now in the third year of a megadrought unlike any in at least 1,200 years. Consider, for instance, the two record-setting mega-fires in New Mexico that just won’t stop burning two months later (with the main Western fire season still ahead). And don’t forget those record 500-year-floods in Yellowstone National Park similarly connected to this overheated season, sudden deluges of rain, and the melting of mountain snow.

And yes, I’m thinking about an Arctic that’s heating (and melting) seven times faster than the rest of the planet. I’m thinking about a China that’s grappling with record heat waves and devastating flooding. I’m thinking about a Japan experiencing its worst heat wave ever. I’m thinking about a spring heat wave in India that produced its warmest March since records were first kept there; broiled much of South Asia; and, according to scientists, is now 30 times more likely to recur than once would have been true. And don’t forget the extreme rainfall and record floods in that region either.

I’m also thinking about a scorched Horn of Africa that’s living (or dying) through a devastating drought. I’m thinking about a provincial capital in southeastern Iran where the temperature recently hit a record 126 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m thinking about heat waves in southern Europe that arrived historically early — in the case of Spain, record-breakingly so.

And that’s just to start down a longer list. And mind you, what I’ve been describing here is a nightmare of heat waves and other forms of extreme weather that’s just beginning and that, barring surprises, will only grow ever more severe in the decades to come. We’re talking about parts of this planet potentially becoming uninhabitable and undoubtedly turning hundreds of millions, possibly a billion or more of us into climate refugees on the road to… well, hell.

What If American Democracy Were History?

I’m also talking about a country where, in elections this November and in November two years from now, American voters could easily seal not just our own fate, but much of the world’s. We could ensure at least six more utterly fossil-fuelized years in which the globe’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter (and, historically, the greatest of all time) would be locked in a Trumpian embrace, similar to the one now enveloping the Supreme Court and all too many lower ones as well, thanks to the former president and Mitch McConnell. We could, in other words, guarantee that nothing — not a single thing — would be done nationally to offset the overheating of this ever more tormented planet of ours.

In addition, give the present version of the Republican Party control of Congress and the presidency and there would be other problems ahead. For one thing, consider it possible that, in a distinctly Triumpian fashion, its leadership would take a shot (and yes, it would probably be from an AR-15) at turning our former president’s mad theories about the American electoral system into a potentially autocratic reality. American democracy would, at that point, be history and then, bring on the heat!

Or rather, welcome to America, Vladimir Trump! (Or Vladimir DeSantis! Or you fill in the blank yourself!)

Hell on earth? That used to be nothing more than a phrase used for extreme situations, a first-class metaphor. Increasingly, though, it’s becoming an ever more accurate description of our lives on this planet and something we would have to get used to. Except that, for many of us in such a future, there would be no way to do so.

There’s no need to focus on present-day outliers like those 120-degree spring temperatures in India and Pakistan or that 126-degree day in Iran, since ever more extreme weather of so many kinds will simply be life on Earth. In fact, sooner or later, we’ll have to stop calling it extreme weather, wouldn’t we? Increasingly, it will just be the weather. Period.

And here’s perhaps the most unnerving thing of all: somehow, in this country, climate change has yet to become a significant part of the national debate or mainstream politics. It’s not a subject Democrats seem capable of running successfully on yet. And that couldn’t be stranger because, barring a nuclear war, it’s our very own apocalyptic future right before our eyes, written not in the stars, but in the very world we’re now living in. What could be more convincing? Except, for the fact that, explain it as you will, it isn’t.

Yes, it was briefly part of Joe Biden’s long-sunk Build Back Better bill (thank you, coal baron Joe Manchin!), but now it’s simply gone. Worse yet, ever since Biden hit the White House, his foreign policy team has been focused on promoting a new cold war with China. Its goal: rallying allies and others against a rising China and further militarizing the relationship between the planet’s two superpowers. I mean, you might think that the two greatest greenhouse-gas emitters of the present moment, China and the United States, would feel a natural urge to work together to change the energy structure of this planet. But no such luck. (In fact, when was the last time you even heard anything about John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special presidential envoy for climate change?)

And then, of course, add in the war in Ukraine (thanks a heap, Vlad!), which is only fossil-fuelizing this planet yet more and putting off significant movement toward green and clean energy to an unknown future. In fact, in the absence of Russian natural gas and oil, some desperate European countries are even considering turning back to coal, the worst of the carbon-emitting energy sources! It seems self-evident that an end should be brokered to that war immediately and not just for the suffering Ukrainians in an increasingly rubble-strewn land, or the miserable Russian soldiers fighting the Vlad’s war, but for the rest of us, for the planet itself.

The Greatest Disaster in Human History?

Excuse me a moment, but I’d like to scream!

Honestly, don’t expect climate change to be much of an issue, if any at all, in the November election. And the six conservative justices of the Supreme Court, not going anywhere soon, are already working hard to ensure that no future American government will be capable of taking significant action to mitigate the effects of global warming.

In short, I’m talking about a planet I didn’t even expect to be living on and one I certainly don’t want to hand on to my children and grandchildren. What in the world did they do to deserve this?

And it couldn’t be stranger that we just don’t get it. Yes, there are lots of scientists and a certain number of young people who have fully grasped the problem and are trying their best to rise to meet it. But this country as a whole (no less the world), not a chance in… yes, I might as well say it yet again… hell.

Otherwise, we would be mobilizing now to deal with global warming the same way President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized us for World War II. For the truth is that, if we don’t move so much faster than we are now, the climate, the weather, could indeed prove to be our World War III (and IV and V). If so, it will put the Russian president to shame. It will be, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s old phrase for World War II, a “slaughterhouse” of a new sort. And yet, logical as it might seem, such a mobilization doesn’t yet appear to be faintly in the cards and, worse still, if American politics follows its present course, it might not be in any imaginable future.

And yet, in the end, that simply can’t be, can it? At some level, it’s just so obvious and not very complicated either. We — and that means much of the planet, not just those of us here in the United States — need to mobilize not against each other for once, but against what’s clearly becoming the greatest disaster in human history.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Given our history, that’s saying something, isn’t it?

And yet the men — and they were men — I labeled terrarists years ago because they, and the giant oil companies they ran, seemed so utterly intent on devastating the planet (something I called “terracide”) for the most immediate profits and an all-too-high-flying life for themselves still seem to be in the saddle. Yes, in this century, Washington conducted a disastrous 20-year war against terrorism, but never, whether Republicans or Democrats were in office, against this planet’s true terrarists.

As I wrote about them almost a decade ago,

“Those who run the giant energy corporations knew perfectly well what was going on and could, of course, have read about it in the papers like the rest of us. And what did they do? They put their money into funding think tanks, politicians, foundations, and activists intent on emphasizing ‘doubts’ about the science [of climate change] (since it couldn’t actually be refuted); they and their allies energetically promoted what came to be known as climate denialism. Then they sent their agents and lobbyists and money into the political system to ensure that their plundering ways would not be interfered with. And in the meantime, they redoubled their efforts to get ever tougher and sometimes ‘dirtier’ energy out of the ground in ever tougher and dirtier ways.”

And, in truth, all too little has changed to date, as the giant energy companies in the Ukraine moment prosper, while the price of oil and natural gas only soars and the rest of us continue to swelter.

It’s not that there’s nothing to be done. The price of renewable energy has been falling steadily for years. Were governments to focus the sort of attention on changing our energy environment that now goes into wars, hot and cold, and the sort of money that now goes into the Pentagon and its global equivalents, don’t for a second doubt that we could move toward a genuinely renewable world.

We’ve been warned, again and again, by the leading scientists of this planet, that it’s not only getting bad but, unless humanity refocuses in a big-time way, that it’s only going to get so much worse. The question is: when will the pain of climate change become too great to ignore any longer and will it then be too late? I hope to hell not!

How the 21st century is the era of 'Blowback'

Blowback for the Twenty-First Century: Remembering Chalmers Johnson

Once upon a time, long, long ago — actually, it was early in the year 2000 — I was involved in publishing Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. It had been written by the eminent scholar of Asia, former CIA consultant, and cold warrior Chalmers Johnson. I was his editor at Metropolitan Books. In its introduction, using a word Americans were then (as now) all too uncomfortable with, he bluntly summed up his professional life by labeling himself “a spear-carrier for empire.” And he described the origins of his book’s title this way:

Officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented [the term blowback] for their own internal use… [It] refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.

Ominously enough, he added, “All around the world today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future forms of blowback.” On page 10, he brought up — and remember he was writing this as the previous century ended — the name of “a former protege of the United States,” one Osama bin Laden. In the 1980s, that rich young Saudi had been part of Washington’s secret war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, forming a group to battle the Russians that he called al-Qaeda (“the Base”) to battle the Red Army. By the time Chalmers wrote his book, the Russian war there was long over, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and bin Laden had turned against Washington. He was then believed responsible for the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On page 11, Chalmers added that such “retaliation” for American acts was “undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of bin Laden.”

He summed things up this way: “Because we live in an increasingly interconnected international system, we are all, in a sense, living in a blowback world.”

Sadly, that remains even truer today and, if Chalmers could return from the dead, I have no doubt that he would have much to say about how we now find ourselves on the ultimate blowback planet.

Blowback in a Sole-Superpower World

To use an all-too-appropriate word, given what he was writing about, his book bombed. Boy, did it! The reviewer at the New York Times dismissed it as “marred by an overriding, sweeping, and cranky one-sidedness.” And it sold next to no copies. It was dead in the water, until, 18 months later… yes, I’m sure you’ve already guessed what I’m about to write next… on September 11, 2001, those towers in New York City came down and the Pentagon was clobbered.

Suddenly, Blowback was on every bookstore bestseller table in America. As Chalmers would mention in his new introduction to the 2003 paperback, Metropolitan Books had to reprint it eight times in less than two months to keep up with demand.

In that volume, he had done something deeply unpopular at the time of publication (except among fringe groups on the left). He had called our country an empire — an imperial power intent on maintaining a staggering military presence globally in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and before the rise of China. A common term used in Washington at the time was the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. And he pointed out, ominously enough, that even without official enemies of any significance, thanks in part to its global imperial presence, Washington had “hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control.” He added tellingly that it “always demands more” and was “becoming an autonomous system.” In addition, the post-Vietnam, post-draft, “all-volunteer” military was, he pointed out, increasingly “an entirely mercenary force.” Worse yet, he saw the growth of American militarism at home as another form of blowback from this country’s overextension abroad. (Sound familiar in 2022?)

He warned that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the wake of the war in Afghanistan should have been a warning to Washington. Even more ominously, at a moment when this country’s foreign-policy establishment considered us the “indispensable nation” (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s phrase), he suggested that we were already experiencing “imperial overextension” and on the long downward slope that all empires experience sooner or later.

And keep in mind that all of this was written before 9/11; before President George W. Bush and crew launched devastatingly ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; before this country’s civilian population became — as the nightmare at Uvalde reminded us recently — armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry. It was long before Donald Trump and before the Republican Party was transformed into something unrecognizable. It was well before Congress became essentially incapable of passing anything of significance for most Americans, even as it was instantly capable of providing $54 billion in aid and arms for the Ukrainians and endless funds for the Pentagon.

President Blowback

Just last month, 22 years later, I reread Blowback. Chalmers is, of course, long gone. (He died in November 2010.) But with the news of these last years and what may be on the horizon in mind, I couldn’t help thinking about how he would have updated the book, were he still here.

As a start, I doubt he would have been particularly surprised by Donald Trump. In June 2005, reintroducing a piece he had done for TomDispatch in 2003 on the scourge of militarism, he was already writing: “The American governmental system is no longer working the way it is supposed to. Many distinguished observers think it is badly damaged in terms of Constitutional checks and balances and the structures put in place by the founders to prevent tyranny.”

And as I added in that same 2005 introduction, reflecting Chalmers:

In September 2003, only four months after [President George W. Bush’s] ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln, it was already evident to some of us that neocon dreams of establishing a robust Pax Americana on the planet were likely to be doomed in the sands of Iraq — but that, in the process, the American constitutional system as we’ve known it might well be destroyed.

Yes, the possibility of our system spinning downward toward some version of tyranny wouldn’t, I suspect, have surprised him. Of course, he didn’t predict Donald Trump. (Who did?) But if anyone could have imagined this country “governed” — and I put that in quotes for obvious reasons — by a billionaire grifter and TV impresario who thought not just unbearably well of, but only of himself, it was Chalmers. Had he been here in 2016, when that bizarre figure ran for president, as he’d been dreaming about doing since at least 2011, and won, I’d put my money on his not being even slightly taken aback. Nor, I suspect, would he have been surprised when the economic inequality that helped Trump to victory only grew ever more rampant in his years in office, while billionaires began to multiply like fleas on a rabid dog.

Honestly, if you think about it for a moment, it’s hard not to imagine The Donald’s success as another version of blowback. In fact, he’s almost inconceivable without the sort of imperial mess Chalmers had in mind and that this country did such a splendiferous job of encouraging with its disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and its never-ending war on terror. If it weren’t for the mess that our military machine made of the world in this century (and the money it gobbled up in the process), his rise would be hard to imagine. He now seems like the cause of so much, but honestly, as I wrote during the election campaign of 2016 referring to the disease then in the news: “Perhaps it would be better to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country.”

He certainly marked another key moment in what Chalmers would have thought of as the domestic version of imperial decline. In fact, looking back or, given his insistence that the 2020 election was “fake” or “rigged,” looking toward a country in ever-greater crisis, it seems to me that we could redub him Blowback Donald. (Of course, that “B” could also stand for Blowhard.) And given the present Republican Party, as well as the growing evidence that this country’s political system could be coming apart at the seams, it’s hard not to think that Chalmers was onto something big as the last century ended.

Of one thing I’m sure. He wouldn’t have been slightly shocked to discover that, these days, just about the only thing Congress can agree upon across party lines is the annual raising of the Pentagon budget to levels that now match the military budgets of the next 11 countries combined.

Twenty-First-Century Blowback

In the back of my mind, while rereading his book, I kept wondering how else Chalmers might have updated it in 2022. And what came to mind repeatedly was that potentially ultimate subject, climate change.

Now, Chalmers certainly had a sense of the environmental damage the American empire was already causing, but climate change was not yet on his mind. Recently, to my surprise, I came across a passing reference to it in something I wrote but never published in the 1990s and was surprised I even knew about it then. Still, in this century, as I became ever more aware of it and wrote and published ever more about it at TomDispatch, I came to believe that it would indeed be potentially devastating for humanity. For years, though, I didn’t quite grasp that it would be so in my own lifetime.

Back then, I imagined it as largely a phenomenon of the future, not something for which you could find evidence in the news daily (whether identified as such or not). Yes, at some point I realized, for instance, that South Asia might be more susceptible to climate extremes than many other areas. Still, I hadn’t expected that I would live to see springtime weather with temperatures in the range of 115 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or that such horrific and, without air conditioning, increasingly deathly warmth would be followed by devastating flooding. Or that such extremes would grow more common so quickly.

Nor, honestly, had I expected a wave of record July temperatures (and humidity) here in the northeast U.S. and across much of my own country this very May (it hit 95 degrees on a recent day in Philadelphia!). Nor did I imagine that the Southwest and West would be embroiled in a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen on this continent in at least 1,200 years, with devastating, often record-setting fires, blazing in New Mexico and elsewhere ever earlier in the year. Or the unprecedented severe drought and record flooding in parts of Brazil and Argentina. Or the staggering burning and flooding in Australia. Or the unparalleled floods in recent years in China, Germany, and other countries.

I hadn’t imagined that every spring I’d see more or less the same spring article predicting another terrible, if not record, Atlantic hurricane season. Or that I’d hear about a May hurricane of record strength hitting the Pacific coast of Mexico.

And of course, that’s just to start down what seems like an increasingly endless list. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned those three rare tornadoes in Germany or the record May heat wave in Spain, or… but why go on? You get the idea. In fact, you or people you know are undoubtedly living that very reality, too, in some daunting fashion — and at this moment, thanks to the war in Ukraine and endless other distractions, the world is only burning yet more fossil fuels promising so much worse to come.

To return to Chalmers Johnson, if you think about it for even 30 seconds, climate change has obviously become the greatest blowback event in human history — with almost unimaginably greater climate chaos likely to come. As he would undoubtedly have noted, if you’re living in the most significant blowback nation in human history, since no other country has put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the United States, you’re truly facing — to cite the subtitle of his book — “the costs and consequences of American empire” and, of course, of the imperial oil companies that continue to have such a hand in (mis)shaping our world.

Worse yet, in this century, that newest of imperial powers, China, has already outstripped this country in terms of the fossil-fuelization of this planet’s atmosphere. (Yet another classic case of imperial overstretch in the offing.)

Talk about decline! These days it almost seems to precede imperial rise. Yikes!

And so many years later, just to out-Chalmers the master himself, let me offer another prediction: if the Republicans sweep into Congress in 2022 and Blowback Donald or one of his act-alikes sweeps (or even creeps) into the White House in 2024, consider that the potential end of the American story, since it would ensure that, for years to come, nothing would be done to stop the ultimate version of blowback.

Humanity might as well 'light a giant match and burn this planet down' if Republicans win the midterms

Face it, we’re living in a world that, while anything but exceptional, is increasingly the exception to every rule. Only the other day, 93-year-old Noam Chomsky had something to say about that. Mind you, he’s seen a bit of our world since, in 1939, he wrote his first article for his elementary school newspaper on the fall of the Spanish city of Barcelona amid a “grim cloud” of advancing fascism. His comment on our present situation: “We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history.”

And don’t try to deny it! What a mess! (And yes, I do think this moment is worth more than a few exclamation points!)

Admittedly, I’m not an active, thoughtful 93-year-old. I’m a mere 77 and feel like I’m floundering in this mad world of ours. Still, like my generation, like anyone alive after August 6, 1945, when the city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single American atomic bomb, I’m an end-of-the-worlder by nature. And that’s true whether any of us like it or not, admit it or not.

In fact, I’ve lived with that reality — or perhaps I mean the surreality of it all — both consciously (on occasion) and unconsciously (the rest of the time) since my childhood. No one my age is likely to forget the duck-and-cover drills we all performed, diving under our school desks, hands over heads, to prepare for, in my case, the Soviet Union’s attempted atomic destruction of New York City. We followed the advice, then, of the cartoon character Bert the Turtle — in a brief film I remember seeing in our school cafeteria — who “never got hurt because he knew just what we all must do: he ducked and covered.”

As the sonorous male narrator of that film then put it:

The atomic bomb flash could burn you worse than a terrible sunburn, especially where you’re not covered. Now, you and I don’t have shells to crawl into like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way… Duck and cover underneath a table or a desk or anything else close by… Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, wherever you may be.

That was life in 1950s New York City. On my way to school, I would pass the S-signs for “safe places to go” (as that cartoon put it) or later the bright orange-yellow and black fallout-shelter signs (millions of which were produced and used nationally). And like so many other young people of that era, I let The Twilight Zone nuke me on TV, went to world-ending films in my high-school years, and read similar sci-fi.

I was only 18 and in my first semester of college when, on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on national TV, not the norm then, to address us all (though I heard his speech on the radio). He warned us of a:

secret, swift, and extraordinary buildup of Communist missiles — in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy — this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil — is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country.

Now, mind you, I didn’t know then that the U.S. military already had a Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world. That included at least 130 cities that would if all went according to plan, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (which probably underestimated the effects of radiation). Nor did I know then that, in the 1950s, American officials, at the highest levels, focused endlessly on what was known as the “unthinkable,” all the while preparing to plunge us into a planetary charnel house.

Military and civilian policymakers then found themselves writing obsessive sci-fi-style scenarios, not for public consumption but for one another, about a possible “global war of annihilation.” In those new combat scenarios, they found themselves and their country on the horns of an unbearable dilemma. They could either forswear meaningful victory — or strike first, taking on an uncivilized and treacherous role long reserved in our history books (if not in reality) for the enemy.

Still, as the Cuban Missile Crisis began, for Americans like me, everything for which we had long been preparing to duck-and-cover suddenly seemed to loom all too large and in a potentially unduckable fashion. And believe me, I was anything but unique when, as the U.S. Navy launched its blockade of the island of Cuba, I wondered whether the “unthinkable” was now in the cards.

Welcome to the Nuclear Age, Part 2?

And here I am so many decades later. The world, of course, didn’t end. I never actually ducked and covered to ward off a nuclear attack in what passed for real life. In those years, that SIOP remained as much a fantasy as anything on The Twilight Zone. And though neither superpower actually dismantled its nuclear arsenal when the Cold War ended in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union (quite the opposite, in fact), nuclear weapons did seem to retreat into the ether, into Bert the Turtle’s fantasy world, until… well, I hesitate here, but I have to say it: the invasion of Ukraine.

Only the other day, CIA Director William Burns, once deeply convinced of the dangers of offering NATO membership to Ukraine and long warning of a Russian backlash against such a policy, publicly suggested that, sometime soon, Vladimir Putin might turn to atomic weaponry in his disastrous war there. Admittedly, he was talking about so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons (each perhaps one-third the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), not the monster nukes in both our arsenals. Still, welcome to the nuclear age, part 2.

And, of course, that’s just to start on a situation that feels as if it could implode. After all, the war in Ukraine has already reached mind-boggling levels of criminal brutality and destructiveness and you can feel that where it truly goes, no one truly knows. A recent Russian diplomatic note to Washington, for instance, warned of “unpredictable consequences” if the Biden administration kept arming the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, the Russians all-too-publicly tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, which President Vladimir Putin said would make the country’s enemies “think twice.” Worse yet, it seems as if the global situation could burst out of control in an altogether unpredictable fashion, if Putin begins to feel that Ukraine is a lost war.

Above all, since Cold War, part 1, ended, a second world-ending possibility has been piled atop the first in almost comic fashion.

In fact, I have the urge to cry out, “Duck and cover!” and not just because of those nukes that might sooner or later be brought to bear on Ukraine, leading to who knows what and where. After all, in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, who would have guessed that, more than three-quarters of a century after the dropping of that first atomic bomb (followed, of course, by a second one on Nagasaki and the end of the most horrific global war ever), there would once again be war in Europe? Isn’t that the oldest story of all?

And don’t expect good news soon either. In fact, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the war in Ukraine won’t even end this year, while CNN reports that “some members of Congress and their aides are quietly making a comparison to the Korean War, which lasted for three years.” And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who once thought Russian invaders could take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in 72 hours, now evidently believes the war there could last “at least years for sure.”

Really? The Korean War? Such an old, old story (and another war where the nuclear threshold was at least approached). And once again, the world has split into two blocs in what could almost pass for a parody of the original Cold War, with each side already struggling for support from countries around the planet.

The Fate of the Earth?

If I were making all this up, let me assure you, it would be considered the worst-plotted “take two” imaginable. Oh, let’s see, those humans didn’t learn a damn thing from almost destroying the planet and each other back then! So, they decided to do the whole damn thing all over again. Only this time, they’ve thrown in an extra factor! Yep, you guessed it, another way to destroy the planet! (Duck and cover!!)

Yes, indeed, this strangely old-fashioned comedy of horrors is taking place in an all-too-new context, given a factor that wasn’t in anyone’s consciousness back then. Of course, I’m talking about climate change. I’m thinking about how the planet’s top scientists have repeatedly told us that, if fossil-fuel use isn’t cut back radically and soon, this planet will all-too-literally become a hell on Earth. And keep in mind that, even before the war in Ukraine began, global carbon dioxide emissions had rebounded from pandemic drops and hit a historic high.

And it could only get worse in the chaos of the Ukraine moment as gas prices soar, panic sets in, and all-too-little attention is paid to the dangers of overheating this planet. I mean, none of this should exactly be a secret, right? If, for instance, you happen to live in the American Southwest or West, parts of which are now experiencing the worst drought in at least 1,200 years and successive fire seasons beyond compare, you should know just what I mean. The worst of it is that such new realities, including, for instance, hurricane seasons to remember, are essentially the equivalent of movie previews. (And mind you, I’ve barely even mentioned the ongoing pandemic, which has already taken an estimated 15 million lives on this planet.)

It’s sadly obvious what should be happening: the great powers, also the great fossil-fuelizers (China, the United States, and Russia), should be working together to green energize our world fast. And yet here we are, fighting a new war in Europe launched by the head of a Saudi-style petrostate in Moscow playing out his version of Cold War II with Washington and Beijing — oh, and in the process, ensuring the burning of yet more fossil fuels.

Brilliant! Excuse me if I stop a second — it’s just a reflex, really — to yell: Bert, duck and cover fast!

Oh, and lest you think that’s the worst of it, let’s turn to the globe’s second-greatest greenhouse-gas emitter of this moment (and the greatest ever, historically speaking). Right now, it looks all too much like the Democrats could go down fast and hard in the 2022 elections, and possibly in 2024 as well. After all, coal merchant Joe Manchin and the congressional Republicans have sunk the president’s Build Back Better Bill and so much else, ensuring the Democrats of all too few accomplishments as the midterm elections approach. And the polls already reflect that grim reality.

Whether you’re talking about former Gen Z supporters, Hispanics, or, well, you name it, President Biden’s approval ratings seem to be spinning toward a pollster’s version of hell as the war goes on, inflation surges, and the price of gas shoots through the roof. In fact, only the other week, his administration, which came into office singing its own climate-changing praises and promising, as the future president said on the campaign trail in 2020, “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period,” just opened bidding for new leases to do just that.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the man who pulled this country out of the Paris climate accords and the greatest party boss in memory, luxuriates at Mar-a-Lago, raising sums beyond compare and paying no price for anything he’s done. If his party takes over Congress and then the White House, it’s not complicated at all. Just light a giant match and burn this planet down, assuming Vladimir Putin hasn’t already done that.

Call it hell on Earth and you’re anything but exaggerating. The “unthinkable”? Start thinking, my friend. The fate of the Earth, once the title of a classic book on the nuclear nightmare by Jonathan Schell, could soon be little short of a post-Trumpian joke.

My advice and I mean it: duck and cover!

A 'wedding album from Hell': remembering 'the obliteration of wedding parties by U.S. airstrikes'

Best of TomDispatch: Engelhardt, Washington’s Wedding Album From Hell

You’ve seen the grisly footage. You’ve read the harrowing reports. The evidence is everywhere and it’s as chilling as it is irrefutable. There was the young boy who was beaten and shot in cold blood; the man used for target practice; the old man thrown off a cliff; and the group of 19 women and children rounded up and gunned down, their bodies left lying in the open in their village.

This week, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to call for an investigation of the war crimes now being committed by the Russians in Ukraine. “We rise today not as Republicans, Democrats, but as Americans, as a united Congress on behalf of the American people condemning these atrocities,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas. He’s the co-author of the bill which seeks to “preserve evidence and information related to war crimes and other atrocities committed during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

But the House is never going to gather information on that young boy, that old man, or those 19 civilians torn apart by gunfire, because those crimes were committed in late 1967 and early 1968 by American soldiers in South Vietnam. The evidence in those cases was collected by military criminal investigators decades ago. It supported murder charges in five incidents against nine suspects, but no one was ever court-martialed, much less convicted.

In recent weeks, Americans have been rightly outraged by horrendous crimes by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians — massacre, murder, and rape, among them. For the last two decades, however, many have barely blinked as reports of massacre, murder, and rape by Americans emerged from the battlefields of our country’s Global War on Terror. While the coverage of those blood-soaked conflicts was never of the wall-to-wall variety we see today, plenty of evidence was still available for anyone who cared to look. For years, to take one example, TomDispatch kept track of a particularly grim niche toll — the obliteration of wedding parties by U.S. airstrikes.

If Russia were discovered to have slaughtered Ukrainian brides, grooms, officiants, musicians, and family members in eight separate incidents, network news and cable outlets might suspend all other coverage for the next month. But when American airpower repeatedly wiped out wedding parties in Afghanistan and at least one each in Iraq and Yemen, there was barely a murmur, even if the New York Post did offer front-page coverage of the last of those under the horrendous headline: “Bride and Boom!”

In that context, revisit a piece Tom Engelhardt wrote in 2013 and take a little walk down TomDispatch’s version of memory lane, past the Afghan corpses that the House of Representatives was all too happy to ignore and to which the cable-news networks gave short shrift for years. The evidence of America’s many crimes — from that dead Vietnamese boy to a dead Iraqi wedding singer — is still out there. It’s been available to anyone who cares to look for it. But for that gruesome record to truly mean anything, someone first has to care. Nick Turse

“Bride and Boom!”

We're Number One… In Obliterating Wedding Parties

The headline — “Bride and Boom!” — was spectacular, if you think killing people in distant lands is a blast and a half. Of course, you have to imagine that smirk line in giant black letters with a monstrous exclamation point covering most of the bottom third of the front page of the Murdoch-owned New York Post. The reference was to a caravan of vehicles on its way to or from a wedding in Yemen that was eviscerated, evidently by a U.S. drone via one of those “surgical” strikes of which Washington is so proud. As one report put it, “Scorched vehicles and body parts were left scattered on the road.”

It goes without saying that such a headline could only be applied to assumedly dangerous foreigners — “terror” or “al-Qaeda suspects” — in distant lands whose deaths carry a certain quotient of weirdness and even amusement with them. Try to imagine the equivalent for the Newtown massacre the day after Adam Lanza broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and began killing children and teachers. Since even the New York Post wouldn’t do such a thing, let’s posit that the Yemen Post did, that playing off the phrase “head of the class,” their headline was: “Dead of the Class!” (with that same giant exclamation point). It would be sacrilege. The media would descend. The tastelessness of Arabs would be denounced all the way up to the White House. You’d hear about the callousness of foreigners for days.

And were a wedding party to be obliterated on a highway anywhere in America on the way to, say, a rehearsal dinner, whatever the cause, it would be a 24/7 tragedy. Our lives would be filled with news of it. Count on that.

But a bunch of Arabs in a country few in the U.S. had ever heard of before we started sending in the drones? No such luck, so if you’re a Murdoch tabloid, it’s open season, no consequences guaranteed. As it happens, “Bride and Boom!” isn’t even an original. It turns out to be a stock Post headline. Google it and you’ll find that, since 9/11, the paper has used it at least twice before last week, and never for the good guys: once in 2005, for “the first bomb-making husband and wife,” two Palestinian newlyweds arrested by the Israelis; and once in 2007, for a story about a “bride,” decked out in a “princess-style wedding gown,” with her “groom.” Their car was stopped at a checkpoint in Iraq by our Iraqis, and both of them turned out to be male “terrorists” in a “nutty nuptial party.” Ba-boom!

As it happened, the article by Andy Soltis accompanying the Post headline last week began quite inaccurately. “A U.S. drone strike targeting al-Qaeda militants in Yemen,” went the first line, “took out an unlikely target on Thursday — a wedding party heading to the festivities.”

Soltis can, however, be forgiven his ignorance. In this country, no one bothers to count up wedding parties wiped out by U.S. airpower. If they did, Soltis would have known that the accurate line, given the history of U.S. war-making since December 2001 when the first party of Afghan wedding revelers was wiped out (only two women surviving), would have been: “A U.S. drone… took out a likely target.”

After all, by the count of TomDispatch, this is at least the eighth wedding party reported wiped out, totally or in part, since the Afghan War began and it extends the extermination of wedding celebrants from the air to a third country — six destroyed in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, and now the first in Yemen. And in all those years, reporters covering these “incidents” never seem to notice that similar events had occurred previously. Sometimes whole wedding parties were slaughtered, sometimes just the bride or groom’s parties were hit. Estimated total dead from the eight incidents: almost 300 Afghans, Iraqis, and Yemenis. And keep in mind that, in these years, weddings haven’t been the only rites hit. U.S. airpower has struck gatherings ranging from funerals to a baby-naming ceremony.

The only thing that made the Yemeni incident unique was the drone. The previous strikes were reportedly by piloted aircraft.

Non-tabloid papers were far more polite in their headlines and accounts, though they did reflect utter confusion about what had happened in a distant part of distant Yemen. The wedding caravan of vehicles was going to a wedding — or coming back. Fifteen were definitively dead. Or 11. Or 13. Or 14. Or 17. The attacking plane had aimed for al-Qaeda targets and hit the wedding party “by mistake.” Or al-Qaeda “suspects” had been among the wedding party, though all reports agree that innocent wedding goers died. Accounts of what happened from Yemeni officials differed, even as that country’s parliamentarians demanded an end to the U.S. drone campaign in their country. The Obama administration refused to comment. It was generally reported that this strike, like others before it, had — strangely enough — upset Yemenis and made them more amenable to the propaganda of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

In the end, reports on a wedding slaughter in a distant land are generally relegated to the inside pages of the paper and passing notice on the TV news, an event instantly trumped by almost anything whatsoever — a shooting in a school anywhere in the U.S., snowstorms across the Northeast, you name it — and promptly buried and forgotten.

And yet, in a country that tends to value records, this represents record-making material. After all, what are the odds of knocking off all or parts of eight wedding parties in the space of a little more than a decade (assuming, of course, that the destruction of other wedding parties or the killing of other wedding-goers in America’s distant war zones hasn’t gone unreported). If the Taliban or the Iranians or the North Koreans had piled up such figures — and indeed the Taliban has done wedding damage via roadside bombs and suicide bombers — we would know just what to think of them. We would classify them as barbarians, savages and evildoers.

You might imagine that such a traffic jam of death and destruction would at least merit some longer-term attention, thought, analysis, or discussion here. But with the rarest of exceptions, it’s nowhere to be found, right, left, or center, in Washington or Topeka, in everyday conversation or think-tank speak. And keep in mind that we’re talking about a country where the slaughter of innocents — in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities, workplaces and movie theaters, parking lots and naval shipyards — is given endless attention, carefully toted up, discussed and debated until “closure” is reached.

And yet no one here even thinks to ask how so many wedding parties in foreign lands could be so repeatedly taken out. Is the U.S. simply targeting weddings purposely? Not likely. Could it reflect the fact that, despite all the discussion of the “surgical precision” of American airpower, pilots have remarkably little idea what’s really going on below them or who exactly, in lands where American intelligence must be half-blind, they are aiming at? That, at least, seems likely.

Or if “they” gather in certain regions, does American intelligence just assume that the crowd must be “enemy” in nature? (As an American general said about a wedding party attacked in Western Iraq, “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”) Or is it possible that, in our global war zones, a hint that enemy “suspects” might be among a party of celebrants means that the party itself is fair game, that it’s open season no matter who might be in the crowd?

In this same spirit, the U.S. drone campaigns are said to launch what in drone-speak are called “signature strikes” — that is, strikes not against identified individuals, but against “a pre-identified ‘signature’ of behavior that the U.S. links to militant activity.” In other words, the U.S. launches drone strikes against groups or individuals whose behavior simply fits a “suspect” category: young men of military age carrying weapons, for instance (in areas where carrying a weapon may be the norm no matter who you are). In a more general sense, however, the obliterated wedding party may be the true signature strike of the post 9/11 era of American war-making, the strike that should, but never will, remind Americans that the war on terror was and remains, for others in distant lands, a war of terror, a fearsome creation to which we are conveniently blind.

Consider it a record. For the period since September 11, 2001, we’re number one… in obliterating wedding parties! In those years, whether we care to know it or not, “till death do us part” has gained a far grimmer meaning.

[Note on American airpower and wedding parties: TomDispatch has attempted over the years to record and point out the cumulative nature of these “incidents.” Check out, for instance, “The Wedding Crashers,” or a 2012 piece, “It Couldn’t Happen Here, It Does Happen There.” What follows, gathered by TomDispatch’s Erika Eichelberger, are links to the other seven wedding massacres with brief descriptions of what is known: December 29, 2001, Paktia Province, Afghanistan (more than 100 revelers die in a village in Eastern Afghanistan after an attack by B-52 and B-1B bombers); May 17, 2002, Khost Province, Afghanistan (at least 10 Afghans in a wedding celebration die when U.S. helicopters and planes attack a village); July 1, 2002, Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan (at least 30, and possibly 40, celebrants die when attacked by a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 gunship); May 20, 2004, Mukaradeeb, Iraq (at least 42 dead, including “27 members of the [family hosting the wedding ceremony], their wedding guests, and even the band of musicians hired to play at the ceremony” in an attack by American jets); July 6, 2008, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan (at least 47 dead, 39 of them women and children, including the bride, among a party escorting that bride to the groom’s house — from a missile attack by jet aircraft); August 2008, Laghman Province, Afghanistan (16 killed, including 12 members of the family hosting the wedding, in an attack by “American bombers”); June 8, 2012, Logar Province, Afghanistan (18 killed, half of them children, when Taliban fighters take shelter amid a wedding party. This was perhaps the only case among the eight wedding incidents in which the U.S. offered an apology)].

How Europe went from the 'heartland of the history of war' to a potential 'springboard into eternity'

A Historical Feast of Death and Destruction from the Peloponnesian Wars to Late Tomorrow Night

Excuse me if I wander a little today — and if it bothers you, don’t blame me, blame Vladimir Putin. After all, I didn’t decide to invade Ukraine, the place my grandfather fled almost 140 years ago. I suspect, in fact, that I was an adult before I even knew such a place existed. If I could be accused of anything, maybe you could say that, for most of my life, I evaded Ukraine.

All of us are, in some fashion, now living inside the shockwaves from the Russian president’s grotesque invasion and from a war taking place close to the heart of Europe. I was not quite one year old in May 1945 when World War II in Europe ended, along with years of carnage unparalleled on this planet. Millions of Russians, six million Jews, god knows how many French, British, Germans, Ukrainians, and… well, the list just goes on and on… died and how many more were wounded or displaced from their homes and lives. Given Adolf Hitler’s Germany, we’re talking about nothing short of a hell on Earth. That was Europe from the late 1930s until 1945.

In the more-than-three-quarters of a century since then, with the exception of the brief Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, a civil war (with outside intervention) in the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, as well as warring in marginal places like Chechnya, Europe has been the definition of peaceful. Hence, the shock of it all. Believe me, it wouldn’t have been faintly the same if Vladimir Putin had invaded Kazakhstan or Afghanistan or… well, you get the idea. In fact, in 1979, when the leaders of the Soviet Union did indeed send the Red Army into Afghanistan and again, just over two decades later, when George W. Bush and crew ordered the U.S. military to invade the same country, there were far too few cries of alarm, assumedly because it hadn’t happened in the heart of Europe and who the hell cared (other, of course, than the Afghans in the path of those two armies).

Now, the Vlad has once again turned part of Europe into a war-torn nightmare, a genuine hell on earth of fire and destruction. He’s blasted out significant parts of major cities, sent more than four million Ukrainians fleeing the country as refugees, and uprooted at least 6.5 million more in that land. Consider it a signal measure of the horror of the moment that more than half of all Ukrainian children have, in some fashion, been displaced. Since that country became the focus of staggering media attention here (in coverage terms, it’s as if every day were the day after the 9/11 attacks), since it became more or less the only story on Earth, little surprise that it also came to seem like a horror, a crime, of an essentially unparalleled sort, an intrusion beyond all measure. The shock has been staggering. You just don’t do that, right?

The Heartland of War, Historically Speaking

Strangely enough, though, the Russian president’s gross act fits all too horribly into a far larger and longer history of Europe and this planet. After all, until 1945, rather than being a citadel of global peace, order, and European-Union-style cooperation, that continent was regularly a hell of war, conflict, and slaughter.

You could, of course, go back to at least 460 BC, when the 15-year Peloponnesian War between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta began in an era that has long been considered the “dawn of civilization.” From then on through Roman imperial times, war, or rather wars galore, lay at the heart of that developing civilization.

Once you get to the later history of Europe, whether you’re talking about Vikings raiding England or English kings like Henry V fighting it out in France (read your Shakespeare!) in what came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War; whether you’re thinking about the Thirty Years’ War in medieval Europe in which millions are believed to have perished; the bloody Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, including that self-proclaimed French emperor’s invasion of Russia; or, of course, World War I, an early-twentieth-century slaughterhouse, stretching from France again deep into Russia, not to speak of civil conflicts like the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, you’re talking about a genuine heartland of global conflict. (And keep in mind that Ukraine was all too often involved.)

In the years since World War II, especially here in the United States, we’ve grown far too used to a world in which wars (often ours) take place in distant lands, thousands of miles from the heart of true power and civilization (as we like to think of it) on this planet. In the 1950s with the Korean War, as well as in the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, war, fought by the U.S. and its allies was a significantly Asian phenomenon. In the 1980s and 1990s, the crucial locations were South Asia and the Middle East. In this century, once again, they were in South Asia, the Greater Middle East, and also Africa.

And of course, in the history of this planet, so many of the wars fought “elsewhere” ever since the Middle Ages were sparked by European imperial powers, as well as that inheritor of the European mantle of empire, the United States. Looked at in the largest historical framework possible, you might even say that, in some fashion, modern war as we’ve known it was pioneered in Europe.

Worse yet, as soon as the Europeans were able to travel anywhere else, what’s come to be known all too inoffensively as “the age of discovery” began. With their wooden sailing ships loaded with cannons and troops, they essentially pursued wars around the world in the grimmest fashion possible, while attempting to dominate much of the planet via what came to be known as colonialism. From the genocidal destruction of native peoples in North America (a legacy the United States inherited in the “New World” from its colonial mentors in the “Old World”) to the Opium Wars in China, from the Sepoy Mutiny in India to the repression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Europeans functionally exported extreme violence of many kinds globally in a way that would undoubtedly have impressed the ancient Greeks and Romans.

From the Portuguese and Spanish empires of the 16th century to the English and French empires of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the more recent American empire (though never referred to that way here) and the Russian one as well, the world was, in those years, flooded with a kind of violence with which Vladimir Putin would undoubtedly have been comfortable indeed. In fact, from the Peloponnesian War on, it’s been quite a Ukrainian-style story, a veritable European (and American) feast of death and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale.

The Afterlife of War

In 2022, however, simply claiming that war in Ukraine or anywhere else is just the same old thing would be deceptive indeed. After all, we’re on a planet that neither the Greeks, the Romans, Henry V, Napoleon, or Hitler could ever have imagined. And for that, you can thank, at least in part, that runaway child of Europe, the United States, while recalling one specific day in history: August 6th, 1945. That, of course, was the day a single bomb from a B-29 Superfortress bomber transformed the Japanese city of Hiroshima into rubble, while obliterating 70,000 or more of its inhabitants.

In the decades since, the very idea of war has, sadly enough, been transformed into something potentially all-too-new, whether in Europe or anywhere else, as long as it involves any of the planet’s nine nuclear powers. Since 1945, as nuclear weapons spread across the planet, we’ve threatened to export everyday war of the sort humanity has known for so long to heaven, hell, and beyond. In some sense, we may already be living in the afterlife of war, though most of the time we don’t know it. Don’t think it’s something odd or a strange accident that, when things began to go unexpectedly poorly for them, the Vlad’s crew promptly started threatening to use nuclear weapons if the Russians, instead of conquering Ukraine, were pushed into some desperately uncomfortable corner. As the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, put it recently:

We have a special document on nuclear deterrence. This document clearly indicates the grounds on which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons… [including] when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.

And keep in mind that Russia today has an estimated 4,477 nuclear warheads, more than 1,500 of them deployed, including new “tactical” nukes, each of which might have “only” perhaps one-third the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima and so might be considered battlefield weaponry, though of an unimaginably devastating and dangerous sort. And mind you, Vladimir Putin publicly oversaw the testing of four nuclear-capable ballistic missiles just before he launched his present war. Point made, so to speak. Such threats mean nothing less than that, whether we care to realize it or not, we’re now in a strange and threatening new world of war, given that even a nuclear exchange between regional powers like India and Pakistan could create a nuclear winter on this planet, potentially starving a billion or more of us to death.

Honestly, if you think about it, could you even imagine a stranger or more dangerous world? Consider it an irony of the first order, for instance, that the U.S. has spent years focused on trying to keep the Iranians from making a single nuclear weapon (and so becoming the 10th country to do so), but not — not for a day, not for an hour, not for a minute — on keeping this country from producing ever more of them.

Take, for instance, the new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, that the Pentagon is planning to build to replace our current crop of land-based nukes at an estimated price tag of $264 billion (and that’s before the cost overruns even begin). And that, in turn, is just a modest part of its full-scale, three-decade-long “modernization” program for its nuclear “triad” of land, sea, and air-based weapons that could, in the end, cost $2 trillion in taxpayer funds to ensure that this country would be capable of destroying not only this planet but more like it.

And just to put that in context: in a country that can’t find a red cent to invest in so many things Americans truly need, the one thing that both parties in Congress and the president (whoever he may be) can agree on is that ever more staggering sums should be spent on a military that’s fought a series of undeclared wars around the planet in this century in a remarkably unsuccessful fashion, bringing hell and high water to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, just as Vladimir Putin so recently did to Ukraine.

So, don’t just think of the Russian president as some aberrant oddball or autocratic madman who appeared magically at the disastrous edge of history, forcing his way into our peaceful lives. Unfortunately, he’s a figure who should be familiar indeed to us, given our European past. Shakespeare would have had a ball with the Vlad. And while he’s brought hell on Earth to Europe, given the way his top officials have raised the issue of nuclear weaponry, we should imagine ourselves in both an all-too-familiar and an all-too-new world.

Historically speaking, Europe should be thought of as the heartland of the history of war, but today, sadly enough, it should also potentially be considered a springboard into eternity for all of us.

Humans have become 'Armageddon-makers' who are 'gearing up' to destroy Earth

He’s our very own emperor from hell, an updated version of Nero who, in legend, burned down Rome on a whim, though ours prefers drowning Washington. Why, just the other day, Donald Trump — and you knew perfectly well who I meant — bent the ears of 250 top Republican donors for 84 minutes. Among other things, he assured those all-American (not Russian) oligarchs — and let me quote him in the Washington Post on this — that “‘the global warming hoax, it just never ends…’ He mocked the concept of sea levels rising, disputing widely held science. ‘To which I say, great, we have more waterfront property.’”

Admittedly, he’s talking about flooded property, including possibly whole cities going underwater in the decades to come, but what the hell! Yes, indeed, he was the president of the United States not so long ago and, if all goes well (for him, not us), he or some doppelganger, could win the Oval Office again in 2024, ensuring the arrival of that new, all-too-wet waterfront property. And yes, he offered up that little gem — about the 9,000th time he’s called climate change a “hoax” (sometimes blaming it on China) — just as a new scientific report came out suggesting that, if things don’t improve in fossil-fuel-burning terms, up to half of the Amazon rain forest, one of the great carbon sinks on Earth, could be transformed into savanna. To quote the Washington Post again:

The warming consequences of suddenly losing half the rainforest would be felt thousands of miles away and for centuries into the future, scientists warn. It would mean escalating storms and worsening wildfires, chronic food shortages and nearly a foot of sea level rise inundating coastal communities. It could trigger other tipping points, such as the melting of ice sheets or the disruption of the South American monsoon.

Hey, Donald, what could possibly go wrong on this all-too-embattled planet of ours?

Of course, at this moment, three of the four largest greenhouse gas emitters, Russia, the U.S. (which is now allowing more drilling for oil and gas than even during Trump’s presidency), and China, are locked in what could only be thought of as a deadly embrace over Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. And the grim war the Russian president launched seems likely to guarantee yet more fossil-fuel use on a planet that needs so much less of it, even as he also put the issue of nuclear war back on the table for the first time since the Cold War ended. How appropriate, if you’re heading into Cold War II to once again raise the possibility — forget about the next Chernobyl — of turning World War III into a nuclear one.

At this point, if you don’t mind a genuine understatement, what a strange planet we now live on.

World’s End, Property of…?

Once upon a time, whatever your religion, Armageddon was the property of the gods; until August 6, 1945, that is, when a lone B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay (named after its pilot’s mother), dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, essentially obliterating it.

Thought of another way, however, we humans took the power to end the world (at least as we’ve known it) out of the hands of the gods in the nineteenth century when the fossil-fuel-based industrialization of Planet Earth began in earnest in Great Britain. In other words, credit our cleverness. In the space of a mere 200 or so years, we’ve developed two different ways of devastating or even ending our life on this planet. Consider that a genuine accomplishment for humanity.

As it happens, recent nuclear and climate-change news should have brought that reality to mind again. But before I even get to Vladimir Putin, the invasion of Ukraine, and the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), let me mention that, more or less any week, there’s a new study (or two or three) of our climate future suggesting ever more extreme peril for us in the decades (or even months) to come: ever fiercer droughts, intensifying heat, more extreme wildfires, more melting ice, and ever-rising sea levels.

Of course, like the rest of us, you already know that story, right? And of one thing you can be sure, the next scientific study, whatever it is, will only offer yet more extreme climate news (with the rarest of exceptions). In fact, I had barely begun writing notes for this piece when that IPCC study arrived on the scene with, of course, the latest round of dreadful news about where we’re heading — to a potentially “irreversible” hell in a handbasket, natch. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called it a “code red for humanity,” lamenting that the evidence it details was unlike anything he had ever seen on the subject and describing it as an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

Damning indeed on a planet where, even before the Ukrainian nightmare, it was obvious that key leaders were doing anything but greening this world fast enough for the health of humanity. And that, of course, is just the background against which all of us now operate, whether we think about it or not — and in the midst of events in Ukraine, it’s not being given much thought at all — on a planet going to… well, why insult “the dogs"

Which brings me back to Vladimir Putin. The strange thing about that other form of planetary suicide, atomic weaponry, is that, since at least the end of the Cold War, it’s generally not been on the table (so to speak) or much in the news. Yes, in the Trump years, the president did implicitly threaten to rain nuclear hell on North Korea — he called it “fire and fury” — and, at one point, spoke of ending the Afghan War with just such a strike, but most of the time from 1990 to late last night, nuclear weapons (Iran, which didn’t have them, aside) simply weren’t part of the conversation.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In those same decades, nuclear arsenals only spread and grew. Nine countries now possess such weaponry and the three great powers on the planet — the U.S., China, and Russia — have all been hard at work. Russia has been “modernizing” its vast arsenal and China moving rapidly to build up its own.

Since Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. military-industrial complex has also been — and, yes, this is indeed the term often used — “modernizing” its already mind-boggling arsenal to the tune of $1.7 trillion to $2 trillion dollars over three decades. That includes, for instance, a new intercontinental ballistic missile known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent that, it’s already estimated, will take at least 264 billion of our tax dollars over its lifetime (and that’s before the cost overruns even begin!). Keep in mind that this country already had an unmodernized arsenal all too capable of destroying this planet many times over into the distant future. With our 1,357 deployed nuclear weapons (3,750, if you count the “inactive” ones), including land-based nuclear missiles, those transported by strategic bombers, and our nuclear subs wandering the world’s waters with their own devastating nukes on board, global destruction would be a given.

With all that activity long underway to remarkably little attention, nuclear weapons — and apocalyptic possibilities — have once again hit the headlines thanks to Vladimir Putin. After all, as his troops headed into Ukraine, he suddenly and all too publicly issued a directive putting his nuclear forces on “high alert” and offered this gem to the world:

Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so, to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.

To make his point even clearer, he promptly oversaw the test launching of four nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Since the U.S. still has plenty of tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe, consider us once again, as in the original Cold War, on edge and in a nuclear stand-off. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the Russians threaten to repeat, of all things, the Chernobyl disaster by taking the nuclear plants they once set up and serviced there in a wartime blaze of horror. One has already been captured under hair-raising circumstances.

Looking back, maybe the strangest thing of all is that most Americans, maybe most people on the planet, essentially forgot about nukes. In retrospect, you have to wonder how that was ever possible, especially if you’re my age and remember ducking and covering at school in repeated nuclear test drills, while the media of that time focused on whether people should share their personal nuclear shelters with their friends and neighbors. And mind you, that was in the years when, in reality, Russian nuclear weapons couldn’t yet reach this country (though the U.S. already had the ability to devastate the communist world).

Here, then, is a strange irony: in the years when we were most truly paying attention, they couldn’t have done anything to us. Once they truly could, we essentially began forgetting those weapons. Now, however, the potential destruction of humanity is back on the table — and this time around, brilliantly enough, in two different ways.

Green What?

Believe me, when you’ve been on this planet for 77 years, you feel like you’ve seen everything. And then, of course, it turns out that you haven’t. Not by a long shot. Not faintly. At 14, my grandfather, a Jew, ran away from his home in the city of Lemberg when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Between World Wars I and II, it was called Lvov and belonged to Poland. During that second great war, the Jewish population there was slaughtered by the Nazis. Since the end of that nightmarish war, it’s been known as Lviv and it’s been part of Ukraine, or rather, if Vladimir Putin has his way, the place that until recently was known as Ukraine. As a result, Lviv is again in the news, big time.

I mean, invading Ukraine at this moment? How truly mad. It’s still hard to take in what’s happening, including the million-plus children who have already fled that country. Of course, ever more people are in motion on this planet today thanks both to war and climate change. Yet, in a sense, there’s really nowhere left to go, is there?

As it turns out, our leaders have done all too good a job of providing options for ending the world. I mean, in a century when it should be hard not to know that, if the burning of fossil fuels isn’t brought under control, life as we’ve known it will cease to exist, two great powers with preening, overweening leaders thought it made far more sense to order their militaries to invade other countries based on lies. Because of that, cities were destroyed and deaths were made all too plentiful. Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion and destruction of Ukraine has been denounced by much of the world led by Joe Biden’s America. Russia is now experiencing potentially devastating sanctions, while from sports to entertainment to fast food, much of the planet has been turning its back on Russia.

But here’s the odd thing: Russia invaded its neighbor, which once indeed had been part of the Soviet Union. The other great and invasive power I had in mind struck two countries thousands of miles away — Iraq (based on the lie that its autocratic ruler was developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction) and Afghanistan. And yes, as the present conflict will undoubtedly prove a catastrophe for Russia and the people of Ukraine, so those wars proved disasters for the United States but even more so for Afghans and Iraqis. Strangely enough, however, the world didn’t condemn the U.S. for its acts. No sanctions were put in place. No weaponry was sent to Afghans or Iraqis to help them defend themselves against the occupying imperial power. And stranger yet, in retrospect, the present president of the United States, then a senator, voted to invade Iraq and subsequently even developed a plan to divide that U.S.-occupied country into three different states.

And so it goes on this endangered planet of ours, while the greenhouse gasses from unending fossil-fuel burning invade our atmosphere with devastating effect, yet create next to no headlines at all.

Armageddon-Makers

Today, 76 years after World War II ended (I was 1 at the time), the heartland of Europe is again embroiled in war, death, and destruction. And more than three decades after the Cold War ended, the new tsar of Russia, now a rickety petro-state with an economy smaller than Italy’s, is responsible.

Confused yet? Well, you should be on this god-forsaken planet of ours.

If you look at the American experience, whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan (or the Russian experience in that same country), the one thing you know is that this can’t end well, not for Vladimir Putin or Joe Biden or Donald Trump or the rest of us, not on a planet that humanity insists on taking down. A tip of my hat goes to the outraged Russians who have hit the streets to protest the war in Ukraine, as Americans did (myself included), however briefly, in that spring of 2003 when the invasion of Iraq loomed.

Given our world, we should all probably be in the streets now. I mean, here we are heading into Cold War II, while facing the possibility of World War III on a planet that, thanks to the way we live and produce energy, is heading for hell. Think of climate change in its own way as perhaps the equivalent of World War IV, though somehow, while Ukraine is endlessly in the headlines, the climate emergency, no matter how horrifying the news, remains in the shadows, even as the Republicans call for yet more fossil-fuel drilling.

The peacing of Earth? Not likely. The greening of Earth? Not likely either, it seems. In our own fashion, we have indeed taken the place of ancient gods of every sort. We are now the Armageddon-makers and, sadly enough, it seems that we’re just gearing up.

Unbanning Maus: How I was banned by a Trumpian world

Sometimes life has a way of making you realize things about yourself. Recently, I discovered that an urge of mine, almost four decades old, had been the very opposite of that of a rural Tennessee school board this January. In another life, I played a role in what could be thought of as the unbanning of the graphic novel Maus.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

For months, I’ve been reading about the growing Trumpist-Republican movement to ban whatever books its members consider politically unpalatable, lest the lives of America’s children be sullied by, say, a novel of Toni Morrison’s like The Bluest Eye or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or a history book like They Called Themselves the K.K.K. It’s an urge that just rubs me the wrong way. After all, as a boy growing up in New York City in the 1950s, when children’s post-school lives were much less organized than they are today, I would often wander into the local branch of the public library, hoping the librarian would allow me into the adult section. There — having little idea what I was doing — I would pull interesting-looking grown-up books off the shelves and head for home.

Years later, exchanging childhood memories with a friend and publishing colleague, Sara Bershtel, I discovered that, on arriving in this country, she, too, had found a sympathetic librarian and headed for those adult shelves. At perhaps 12 or 13, just about the age of those Tennessee schoolkids, we had both — miracle of miracles! — not faintly knowing what we were doing, pulled Annmarie Selinko’s bestselling novel Désirée off the shelves. It was about Napoleon Bonaparte and his youthful fiancé and we each remember being riveted by it. Maybe my own fascination with history, and hers with French literature, began there. Neither of us, I suspect, were harmed by reading the sort of racy bestseller that Republicans would today undoubtedly loathe.

Oh, and if you’ll excuse a little stream of consciousness here, my friend Sara was born in a German displaced-persons camp to Jewish parents who had, miraculously enough, survived the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, which brings me back to the jumping-off spot for this piece. Unless you’ve been in Ukraine these last weeks, it’s something you undoubtedly already know about, given the attention it’s received: that, by a 10-0 vote, a school board in McMinn, Tennessee, banned from its eighth-grade classroom curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, about his parents’ Holocaust years in Auschwitz and beyond (and his own experience growing up with them afterward). When I first heard about that act I felt, however briefly and indirectly, pulled off the shelves myself and banned. And damn! — yes, I want to make sure that this piece gets banned as well! — I felt proud of it!

Just to back up for a moment: that Tennessee school board banned Spiegelman’s book on the grounds, at least nominally, that it contained naked cartoon mice — Jewish victims in a concentration camp and Spiegelman’s mother, who committed suicide, in a bathtub — and profanity as well (like that word “damn!”). In a world where, given a chance, so many of us would head for the modern equivalent of those adult library shelves — these days, of course, any kid with an iPhone or a computer can get a dose of almost any strange thing on this planet — that school board might as well have been a marketing firm working for Maus. After all, more than three decades after it first hit the bestseller lists, their action sent it soaring to number one at Amazon, while donated copies began to pour into rural Tennessee.

As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently pointed out, if you truly want a teenager to read any book with gusto, the first thing you need to do is, of course, ban it. So, I suppose that, in its own upside-down way, the McMinn board did our world a strange kind of favor. In the long run, however, the growing rage for banning books from schools and libraries (or even, in the case of the Harry Potter books, burning them, Nazi-style) doesn’t offer a particularly hopeful vision of where this country’s headed right now.

“What’s So Funny?

Still, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m only going on like this because that incident in Tennessee and the media response to it brought back an ancient moment in my own life. So, think of the rest of this piece as a personal footnote to the McMinn story and to the growing wave of book bannings in courses and school libraries across too much of this country. And that’s not even to mention the plethora of “gag order” bills passed by or still being considered in Republican-dominated state legislatures to prevent the teaching of certain subjects. It’s further evidence, if you need it, of an urge to wipe from consciousness so much that they find uncomfortable in our national past. It’s also undoubtedly part of a larger urge to take over America’s public-school system, or even replace it, much as Donald Trump and crew would like to all-too-autocratically take over this country and transform it into an unrecognizable polity, a subject TomDispatch has covered for years.

However, my moment in the sun began at a time when The Donald was about to open the first of his Atlantic City casinos that would eventually turn him into a notorious bankuptee. And it took place inside the world of publishing, which then seemed all too ready to essentially ban Maus from this planet. Back in the early 1980s, putting out a Holocaust “comic book” — though the term “graphic novel” existed, just about no one in publishing knew it — in which Jews were cartoon mice and the Nazis cats, seemed like a suicidal act for a book publisher.

And in that context, here’s my personal story about the cartoon mice that might never have made it to McMinn County, Tennessee. In the 1980s, I was an editor at Pantheon Books, a publishing house run by André Schiffrin who, in a fashion hardly commonplace then or later, gave his editors a chance to sign up books that might seem too unfashionable or politically dangerous.

One day, our wonderful art director, Louise Fili, came to my office. (She worked on another floor of the Random House building in New York City, the larger publishing house of which we were then a part.) In her hands, she had an oversized magazine called RAW that I had never seen before, put out by a friend of hers named Art Spiegelman. It was filled with experimental cartoon art. And in the seams of new issues, he had been stapling tiny chapters of a memoir he was beginning to create about the experiences of his father and mother in the Holocaust. Jews from Poland, they had ended up in Auschwitz and managed, unlike so many millions of Jews murdered in such death camps, to survive the experience. Louise also had with her a proposal from Spiegelman for what would become his bestselling graphic novel Maus.

I still remember her telling me that it had already been rejected by every publisher imaginable. In those days, that was, I suspect, something like a selling point for me. Anyway, I took the couple of teeny chapters and the proposal home — and all these years later, I still recall the moment when I decided I had to put Spiegelman’s book out, no matter what. I remember it because I thought of myself as a rather rational editor and the feeling that I simply had to do Maus was one of the two least rational decisions I ever made in publishing (the other being to do Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback, also a future bestseller).

At that moment, I doubt I had ever read what came to be known as a graphic novel, but there was something in my background that, I suspect, left me particularly open to it. My mother, Irma Selz, had been a theatrical and later political caricaturist for New York’s leading newspapers and magazines (and, in the 1950s, the New Yorker as well). She was, in fact, known as “New York’s girl caricaturist” in the gossip columns of her time, since she was the only one in an otherwise largely male world of cartoonists.

Because she lived in that world, after a fashion I did, too. I can, for instance, remember Irwin Hazen, the creator of the now largely forgotten cartoon Dondi, sitting by my bedside when I was perhaps seven or eight drawing his character for me on sheets of tracing paper before I went to sleep. (Somewhere in the top of my closet, I suspect I still have those sketches of his!) So I think I was, in some unexpected way, the perfect editor for Spiegelman’s proposal. I was also a Jew and, though my grandfather had come to America in the 1890s from Lemberg (now Ukraine’s Lviv) and later brought significant parts of his family here, I remember my grandmother telling me of family members who had been swallowed up by the Holocaust.

Anyway, here’s the moment I still recall. I was lying down reading what Louise had given me when my wife, Nancy, walked past me. At that moment, I burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” she asked. Her question took me completely aback. I paused for a genuinely painful moment and then said, haltingly and in an only faintly coherent fashion, something like: “Uh… it’s a proposed comic book about a guy whose parents lived through Auschwitz and later, in his adolescence, his mother committed suicide…”

I felt abashed and yet I had been laughing and that stopped me dead in my tracks. At that very moment, I realized, however irrationally, that whatever this strange, engrossing, disturbing comic book about a world from hell turned out to be, I just had to do it. From that moment on, whether it ever sold a copy or not wasn’t even an issue for me.

A Holocaust Comic Book?

And then, you might say, the problems began. I went to André, told him about the project, and he reacted expectably. Who in the world, he wondered, would buy a Holocaust comic book? I certainly didn’t know, nor did I even care then. In some gut way, I simply knew that a world without this book would be a lesser place. It was that simple.

Thank heavens, as a boss, André deeply believed in his editors, just as we editors believed in each other. He also hated to say “no.” So, instead, a kind of siege ensued while the proposed book passed from hand to hand and others looked and reacted, but I remained determined and knew that, in the end, if I was that way, he would let me do it, as indeed he did.

I was considered something of a fierce editor in those days and yet I doubt I touched a word of Spiegelman’s manuscript. What it is today, it is thanks purely to him, not me. I took him out to lunch to tell him about our publication decision and prepare the way for our future collaboration. While there, I assured him that I knew nothing about producing such a book — he, for instance, wanted the kind of flaps that were found on French but not American paperbacks — and would simply do what he wanted. The one thing I wanted him to know, though, was that he shouldn’t get his hopes up. Given the subject matter, it was unlikely to sell many copies. (A Pulitzer Prize? It never crossed my mind.)

Fortunately, as far as I could tell, he all too sagely paid no attention whatsoever to me on the subject. And as it happened, some months later (as best I remember), the New York Times Book Review devoted a full page to him and, in part, to the future Maus. It was like a miracle. We were stunned and, from that moment on, knew that we had something big on our hands.

And in that fashion, in another century, you could say that I unbanned Maus, preparing the way for McMinn County to ban it in our own Trumpist moment. I couldn’t be prouder today to have had a hand in producing the book that caricaturist David Levine would all too aptly compare to the work of Franz Kafka.

In its continuing eventful existence, as a unique record of the truly terrible things we humans are capable of doing to one another, it is indeed a masterpiece. It raises issues that all of us, parents and children, should have to grapple with on our endangered planet, a place where we have so much work ahead of us if, in some terrible fashion, we don’t want to ban ourselves.

Copyright 2022 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.

The Republicans work to unbuild a country already coming apart at the seams

Let me start 2022 by heading back — way, way back — for a moment.

It’s easy to forget just how long this world has been a dangerous place for human beings. I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon a little memoir my Aunt Hilda scrawled, decades ago, in a small notebook. In it, she commented in passing: “I was graduated during that horrible flu epidemic of 1919 and got it.” Badly enough, it turned out, to mess up her entry into high school. She says little more about it.

Still, I was shocked. In all the years when my father and his sister were alive and, from time to time, talked about the past, never had they (or my mother, for that matter) mentioned the disastrous “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1920. I hadn’t the slightest idea that anyone in my family had been affected by it. In fact, until I read John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, I hadn’t even known that a pandemic devastated America (and the rest of the world) early in the last century — in a fashion remarkably similar to, but even worse than, Covid-19 (at least so far) before essentially being tossed out of history and the memory books of most families.

That should stun anyone. After all, at that time, an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population, possibly 50 million people, reportedly died of the waves of that dreaded disease, often in horrific ways, and, even in this country, were sometimes buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, some of the controversies we’ve experienced recently over, for instance, masking went on in a similarly bitter fashion then, before that global disaster was chucked away and forgotten. Almost no one I know whose parents lived through that nightmare had heard anything about it while growing up.

Ducking and Covering

My aunt’s brief comment was, however, a reminder to me that we’ve long inhabited a perilous world and that, in certain ways, it’s only grown more so as the decades have passed. It also left me thinking about how, as with that deathly flu of the World War I era, we often forget (or at least conveniently set aside) such horrors.

After all, in my childhood and youth, in the wake of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this country began building a staggering nuclear arsenal and would soon be followed on that path by the Soviet Union. We’re talking about weaponry that could have destroyed this planet many times over and, in those tense Cold War years, it sometimes felt as if such a fate might indeed be ours. I can still remember hearing President John F. Kennedy on the radio as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 began — I was a freshman in college — and thinking that everyone I knew on the East Coast, myself included, would soon be toast (and we almost were!).

To put that potential fate in perspective, keep in mind that, only two years earlier, the U.S. military had developed a Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China. In it, a first strike of 3,200 nuclear weapons would be “delivered” to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities. If all went “well,” those would have ceased to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured — and, given what wasn’t known about the effects of radiation then, not to speak of the “nuclear winter” such an attack would have created on this planet, that was undoubtedly a grotesque underestimate.

When you think about it now (if you ever do), that plan and — to steal Jonathan Schell’s famed phrase — the fate of the earth that went with it should still stun you. After all, until August 6, 1945, Armageddon had been left to the gods. In my youth, however, the possibility of a human-caused, world-ending calamity was hard to forget — and not just because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In school, we took part in nuclear drills (“ducking and covering” under our desks), just as we did fire drills, just as today most schools conduct active-shooter drills, fearing the possibility of a mass killing on the premises. Similarly, while out walking, you would from time to time pass the symbol for a nuclear shelter, while the media regularly reported on people arguing about whether, in the case of a nuclear alert, to let their neighbors into their private backyard shelters or arm themselves to keep them out.

Even before the Cold War ended, however, the thought that we could all be blasted off this planet faded into the distant background, while the weaponry itself spread around the world. Just ask yourself: In these pandemic days, how often do you think about the fact that we’re always just a trigger finger or two away from nuclear annihilation? And that’s especially true now that we know that even a regional nuclear war between, say, India and Pakistan could create a nuclear-winter scenario in which billions of us might end up starving to death.

And yet, even as this country plans to invest almost $2 trillion in what’s called the “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal, except for news about a potential future Iranian bomb (but never Israel’s actual nukes), such weapons are seldom on anyone’s mind. At least for now, the end of the world, nuclear-style, is essentially forgotten history.

That Good-Old Nation-Building Urge

Right now, of course, the exhausting terror on all our minds is the updated version of that 1918 pandemic. And another terror has come with it: the nightmare of today’s anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, anti-social distancing, anti-whatever-crosses-your-mind version of the Republican Party, so extreme that its mask-less followers will even boo former President Donald Trump for suggesting they get vaccinated.

The question is: What do most of the leaders of the Republican Party actually represent? What terror do they embody? In a sense, the answer’s anything but complicated. In an all-too-literal way, they’re murderers. Given the urge of Republican governors and other legislators, national and local, to cancel vaccination mandates, stop school-masking, and the like, they’ve functionally become serial killers, the disease equivalents of our endless rounds of mass shooters. But putting all that aside for a moment, what else do they represent?

Let me try to answer that question in an indirect way by starting not with the terror they now represent but with America’s “Global War on Terror.” It was, of course, launched by President George W. Bush and his top officials in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Like their neocon supporters, they were convinced that, with the Soviet Union relegated to the history books, the world was rightfully theirs to shape however they wished. The United States was often referred to then as the “sole superpower” on Planet Earth and they felt it was about time that it acted accordingly. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested to his aides in the ruins of the Pentagon on 9/11, “Go massive — sweep it all up, things related and not.”

He was, of course, referring not simply to al-Qaeda, whose hijackers had just taken out the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, but to the autocratic ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, who had nothing whatsoever to do with that terror group. In other words, to those then in power in Washington, that murderous assault offered the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how, in a world of midgets, the globe’s military and economic giant should act.

It was a moment, as the phrase then went, for “nation building” at the point of a sword (or a drone) and President Bush (who had once been against such efforts) and his top officials came out for them in a major way. As he put it later, the invasion of Afghanistan was “the ultimate nation-building mission,” as would be the invasion of Iraq a year and a half later.

Of course, we now know all too well that the most powerful country on the planet, through its armed might and its uniquely well-funded military, would prove incapable of building anything, no less a new set of national institutions in far-off lands that would be subservient to this country. In great power terms, left alone on Planet Earth, the United States would prove to be the ultimate (un)builder of nations, a dismantler of the first order globally. Compared to Saddam’s Iraq, that country is today a chaotic mess; while Afghanistan, a poor but reasonably stable and decent place (even home to the “hippy trail“) before the Soviets and Americans fought it out there in the 1980s and the U.S. invaded in 2001 is now an almost unimaginable catastrophe zone.

The Republican Party Unbuilds America

Perhaps the strangest thing of all, though, was this: somehow, that powerful, all-American, twenty-first-century urge not to build but unbuild nations seems to have migrated home from our global war on (or, if you prefer, for) terror. As a result, while anything but an Iraq or Afghanistan, the United States has nonetheless begun to resemble a nation in the process of being unbuilt.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that you know what I mean. Think of it this way: thank god the party of Donald Trump was never called the Democratic Party, since it’s now in the process of “lawfully” (law by striking law) doing its best to dismantle the American democratic system as we’ve known it and, as far as that party’s concerned, the process has evidently only begun.

Keep in mind that Donald Trump would never have made it to the White House, nor would that process be so advanced if, under previous presidents, this country hadn’t put its taxpayer dollars to work dismantling the political and social systems of distant lands in such a striking fashion. Without the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to speak of the ongoing war against ISIS, al-Shabaab, and other proliferating terror outfits, without the siphoning off of our money into an ever-expanding military-industrial complex and the radical growth of inequality in this country, a former bankruptee and con man would never have found himself in the Oval Office. It would have been similarly inconceivable that, more than five years later, “as many as 60% of Republican voters [would] continue to believe his lies” in an essentially religious fashion.

In a sense, in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected to unbuild a country already beginning to come apart at the seams. In other words, he shouldn’t have been the shock that he was. A presidential version of autocracy had been growing here before he came near the White House, or how would his predecessors have been able to fight those wars abroad without the slightest input from Congress?

And now, of course, this nation is indeed being unbuilt big time by Republicans with the help of that former president and failed coupster. They already have a stranglehold on all too many states with the possibility of taking back Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024.

And let’s not forget the obvious. Amid a devastating pandemic and nation-unbuilding on an unnerving scale here at home, there’s another kind of unbuilding going on that couldn’t be more dangerous. After all, we’re living on a planet that is itself being unbuilt in striking ways. In the Christmas season just past, for instance, news about the extremes of weather globally — from a devastating typhoon in the Philippines to staggering flooding in parts of Brazil to the possible melting of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica — has been dramatic, to say the least.

Similarly, in this country in the last weeks of 2021, the word “record” was attached to weather events ranging from tornados of an unprecedented sort to winter heat waves to blizzards and drenching rains to — in Alaska of all places — soaring temperatures. And so it goes, as we face an unprecedented climate emergency with those Republicans and that “moderate” Democrat Joe Manchin all too ready not just to unbuild a nation but a world, aided and abetted by the worst criminals in history. And no, in this case, I’m not thinking of Donald Trump and crew, bad as they may be, but of the CEOs of the fossil-fuel companies.

So, here’s what I wonder: Assuming Armageddon doesn’t truly arrive, leaving us all in the dust (or water or fire), if you someday tell your grandchildren about this world of ours and what we’ve lived through, will the Pandemic of 2020-?? and the Climate Crisis of 1900-21?? be forgotten? Many decades from now, might such nightmares be relegated to the scribbled notes found in some ancient relative’s account of his or her life?

As 2022 begins, I can only hope so, which, in itself, couldn’t be a sadder summary of our times.

Copyright 2022 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.


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!

1. Iraq

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.

2. Afghanistan

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 Guardian reported,

“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?

3. Covid

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.


The dark Trumptopia we inhabit is the world science fiction warned us about

Who knew that Martians, inside monstrous tripodal machines taller than many buildings, actually ululated, that they made eerily haunting "ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla" sounds? Well, let me tell you that they do — or rather did when they were devastating London.

I know that because I recently reread H.G. Wells's 1898 novel War of the Worlds, while revisiting an early moment in my own life. Admittedly, I wasn't in London when those Martian machines, hooting away, stalked boldly into that city, hungry in the most literal fashion imaginable for human blood. No surprise there, since that was almost a century and a quarter ago. Still, at 77, thanks to that book, I was at least able to revisit a moment that had been mine long enough ago to seem almost like fiction.

Yes, all those years back I had been reading that very same novel for the very first time under the covers by flashlight. I still remember being gripped, thrilled, and scared, at a time when my parents thought I was asleep. And believe me, if you do that at perhaps age 12 or 13, you really do feel as if you've been plunged into a futuristic world from hell, ululations and all.

But of course, scary as it might have been, alone in the dark, to secretly live through the Martian desolation of parts of England and the slaughter of countless human beings at their hands (actually, more like the tentacles of octopi), as if they were no more than irritating bugs, I was always aware of another reality as well. After all, there was still the morning (guaranteed to come), my breakfast, my dog Jeff, my bus trip to school with my friend Jim, my anything-but-exciting ordinary life, and my sense, in the ascendant Cold War America of the 1950s, of a future extending to the distant horizon that looked boring as hell, without even a stray Martian in sight. (How wrong I would turn out to be from the Vietnam War years on!)

I felt that I needed some Martians then. I needed something, anything, to shake up that life of mine, but the sad truth is that I don't need them now, nor do the rest of us. Yet, in so many ways, in an America anything but ascendant, on a planet that looks like it's in a distinctly War-of-the-Worlds-style version of danger, the reality is that they're already here.

And sadly enough, we Americans and humanity in general seem little more effective against the various Martian stand-ins of today than the human beings Wells wrote about were then. Remember that his Martians finally went down, but not at the hands of humanity. They were taken out, "after all man's devices had failed," as the novelist expressed it then, "by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth." The conquerors of those otherwise triumphant Martians were, he reported, "the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared."

If only we were so lucky in our own Wellsian, or do I mean Trumptopian (as in dystopian, not utopian) world?

Living in a Science-Fiction (or Science-Fact) Novel?

In the 1950s, I went on to read, among other books, John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids (about giant killer plants taking humanity apart), Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy which sent me into distant galaxies. And that was before, in 1966, I boarded the USS Enterprise with Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock to head for deep space in person — at least via my TV screen in that pre-Meta era.

Today, space is evidently something left to billionaires, but in the 1950s and 1960s the terror of invading aliens or plants with a taste for human flesh (even if they had perhaps been bioengineered in the all-too-Earthbound Soviet Union) had a certain strange appeal for the bored boy I was then. The future, it seemed, needed a Martian or two or a Triffid or two. Had I known, it wouldn't have mattered in the least to me then that Wells had evidently created those Martians, in part, to give his British readers some sense of what it must have felt like for the Tasmanians, living on an island off the coast of Australia, to be conquered and essentially eradicated by British colonists early in the nineteenth century.

So, yes, I was indeed then fascinated by often horrific futures, by what was coming to be known as science fiction. But honestly, if you had told me that, as a grownup, I would find myself living in a science-fiction (or do I mean science-fact?) novel called perhaps Trumptopia, or The Day of the Heat Dome, or something similar, I would have laughed you out of the room. Truly, I never expected to find myself in such a world without either those covers or that flashlight as protection.

As president, Donald Trump would prove to be both a Martian and a Triffid. He would, in fact, be the self-appointed and elected stand-in for what turned out to be little short of madness personified. When a pandemic struck humanity, he would, as in that fictional England of 1898, take on the very role of a Martian, an alien ready to murder on a mass scale. Though few like to think of it that way, we spent almost two years after the Covid-19 pandemic began here being governed (to use a word that now sounds far too polite) by a man who, like his supporters and like various Republican governors today, was ready to slaughter Americans in staggering numbers.

As Trump's former White House Covid-19 response coordinator Deborah Birx recently testified, by rejecting everything from masking to social distancing in the early months of the pandemic (not to speak of personally hosting mass superspreader events at the White House and elsewhere), he would prove an all-too-literal murderer — though Birx was far too polite to use such a word. In the midst of a pandemic that has, by now, killed an estimated 17 million people globally and perhaps more than a million Americans, he would, she believed, be responsible for at least 130,000 of those early deaths. That's already slaughter on a monumental scale. (Keep in mind that, in the Trumpian tradition, from Florida's Ron DeSantis to Texas's Greg Abbott, Republican governors have continued in that distinctly murderous tradition to this very moment.)

Lights Off, Flashlights On?

And when it came to slaughter, the Trumpian/Republican response to Covid-19 will likely prove to be the milder kind of destruction they represented. As a climate denialist (it was a Chinese hoax!) and a major supporter of the fossil-fuel industry (no wonder the Saudis adored him!), The Donald would prove all too ready to all-too-literally boost the means to destroy this planet.

And wouldn't you say that the various Trump supporters who now make up what's still, for reasons unknown, called the Republican Party are ululating all too often these days, as they hover over dead and dying Americans, or at least those they would be perfectly willing to see wiped off this planet?

Sadly enough, however, you can't just blame Donald Trump and the Republicans for our increasingly endangered planet. After all, who needs giant Martians or monstrous human-destroying plants when carbon dioxide and methane will, in the long run, do the trick? Who needs aliens like Martians and Triffids, given the global fossil-fuel industry?

Keep in mind that more representatives of that crew were accredited as delegates at the recent Glasgow climate-change talks than of any country on the planet. That industry's CEOs have long been all too cognizant of climate change and how it could ravage this world of ours. They have also been all too willing to ignore it or even to put significant funds into climate-denial outfits. If, in 2200, there are still historians left to write about this world of ours, I have little doubt that they'll view those CEOs as the greatest criminals in what has been a sordid tale of human history.

Nor, sadly enough, when it comes to this country, can you leave the Democrats out of the picture of global destruction either. Consider this, for instance: after the recent talks in Glasgow, President Biden returned home reasonably triumphant, swearing he would "lead by example" when it came to climate-change innovation. He was, of course, leaving behind in Scotland visions of a future world where, according to recent calculations, the temperature later in this century could hit 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.32 to 4.86 degrees Fahrenheit) above that of the pre-industrial age. That, of course, would be a formula for destruction on a devastating scale.

Just to consider the first leading "example" around, four days after Glasgow ended, the Biden administration began auctioning off to oil and gas companies leases for drilling rights to 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico. And that, after all, is an administration headed by a president who actually seems committed to doing something about climate change, as in his ever-shrinking Build Back Better bill. But that bill is, of course, being Manchinized right now by a senator who made almost half a million dollars last year off a coal brokerage firm he founded (and that his son now runs). In fact, it may never pass the Senate with its climate-change elements faintly intact. Keep in mind as well that Manchin is hardly alone. One in four senators reportedly still have fossil-fuel investments and the households of at least 28 of them from both parties "hold a combined minimum of $3.7 million and as much as $12.6 million in fossil-fuel investments."

Take one small story, if you want to grasp where this country seems headed right now. As you may remember, the Trump administration worked assiduously to infringe upon national parks and indigenous lands to produce yet more fossil fuels. Recently, President Biden announced that his administration, having already approved a much-protested $9 billion pipeline to carry significant amounts of oil through tribal lands in Minnesota, would take one small but meaningful remedial step. As the New York Times described it, the administration would move "to block new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the nation's oldest and most culturally significant Native American sites."

I know you won't be shocked by what followed, sadly enough. The response was predictable. As the Times put it, that modest move "generated significant pushback from Republicans and from New Mexico's oil and gas industry." Natch! And that, of course, is but the smallest of stories at a time when we have a White House at least officially committed to dealing in some reasonable fashion with the overheating of this planet.

Now, imagine that the Republicans win the House and Senate in the 2022 elections and Donald Trump (or some younger version of the same) takes the 2024 presidential election in a country in which Republican state legislators have already rejiggered so many voting laws and gerrymandered so many voting districts that the results could be devastating. You would then, of course, have a party controlling the White House and Congress that's filled with climate-change denialists and fossil-fuel enthusiasts of the first order. (Who cares that this country is already being battered by fire, flood, and heat in a devastating fashion?) To grasp what that would mean, all you have to do is expand the ten-mile radius of that New Mexican story to the country as a whole — and then the planet.

And at that point, in all honesty, you could turn off the lights, flick on that old flashlight of mine, and be guaranteed that you, your children, and your grandchildren will experience something in your everyday lives that should have been left under the covers. As almost happened in The War of the Worlds, it's possible that we could, in essence, kiss this planet goodbye and if that's not science fiction transformed into fact of the first order, what is?

The Martians Have Arrived

You know, H.G. Wells wasn't such a dope when it came to the future. After all, his tripodal Martian machines had a "kind of arm [that] carried a complicated metallic case, about which green flashes scintillated, and out of the funnel of this there smoked the Heat-Ray." In 1898, he was already thinking about how heat of a certain sort could potentially destroy humanity. Today, the "Martians" stepping out of those space capsules happen to be human beings and they, too, are emerging with devastating heat rays.

Just ask my friend journalist Jane Braxton Little, whose town, Greenville, largely burned down in California's record-breaking Dixie Fire this fall, a climate-change-influenced inferno so vast and fierce that it proved capable of creating its own weather. Imagine that for our future.

Of course, in another sense, you could say that we've been living in a science-fiction novel since August 6, 1945, when that first American nuclear bomb devastated Hiroshima. Until then, we humans could do many terrible things, but of one thing we were incapable: the destruction of this world. In the nearly eight decades that followed, however, the Martians have indeed arrived and we human beings have taken over a role once left to the gods: the ability to create Armageddon.

Still, the truth is that we don't know how our own sci-fi tale will end. As in War of the Worlds, will some equivalent of those bacteria that took down the Martians arrive on the scene, perhaps some scientific discovery about how to deal so much better with the greenhouse gases eternally heading into our atmosphere? Will humanity, Greta Thunberg-style, come together in some new, more powerful way to stop this world from destroying itself? Will some brilliant invention, some remarkable development in alternative energy use, make all the difference in the world? Will the United States, China, and other key fossil-fuel burners finally come together in a way now hardly imaginable?

Or will we truly find ourselves living in Trumptopia?

Stay tuned.

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.

The American Century has been a disaster of the first order

On February 17, 1941, less than 10 months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and the U.S. found itself in a global war, Henry Luce, in an editorial in Life magazine (which he founded along with Time and Fortune), declared the years to come "the American Century." He then urged this country's leaders to "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit."

And he wasn't wrong, was he? Eight decades later, who would deny that we've lived through something like an American century? After all, in 1945, the U.S. emerged triumphant from World War II, a rare nation remarkably unravaged by that war (despite the 400,000 casualties it had suffered). With Great Britain heading for the imperial sub-basement, Washington found itself instantly the military and economic powerhouse on the planet.

As it turned out, however, to "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence," one other thing was necessary and, fortunately, at hand: an enemy. From then on, America's global stature and power would, in fact, be eternally based on facing down enemies. Fortunately, in 1945, there was that other potential, if war-ravaged, powerhouse, the Soviet Union. That future "superpower" had been an ally in World War II, but no longer. It would thereafter be the necessary enemy in a "cold war" that sometimes threatened to turn all too hot. And it would, of course, ensure that what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex (and a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying many planets like this one) would be funded in a way once historically inconceivable in what might still have passed for peacetime.

In 1991, however, after a disastrous war in Afghanistan, the Soviet empire finally collapsed in economic ruin. As it went down, hosannas of triumph rang out in a surprised Washington. Henry Luce, by then dead almost a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly have been thrilled.

The Indispensable Superpower

In the meantime, in those cold-verging-on-hot-war years, the U.S. ruled the roost in what came to be known as "the free world," while its corporations came to economically dominate much of the planet. Though it would be a true global imperial power with hundreds of military bases scattered across every continent but Antarctica, there would prove to be significant limits to that power — and I'm not just thinking of the Soviet Union or its communist ally (later opponent), Mao Zedong's China.

At the edges of what was then called "the Third World" — whether in Southeast Asia during and after the disastrous Vietnam War or in Iran after 1979 — American power often enough came a cropper in memorable ways. Still, in those years, on a planet some 25,000 miles in circumference, Washington certainly had a remarkable reach and, in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, it seemed as if Luce had been a prophet of the first order. After all, the United States as the ultimate imperial power had — or so, at least, it appeared at that moment — been left without even a major power, no less another superpower, as an enemy on a planet that looked, at least to those in Washington, like it was ours for the taking. And indeed, take it we soon enough would try to do.

No wonder, in those years, American politicians and key officials filled the airwaves with self-congratulation and self-praise for what they liked to think of as the most "exceptional," "indispensable," "greatest" power on the planet and sure to remain so forever and a day.

In another sense, however, problems loomed instantly. Things were so desperate for the military-industrial complex in a country promised a cut in "defense" spending, then known as a "peace dividend," thanks to the triumph over the Soviets, that enemies had to be created out of whole cloth. They were, it turned out, fundamental to the organization of American global power. A world without them was essentially inconceivable or, at least, inconvenient beyond imagining. Hence, the usefulness of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein who would be not-quite-taken-down in the first Gulf War of 1991.

Perhaps the classic example of the desperate need to create enemies, however, would occur early in the next century. Remember the "Axis of Evil" announced (and denounced) by President George W. Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address? He called out three states — Iran, Iraq, and North Korea — that then had not the slightest way of injuring the U.S. ("States like these, and their terrorist allies," insisted the president, "constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.") Of course, this was, in part, based on the claim that Iraq might have just such weapons of mass destruction (it didn't!) and that it would, in turn, be willing to give them to terror groups to attack the U.S. That lie would become part of the basis for the invasion of that country the next year.

Think of all this as the strangest kind of imperial desperation from a superpower that seemed to have it all. And the result, of course, after Osama bin Laden launched his air force and those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, was the Global War on Terror, which would soon prove a self-imposed, self-created disaster.

Or think of it another way, when considering the imperial fate of America and this planet: the crew who ran Washington (and the U.S. military) then proved — as would be true throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century — incapable of learning even the most basic lessons history had to offer. After all, only a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, thanks in significant part to what its leader called its "bleeding wound," a disastrous war in Afghanistan in which the Red Army became endlessly mired, the Bush administration would launch its own disastrous war in Afghanistan in which it would become — yep, endlessly mired. It was as if this country, in its moment of triumph, couldn't help but take the Soviet path into the future, the one heading for the exits.

Cold Wars and Hot Wars

In November 2021, just three decades after the implosion of the Soviet Union, no one could imagine any longer that such a vision of victory and success-to-come caught the underlying realities of this country or this century. The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House five years earlier had been the most visible proof of that.

It's hard to imagine today that he wasn't the truest of all products of that very American Century, a genuine message from it to us and the rest of the world. He was, after all, the man who, in his key slogan in 2016 as this country's first declinist candidate for president — "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) — suggested that it had been all over for a while when it came to this country being the first player in history. He had, in fact, been coughed up by an authoritarian system already in formation. He vaulted into office not just claiming that the American system was a fraud, but that it had lost its firstness and its greatness. In response to that message, so many Americans who felt that they, too, had lost their way, that they were, in fact, being crushed by history, voted for him. In a mere four years in the Oval Office, he would bring a true sense of enemy-ness home in a new and shattering way, creating a world in which the enemy was distinctly American and needed to be overthrown.

The topsy-turvy nature of the Trumpian version of the American century is something this country — and certainly the Biden administration — still hasn't fully come to grips with. For decades, we had indeed led the rest of the world and this is what we had led them into: the conspiracy theory of history (almost any conspiracy theory you want to mention), the "fraudulent" election now being eternally denounced by Donald Trump, the coup attempt of January 6th, a Republican Party that's become the opposition from hell, a planet on which fossil-fuel companies (often American) knew decades ago just what was happening with the climate and invested their extra funds in making sure that other Americans didn't, and… but why go on? If you don't sense the depth and truth of this tale of the American Century, just ask Joe Manchin.

Its final decades seem to be a time when this country's politicians can hardly agree on a thing, including how to keep Americans safe in a pandemic moment. Check out the New York Times Covid-19 "global hotspots" map and, in these last months, it's looked like a replay of the Cold War, since the U.S. and Russia are the two largest "hotspots" of death and destruction on the planet, each colored a wild red. Think of it as a new kind of hot war.

And little wonder at the confusion of it all. I mean, talk about a superpower that proved incapable of learning from history! In response to the slaughter of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 — and mind you, something like 3,000 Americans were being slaughtered every two days most of this year thanks, in part, to the murderous leadership of various Trumpian figures in this pandemic moment — the greatest power ever decided that the only response imaginable to 9/11 was to launch its own war in Afghanistan. Thank you, Soviet Union, for your example (not to speak of our own example in Vietnam back when)! And yes, 20 years later, on a planet far more filled with Islamist terror groups than might have seemed even faintly imaginable on September 11, 2001, failure is just another word for a "new cold war."

Oh, yes, in 2021, there is indeed another power rising on this planet, one it's necessary to organize against with all due haste — or so the Biden administration and the U.S. military would like us to believe. And no, I'm not thinking about the power of a fast-heating climate, which threatens to take down anyone's century. I'm thinking, of course, about China.

An Upside-Down Version of 1991

As we head into the final two decades of the all-American era that Luce predicted, think about this: the American Century has been a disaster of the first order. In the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S. decided to remake the world and did so — at least in the sense of allowing climate change to run riot on Planet Earth — while, in the process, unmaking itself.

So, 80 years after Henry Luce proclaimed its existence, welcome indeed to the American Century, or rather to the increasingly nightmarish planet it's left us on. Welcome to an age of billionaires (that could even one day see its first trillionaire); to levels of desperate inequality that would once have been unimaginable here; to large-scale death due to a pandemic from hell mismanaged by men who were functionally murderers; and to a literally hellish future that, without the kind of war-style mobilization Joe Manchin among others is ensuring will never happen, will sooner rather than later envelop this country and the planet it meant to rule in a climate disaster.

Honestly, could the Chinese century — not that it's likely, given how the world is trending — be worse? You don't even have to leave this country and go to Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Yemen to judge that question anymore.

And sadly, the one thing the triumphalists of 1991 agreed on — and American politicians have never changed their minds about, no matter the course of our wars — was funding the military-industrial complex in a way that they never would have funded either the bolstering of human health or the halting of climate change. That urge to dump taxpayer dollars into the American war machine, despite failure after failure in war after war, has never been stanched. It remains more or less the only thing congressional Democrats and Republicans can still agree on — that and the need for an enemy to endlessly prepare to fight.

And now, of course, the imperial power that simply couldn't exist without such enemies and has left Afghanistan and much of the rest of its War on Terror (despite the odd drone strike) largely in the lurch, is in the process of creating its newest enemy for a new age: China. Think of the new cold war that the Biden administration (like the Trump administration before it) has been promoting as 1991 turned upside down when it comes to enemy-ness. The ultimate moment of American triumph and then of despair both needed their distant enemies, an ever-more well financed military-industrial-congressional complex, and an ever more "modernized" nuclear arsenal.

Oh, the hubris of it all. We were the country that would remake the world in our image. We would bring "liberation" and "democracy" to the Afghans and the Iraqis, among others, and glory to this land. In the end, of course, we brought them little but pain, displacement, and death, while bringing American democracy itself, with all its failings, to the autocratic edge of hell in a world of "fraudulent" elections and coupsters galore.

Now, it seems, we are truly living out the end of the American Century in the world it created. Who woulda thunk it?

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.

The reality of electing an assassin-in-chief

What a way to end a war! Apologies all around! We're so damn sorry — or actually, maybe not!

I'm thinking, of course, about CENTCOM commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr.'s belated apology for the drone assassination of seven children as the last act, or perhaps final war crime, in this country's 20-year-long Afghan nightmare.

Where to begin (or end, for that matter) when considering that never-ending conflict, which seems — for Americans, anyway — finally to be over? After all these years, don't ask me.

Hey, one thing seems clear to me, though: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley undoubtedly didn't apologize for that last Hellfire missile attack — he, in fact, originally labeled it a "righteous strike" — or the endless civilian deaths caused by American air power, because he's had so many other things on his mind in these years. As a start, he was far too preoccupied calling his Beijing opposite, General Li Zuocheng, to discuss the possibility that the president of the United States, one Donald Trump, might have the urge to start a war with China before leaving office.

Actually, had Milley called me instead, I would have assured him that I believed The Donald then incapable of doing anything other than watching Fox News, going bonkers over the election, and possibly launching an attack (nuclear or otherwise) on Joe Biden and the Democrats, no less Congress — remember January 6th! — or even his own vice president, Mike Pence, for certifying the vote. Maybe, in fact, Milley should have skipped the Chinese entirely and called Republican Representatives Liz Cheney and Anthony Gonzalez to warn them that, sooner or later, the president might go nuclear on them.

Of course, in our increasingly mad, mad world, who really knows anymore?

I do know one thing, however, mostly because I wrote it so long ago and it stuck in my mind (even if in no one else's): ever since the presidency of George W. Bush, who reportedly kept "his own personal scorecard" in a White House desk drawer of drone-killed or to-be-killed "terrorists," every American president has been an assassin-in-chief. No question about it, Joe Biden is, too. I don't know why the label never caught on. After all, assassination, once officially an illegal act for a president, is now, by definition, simply part of the job — and the end of the Afghan War will do nothing to stop that.

I first labeled our future presidents that way in 2012, after the New York Times reported that Barack Obama was attending "Terror Tuesday" meetings at the White House where names were regularly being added to a "kill list" of people to be droned off this planet. The first such Obama assassination, as Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote at the time, would, prophetically enough, kill "not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and [leave] behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents." Sound faintly familiar so many years later when U.S. drones and other aircraft have reportedly knocked off at least 22,000 civilians across the Greater Middle East and Africa?

Killers on the Loose

OMG, apologies all around! There I go, in such an all-American fashion, droning on and on.

Still, it's hard to stop, since it's obvious that presidential drone assassinations will go on and on, too. Just think about the thrill of what, in the wake of Afghanistan, Joe Biden has started to call "over-the-horizon capabilities" (of the very sort that killed those seven kids in Kabul). In fact, it seems possible that this country's forever wars of the last two decades will now morph into forever drone wars. That, in turn, means that our 20-year war of terror (which we always claimed was a war on terror) will undoubtedly continue into the unknown future. After all, in the last two decades, Washington's done a remarkable job of preparing the way for such strikes, at least if you're talking about ensuring that extreme Islamist terror groups would spread ever more widely across ever larger parts of this increasingly shambolic planet.

Here's the thing, though: if, in 2021, you want to talk about assassins-in-chief who never feel the urge to apologize while putting so many in peril, you don't have to head over the horizon at all. Take my word for it. You need look no further than former president Donald Trump or, at a state level, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, among others, or simply most Republican politicians these days. Once you refocus on them, you're no longer talking about drone-killing foreign terrorists (or foreign children), you're talking about the former president (or governor or senator or congressional representative or state legislator) assassinating American citizens. When it comes to being that kind of assassin, by promoting unmasking, super-spreader events (including unmasked school attendance), and opposition to vaccine mandates, among other things, you're speaking of the murder of innocents right here in the U.S. of A.

Do you even remember how President Trump, returning from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after his own case of Covid-19 had been treated, stepped out onto a White House balcony to rip off his mask in front of every camera in town? With 690,000 Americans now dead from the pandemic (and possibly so many more), one thing is clear: the simplest of precautions would have radically cut those numbers.

And if you don't mind my droning on yet more about that crew of assassins (and you might throw in, among others, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who, in 2020, made $491,949 from his stock holdings in the West Virginia coal brokerage firm he founded years ago), what about all the politicians who have promoted the heating of this planet to what could someday be the boiling point? After all, if you happen to be on the West Coast, where the fire season no longer seems to end and "heat domes" are a new reality, or in large parts of the country still experiencing a megadrought of the sort never seen before in U.S. history, you'd have to say that we're already living in the Pyrocene Age. And I'm not even referring to the recent U.N. report suggesting that, if things don't change quickly enough, the temperature of this planet might rise 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.86 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. That would, of course, produce an all-too-literal hell on Earth (and mind you, such scientific predictions about climate change have often proven underestimates).

The U.S. left Afghanistan in a scene so chaotic that it captured media attention for days, but don't for a moment imagine that such a sense of chaos was left behind at Kabul airport. After all, it's clear enough that we now live in a world and a country in increasing disarray.

Of the two great imperial powers of the last century, the USSR and the U.S., one is long gone and the other in growing disrepair, not just abroad but at home as well. This country seems to be heading, however slowly, for the exit (even as its president continues to proclaim that "America is back!"). And don't count on a "rising China" to solve this planet's problems either. It is, after all, by far the greatest greenhouse gas emitter of our moment and guaranteed to suffer its own version of chaos in the years to come.

Downhill All the Way?

I mean, I'm 77 years old (and feeling older all the time) and yet, in the worst sense possible, I'm living in a new world as a pandemic rages across America and climate change continues to show off its all-too-visibly grim wonders. Just go to the New York Times website any day of the week and look at its global map of Covid-19 "hotspots." What you'll find is that the country our leaders have long loved to hail as the most extraordinary, indispensable, and powerful on the planet is now eternally an extreme pandemic "hot spot." How extraordinary when you consider its wealth, its access to vaccines and masks, and its theoretical ability to organize itself! But give some credit where it's due. America's assassins have been remarkably hard at work not just in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia, but right here at home.

In those distant lands, we eternally used Hellfire missiles to kill women and children. But when you fight such wars forever and a day abroad, it turns out that their spirit comes home in a hellfire-ish sort of way. And indeed, those forever wars certainly did come home with Donald Trump, whose accession to the White House would have been unimaginable without them. The result: the U.S. is not only an eternal global hotspot for Covid-19 (more than 2,000 deaths a day recently), but increasingly a madhouse of assassins of every sort, including Republican politicians determined to take out the American democratic system as we knew it, voting law by voting law, state by Republican-controlled state. And that madness, while connected to Trump, QAnon, the anti-vaxxers, and the like, is also deeply connected to how this country decided to respond to the tragedy of 9/11 — by launching those wars that America's generals and the military-industrial complex fought so disastrously but oh-so-profitably all these years.

By now, this country is almost unimaginable without its drone assassins and the conflicts that have gone with them, especially the one that began it all in Afghanistan. In the wake of that war (though don't hold your breath for the next time an American drone takes after some terrorist there and once again kills a bunch of innocents), the Biden administration has moved on to far more peaceful activities. I'm thinking, for instance, of the way it's guaranteed the Australians nuclear submarines and the U.S. military, with a mere 750 military bases around the planet, will, in return, get a couple of more such bases in that distant land.

Hey, the French were pissed (for all the wrong reasons) and even withdrew their ambassador from Washington, feeling that Joe Biden and crew had no right to screw up their own arms deals with Australia. The Chinese were disturbed for most of the right reasons (and undoubtedly a few wrong ones as well), as they thought about yet another set of undetectable nuclear subs in the waters off the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.

So it goes, as officials in Washington seem incapable of not having war of one sort or another, hot or cold, on the brain. And keep in mind that I haven't even begun to describe our deathly new reality, not in a country where the Delta strain of Covid-19 has run wild, especially in states headed by gubernatorial assassins. Meanwhile, too much of the rest of the world remains an unvaccinated hothouse for potentially new strains of a pandemic that may be with us, if you don't mind such a mixed metaphor, until hell freezes over.

But you know all this! You've long sensed it. You're living it! Who isn't?

Still, since I'm at it, let me just quote myself (the very definition of droning on) from that article I wrote a decade ago on the president as assassin-in-chief:

"But — though it's increasingly heretical to say this — the perils facing Americans, including relatively modest dangers from terrorism, aren't the worst things on our planet. Electing an assassin-in-chief, no matter who you vote for, is worse. Pretending that the Church of St. Drone offers any kind of reasonable or even practical solutions on this planet of ours, is worse yet. And even worse, once such a process begins, it's bound to be downhill all the way."

In 2012, the phrase "over the horizon" hadn't yet become presidential, but "downhill all the way" seems like a reasonable enough substitute. And how sad it is, since other, better futures are genuinely imaginable. Just mask up and give it some thought.

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.

The American empire unmade Afghanistan — and fueled its own decline

They weren't kidding when they called Afghanistan the "graveyard of empires." Indeed, that cemetery has just taken another imperial body. And it wasn't pretty, was it? Not that anyone should be surprised. Even after 20 years of preparation, a burial never is.

In fact, the shock and awe(fulness) in Kabul and Washington over these last weeks shouldn't have been surprising, given our history. After all, we were the ones who prepared the ground and dug the grave for the previous interment in that very cemetery.

That, of course, took place between 1979 and 1989 when Washington had no hesitation about using the most extreme Islamists — arming, funding, training, and advising them — to ensure that one more imperial carcass, that of the Soviet Union, would be buried there. When, on February 15, 1989, the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, crossing the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, Soviet commander General Boris Gromov, the last man out, said, "That's it. Not one Soviet soldier or officer is behind my back." It was his way of saying so long, farewell, good riddance to the endless war that the leader of the Soviet Union had by then taken to calling "the bleeding wound." Yet, in its own strange fashion, that "graveyard" would come home with them. After all, they returned to a bankrupt land, sucked dry by that failed war against those American- and Saudi-backed Islamist extremists.

Two years later, the Soviet Union would implode, leaving just one truly great power on Planet Earth — along with, of course, those very extremists Washington had built into a USSR-destroying force. Only a decade later, in response to an "air force" manned by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers dispatched by Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi prince who had been part of our anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan, the world's "sole superpower" would head directly for that graveyard (as bin Laden desired).

Despite the American experience in Vietnam during the previous century — the Afghan effort of the 1980s was meant to give the USSR its own "Vietnam" — key Bush administration officials were so sure of themselves that, as the New York Times recently reported, they wouldn't even consider letting the leaders of the Taliban negotiate a surrender once our invasion began. On September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already given an aide these instructions, referring not just to Bin Laden but Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein: "Go massive. Sweep it up, all up. Things related and not." Now, he insisted, "The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders." (Of course, had you read war reporter Anand Gopal's 2014 book, No Good Men Among the Living, you would have long known just how fruitlessly Taliban leaders tried to surrender to a power intent on war and nothing but war.)

Allow a surrender and have everything grind to a disappointing halt? Not a chance, not when the Afghan War was the beginning of what was to be an American triumph of global proportions. After all, the future invasion of Iraq and the domination of the oil-rich Greater Middle East by the one and only power on the planet were already on the agenda. How could the leaders of such a confident land with a military funded at levels the next most powerful countries combined couldn't match have imagined its own 2021 version of surrender?

And yet, once again, 20 years later, Afghanistan has quite visibly and horrifyingly become a graveyard of empire (as well, of course, as a graveyard for Afghans). Perhaps it's only fitting that the secretary of defense who refused the surrender of the enemy in 2001 was recently buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. In fact, the present secretary of defense and the head of the joint chiefs of staff both reportedly "knelt before Mr. Rumsfeld's widow, Joyce, who was in a wheelchair, and presented her with the flag from her husband's coffin."

Meanwhile, Joe Biden was the third president since George W. Bush and crew launched this country's forever wars to find himself floundering haplessly in that same graveyard of empires. If the Soviet example didn't come to mind, it should have as Democrats and Republicans, President Biden and former President Trump flailed at each other over their supposedly deep feelings for the poor Afghans being left behind, while this country withdrew its troops from Kabul airport in a land where "rest in peace" has long had no meaning.

America's True Infrastructure Spending

Here's the thing, though: don't assume that Afghanistan is the only imperial graveyard around or that the U.S. can simply withdraw, however ineptly, chaotically, and bloodily, leaving that country to history — and the Taliban. Put another way, even though events in Kabul and its surroundings took over the mainstream news recently, the Soviet example should remind us that, when it comes to empires, imperial graveyards are hardly restricted to Afghanistan.

In fact, it might be worth taking a step back to look at the big picture. For decades, the U.S. has been involved in a global project that's come to be called "nation building," even if, from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Afghanistan and Iraq, it often seemed an endless exercise in nation (un)building. An imperial power of the first order, the United States long ago largely rejected the idea of straightforward colonies. In the years of the Cold War and then of the war on terror, its leaders were instead remarkably focused on setting up an unparalleled empire of military bases and garrisons on a global scale. This and the wars that went with it have been the unsettling American imperial project since World War II.

And that unsettling should be taken quite literally. Even before recent events in Afghanistan, Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that this country's conflicts of the last two decades across the Greater Middle East and Africa had displaced at least 38 million people, which should be considered nation (un)building of the first order.

Since the Cold War began, Washington has engaged in an endless series of interventions around the planet from Iran to the Congo, Chile to Guatemala, as well as in conflicts, large and small. Now, with Joe Biden having withdrawn from America's disastrous Afghan War, you might wonder whether it's all finally coming to an end, even if the U.S. still insists on maintaining 750 sizeable military bases globally.

Count on this, though: the politicians of the great power that hasn't won a significant war since 1945 will agree on one thing — that the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex deserve yet more funding (no matter what else doesn't). In truth, those institutions have been the major recipients of actual infrastructure spending over much of what might still be thought of as the American century. They've been the true winners in this society, along with the billionaires who, even in the midst of a grotesque pandemic, raked in profits in a historic fashion. In the process, those tycoons created possibly the largest inequality gap on the planet, one that could destabilize a democracy even if nothing else were going on. The losers? Don't even get me started.

Or think of it this way: yes, in August 2021, it was Kabul, not Washington, D.C., that fell to the enemy, but the nation (un)building project in which this country has been involved over these last decades hasn't remained thousands of miles away. Only half-noticed here, it's been coming home, big time. Donald Trump's rise to the presidency, amid election promises to end America's "endless wars," should really be seen as part of that war-induced (un)building project at home. In his own strange fashion, The Donald was Kabul before its time and his rise to power unimaginable without those distant conflicts and the spending that went with them, all of which, however unnoticed, unsettled significant parts of this society.

Climate War in a Graveyard of Empires?

You can tell a lot about a country if you know where its politicians unanimously agree to invest taxpayer dollars.

At this very moment, the U.S. is in a series of crises, none worse than the heat, fire, and flood "season" that's hit not just the megadrought-ridden West, or inundated Tennessee, or hurricane-whacked Louisiana, or the tropical-storm-tossed Northeast, but the whole country. Unbearable warmth, humidity, fires, smoke, storms, and power outages, that's us. Fortunately, as always, Congress stands in remarkable unanimity when it comes to investing money where it truly matters.

And no, you knew perfectly well that I wasn't referring to the creation of a green-energy economy. In fact, Republicans wouldn't hear of it and the Biden administration, while officially backing the idea, has already issued more than 2,000 permits to fossil-fuel companies for new drilling and fracking on federal lands. In August, the president even called on OPEC — the Saudis, in particular — to produce significantly more oil to halt a further rise in gas prices at the pump.

As America's eternally losing generals come home from Kabul, what I actually had in mind was the one thing just about everyone in Washington seems to agree on: funding the military-industrial complex beyond their wildest dreams. Congress has recently spent months trying to pass a bill that would, over a number of years, invest an extra $550 billion in this country's badly tattered infrastructure, but never needs time like that to pass Pentagon and other national security budgets that, for years now, have added up to well over a trillion dollars annually.

In another world, with the Afghan War ending and U.S. forces (at least theoretically) coming home, it might seem logical to radically cut back on the money invested in the military-industrial complex and its ever more expensive weaponry. In another American world on an increasingly endangered planet, significantly scaling back American forces in every way and investing our tax dollars in a very different kind of "defense" would seem logical indeed. And yet, as of this moment, as Greg Jaffe writes at the Washington Post, the Pentagon continues to suck up "a larger share of discretionary spending than any other government agency."

Fortunately for those who want to keep funding the U.S. military in the usual fashion, there's a new enemy out there with which to replace the Taliban, one that the Biden foreign-policy team and a "pivoting" military is already remarkably eager to confront: China.

At least when the latest infrastructure money is spent, if that compromise bill ever really makes it through a Congress that can't tie its own shoelaces, something will be accomplished. Bridges and roads will be repaired, new electric-vehicle-charging stations set up, and so on. When, however, the Pentagon spends the money just about everyone in Washington agrees it should have, we're guaranteed yet more weaponry this country doesn't need, poorly produced for thoroughly exorbitant sums, if not more failed wars as well.

I mean, just think about what the American taxpayer "invested" in the losing wars of this century. According to Brown University's Costs of War Project, $2.313 trillion went into that disastrous Afghan War alone and at least $6.4 trillion by 2020 into the full-scale war on terror. And that doesn't even include the estimated future costs of caring for American veterans of those conflicts. In the end, the total may prove to be in the $8 trillion range. Hey, at least $88 billion just went into supplying and training the Afghan military, most of which didn't even exist by August 2021 and the rest of which melted away when the Taliban advanced.

Just imagine for a minute where we might really be today if Congress had spent close to $8 trillion rebuilding this society, rather than (un)building and wrecking distant ones.

Rest assured, this is not the country that ended World War II in triumph or even the one that outlasted the Soviet Union and whose politicians then declared it the most exceptional, indispensable nation ever. This is a land that's crumbling before our eyes, being (un)built month by month, year by year. Its political system is on the verge of dissolving into who knows what amid a raft of voter suppression laws, wild claims about the most recent presidential election, an assault on the Capitol itself, and conspiracy theories galore. Its political parties seem ever more hostile, disturbed, and disparate. Its economy is a gem of inequality, its infrastructure crumbling, its society seemingly coming apart at the seams.

And on a planet that could be turning into a genuine graveyard of empires (and of so much else), keep in mind that, if you're losing your war with climate change, you can't withdraw from it. You can't declare defeat and go home. You're already home in the increasingly dysfunctional, increasingly (un)built U.S. of A.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Featured image: afghanistan by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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.

'It looked like an atomic bomb': Welcome to our very own not-so-slow-motion apocalypse

Admittedly, I hadn't been there for 46 years, but old friends of mine still live (or at least lived) in the town of Greenville, California, and now… well, it's more or less gone, though they survived. The Dixie Fire, one of those devastating West Coast blazes, had already "blackened" 504 square miles of Northern California in what was still essentially the (old) pre-fire season. It would soon become the second-largest wildfire in the state's history. When it swept through Greenville, much of downtown, along with more than 100 homes, were left in ashes as the 1,000 residents of that Gold Rush-era town fled.

I remember Greenville as a wonderful little place that, all these years later, still brings back fond memories. I'm now on the other coast, but much of that small, historic community is no longer there. This season, California's wildfires have already devastated three times the territory burned in the same period in 2020's record fire season. And that makes a point that couldn't be more salient to our moment and our future. A heating planet is a danger, not in some distant time, but right now — yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Don't just ask the inhabitants of Greenville, ask those in the village of Monte Lake, British Columbia, the second town in that Canadian province to be gutted by flames in recent months in a region that normally — or perhaps I should just say once upon a time — was used to neither extreme heat and drought, nor the fires that accompany them.

In case you hadn't noticed, we're no longer just reading about the climate crisis; we're living it in a startling fashion. At least for this old guy, that's now a fact — not just of life but of all our lives — that simply couldn't be more extreme and I don't even need the latest harrowing report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to tell me so. Whether you've been sweating and swearing under the latest heat dome; fleeing fires somewhere in the West; broiling in a Siberia that's releasing startling amounts of heat-producing methane into the atmosphere; being swept away by flood waters in Germany; sweltering in an unprecedented heat-and-fire season in Greece (where even the suburbs of Athens were being evacuated); baking in Turkey or on the island of Sardinia in a "disaster without precedent"; neck-deep in water in a Chinese subway car; or, after "extreme rains," wading through the subway systems of New York City or London, you — all of us — are in a new world and we better damn well get used to it.

Floods, megadrought, the fiercest of forest fires, unprecedented storms — you name it and it seems to be happening not in 2100 or even 2031, but now. A recent study suggests that, in 2020 (not 2040 or 2080), more than a quarter of Americans had suffered in some fashion from the effects of extreme heat, already the greatest weather-based killer of Americans and, given this blazing summer, 2021 is only likely to be worse.

By the way, don't imagine that it's just us humans who are suffering. Consider, for instance, the estimated billion or more — yes, one billion! — mussels, barnacles, and other small sea creatures that were estimated to have died off the coast of Vancouver, Canada, during the unprecedented heat wave there earlier in the summer.

A few weeks ago, watching the setting sun, an eerie blaze of orange-red in a hazy sky here on the East Coast was an unsettling experience once I realized what I was actually seeing: a haze of smoke from the megadrought-stricken West's disastrous early fire season. It had blown thousands of miles east for the second year in a row, managing to turn the air of New York and Philadelphia into danger zones.

In a way, right now it hardly matters where you look on this planet of ours. Take Greenland, where a "massive melting event," occurring after the temperature there hit double the normal this summer, made enough ice vanish "in a single day last week to cover the whole of Florida in two inches of water." But there was also that record brush fire torching more than 62 square miles of Hawaii's Big Island. And while you're at it, you can skip prime houseboat-vacation season at Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, since that huge reservoir is now three-quarters empty (and, among Western reservoirs, anything but alone!).

It almost doesn't matter which recent report you cite. When it comes to what the scientists are finding, it's invariably worse than you (or often even they) had previously imagined. It's true, for instance, of the Amazon rain forest, one of the great carbon sinks on the planet. Parts of it are now starting to release carbon into the atmosphere, as a study in the journal Nature reported recently, partially thanks to climate change and partially to more direct forms of human intervention.

It's no less true of the Siberian permafrost in a region where, for the first time above the Arctic Circle, the temperature in one town reached more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day in 2020. And yes, when Siberia heats up in such a fashion, methane (a far more powerful heat-trapping gas than CO2) is released into the atmosphere from that region's melting permafrost wetlands, which had previously sealed it in. And recently, that's not even the real news. What about the possibility, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that what's being released now is actually a potential "methane bomb" not from that permafrost itself but from thawing rock formations within it?

In fact, when it comes to the climate crisis, as a recent study in the journal Bioscience found, "some 16 out of 31 tracked planetary vital signs, including greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, and ice mass, set worrying new records." Similarly, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide "have all set new year-to-date records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021."

Mind you, just in case you hadn't noticed, the last seven years have been the warmest in recorded history. And speaking of climate-change-style records in this era, last year, 22 natural disasters hit this country, including hurricanes, fires, and floods, each causing more than $1 billion in damage, another instant record with — the safest prediction around — many more to come.

"It Looked Like an Atomic Bomb"

Lest you think that all of this represents an anomaly of some sort, simply a bad year or two on a planet that historically has gone from heat to ice and back again, think twice. A recent report published in Nature Climate Change, for instance, suggests that heat waves that could put the recent ones in the U.S. West and British Columbia to shame are a certainty and especially likely for "highly populated regions in North America, Europe, and China." (Keep in mind that, a few years ago, there was already a study suggesting that the North China plain with its 400 million inhabitants could essentially become uninhabitable by the end of this century due to heat waves too powerful for human beings to survive!) Or as another recent study suggested, reports the Guardian, "heatwaves that smash previous records… would become two to seven times more likely in the next three decades and three to 21 times more likely from 2051-2080, unless carbon emissions are immediately slashed."

It turns out that, even to describe the new world we already live in, we may need a new vocabulary. I mean, honestly, until the West Coast broiled and burned from Los Angeles to British Columbia this summer, had you ever heard of, no less used, the phrase "heat dome" before? I hadn't, I can tell you that.

And by the way, there's no question that climate change in its ever more evident forms has finally made the mainstream news in a major way. It's no longer left to 350.org or Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement to highlight what's happening to us on this planet. It's taken years, but in 2021 it's finally become genuine news, even if not always with the truly fierce emphasis it deserves. The New York Times, to give you an example, typically had a recent piece of reportage (not an op-ed) by Shawn Hubler headlined "Is This the End of Summer as We've Known It?" ("The season Americans thought we understood — of playtime and ease, of a sun we could trust, air we could breathe and a natural world that was, at worst, indifferent — has become something else, something ominous and immense. This is the summer we saw climate change merge from the abstract to the now, the summer we realized that every summer from now on will be more like this than any quaint memory of past summers.") And the new IPCC report on how fast things are indeed proceeding was front-page and front-screen news everywhere, as well it should have been, given the research it was summing up.

My point here couldn't be simpler: in heat and weather terms, our world is not just going to become extreme in 20 years or 50 years or as this century ends. It's officially extreme right now. And here's the sad thing: I have no doubt that, no matter what I write in this piece, no matter how up to date I am at this moment, by the time it appears it will already be missing key climate stories and revelations. Within months, it could look like ancient history.

Welcome, then, to our very own not-so-slow-motion apocalypse. A friend of mine recently commented to me that, for most of the first 30 years of his life, he always expected the world to go nuclear. That was, of course, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And then, like so many others, he stopped ducking and covering. How could he have known that, in those very years, the world was indeed beginning to get nuked, or rather carbon-dioxided, methaned, greenhouse-gassed, even if in a slow-motion fashion? As it happens, this time there's going to be no pretense for any of us of truly ducking and covering.

It's true, of course, that ducking and covering was a fantasy of the Cold War era. After all, no matter where you might have ducked and covered then — even the Air Force's command center dug into the heart of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado — you probably wouldn't have been safe from a full-scale nuclear conflict between the two superpowers of that moment, or at least not from the world it would have left behind, a disaster barely avoided in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. (Today, we know that, thanks to the possibility of "nuclear winter," even a regional nuclear conflict — say, between India and Pakistan — could kill billions of us, by starvation if nothing else.)

In that context, I wasn't surprised when a home owner, facing his house, his possessions, and his car burned to a crisp in Oregon's devastating Bootleg Fire, described the carnage this way: "It looked like an atomic bomb."

And, of course, so much worse is yet to come. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about a planet on which the Amazon rain forest has already turned into a carbon emitter or one in which the Gulf Stream collapses in a way that's likely to deprive various parts of the planet of key rainfall necessary to grow crops for billions of people, while raising sea levels disastrously on the East Coast of this country. And that just begins to enumerate the dangers involved, including the bizarre possibility that much of Europe might be plunged into a — hold your hats (and earmuffs) for this one — new ice age!

World War III

If this were indeed the beginning of a world war (instead of a world warm), you know perfectly well that the United States like so many other nations would, in the style of World War II, instantly mobilize resources to fight it (or as a group of leading climate scientists put it recently, we would "go big on climate" now). And yet in this country (as in too many others), so little has indeed been mobilized. Worse yet, here one of the two major parties, only recently in control of the White House, supported the further exploitation of fossil fuels (and so the mass creation of greenhouse gases) big time, as well as further exploration for yet more of them. Many congressional Republicans are still in the equivalent of a state of staggering (not to say, stark raving mad) denial of what's underway. They are ready to pay nothing and raise no money to shut down the production of greenhouse gases, no less create the genuinely green planet run on alternative energy sources that would actually rein in what's happening.

And criminal as that may have been, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and crew were just aiding and abetting those that, years ago, I called "the biggest criminal enterprise in history." I was speaking of the executives of major fossil-fuel companies who, as I said then, were and remain the true "terrarists" (and no, that's not a misspelling) of history. After all, their goal in hijacking all our lives isn't simply to destroy buildings like the World Trade Center, but to take down the Earth (Terra) as we've known it. And don't leave out the leaders of countries like China still so disastrously intent on, for instance, producing yet more coal-fired power. Those CEOs and their enablers have been remarkably intent on quite literally committing terracide and, sadly enough, in that — as has been made oh-so-clear in this disastrous summer — they've already been remarkably successful.

Companies like ExxonMobil knew long before most of the rest of us the sort of damage and chaos their products would someday cause and couldn't have given less of a damn as long as the mega-profits continued to flow in. (They would, in fact, invest some of those profits in funding organizations that were promoting climate-change denial.) Worse yet, as revealing comments by a senior Exxon lobbyist recently made clear, they're still at it, working hard to undermine President Biden's relatively modest green-energy plans in any way they can.

Thought about a certain way, even those of us who didn't live in Greenville, California, are already in World War III. Many of us just don't seem to know it yet. So welcome to my (and your) extreme world, not next month or next year or next decade or next century but right now. It's a world of disaster worth mobilizing over if, that is, you care about the lives of all of us and particularly of the generations to come.

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.

Biden's indirect admission highlights the steady decline of American empire

It was all so long ago, in a world seemingly without challengers. Do you even remember when we Americans lived on a planet with a recumbent Russia, a barely rising China, and no obvious foes except what later came to be known as an "axis of evil," three countries then incapable of endangering this one? Oh, and, as it turned out, a rich young Saudi former ally, Osama bin Laden, and 19 hijackers, most of them also Saudis, from a tiny group called al-Qaeda that briefly possessed an "air force" of four commercial jets. No wonder this country was then touted as the greatest force, the superest superpower ever, sporting a military that left all others in the dust.

And then, of course, came the launching of the Global War on Terror, which soon would be normalized as the plain-old, uncapitalized "war on terror." Yes, that very war — even if nobody's called it that for years — began on September 11, 2001. At a Pentagon partially in ruins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden's responsibility, ordered his aides to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rumsfeld's exact words (an aide wrote them down) were: "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

Things related and not. Sit with that phrase for a moment. In their own strange way, those four words, uttered in the initial hours after the destruction of New York's World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, still seem to capture the twenty-first-century American experience.

Within days of 9/11, Rumsfeld, who served four presidents before recently stepping off this world at 88, and the president he then worked for, George W. Bush, would officially launch that Global War on Terror. They would ambitiously target supposed terror networks in no less than 60 countries. (Yep, that was Rumsfeld's number!) They would invade Afghanistan and, less than a year and a half later, do the same on a far grander scale in Iraq to take down its autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, who had once been a hand-shaking buddy of the secretary of defense.

Despite rumors passed around at the time by supporters of such an invasion, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; nor, despite Bush administration claims, was his regime then developing or in possession of weapons of mass destruction; nor, if we didn't act, would an Iraqi mushroom cloud have one day risen over New York or some other American city. And mind you, both of those invasions and so much more would be done in the name of "liberating" peoples and spreading American-style democracy across the Greater Middle East. Or, put another way, in response to that devastating attack by those 19 hijackers armed with knives, the U.S. was preparing to invade and dominate the oil-rich Middle East until the end of time. In 2021, almost two decades later, doesn't that seem like another lifetime to you?

By the way, you'll note that there's one word missing in action in all of the above. Believe me, if what I just described had related to Soviet plans during the Cold War, you can bet your bottom dollar that word would have been all over Washington. I'm thinking, of course, of "empire" or, in its adjectival form, "imperial." Had the Soviet Union planned similar acts to "liberate" peoples by "spreading communism," it would have been seen in Washington as the most imperial project ever. In the early years of this century, however, with the Soviet Union long gone and America's leaders imagining that they might reign supreme globally until the end of time, those two words were banished to history.

It was obvious that, despite the unprecedented 800 or so military bases this country possessed around the world, imperial powers were distinctly a thing of the past.

"Empires Have Gone There and Not Done It"

Now, keep that thought in abeyance for a moment, while I take you on a quick tour of the long-forgotten Global War on Terror. Almost two decades later, it does seem to be drawing to some kind of lingering close. Yes, there are still those 650 American troops guarding our embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and there is still that "over-the-horizon capacity" the president cites for U.S. aircraft to strike Taliban forces, even if American troops only recently abandoned their last air base in Afghanistan; and yes, there are still about 2,500 American troops stationed in Iraq (and hundreds more at bases across the border in Syria), regularly being attacked by Iraqi militia groups.

Similarly, despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia as the Trump years ended, over-the-horizon airstrikes against the terror group al-Shabaab, halted when Joe Biden entered the Oval Office, have just been started again, assumedly from bases in Kenya or Djibouti; and yes, the horrendous war in Yemen continues with the U.S. still supporting the Saudis, even if by offering "defensive," not "offensive" aid; and yes, American special operators are also stationed in staggering numbers of countries around the globe; and yes, prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo, that offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice created by the Bush administration so long ago. Admittedly, officials in the new Biden Justice Department are at least debating, however indecisively, whether those detainees might have any due process rights under the Constitution (yes, that's the U.S. Constitution!) and their numbers are at a historic low since 2002 of 39.

Still, let's face it, this isn't the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive airstrikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.

In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn't really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there's been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those "forever wars," as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here's the strange thing: Wouldn't you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon's stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it's still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy "pivots" from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).

In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else's ditch, failure is the new success story. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, the losing generals who fought those wars, while eternally promising that "corners" were being turned and "progress" made, have almost all either continued to rise in the ranks or gotten golden parachutes into other parts of the military-industrial complex. That should shock Americans, but really never seems to. Yes, striking percentages of us support leaving Afghanistan and the Afghans in a ditch somewhere and moving on, but it's still generally a big "thank you for your service" to our military commanders and the Pentagon.

Looking back, however, isn't the real question — not that anyone's asking — this: What was America's mission during all those years? In reality, I don't think it's possible to answer that or explain any of it without using the forbidden noun and adjective I mentioned earlier. And, to my surprise, after all these years when it never crossed the lips of an American president, Joe Biden, the guy who's been insisting that "America is back" on this failing planet of ours, actually used that very word!

In a recent news conference, irritated to find himself endlessly discussing his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, he fielded this question from a reporter: "Given the amount of money that has been spent and the number of lives that have been lost, in your view, with making this decision, were the last 20 years worth it?"

His response: "I argued, from the beginning [in the Obama years], as you may recall — it came to light after the administration was over… No nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation. Empires have gone there and not done it."

So, there! Yes, it was vague and could simply have been a reference to the fate in Afghanistan, that famed "graveyard of empires," of the British empire in the nineteenth century and the Soviet one in the twentieth century. But I can't help thinking that a president, however minimally, however indirectly, however much without even meaning to, finally acknowledged that this country, too, was on an imperial mission there and globally as well, a mission not of spreading democracy or of liberation but of domination. Otherwise, how the hell do you explain those 800 military bases on every continent but Antarctica? Is that really spreading democracy? Is that really liberating humanity? It's not a subject discussed in this country, but believe me, if it were any other place, the words "empire" and "imperial" would be on all too many lips in Washington and the urge to dominate in such a fashion would have been roundly denounced in our nation's capital.

A Failing Empire with a Flailing Military?

Here's a question for you: If the U.S. is "back," as our president has been claiming, what exactly is it back as? What could it be, now that it's proven itself incapable of dominating the planet in the fashion its political leaders once dreamed of? Could this country, which in these years dumped trillions of taxpayer dollars into its forever wars, now perhaps be reclassified as a failing empire with a flailing military?

Of course, such a possibility isn't generally acknowledged here. If, for instance, Kabul falls to the Taliban months from now and U.S. diplomats need to be rescued from the roof of our embassy there, as happened in Saigon in 1975 — something the president has vehemently denied is even possible — count on one thing: a bunch of Republicans and right-wing pundits will instantly be down his throat for leaving "too fast." (Of course, some of them already are, including, as it happens, the very president who launched the 2001 invasion, only to almost instantly refocus his attention on invading Iraq.)

Even domestically, when you think about where our money truly goes, inequality of every sort is only growing more profound, with America's billionaires ever wealthier and more numerous, while the Pentagon and those weapons-making corporations float ever higher on taxpayer dollars, and the bills elsewhere go unpaid. In that sense, perhaps it's time to start thinking about the United States as a failing imperial system at home as well as abroad. Sadly, whether globally or domestically, all of this seems hard for Americans to take in or truly describe (hence, perhaps, the madness of Donald Trump's America). After all, if you can't even use the words "imperial" and "empire," then how are you going to understand what's happening to you?

Still, forget any fantasies about us spreading democracy abroad. We're now in a country that's visibly threatening to lose democracy at home. Forget Afghanistan. From the January 6th assault on the Capitol to the latest (anti-)voting laws in Texas and elsewhere, there's a flailing, failing system right here in the U.S. of A. And unlike Afghanistan, it's not one that a president can withdraw from.

Yes, globally, the Biden administration has seemed remarkably eager to enter a new Cold War with China and "pivot" to Asia, as the Pentagon continues to build up its forces, from naval to nuclear, as if this country were indeed still the reigning imperial power on the planet. But it's not.

The real question may be this: Three decades after the Soviet empire headed for the exit, is it possible that the far more powerful American one is ever so chaotically heading in the same direction? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of us?

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.

An all-American horror story: We're living with multiple sci-fi nightmares of the first order

Yes, once upon a time I regularly absorbed science fiction and imagined futures of wonder, but mainly of horror. What else could you think, if you read H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds under the covers by flashlight while your parents thought you were asleep? Of course, that novel was a futuristic fantasy, involving as it did Martians arriving in London to take out humanity. Sixty-odd years after secretly reading that book and wondering about the future that would someday be mine, I'm living, it seems, in that very future, however Martian-less it might be. Still, just in case you hadn't noticed, our present moment could easily be imagined as straight out of a science-fiction novel that, even at my age, I'd prefer not to read by flashlight in the dark of night.

I mean, I was barely one when Hiroshima was obliterated by a single atomic bomb. In the splintering of a moment and the mushroom cloud that followed, a genuinely apocalyptic power that had once rested only in the hands of the gods (and perhaps science-fiction authors) became an everyday part of our all-too-human world. From that day on, it was possible to imagine that we — not the Martians or the gods — could end it all. It became possible to imagine that we ourselves were the apocalypse. And give us credit. If we haven't actually done so yet, neither have we done a bad job when it comes to preparing the way for just such a conclusion to human history.

Let's put this in perspective. In the pandemic year 2020, 76 years after two American atomic bombs left the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ashes, the world's nuclear powers actually increased spending on nuclear weapons by $1.4 billion more than they had put out the previous year. And that increase was only a small percentage of the ongoing investment of those nine — yes, nine — countries in their growing nuclear arsenals. Worse yet, if you happen to be an American, more than half of the total 2020 "investment" in weaponry appropriate for world-ending scenarios, $37.4 billion to be exact, was plunked down by our own country. (A staggering $13.3 billion was given to weapons maker Northrop Grumman alone to begin the development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, the one thing our thoroughly troubled world obviously needs.) In all, those nine nuclear powers spent an estimated $137,000 a minute in 2020 to "improve" their arsenals — the ones that, if ever used, could end history as we know it.

In the Dust of the History of Death

Imagine for a second if all that money had instead been devoted to creating and disseminating vaccines for most of the world's population, which has yet to receive such shots and so be rescued from the ravages of Covid-19, itself a death-dealing, sci-fi-style nightmare of the first order. But how could I even think such a thing when, in the decades since this country dropped that first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it's learned its atomic lessons all too well? Otherwise, why would its leaders now be planning to devote at least $1.7 trillion over the next three decades to "modernizing" what's already the most modern nuclear arsenal on the planet?

Let me just add that I visited Hiroshima once upon a time with a Japanese colleague who had been born on an island off the coast of atomically destroyed Nagasaki. In 1982, he took me to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which, despite exhibiting a carbonized child's lunchbox and permanently imprinted human shadows, can obviously offer a visitor only a hint of what it was actually like to experience the end of the world, thanks to a single bomb. And yet I found the experience so deeply unsettling that, when I returned home to New York City, I could barely talk about it.

Admittedly, though nine countries now possess nuclear weapons, most of them significantly more powerful than the single bomb that turned Hiroshima into a landscape of rubble, not one has ever been used in war. And that should be considered a miracle on a planet where, when it comes to weapons and war, miracles of any sort tend to be few and far between. After all, it's estimated that, in 2020, this country alone had more than 5,000 nuclear weapons, at least 1,300 of them deployed and ready to use — enough, that is, to destroy several worlds.

Consider it an irony of the first order, then, that U.S. leaders have spent years focused on trying to keep the Iranians from making a single nuclear weapon, but not for a day, not for an hour, not for a second on keeping this country from producing ever more of them and the delivery systems that would distribute them anywhere on this planet. In that light, just consider, for instance, that, in 2021, the U.S. is preparing to invest more than $100 billion in producing a totally new ICBM, whose total cost over its "lifespan" (though perhaps the correct word would be "deathspan") is already projected at $264 billion — and that's before the cost overruns even begin. All of this for a future that… well, your guess is as good as mine.

Or consider that, only recently, the American and Russian heads of state, the two countries with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, met in Geneva, Switzerland, and talked for hours, especially about cyberwar, while spending little appreciable time considering how to rein in their most devastating weaponry and head the planet toward a denuclearized future.

And keep in mind that all of this is happening on a planet where it's now commonplace scientific knowledge that even a nuclear war between two regional powers, India and Pakistan, could throw so many particulates into the atmosphere as to create a nuclear winter on this planet, one likely to starve to death billions of us. In other words, just one regional nuclear conflict could leave the chaos and horror of the Covid-19 pandemic in the unimpressive dust of the history of death.

A Slow-Motion Hiroshima?

And yet, here's perhaps the strangest thing of all: we're still convinced that, since the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no matter how much world-ending weaponry has been stockpiled by China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, none has been used. Unfortunately, that should increasingly be seen as a Martian-less fantasy of the first order.

While it's seldom thought of that way, climate change should really be reimagined as the equivalent of a slow-motion nuclear holocaust. Hiroshima took place in literally seconds, a single blinding flash of heat. Global warming will prove to be a matter of years, decades, even centuries of heat.

That all-too-apocalyptic phenomenon was set off in the nineteenth century via the coal-burning that accompanied the industrial revolution, first in Great Britain and then elsewhere across the planet. It's only continued over all these years thanks to the burning, above all, of fossil fuels — oil and natural gas — and the release of carbon (and methane) into the atmosphere. In the case of climate change, there are no ICBMs, no nuclear-missile-armed submarines, no nuclear bombers. Instead, there are oil and natural gas companies, whose CEOs, regularly abetted by governments, have proven all too ready to destroy this planet for record profits. They've been perfectly willing to burn fossil fuels in a criminal fashion until, quite literally, the end of time. Worse yet, they generally knew just what kind of harm they were causing long before most of the rest of us and, in response, actively supported climate denialism.

No, there was no mushroom cloud, but rather a "cloud" of greenhouse gases forming over endless years beyond human vision. Still, let's face it, on this planet of ours, not in 2031 or 2051 or 2101 but right at this very moment, we're beginning to experience the equivalent of a slow-motion nuclear war.

In a sense, we're already living through a modern slo-mo version of Hiroshima, no matter where we are or where we've traveled. At this moment, with an increasingly fierce megadrought gripping the West and Southwest, the likes of which hasn't been experienced in at least 1,200 years, among the top candidates for an American Hiroshima would be Phoenix (118 degrees), Las Vegas (114 degrees), the aptly named Death Valley (128 degrees), Palm Springs (123 degrees), and Salt Lake City (107), all record temperatures for this season. A recent report suggests that temperatures in famed Yellowstone National Park are now as high or higher than at any time in the past 20,000 years (and possibly in the last 800,000 years). And temperatures in Oregon and Washington are already soaring in record fashion with more to come, even as the fire season across the West arrives earlier and more fiercely each year. As I write this, for instance, California's Big Sur region is ablaze in a striking fashion, among growing numbers of western fires. Under the circumstances, ironically enough, one of the only reasons some temperature records might not be set is that sun-blocking smoke from those fires might suppress the heat somewhat.

You should know that you're on a different planet when even the most mainstream of news sources begins to put climate change in the lead in environmental pieces, as in this recent first sentence of a CNN report: "The incredible pictures of a depleted Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border, illustrate the effects of drought brought on by climate change."

You could also imagine our modern Hiroshimas in the Florida Keys, where inexorably rising sea levels, due in part to the massive melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, are already threatening that especially low-lying part of that southern state. Or perhaps the Gulf Coast would qualify, since the heating waters of the Atlantic are now creating record tropical-storm and hurricane seasons that, like the heat and fires in the West, seem to arrive earlier each year. (One Florida city, Miami, is already contemplating building a massive seawall to protect itself against devastating future storm surges.)

In this desperately elongated version of nuclear war, everything being experienced in this country (and in a similar fashion around the world, from Australia's brutally historic wildfires to a recent heat wave in the Persian Gulf, where temperatures topped 125 degrees) will only grow ever more extreme, even if, by some miracle, those nuclear weapons are kept under wraps. After all, according to a new NASA study, the planet has been trapping far more heat than imagined in this century so far. In addition, a recently revealed draft of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests that our over-heating future will only grow worse in ways that hadn't previously been imagined. Tipping points may be reached — from the melting of polar ice sheets and Arctic permafrost (releasing vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere) to the possible transformation of much of the Amazon rain forest into savannah — that could affect the lives of our children and grandchildren disastrously for decades to come. And that would be the case even if greenhouse-gas releases are brought under control relatively quickly.

Once upon a time, who could have imagined that humanity would inherit the kinds of apocalyptic powers previously left to the gods or that, when we finally noticed them, we would prove eerily unable to respond? Even if another nuclear weapon is never used, we stand capable, in slow-motion fashion, of making significant parts of our world uninhabitable — or, for that matter, if we were to act soon, keeping it at least reasonably habitable into the distant future.

Imagine, just as a modest start, a planet on which every dollar earmarked for nuclear weapons would be invested in a green set of solutions to a world growing by the year ever warmer, ever redder, ever less inhabitable.

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.

Washington is operating on an obvious formula for disaster

Let me start with my friend and the boat. Admittedly, they might not seem to have anything to do with each other. The boat, a guided-missile destroyer named the USS Curtis Wilbur, reportedly passed through the Straits of Taiwan and into the South China Sea, skirting the Paracel Islands that China has claimed as its own. It represented yet another Biden-era challenge to the planet's rising power from its falling one. My friend was thousands of miles away on the West Coast of the United States, well vaccinated and going nowhere in Covid-stricken but improving America.

As it happens, she's slightly younger than me, but still getting up there, and we were chatting on the phone about our world, about the all-too-early first wildfire near Los Angeles, the intensifying mega-drought across the West and Southwest, the increasing nightmare of hurricane season in the Atlantic and so on. We were talking about the way in which we humans — and we Americans in particular (though you could toss in the Chinese without a blink) — have been wreaking fossil-fuelized havoc on this planet and what was to come.

And oh yes, we were talking about our own deaths, also to come at some unknown future moment but one not as far away as either of us might wish. My friend then said to me abashedly, "I sometimes think it's lucky I won't be here to see what's going to happen to the world." And even as she began stumbling all over herself apologizing for saying such a thing, I understood exactly what she meant. I had had the very same thought and sense of shame and horror at even thinking it — at even thinking I would, in some strange sense, get off easy and leave a world from hell to my children and grandchildren.

Nothing, in fact, could make me sadder.

And you know what's the worst thing? Whether I'm thinking about that "destroyer" in the Strait of Taiwan or the destruction of planet Earth, one thing is clear enough: it wouldn't have to be this way.

China on the Brain

Now, let's focus on the Curtis Wilbur for a moment. And in case you hadn't noticed, Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team have China on the brain. No surprise there, though, only history. Don't you remember how, when Biden was still vice president, President Obama announced that, in foreign and especially military policy, the U.S. was planning a "pivot to Asia"? His administration was, in other words, planning on leaving this country's war-on-terror disasters in the Greater Middle East behind (not that he would actually prove capable of doing so) and refocusing on this planet's true rising power. Donald Trump would prove similarly eager to dump America's Greater Middle Eastern wars (though he, too, failed to do so) and refocus on Beijing — tariffs first, but warships not far behind. Now, as they withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Biden team finds itself deep in its own version of a pivot-to-Asia strategy, with their collective foreign-policy brain remarkably focused on challenging China (at least until Israel briefly got in the way).

Think of it as a kind of pandemic of anxiety, a fear that, without a major refocus, the U.S. might indeed be heading for the imperial scrapheap of history. In a sense, this may prove to be the true Achilles heel of the Biden era. Or put another way, the president's foreign-policy crew seems, at some visceral level, to fear deeply for the America they've known and valued so, the one that was expected to loom invincibly over the rest of the planet once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; the imperial power our politicians (until Donald Trump) had long hailed as the greatest, most "exceptional" nation on the planet; the one with "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known" (Barack Obama), aka "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" (George W. Bush).

We're talking, of course, about the same great power that, after almost 20 years of disastrous wars, drone strikes, and counterterror operations across vast stretches of the planet, looks like it is sinking fast, a country whose political parties can no longer agree on anything that matters. In such a context, let's consider, for a moment, that flu-like China obsession, the one that leaves Washington's politicians and military leaders with strikingly high temperatures and an irrational urge to send American warships into distant waters near the coast of China, while regularly upping the ante, militarily and politically.

In that context, here's an obsessional fact of our moment: these days, it seems as if President Biden can hardly appear anywhere or talk to anyone without mentioning China or that sinking country he now heads and that sinking feeling he has about it. He did it the other week in an interview with David Brooks when, with an obvious on-the-page shudder, he told the New York Times columnist, "We're kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China." Brrr… it's cold in here (or maybe too hot to handle?) in an increasingly chaotic, still partly Trumpian, deeply divided Washington, and in a country where, from suppressing the vote to suppressing the teaching of history to encouraging the carrying of unlicensed weapons, democracy is looking ill indeed.

Oh, and that very same week when the president talked to Brooks, he went to the Coast Guard Academy to address its graduating class and promptly began discussing — yes! — that crucial, central subject for Washingtonians these days, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. ("When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance. That's why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful — whether that's the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and, increasingly, the Arctic.") You didn't know, did you, that a guided-missile destroyer, not to speak of aircraft carrier battle groups, and other naval vessels had been anointed with the job of keeping "freedom of navigation" alive halfway across the planet or that the U.S. Coast Guard simply guards our coastlines.

These days, it should really be called the Coasts Guard. After all, you can find its members "guarding" coasts ranging from Iran's in the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Evidently, even the coast of the island of Taiwan, which, since 1949, China has always claimed as its own and where a subtle dance between Beijing and Washington has long played out, has become just another coast for guarding in nothing less than a new "partnership." ("Our new agreement for the Coast Guard to partner with Taiwan," said the president, "will help ensure that we're positioned to better respond to shared threats in the region and to conduct coordinated humanitarian and environmental missions.") Consider that a clear challenge to the globe's rising power in what's become ever more of a showdown at the naval equivalent of the O.K. Corral, part of an emerging new cold war between the two countries.

And none of this is out of the ordinary. In his late April address to Congress, for instance, President Biden anxiously told the assembled senators and congressional representatives that "we're in a competition with China and other countries to win the twenty-first century… China and other countries are closing in fast" — and in his own strange way, Donald Trump exhibited similar worries.

What Aren't We Guarding?

Now, here's the one thing that doesn't seem to strike anyone in Congress, at the Coast Guard Academy, or at the New York Times as particularly strange: that American ships should be protecting "maritime freedom" on the other side of the globe, or that the Coast Guard should be partnering for the same. Imagine, just for a second, that Chinese naval vessels and their Coast Guard equivalent were patrolling our coasts, or parts of the Caribbean, while edging ever closer to Florida. You know just what an uproar of shock and outrage, what cries of horror would result. But it's assumed that the equivalent on the other side of the globe is a role too obvious even to bother to explain and that our leaders should indeed be crying out in horror at China's challenges to it.

It's increasingly clear that, from Japan to the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, Washington is pushing China hard, challenging its positions big time and often in a military fashion. And no, China itself, whether in the South China Sea or elsewhere, is no angel. Still, the U.S. military, while trying to leave its failed terror wars in the dust, is visibly facing off against that economically rising power in an ever more threatening manner, one that already seems too close to a possible military conflict of some sort. And you don't even want to know what sort of warfare this country's military leaders are now imagining there as, in fact, they did so long ago. (Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame only recently revealed that, according to a still-classified document, in response to the Chinese shelling of Taiwan in 1958, U.S. military leaders seriously considered launching nuclear strikes against mainland China.)

Indeed, as U.S. Navy ships are eternally sent to challenge China, challenging words in Washington only escalate as well. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks put it in March, while plugging for an ever-larger Pentagon budget, "Beijing is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system… Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin and I believe that the [People's Republic of China] is the pacing challenge for the United States military."

And in that context, the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard are all "pacing" away. The latest proposed version of an always-rising Pentagon budget, for instance, now includes $5.1 billion for what's called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, "a fund created by Congress to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region." In fact, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is also requesting $27 billion in extra spending between 2022 and 2027 for "new missiles and air defenses, radar systems, staging areas, intelligence-sharing centers, supply depots and testing ranges throughout the region."

And so it goes in the pandemic world of 2021.

Though seldom asked, the real question, the saddest one I think, the one that brings us back to my conversation with my friend about the world we may leave behind us, is: What aren't we guarding on this planet of ours?

A New Cold War on a Melting Planet?

Let's start with this: the old pattern of rising and falling empires should be seen as a thing of the past. It's true that, in a traditional sense, China is now rising and the U.S. seemingly falling, at least economically speaking. But something else is rising and something else is falling, too. I'm thinking, of course, about rising global temperatures that, sometime in the next five years, have a reasonable chance of exceeding the 1.5 degree Celsius limit (above the pre-industrial era) set by the Paris Climate Accords and what that future heat may do to the very idea of a habitable planet.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the U.S., the Atlantic hurricane season is only expected to worsen, the mega-drought in the Southwest to intensify (as fires burn ever higher in previously wetter mountainous elevations in that region), and so on. Within this century, major coastal cities in this country and China like New Orleans, Miami, Shanghai, and Hong Kong could find themselves flooded out by rising sea levels, thanks in part to the melting of Antarctica and Greenland. As for a rising China, that supposedly ultimate power of the future, even its leadership must know that parts of the north China plain, now home to 400 million people, could become quite literally uninhabitable by century's end due to heat waves capable of killing the healthy within hours.

In such a context, on such a planet, ask yourself: Is there really a future for us in which the essential relationship between the U.S. and China — the two largest greenhouse gas emitters of this moment — is a warlike one? Whether a literal war results or not, one thing should be clear enough: if the two greatest carbon emitters can't figure out how to cooperate instead of picking endless fights with each other, the human future is likely to prove grim and dim indeed. "Containing" China is the foreign-policy focus of the moment, a throwback to another age in Washington. And yet this is the very time when what truly needs to be contained is the overheating of this planet. And in truth, given human ingenuity, climate change should indeed be containable.

And yet the foreign-policy wing of the Biden administration and Congress (where Democrats are successfully infusing money into the economy under the rubric of a struggle with China, a rare subject the Republicans can go all in on) seem focused on creating a future of eternal Sino-American hostility and endless armed competition. In the already overheated world we inhabit, who could honestly claim that this is a formula for "national security"?

Returning to the conversation with my friend, I wonder why this approach to our planet doesn't seem to more people like an obvious formula for disaster. Why aren't more of us screaming at the top of our lungs about the dangers of Washington's urge to return to a world in which a "cold war" is a formula for success? It leaves me ever more fearful for the planet that, one of these days, I will indeed be leaving to others who deserved so much better.

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.

A timeline of carnage: The U.S. refuses to be at peace

Here's the strange thing in an ever-stranger world: I was born in July 1944 in the midst of a devastating world war. That war ended in August 1945 with the atomic obliteration of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the most devastating bombs in history up to that moment, given the sweet code names "Little Boy" and "Fat Man."

I was the littlest of boys at the time. More than three-quarters of a century has passed since, on September 2, 1945, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the Instrument of Surrender on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, officially ending World War II. That was V-J (for Victory over Japan) Day, but in a sense for me, my whole generation, and this country, war never really ended.

The United States has been at war, or at least in armed conflicts of various sorts, often in distant lands, for more or less my entire life. Yes, for some of those years, that war was "cold" (which often meant that such carnage, regularly sponsored by the CIA, happened largely off-screen and out of sight), but war as a way of life never really ended, not to this very moment.

In fact, as the decades went by, it would become the "infrastructure" in which Americans increasingly invested their tax dollars via aircraft carriers, trillion-dollar jet fighters, drones armed with Hellfire missiles, and the creation and maintenance of hundreds of military garrisons around the globe, rather than roads, bridges, or rail lines (no less the high-speed version of the same) here at home. During those same years, the Pentagon budget would grab an ever-larger percentage of federal discretionary spending and the full-scale annual investment in what has come to be known as the national security state would rise to a staggering $1.2 trillion or more.

In a sense, future V-J Days became inconceivable. There were no longer moments, even as wars ended, when some version of peace might descend and America's vast military contingents could, as at the end of World War II, be significantly demobilized. The closest equivalent was undoubtedly the moment when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Cold War officially ended, and the Washington establishment declared itself globally triumphant. But of course, the promised "peace dividend" would never be paid out as the first Gulf War with Iraq occurred that very year and the serious downsizing of the U.S. military (and the CIA) never happened.

Never-Ending War

Consider it typical that, when President Biden recently announced the official ending of the nearly 20-year-old American conflict in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from that country by 9/11/21, it would functionally be paired with the news that the Pentagon budget was about to rise yet again from its record heights in the Trump years. "Only in America," as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore wrote recently, "do wars end and war budgets go up."

Of course, even the ending of that never-ending Afghan War may prove exaggerated. In fact, let's consider Afghanistan apart from the rest of this country's war-making history for a moment. After all, if I had told you in 1978 that, of the 42 years to follow, the U.S. would be involved in war in a single country for 30 of them and asked you to identify it, I can guarantee that Afghanistan wouldn't have been your pick. And yet so it's been. From 1979 to 1989, there was the CIA-backed Islamist extremist war against the Soviet army there (to the tune of billions and billions of dollars). And yet the obvious lesson the Russians learned from that adventure, as their military limped home in defeat and the Soviet Union imploded not long after — that Afghanistan is indeed the "graveyard of empires" — clearly had no impact in Washington.

Or how do you explain the 19-plus years of warfare there that followed the 9/11 attacks, themselves committed by a small Islamist outfit, al-Qaeda, born as an American ally in that first Afghan War? Only recently, the invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that America's second Afghan War has cost this country almost $2.3 trillion (not including the price of lifetime care for its vets) and has left at least 241,000 people dead, including 2,442 American service members. In 1978, after the disaster of the Vietnam War, had I assured you that such a never-ending failure of a conflict was in our future, you would undoubtedly have laughed in my face.

And yet, three decades later, the U.S. military high command still seems not faintly to have grasped the lesson that we "taught" the Russians and then experienced ourselves. As a result, according to recent reports, they have uniformly opposed President Biden's decision to withdraw all American troops from that country by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, it's not even clear that, by September 11, 2021, if the president's proposal goes according to plan, that war will have truly ended. After all, the same military commanders and intelligence chiefs seem intent on organizing long-distance versions of that conflict or, as the New York Times put it, are determined to "fight from afar" there. They are evidently even considering establishing new bases in neighboring lands to do so.

America's "forever wars" — once known as the Global War on Terror and, when the administration of George W. Bush launched it, proudly aimed at 60 countries — do seem to be slowly winding down. Unfortunately, other kinds of potential wars, especially new cold wars with China and Russia (involving new kinds of high-tech weaponry) only seem to be gearing up.

War in Our Time

In these years, one key to so much of this is the fact that, as the Vietnam War began winding down in 1973, the draft was ended and war itself became a "voluntary" activity for Americans. In other words, it became ever easier not only to not protest American war-making, but to pay no attention to it or to the changing military that went with it. And that military was indeed altering and growing in remarkable ways.

In the years that followed, for instance, the elite Green Berets of the Vietnam era would be incorporated into an ever more expansive set of Special Operations forces, up to 70,000 of them (larger, that is, than the armed forces of many countries). Those special operators would functionally become a second, more secretive American military embedded inside the larger force and largely freed from citizen oversight of any sort. In 2020, as Nick Turse reported, they would be stationed in a staggering 154 countries around the planet, often involved in semi-secret conflicts "in the shadows" that Americans would pay remarkably little attention to.

Since the Vietnam War, which roiled the politics of this nation and was protested in the streets of this country by an antiwar movement that came to include significant numbers of active-duty soldiers and veterans, war has played a remarkably recessive role in American life. Yes, there have been the endless thank-yous offered by citizens and corporations to "the troops." But that's where the attentiveness stops, while both political parties, year after endless year, remain remarkably supportive of a growing Pentagon budget and the industrial (that is, weapons-making) part of the military-industrial complex. War, American-style, may be forever, but — despite, for instance, the militarization of this country's police and the way in which those wars came home to the Capitol last January 6th — it remains a remarkably distant reality for most Americans.

One explanation: though the U.S. has, as I've said, been functionally at war since 1941, there were just two times when this country felt war directly — on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and on September 11, 2001, when 19 mostly Saudi hijackers in commercial jets struck New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

And yet, in another sense, war has been and remains us. Let's just consider some of that war-making for a moment. If you're of a certain age, you can certainly call to mind the big wars: Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1954-1975) — and don't forget the brutal bloodlettings in neighboring Laos and Cambodia as well — that first Gulf War of 1991, and the disastrous second one, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, of course, there was that Global War on Terror that began soon after September 11, 2001, with the invasion of Afghanistan, only to spread to much of the rest of the Greater Middle East, and to significant parts of Africa. In March, for instance, the first 12 American special-ops trainers arrived in embattled Mozambique, just one more small extension of an already widespread American anti-Islamist terror role (now failing) across much of that continent.

And then, of course, there were the smaller conflicts (though not necessarily so to the people in the countries involved) that we've now generally forgotten about, the ones that I had to search my fading brain to recall. I mean, who today thinks much about President John F. Kennedy's April 1961 CIA disaster at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba; or President Lyndon Johnson's sending of 22,000 U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 to "restore order"; or President Ronald Reagan's version of "aggressive self-defense" by U.S. Marines sent to Lebanon who, in October 1983, were attacked in their barracks by a suicide bomber, killing 241 of them; or the anti-Cuban invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada that same month in which 19 Americans were killed and 116 wounded?

And then, define and categorize them as you will, there were the CIA's endless militarized attempts (sometimes with the help of the U.S. military) to intervene in the affairs of other countries, ranging from taking the nationalist side against Mao Zedong's communist forces in China from 1945 to 1949 to stoking a small ongoing conflict in Tibet in the 1950s and early 1960s, and overthrowing the governments of Guatemala and Iran, among other places. There were an estimated 72 such interventions from 1947 to 1989, many warlike in nature. There were, for instance, the proxy conflicts in Central America, first in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas and then in El Salvador, bloody events even if few U.S. soldiers or CIA agents died in them. No, these were hardly "wars," as traditionally defined, not all of them, though they did sometimes involve military coups and the like, but they were generally carnage-producing in the countries they were in. And that only begins to suggest the range of this country's militarized interventions in the post-1945 era, as journalist William Blum's "A Brief History of Interventions" makes all too clear.

Whenever you look for the equivalent of a warless American moment, some reality trips you up. For instance, perhaps you had in mind the brief period between when the Red Army limped home in defeat from Afghanistan in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, that moment when Washington politicians, initially shocked that the Cold War had ended so unexpectedly, declared themselves triumphant on Planet Earth. That brief period might almost have passed for "peace," American-style, if the U.S. military under President George H. W. Bush hadn't, in fact, invaded Panama ("Operation Just Cause") as 1989 ended to get rid of its autocratic leader Manuel Noriega (a former CIA asset, by the way). Up to 3,000 Panamanians (including many civilians) died along with 23 American troops in that episode.

And then, of course, in January 1991 the First Gulf War began. It would result in perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi deaths and "only" a few hundred deaths among the U.S.-led coalition of forces. Air strikes against Iraq would follow in the years to come. And let's not forget that even Europe wasn't exempt since, in 1999, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the U.S. Air Force launched a destructive 10-week bombing campaign against the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

And all of this remains a distinctly incomplete list, especially in this century when something like 200,000 U.S. troops have regularly been stationed abroad and U.S. Special Operations forces have deployed to staggering numbers of countries, while American drones regularly attacked "terrorists" in nation after nation and American presidents quite literally became assassins-in-chief. To this day, what scholar and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson called an American "empire of bases" — a historically unprecedented 800 or more of them — across much of the planet remains untouched and, at any moment, there could be more to come from the country whose military budget at least equals those of the next 10 (yes, that's 10!) countries combined, including China and Russia.

A Timeline of Carnage

The last three-quarters of this somewhat truncated post-World War II American Century have, in effect, been a timeline of carnage, though few in this country would notice or acknowledge that. After all, since 1945, Americans have only once been "at war" at home, when almost 3,000 civilians died in an attack meant to provoke — well, something like the war on terror that also become a war of terror and a spreader of terror movements in our world.

As journalist William Arkin recently argued, the U.S. has created a permanent war state meant to facilitate "endless war." As he writes, at this very moment, our nation "is killing or bombing in perhaps 10 different countries," possibly more, and there's nothing remarkably out of the ordinary about that in our recent past.

The question that Americans seldom even think to ask is this: What if the U.S. were to begin to dismantle its empire of bases, repurpose so many of those militarized taxpayer dollars to our domestic needs, abandon this country's focus on permanent war, and forsake the Pentagon as our holy church? What if, even briefly, the wars, conflicts, plots, killings, drone assassinations, all of it stopped?

What would our world actually be like if you simply declared peace and came home?

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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.

The United States as a mass-killing machine

By the time you read this piece, it will already be out of date. The reason's simple enough. No matter what mayhem I describe, with so much all-American weaponry in this world of ours, there's no way to keep up. Often, despite the headlines that go with mass killings here, there's almost no way even to know.

On this planet of ours, America is the emperor of weaponry, even if in ways we normally tend not to put together. There's really no question about it. The all-American powers-that-be and the arms makers that go with them dream up, produce, and sell weaponry, domestically and internationally, in an unmatched fashion. You'll undoubtedly be shocked, shocked to learn that the top five arms makers on the planet — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — are all located in the United States.

Put another way, we're a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central. And as we've known since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, there could be far worse to come. After all, in the overheated dreams of both those weapons makers and Pentagon planners, slaughter-to-be has long been imagined on a planetary scale, right down to the latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being created by Northrop Grumman at the cost of at least $100 billion. Each of those future arms of ultimate destruction is slated to be "the length of a bowling lane" and the nuclear charge that it carries will be at least 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That missile will someday be capable of traveling 6,000 miles and killing hundreds of thousands of people each. (And the Air Force is planning to order 600 of them.)

By the end of this decade, that new ICBM is slated to join an unequaled American nuclear arsenal of — at this moment — 3,800 warheads. And with that in mind, let's back up a moment.

Have Gun — Will Travel

Before we head abroad or think more about weaponry fit to destroy the planet (or at least human life on it), let's just start right here at home. After all, we live in a country whose citizens are armed to their all-too-labile fingertips with more guns of every advanced sort than might once have been imaginable. The figures are stunning. Even before the pandemic hit and gun purchases soared to record levels — about 23 million of them (a 64% increase over 2019 sales) — American civilians were reported to possess almost 400 million firearms. That adds up to about 40% of all such weaponry in the hands of civilians globally, or more than the next 25 countries combined.

And if that doesn't stagger you, note that the versions of those weapons in public hands are becoming ever more militarized and powerful, ever more AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, not .22s. And keep in mind as well that, over the years, the death toll from those weapons in this country has grown staggeringly large. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, "More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in United States history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million)."

In my childhood, one of my favorite TV programs was called Have Gun — Will Travel. Its central character was a highly romanticized armed mercenary in the Old West and its theme song — still lodged in my head (where so much else is unlodging these days) — began:

"Have gun will travel is the card of a man.
A knight without armor in a savage land.
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind.
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin."

Staggering numbers of Americans are now ever grimmer versions of Paladin. Thanks to a largely unregulated gun industry, they're armed like no other citizenry on the planet, not even — in a distant second place — the civilians of Yemen, a country torn by endless war. That TV show's title could now be slapped on our whole culture, whether we're talking about our modern-day Paladins traveling to a set of Atlanta spas; a chain grocery store in Boulder, Colorado; a real-estate office in Orange, California; a convenience store near Baltimore; or a home in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Remember how the National Rifle Association has always defended the right of Americans to own weapons at least in part by citing this country's hunting tradition? Well, these days, startling numbers of Americans, armed to the teeth, have joined that hunting crew. Their game of choice isn't deer or even wolves and grizzly bears, but that ultimate prey, other human beings — and all too often themselves. (In 2020, not only did a record nearly 20,000 Americans die from gun violence, but another 24,000 used guns to commit suicide.)

As the rate of Covid-19 vaccination began to rise to remarkable levels in this country and ever more public places reopened, the first mass public killings (defined as four or more deaths in a public place) of the pandemic period — in Atlanta and Boulder — hit the news big-time. The thought, however, that the American urge to use weapons in a murderous fashion had in any way lessened or been laid to rest, even briefly, thanks to Covid-19, proved a fantasy of the first order.

At a time when so many public places like schools were closed or their use limited indeed, if you took as your measuring point not mass public killings but mass shootings (defined as four or more people wounded or killed), the pandemic year of 2020 proved to be a record 12 months of armed chaos. In fact, such mass shootings actually surged by 47%. As USA Today recounted, "In 2020, the United States reported 611 mass shooting events that resulted in 513 deaths and 2,543 injuries. In 2019, there were 417 mass shootings with 465 deaths and 1,707 injured." In addition, in that same year, according to projections based on FBI data, there were 4,000 to 5,000 more gun murders than usual, mainly in inner-city communities of color.

In the first 73 days of Joe Biden's presidency, there were five mass shootings and more than 10,000 gun-violence deaths. In the Covid-19 era, this has been the model the world's "most exceptional" nation (as American politicians of both parties used to love to call this country) has set for the rest of the planet. Put another way, so far in 2020 and 2021, there have been two pandemics in America, Covid-19 and guns.

And though the weaponization of our citizenry and the carnage that's gone with it certainly gets attention — President Biden only recently called it "an international embarrassment" — here's the strange thing: when reporting on such a binge of killings and the weapons industry that stokes it, few here think to include the deaths and other injuries for which the American military has been responsible via its "forever wars" of this century outside our own borders. Nor do they consider the massive U.S. weapons deliveries and sales to other countries that often enough lead to the same. In other words, a full picture of all-American carnage has — to use an apt phrase — remained missing in action.

Cornering the Arms Market

In fact, internationally, things are hardly less mind-boggling when it comes to this country and weaponry. As with its armed citizenry, when it comes to arming other countries, Washington is without peer. It's the weapons dealer of choice across much of the world. Yes, the U.S. gun industry that makes all those rifles for this country also sells plenty of them abroad and, in the Trump years, such sales were only made easier to complete (as was the selling of U.S. unmanned aerial drones to "less stable governments"). When it comes to semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 or even grenades and flamethrowers, this country's arms makers no longer even need State Department licenses, just far easier-to-get Commerce Department ones, to complete such sales, even to particularly abusive nations. As a result, to take one example, semi-automatic pistol exports abroad rose 148% in 2020.

But what I'm particularly thinking about here are the big-ticket items that those five leading weapons makers of the military-industrial complex eternally produce. On the subject of the sale of jet fighters like the F-16 and F-35, tanks and other armored vehicles, submarines (as well as anti-submarine weaponry), and devastating bombs and missiles, among other things, we leave our "near-peer" competitors as well as our weapons-making allies in the dust. Washington is the largest supplier to 20 of the 40 major arms importers on the planet.

When it comes to delivering the weapons of war, the U.S. leads all its competitors in a historic fashion, especially in the war-torn and devastated Middle East. There, between 2015 and 2019, it gobbled up nearly half of the arms market. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia was its largest customer, which, of course, only further stoked the brutal civil war in Yemen, where U.S. weapons are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. As Pentagon expert William Hartung wrote of those years, U.S. arms deliveries to the region added up to "nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA [the Middle East and North Africa], five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China's contribution." (And often enough, as in Iraq and Yemen, some of those weapons end up falling into the hands of those the U.S. opposes.)

In fact, in 2020, this country's arms sales abroad rose a further 2.8% to $178 billion. The U.S. now supplies no fewer than 96 countries with weaponry and controls 37% of the global arms market (with, for example, Lockheed Martin alone taking in $47.2 billion in such sales in 2018, followed by the four other giant U.S. weapons makers and, in sixth place, the British defense firm BAE).

This remains the definition of mayhem-to-come, the international version of that spike in domestic arms sales and the killings that went with it. After all, in these years, deaths due to American arms in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen have grown strikingly. And to take just one more example, arms, ammunition, and equipment sold to or given to the brutal regime of Rodrigo Duterte for the Philippine military and constabulary have typically led to deaths (especially in its "war on drugs") that no one's counting up.

And yet, even combined with the dead here at home, all of this weapons-based slaughter hardly adds up to a full record when it comes to the U.S. as a global mass-killing machine.

Far, Far from Home

After all, this country has a historic 800 or so military bases around the world and nearly 200,000 military personnel stationed abroad (about 60,000 in the Middle East alone). It has a drone-assassination program that extends from Afghanistan across the Greater Middle East to Africa, a series of "forever wars" and associated conflicts fought over that same expanse, and a Navy with major aircraft carrier task forces patrolling the high seas. In other words, in this century, it's been responsible for largely uncounted but remarkable numbers of dead and wounded human beings. Or put another way, it's been a mass-shooting machine abroad.

Unlike in the United States, however, there's little way to offer figures on those dead. To take one example, Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project has estimated that, from the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to late 2019, 801,000 people, perhaps 40% of them civilians, were killed in Washington's war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Of course, not all of those by any means were killed by the U.S. military. In fact, some were even American soldiers and contractors. Still, the figures are obviously sizeable. (To take but one very focused example, from December 2001 to December 2013 at TomDispatch, I was counting up civilian wedding parties taken down by U.S. air power in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. I came up with eight well-documented ones with a death toll of nearly 300, including brides, grooms, musicians, and revelers.)

Similarly, last December, Neta Crawford of the Costs of War Project released a report on the rising number of Afghan civilians who had died from U.S. air strikes in the Trump years. She found that in 2019, for instance, "airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war." Overall, the documented civilian dead from American air strikes in the war years is in the many thousands, the wounded higher yet. (And, of course, those figures don't include the dead from Afghan air strikes with U.S.-supplied aircraft.) And mind you, that's just civilians mistaken for Taliban or other enemy forces.

Similarly, thousands more civilians were killed by American air strikes across the rest of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which followed U.S. drone strikes for years, estimated that, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, by 2019 such attacks had killed "between 8,500 and 12,000 people, including as many as 1,700 civilians — 400 of whom were children."

And that, of course, is just to begin to count the dead in America's conflicts of this era. Or thought of another way, in this century, the U.S. military has been a kind of global Paladin. Its motto could obviously be "have gun, will travel" and its forces and those allied to it (and often supplied with American arms) have certainly killed staggering numbers of people in conflicts that have devastated communities across a significant part of the planet, while displacing an estimated 37 million people.

Now, return to those Americans gunned down in this country and think of all of this as a single weaponized, well-woven fabric, a single American gun culture that spans the globe, as well as a three-part killing machine of the first order. Much as mass shootings and public killings can sometimes dominate the news here, a full sense of the damage done by the weaponization of our culture seldom comes into focus. When it does, the United States looks like slaughter central.

Or as that song from Have Gun — Will Travel ended:

Paladin, Paladin,
Where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin,
Far, far from home.

Far, far from home — and close, close to home — indeed.

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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.

America unmasked: Life in a wounded and wounding land

Here's one of the things I now do every morning. I go to the online Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and check out the figures there — global coronavirus cases and deaths, U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths. And I do so the way that, not so long ago, I would have opened the sports pages and checked out the latest scores of whatever New York team I was rooting for.

Where it was once a matter of the Knicks winning 109-92 or the Mets losing 4-2, it's now those other, always rising, ever grimmer figures — say, 29,607,486 and 538,087. Those are the ever-updated numbers of reported American cases and deaths in what, until the arrival of the Biden administration, was a pathetically chaotic, horrifically mismanaged, and politically depth-charged struggle with Covid-19. In certain Republican-run states now rushing to unmask and open anything and everything to the limit, in places where crowds gather as if nothing had truly happened in the past year (as at Florida beaches this spring), we may face yet another future "wave" of disease — the fourth wave, if it happens — in a country at least parts of which seem eternally eager to teeter at the edge of a health cliff. That it wouldn't have had to be this way we know from the success of the city of Seattle, which faced the first major coronavirus outbreak in this country a year ago and now has, as the New York Times reports, "the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country."

Think of Covid-19-watching as the sport from hell. And when you look at those ever-changing figures — even knowing that vaccinations are now swiftly on the rise in this country (but not everywhere on this beleaguered planet of ours) — they should remind you daily that we live in a deeply wounded land on a deeply wounded planet and that, no matter the fate of Covid-19, it's only likely to get worse.

Here, for instance, is another figure to attend to, even though there's no equivalent to that Johns Hopkins page when it comes to this subject: 40%. That's the percentage of the human population living in tropical lands where, as this planet continues to heat toward or even past the 1.5-degree Fahrenheit mark set by the Paris climate accord, temperatures are going to soar beyond the limits of what a body (not carefully ensconced in air-conditioned surroundings) can actually tolerate. Climate change will, in other words, prove to be another kind of pandemic, even if, unlike Covid-19, it's not potentially traceable to bats or pangolins, but to us humans and specifically to the oil, gas, and coal companies that have over all these years powered what still passes for civilization.

In other words, just to take the American version of climate change, from raging wildfires to mega-droughts, increasing numbers of ever-more-powerful hurricanes to greater flooding, rising sea levels (and disappearing coastlines) to devastating heat waves (and even, as in Texas recently, climate-influenced freezes), not to speak of future migration surges guaranteed to make border crossing an even more fraught political issue, ahead lies a world that could someday make our present pandemic planet seem like a dreamscape. And here's the problem: at least with Covid-19, in a miracle of modern scientific research, vaccines galore have been developed to deal with that devastating virus, but sadly there will be no vaccines for climate change.

The Wounding of Planet Earth

Keep in mind as well that our country, the United States, is not only an especially wounded one when it comes to the pandemic; it's also a wounding one, both at home and abroad. The sports pages of death could easily be extended, for instance, to this country's distant wars, something Brown University's Costs of War Project has long tried to do. (That site is, in a sense, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center for America's grim, never-ending conflicts of the twenty-first century.)

Choose whatever post-9/11 figures you care to when it comes to our forever wars and they're all staggering: invasions and occupations of distant lands; global drone assassination campaigns; or the release of American air power across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa (most recently, the strike President Biden ordered in Syria that killed a mere "handful" of militia men — 22, claim some sources — a supposedly "proportionate" number that did not include any women or children, though it was a close call until the president canceled a second strike). And don't forget Washington's endless arming of, and support for, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates engaged in their own orgies of death and destruction in Yemen. Pick whatever figures you want, but the wounding of this planet in this century by this country has been all too real and ongoing.

The numbers, in fact, remain staggering. As has been pointed out many times at TomDispatch, the money this country puts into its "defense" budget tops that of the next 10 countries (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil) combined. And when it comes to selling weaponry of the most advanced and destructive kind globally, the U.S. leaves every other country in the dust. It's the arms dealer of all arms dealers on Planet Earth.

And if you happen to be in the mood to count up U.S. military bases, which are on every continent except Antarctica, this country garrisons the planet in a way no previous power, not even imperial Britain, did. It has an estimated 800 such bases, while, just for the sake of comparison, China, that other fearsome rising power the U.S. military is now so focused on, has… hmmm, at least one such base, in Djibouti, Africa (remarkably close — you won't be surprised to learn — to an American military base there). None of this really has much of anything to do with "national security," but it certainly adds up to a global geography of wounding in a rather literal fashion. In this sense, on this planet in this century, the United States has truly — to use a word American politicians have long loved to apply to this country — proven "exceptional."

America Unmasked

At home, too, until recently, American political leadership has been wounding indeed. Keep in mind that this was in a country in which one political party is now a vortex of conspiracy theories, bizarre beliefs, wild convictions, and truths that are obvious lies, a party nearly a third of whose members view the QAnon conspiracy theory favorably, 75% of whose members believe that Joe Biden lost the 2020 election, and 49% of whose male members have no intention of being vaccinated for Covid-19 (potentially denying the country "herd immunity").

And just to put all this in perspective, not a single Republican "statesman" offered a vote of support when Joe Biden's congressional radicals passed a (temporary) $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, parts of which were aimed at alleviating this country's historic levels of inequality. After all, in the pandemic moment, while so many Americans found themselves jobless, homeless, and hungry, the country's billionaires made an extra 1.3 trillion dollars (a figure that should certainly fit somewhere on the sports pages of death). Never, not even in the Gilded Age, has inequality been quite so extreme or wounding in the country that still passes for the greatest on the planet.

For the first time in its history, in 2017, a self-proclaimed billionaire became president of the United States and, with the help of a Republican Congress, passed a tax cut that left the rich and corporations flooded with yet more money. Admittedly, he was a billionaire who had repeatedly bankrupted his own businesses, always jumping ship just in time with other people's money in hand (exactly as he would do after helping to pandemicize this country, once again with oodles of his followers' money in his pocket).

As for me, shocking as the assault on the Capitol was on January 6th, I never thought that the Senate should have convicted Donald Trump for that alone. My feeling was that the House should have impeached him and the Senate convicted him for the far more serious and direct crime of murder. After all, he was the one who played a crucial role in turning the pandemic into our very own set of mask wars (even as he called on his followers, long before January 6th, to "liberate" a state capital building).

The half-baked, dismissive way he would deal with the coronavirus, its importance, and what should be done to protect us from it — even before he got a serious case of it, was hospitalized, and returned to the White House, still infectious, to tear off his mask in full public view — would functionally represent acts of murder. In effect, he unmasked himself as the killer he was. (A study in the International Journal of Health Services suggests that by July 2020 his personal decision to turn masks into a political issue had already resulted in between 4,000 and 12,000 deaths.)

Now, throw in other Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, who knowingly refused to declare mask mandates or cancelled them early, and you have a whole crew of murderers to add to those Johns Hopkins figures in a moment when the all-American sport is surely death.

A Genuinely Green Planet?

Admittedly, I don't myself have any friends who have died of Covid-19, although I have at least two, even more ancient than I am, one 91 in fact, who have been hospitalized for it, devastated by it, and then have slowly and at least partially recovered from it. As for myself, since I had the foresight to be 75 when Covid-19 first hit and am now heading for 77, I've had my two vaccine shots in a world in which, thanks again at least in part to Donald Trump and to a social-media universe filled with conspiracy theories and misinformation, far too many Americans — one-third of mostly young military personnel, for instance! — are shying away from or refusing what could save us all.

So, we've been plunged into a nightmare comparable to those that have, in the past, been visited on humanity, including the Black Death and the Spanish Flu, made worse by leaders evidently intent on shuffling us directly into the graveyard. And yet, that could, in the end, prove the least of our problems. We could, as Joe Biden has only recently more or less promised, be heading for a future in which Covid-19 will be truly under control or becomes, at worst, the equivalent of the yearly flu.

Let's hope that's the case. Now, consider this: the one favor Covid-19 seemed to be doing for humanity by shutting so many of us in, keeping airlines passengers on the ground, taking vehicles off the road and even, for a while, ships off the high seas, was cutting down on the use of oil, coal, and natural gas and so greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. In the year of Covid-19, carbon emissions dropped significantly. In December 2020, however, as various global economies like China's began to rev back up, those emissions were already reportedly a shocking 2% higher than they had been in December 2019 before the pandemic swept across the world.

In short, most of what might make it onto the sports pages of death these days may turn out to be the least of humanity's problems. After all, according to a new report, thanks in significant part to human activities, even the Amazon rain forest, once one of the great carbon sinks on the planet, is now releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it's absorbing. And that should be a shock.

If you want to be further depressed, try this: on our planet, there are now two great greenhouse gas emitters, the United States (historically at the top of the charts) and China (number one at this moment). Given what lies ahead, here's a simple enough formula: if China and the United States can't cooperate in a truly meaningful way when it comes to climate change, we're in trouble deep. And yet the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, remains remarkably focused on hostility to China and a military response to that country, an approach that someday is guaranteed to seem so out of touch as to be unbelievable.

Climate change will, over the coming decades, prove increasingly devastating to our lives. It could, in a sense, prove to be the pandemic of all the ages. And yet, here's the sad and obvious thing: the world doesn't have to be this way. It's true that there are no vaccinations against climate change, but we humans already know perfectly well what has to be done. We know that we need to create a genuinely green and green-powered planet to bring this version of a pandemic under control and we know as well that, over the next decades, it's a perfectly doable task if only humanity truly sets its mind to it.

Otherwise, we're going to find ourselves on an increasingly extreme planet, while the sports pages of death will only grow. If we're not careful, human history could, in the end, turn out to be the ultimate ghost story.

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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.

The United States is visibly in an early stage of disintegration

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were "a giant insect" with "a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments" and numerous "pitifully thin" legs that "waved helplessly" before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can't help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don't just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we've just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I'm talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being "executed" ("Hang Mike Pence!") and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don't mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can't fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future "great, great wall," denounce Mexican "rapists," and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn't end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let's face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that's visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of "the last superpower," that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn't keeping them out but keeping us in. No "big, fat, beautiful walls" were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War "peace dividend." Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn't go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone's mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded "axis of evil," would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year "global war on terror," which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive "surge" of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country's "endless wars" (he didn't) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I'm thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we're living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka's classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn't been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it's evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won't be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they're anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land. Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn't be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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.

The end of a pyromaniac's presidency

2021 has indeed begun and god knows what it has in store for us. But unless, somehow, we're surprised beyond imagining, The Donald is indeed going to leave the White House soon and, much as I hate to admit it, in some strange fashion we're going to miss him. Of course, it will be beyond a great relief to see his… well, let's just say him in the rearview mirror. While occupying the White House, he was, in a rather literal sense, hell on earth. Nonetheless, he was also a figure of remarkable fascination for anyone thinking about this country or that strangest of all species, humanity, and what we're capable of doing to ourselves.

So, here's my look back at our final Trumpian months (at least for a while). As I review the weeks just past, however, you may be surprised to learn that I'm not planning to start with the president's former national security adviser (of 23 days — "you're fired!") cum-convictee-cum-pardonee urging The Donald to declare martial law; nor will I review the president's endless tweets and fulminations about the "fraudulent" 2020 election or his increasing lame (duck!) assaults on all those he saw as deserting his visibly sinking Titanic, including Mitch McConnell ("the first one off the ship"); nor do I have the urge to focus on the conspiracy-mongress who captured the president's heart (or whatever's in that chest of his) with her claims about how "Venezuelan" votes did him in; nor even his doom-and-gloom "holiday" trip to Mar-a-Lago, including on Christmas Day his 309th presidential visit to a golf course; nor will I waste time on how the still-president of these increasingly dis-United States, while pardoning war criminals and pals (as well as random well-connected criminals), managed to ignore the rest of a country slipping into pandemic hell — cases rising, deaths spiraling, hospitals filling to the brim in a fashion unequaled on the planet — about which he visibly couldn't have cared less; nor will I focus on how, as Christmas arrived, he landed squarely on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's position of giving $2,000 checks to the American people and so for a few days became an honorary "socialist"; nor will I even spend time on his unique phone call for 11,780 votes in Georgia.

Instead, in this most downbeat of seasons, I'd like to begin with something more future-oriented, a little bit of December news you might have missed amid all the gloom and doom. So, just in case you didn't notice as 2020 ended in chaos and cacophony, as the president who couldn't take his eyes off a lost election sunk us ever deeper in his own version of the Washington swamp, there were two significantly more forward-looking figures in his circle. I'm thinking of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner who plunked down $30 million on the most exclusive bit of real estate they could find in Florida, a small island with only 41 residences known among locals as the "billionaire's bunker."

They purchased a plot of land there on which they can assumedly build the most modest of multimillion-dollar mansions… but let the Hill describe it:

"The secluded spot sits on 1.8 acres and comes with 200 feet of waterfront and 'breathtaking sunset views.' A real estate listing dubs it an 'amazing parcel of land,' saying, 'This sprawling lot provides a rare opportunity to build your waterfront dream estate.' The listing boasts that the Miami island is 'one of the most exclusive and private neighborhoods in the world with its private country club and golf course, police force, and 24/7 armed boat patrol.'"

And better yet, though just off the coast of Miami, it's only 60 miles from what they may hope will be the alternate White House for the next four years, Mar-a-Lago.

The Future, Trump-Style

As far as I'm concerned, amid the year-ending chaos of the Trump presidency, nothing could have caught the essential spirit of the last four years better than that largely overlooked news story. Let's start at its end, so to speak. Instead of brooding nonstop about a lost election like you-know-who, Ivanka and Jared, both key presidential advisers, are instead going to pour millions of dollars into what might be thought of as a personal investment in the future on that island off the southern coast of Florida.

When it comes to the planet, this catches in a nutshell the essence of what's passed for long-term thinking in the Trump White House since January 2017. After all, the most notable thing about the southern coast of Florida, if you're in an investing (and lifestyle) mood, is this: as the world's sea levels rise (ever more precipitously, in fact) thanks to climate change, one of the most endangered places in the United States is that very coast. Flooding in the region has already been on the rise and significant parts of it could be underwater by 2050 with its inhabitants washed out of their homes well before that — and no personal police force or patrol boats will be able to protect Ivanka and Jared from that kind of global assault. Even Donald Trump, should he run and win again in 2024, won't be able to pardon them for that decision.

Put another way, the future of those two key Trump family members is a living example of what, in this world of ours, is usually called climate denialism; the "children," that is, have offered their own $30-million-plus encapsulation of the four-year environmental record of a 74-year-old president who couldn't imagine anyone's future except his own.

So, a climate-change endangered island? Why even bother to imagine such a future? In fact, the president made this point all too vividly when it came to Tangier Island, a 1.3-square-mile dot in the middle of Chesapeake Bay that global warming and erosion are imperiling and that is, indeed, expected to be gone by 2050. In 2017, the president called the mayor of its town (after CNN put out a story about the increasing problems of that Trump-loving isle). He assured him, as the mayor reported, that "we shouldn't worry about rising sea levels. He said that 'your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.'"

Though climate denialism is indeed the term normally used for this phenomenon, as a descriptor in the Trump years it fell desperately short of the mark. It's a far too-limited way of describing what the U.S. government has actually been doing. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, promoting oil exploration and drilling galore, and deep-sixing energy-related environmental regulations, Trump and his crew have not just been denying the obvious reality of climate change (as the West Coast burned in a historic fashion and the hurricane season ramped up dramatically in 2020), but criminally aiding and abetting the phenomenon in every way imaginable. They have, in fact, done their best to torch humanity's future. As I've written in these years, they rather literally transformed themselves into pyromaniacs even as they imagined unleashing, as the president proudly put it, "American energy dominance." The promotional phrase they used for their fossil-fuelized policies was "the golden era of American energy is now underway" — that golden glow assumedly being the flames licking at this overheating planet of ours.

IED-ing the American System

And of course, let's not forget that, for the president's daughter and son-in-law, dropping $30 million is just another day at the office. In that, they distinctly follow in the tradition of the bankruptee who has similarly dished out dough to his heart's content, while repeatedly leaving others holding the bag for his multiple business failures. (Undoubtedly, this is something the American people will experience when he finally jumps ship on January 20th, undoubtedly leaving the rest of us holding that very same bag.) Pardon me, but that $30 million dollars being plunked down on a snazzy plot of land — someday to be water — should remind us that we're talking about a crew who are already awash in both money (of every questionable sort) and, at least in the case of the president, staggering hundreds of millions of dollars in debts. It should remind us as well that we're dealing with families evidently filled with grifters and a now-pardoned criminal, too.

Make no mistake, from the moment Donald Trump walked into the White House, he was already this country's con-man-in-chief. Back when he was first running for president, this was no mystery to his ever-loyal "base," those tens of millions of voters who opted for him then and continue to stick by him no matter what. As I wrote in that distant 2016 election season,

"Americans love a con man. Historically, we've often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity. [At] the first presidential debate… Trump essentially admitted that, in some years, he paid no taxes ('that makes me smart') and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth… I guarantee you that Trump senses he's deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn't."

And admire him they did and, as it happens, still do. He was elected on those very grounds and, despite his loss in 2020 (with a staggering 74 million voters still opting for him), a couple of weeks from now, he'll walk away from the White House with a final con that will leave him floating in a sea of money for months (years?) to come. Here's how New York Times reporters Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman describe the situation:

"Donald J. Trump will exit the White House as a private citizen next month perched atop a pile of campaign cash unheard-of for an outgoing president, and with few legal limits on how he can spend it… Mr. Trump has cushioned the blow by coaxing huge sums of money from his loyal supporters — often under dubious pretenses — raising roughly $250 million since Election Day along with the national party. More than $60 million of that sum has gone to a new political action committee, according to people familiar with the matter, which Mr. Trump will control after he leaves office."

He was, in other words, in character from his first to last moment in office and, in his own way (just as his followers expected), he did beat the system, even if he faces years of potential prosecution to come.

Oh, and one more thing when it comes to The Donald. With a future Biden administration in mind, you might think of him not just as the con-man president but the Taliban president as well. After all, he's not only torn up but land-mined, or in Taliban terms IED-ed, both the federal government, including that "deep state" he's always denounced, and the American system of governing itself. ("This Fake Election can no longer stand…") And those improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, he and his crew have buried in that system, whether in terms of health care, the environment, or you name it are likely to go off at unexpected moments for months, if not years, to come.

So, when you say so long, farewell, aufwiedersehn, adieu to you-know-who, his children, and his pals, the odds are you won't ever be saying goodbye. Not really. Thanks to that $60 million-plus fund, that base of his, and all those landmines (many of which we don't even know are there yet), he'll be with us in one form (of disaster) or another for years to come — he, his children, and that island that, unfortunately, just won't sink fast enough.

Like it or not, after these last four years, whatever the Biden era may hold for us, Donald Trump proved a media heaven and a living hell. It's going to be quite a task in a world that needs so much else just to demine the American system after he leaves the White House (especially with Mitch McConnell and crew still in place). Count on one thing: we won't forget The Donald any time soon. And give him credit where it's due. There's no denying that, in just four years, he's helped usher us into a new American world that already couldn't be more overheated or underwhelming.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Partyland 2020: The Trumpists celebrate while the world burns

'Tis the season to be folly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don(ald) we now our gay apparel,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!...

It's party time in the nation's capital and the Christmas spirit reigns supreme, even if the Texas Republican Party does want to secede from the Union. I mean, who doesn't?

And hey, don't you want to attend a party? After all, it'll be at the White House, masks purely optional, social distancing not particularly necessary. Too bad you already missed the Congressional Ball (redubbed the "Covid Ball") that The Donald and Melania so graciously hosted. Still, if you make it to one of the others, be sure to check out Melania's decorations, not to speak of her just-unveiled new White House tennis pavilion of which she should be proud, despite all the criticism. After all, unlike you-know-who, she used the moment to welcome non-Trumpian presidents to come! ("It is my hope that this private space will function as both a place of leisure and gathering for future first families.")

Meanwhile, even though more than 50 people in his circle have already been infected with Covid-19, her husband has been hosting up to 24 parties and celebrations of every sort at the White House this month. In other words, top-notch super-spreader Christmas fun until more or less the end of time. (If you're well over 65, like I am, it may quite literally be your last chance to have a blast.) And whatever you do, when you're freely wandering the White House, don't miss that tribute to essential workers in the Red Room!

If, however, you're of a slightly more serious frame of mind, how about cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at Mike Pompeo's State Department? Hurry it up because one thing is guaranteed: it's not going to be anywhere near as much fun in the Biden years. (I mean, so been-there, done-that, right?) And don't worry, since the State Department building has been deep-cleaned repeatedly due to reported Covid-19 infections there and pay no attention to the fact that State Department personnel are being urged to work from home. I guarantee you that it'll be a blast -- and I don't mean a bombing-Iran sort of blast either, though for all any of us knows, that might be in the works, too! After all, you could already have run into a bevy of foreign ambassadors and up to 900 guests (actually, fewer than 70 appeared) in rooms on the eighth floor of that building (but socially distanced, I swear) at gatherings that were supposed to go on until Christmas.

Whoa, rein in that sleigh, Santa! Sorry to disappoint, but Mike canceled his final superspreader party and went into quarantine last week after -- big shock! -- coming into contact with someone who had the coronavirus while hosting those "diplomats and dignitaries" at close quarters!

Deck the halls with boughs of folly indeed!

A Historical Switcheroo

And 2020! What a year to celebrate, right? The very year when Donald Trump won his second term as president in a landslide -- or am I confused? Did I mean lost the presidency in a landslide of pandemic deaths? Still, if in this "holiday" season, and in the true spirit of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, I were to be offered the chance to remake the history of this century, here's the switcheroo I might choose to pull.

Let's start with this simple fact: on December 9th, more people died in a single day from Covid-19 (3,124) than died on September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon (2,977). Or cumulatively speaking, think of it this way: more Americans have died in less than a year from the coronavirus than the 301,000 civilians that Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates have died in America's forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen since 2001.

Donald Trump's response to the pandemic has, of course, been to give awful advice, hold super-spreader rallies galore, and most recently host those ongoing, largely unmasked festivities at the White House; he has, that is, responded to the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores by committing murder big time. (Estimates are that, by February 2021, 450,000 Americans could be dead from the pandemic even as vaccines to prevent it begin to arrive. By the time this country is more or less safe -- if it ever truly is -- that number might be 600,000 (or almost in the range of the American toll in the "Spanish Flu" of 1918).

Now, to step back just a few years, consider the response of President George W. Bush to that one day of horrific death caused by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers aboard four commercial jets. In response to those 9/11 attacks, he launched what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror, promptly invaded Afghanistan, and a year and a half later did the same thing in Iraq. (That was, of course, something he and his top officials had begun thinking about -- quite literally, in the case of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- in the rubble of the Pentagon, even though that country's ruler, Saddam Hussein, had nothing whatsoever to do either with al-Qaeda or those terror attacks.) Of course, 19 years later, despite a president who swore he would end this country's "forever wars," the war on terror is still ongoing without a lasting victory or true success in sight.

Now, in this mad Trumpian Christmas season with increasing parts of the country in lockdown and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths eternally rising into record-breaking territory, here's my fantasy proposition, my imagined historical switcheroo: What if, in response to 9/11, George W. Bush had, irresponsibly enough, simply thrown parties at the White House in high Trumpian-style; and what if, in response to the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump had, responsibly enough, launched a global war on Covid-19 in true Bushian fashion? How differently history might have turned out.

The Blazing Fool Before Us

Instead, of course, Bush did launch those disastrous invasions and Trump did launch his own personal war on truth when it came to the pandemic (and so much else). The result, in both cases: crimes and deaths galore. Though it's seldom thought of that way, both of those twenty-first-century presidents of "ours" were, in a rather literal sense, mass murderers. In addition, thanks to the two of them and the cast of characters that accompanied them, we now live in a world of remarkable lies and self-delusion, whether we're talking about the U.S. military or our health and well-being.

After all, if you don't think this country is delusional when it comes to what still passes for "national security" consider this: just the other day, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who can evidently agree on so little else, passed a record veto-proof defense bill giving the Pentagon a staggering $740 billion dollars for the next fiscal year. (Talk about inequality in this country with so many Americans at the edge of eviction or even hunger and Congress doing next to nothing for them!) In fact, together they actually agreed to offer more money than the Pentagon even asked for when it came to purchasing new arms, including extra Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters, already the most expensive and possibly least effective warplanes in history. Meanwhile, across the planet, the weaponry into which all that "national security" money has been poured is still killing people, including startling numbers of civilians, in never-ending unsuccessful wars that have turned millions of people in distant countries into displaced persons and refugees.

Considering such funding to be for "national security" isn't just a joke, but a lie of the first order. It has, as a start, produced both global and national insecurity (while aiding the rise of what's now called right-wing populism). Those disastrous but disastrously well-funded wars launched by George W. Bush proved to be, above all else, acts of mass murder abroad, even as they also led to the deaths, injuries, or PTSD misery of significant numbers of Americans. Think of them, in fact, as, in the most literal sense imaginable, war crimes.

Of course, those acts of mass murder all took place in distant lands far from most American eyes, even as, in an ever more unequal society, they deprived so many here of needed assistance. In part, Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential campaign was a product of that mass murder abroad. And now, without ever actually ending those wars as he promised so vociferously, he's become a mass murderer at home in his own striking fashion. In this pandemic year, think of him, whether in relation to Covid-19 itself or the election that took place in its midst, as launching a kind of war on terror on both Americans and our political system.

In the process, he's helped create a world of staggering folly that should be eternally unmasked. (Whoops! Well, you know what I mean.) The America he's played such a part in producing has created a kind of mental chaos that's hard to take in. One nurse in unmasked South Dakota caught its sad spirit in this series of tweets:

"I have a night off from the hospital. As I'm on my couch with my dog I can't help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don't believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that 'stuff' because they don't have Covid because it's not real... These people really think this isn't going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It's like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There's no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again."

She's right. No credits roll and yet the president and his men, as well as Republican governors like South Dakota's Kristi Noem who refuse to mandate masks are, in an obvious sense, aiding and abetting murders. Take, for instance, the president's lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani who traveled the country unmasked, ignoring social distancing guidelines wherever he went, to beat the post-election drums for Donald Trump. He then fell ill with Covid-19, was hospitalized, got special medications that most Americans could never receive thanks to his pal, and called into his own radio show from his hospital room to essentially denounce masking and social distancing and assure his listeners that Covid-19 was "curable." (Tell that to the more than 300,000 Americans who have already died from it.)

Now, don't such acts, multiplied many times over, qualify as part of what might be considered a homegrown war of (not on) terror in a world not of holly but folly this Christmas season? And I haven't even mentioned the crimes this president and his administration have committed against the environment or President Trump's criminal urge to torch the planet itself in a fashion that, given what we already know about climate change, will potentially result in so much more death, destruction, and displacement.

We live in a land of vast crimes against others and increasingly against ourselves. We also await a new president whose greatest ad line is simply that he is not Donald J. Trump (thank god!), though in all honesty that "new" has to be taken under advisement. Let's hope for the best, especially when it comes to climate change, but Joe Biden will, after all, be 78 years old -- by far the oldest president in our history -- on entering the Oval Office. He's the been-there, done-that man of our moment and, Obama appointee by Obama appointee, he seems largely intent on recreating a familiar past that helped create the very future we're now mired in.

As we await him in a country on edge, armed, angry, and in a conspiratorial frame of mind, as we face a Mitch McConnell Republican Party that would rather take down the future than negotiate much of anything, Donald Trump, the murderer, continues to prove himself the ultimate, possibly all-time, sore loser, even as he parties away at the White House. He gives a pandemic version of Christmas true meaning.

See the blazing fool before us,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhard

The rise and fall of American empire: Trump brought a message from hell to a failing planet

We're nw living in an age of opacity, as Rudy Giuliani pointed out in a courtroom recently. Here was the exchange:

"'In the plaintiffs' counties, they were denied the opportunity to have an unobstructed observation and ensure opacity,' Giuliani said. 'I'm not quite sure I know what opacity means. It probably means you can see, right?'
"'It means you can't,' said U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann.
"'Big words, your honor,' Giuliani said."

Big words indeed! And he couldn't have been more on the mark, whether he knew it or not. Thanks in part to him and to the president he's represented so avidly, even as hair dye or mascara dripped down his face, we find ourselves in an era in which, to steal a biblical phrase from Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, all of us see as if "through a glass darkly."

As in Election Campaign 2016, Donald Trump isn't the cause but a symptom (though what a symptom!) of an American world going down. Then as now, he somehow gathered into his one-and-only self so many of the worst impulses of a country that, in this century, found itself eternally at war not just with Afghans and Iraqis and Syrians and Somalis but increasingly with itself, a true heavyweight of a superpower already heading down for the count.

Here's a little of what I wrote back in June 2016 about The Donald, a reminder that what's happening now, bizarre as it might seem, wasn't beyond imagining even so many years ago:

"It's been relatively easy... -- at least until Donald Trump arrived to the stunned fascination of the country (not to speak of the rest of the planet) -- to imagine that we live in a peaceable land with most of its familiar markers still reassuringly in place... In truth, however, the American world is coming to bear ever less resemblance to the one we still claim as ours, or rather that older America looks increasingly like a hollowed-out shell within which something new and quite different has been gestating.
"After all, can anyone really doubt that representative democracy as it once existed has been eviscerated and is now -- consider Congress Exhibit A -- in a state of advanced paralysis, or that just about every aspect of the country's infrastructure is slowly fraying or crumbling and that little is being done about it? Can anyone doubt that the constitutional system -- take war powers as a prime example or, for that matter, American liberties -- has also been fraying? Can anyone doubt that the country's classic tripartite form of government, from a Supreme Court missing a member by choice of Congress to a national security state that mocks the law, is ever less checked and balanced and increasingly more than 'tri'?"

Even then, it should have been obvious that Donald Trump was, as I also wrote in that campaign year, a wildly self-absorbed symptom of American-style imperial decline on a planet increasingly from hell. And that, of course, was four years before the pandemic struck or there was a wildfire season in the West the likes of which no one had imagined possible and a record 30 storms that more or less used up two alphabets in a never-ending hurricane season.

In the most literal sense possible, The Donald was our first presidential candidate of imperial decline and so a genuine sign of the times. He swore he would make America great again, and in doing so, he alone, among American politicians of that moment, admitted that this country wasn't great then, that it wasn't, as the rest of the American political class claimed, the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensible country in history, the sole superpower left on Planet Earth.

An American World Without "New Deals" (Except for Billionaires)

In that campaign year, the United States was already something else again and that was more than four years before the richest, most powerful country on the planet couldn't handle a virus in a fashion the way other advanced nations did. Instead, it set staggering records for Covid-19 cases and deaths, numbers that previously might have been associated with third-world countries. You can practically hear the chants now as those figures continue to rise exponentially: USA! USA! We're still number one (in pandemic casualties)!

Somehow, in that pre-pandemic year, a billionaire bankruptee and former reality TV host instinctively caught the mood of the moment in an ever-less-unionized American heartland, long in decline if you were an ordinary citizen. By then, the abandonment of the white working class and lower middle class by the "new Democrats" was history. The party of Bill and Hillary Clinton had long been, as Thomas Frank wrote recently in the Guardian, "preaching competence rather than ideology and reaching out to new constituencies: the enlightened suburbanites; the 'wired workers'; the 'learning class'; the winners in our new post-industrial society."

Donald Trump arrived on the scene promising to attend to the abandoned ones, the white Americans whose dreams of better lives for themselves or their children had largely been left in the dust in an ever-more-unequal country. Increasingly embittered, they were, at best, taken totally for granted by the former party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton didn't even consider it worth the bother to visit Wisconsin and her campaign underplayed the very idea of focusing on key heartland states.) In the twenty-first century, there were to be no "new deals" for them and they knew it. They had been losing ground -- to the tune of $2.5 trillion a year since 1975 -- to the very billionaires whom The Donald so proudly proclaimed himself one of and to a version of corporate America that had grown oversized, wealthy, and powerful in a fashion that would have been unimaginable decades earlier.

On entering the Oval Office, Trump would still offer them blunt words, which would ring bells in rally after rally where they could cheer him to death. At the same time, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he continued the process of abandonment by handing a staggering tax cut to the 1% and those very same corporations, enriching them ever so much more. So, of course, would the pandemic, which only added yet more billions to the fortunes of billionaires and various corporate giants (while granting the front-line workers who kept those companies afloat only the most meager and passing "hazard pay").

Today, the coronavirus here in the United States might be more accurately relabeled "the Trump virus." After all, the president really did make it his own in a unique fashion. Via ignorance, neglect, and a striking lack of care, he managed to spread it around the country (and, of course, the White House itself) in record ways, holding rallies that were visibly instruments of death and destruction. All of this would have been clearer yet if, in Election Campaign 2020, he had just replaced MAGA as his slogan with MASA (Make America Sick Again), since the country was still going down, just in a new way.

In other words, ever since 2016, Donald Trump, wrapped up eternally in his own overwrought self, has come to personify the very essence of a bifurcated country that was heading down, down, down, if you weren't part of that up, up, up 1%. The moment when he returned from the hospital, having had Covid-19 himself, stepped out on a White House balcony, and proudly tore off his mask for all the world to see summed up the messaging of this all-American twenty-first-century moment perfectly.

Waving Goodbye to the American Moment

Unique as Donald Trump may seem in this moment and overwhelming as Covid-19 might be for now, the American story of recent years is anything but unique in history, at least as so far described. From the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the fourteenth century to the Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century, pandemics have, in their own fashion, been a dime a dozen. And as for foolish rulers who made a spectacle of themselves, well, the Romans had their Nero and he was anything but unique in the annals of history.

As for going down, down, down, that's in the nature of history. Known once upon a time as "imperial powers" or "empires," what we now call "great powers" or "superpowers" rise, have their moments in the sun (even if it's the shade for so many of those they rule over), and then fall, one and all. Were that not so, Edward Gibbon's classic six-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, would never have gained the fame it did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Across the planet and across time, that imperial rising and falling has been an essential, even metronomic, part of humanity's story since practically the dawn of history. It was certainly the story of China, repeatedly, and definitely the tale of the ancient Middle East. It was the essence of the history of Europe from the Portuguese and Spanish empires to the English empire that arose in the 18th century and finally fell (in essence, to our own) in the middle of the last century. And don't forget that other superpower of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which came into being after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and grew and grew, only to implode in 1991, after a (gulp!) disastrous war in Afghanistan, less than 70 years later.

And none of this, as I say, is in itself anything special, not even for a genuinely global power like the United States. (What other country ever had at least 800 military garrisons spread across the whole planet?) If this were history as it's always been, the only real shock would perhaps be the strikingly bizarre sense of self-adulation felt by this country's leadership and the pundit class that went with it after that other Cold War superpower so surprisingly blew a fuse. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union's plunge to its grave in 1991, leaving behind an impoverished place once again known as "Russia," they engaged in distinctly delusional behavior. They convinced themselves that history as it had always been known, the very rise and fall and rise (and fall) that had been its repetitious tune, had somehow "ended" with this country atop everything forever and beyond.

Not quite three decades later, in the midst of a set of "forever wars" in which the U.S. managed to impose its will on essentially no one and in an increasingly chaotic, riven, pandemicized country, who doesn't doubt that this was delusionary thinking of the first order? Even at the time, it should have been obvious enough that the United States would sooner or later follow the Soviet Union to the exits, no matter how slowly, enveloped in a kind of self-adoration.

A quarter-century later, Donald Trump would be the living evidence that this country was anything but immune to history, though few then recognized him as a messenger of the fall already underway. Four years after that, in a pandemicized land, its economy a wreck, its military power deeply frustrated, its people divided, angry, and increasingly well-armed, that sense of failing (already felt so strongly in the American heartland that welcomed The Donald in 2016) no longer seems like such an alien thing. It feels more like the new us -- as in U.S.

Despite the oddity of The Donald himself, all of this would just be more of the same, if it weren't for one thing. There's an extra factor now at work that's all but guaranteed to make the history of the decline and fall of the American empire different from the declines and falls of centuries past. And no, it has next to nothing to do with (blare of trumpets!) Donald Trump, though he did long ago reject climate change as a "Chinese hoax" and, in every way possible, thanks to his love of fossil fuels, give it as much of a helping hand as he could, opening oil lands of every sort to the drill, and dismissing environmental regulations that might have impeded the giant energy companies. And don't forget his mad mockery of alternative power of any sort.

I could go on, of course, but why bother. You know this part of the story well. You're living it.

Yes, in its own distinctive fashion, the U.S. is going down and will do so whether Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or Mitch McConnell is running the show. But here's what's new: for the first time, a great imperial power is falling just as the earth, at least as humanity has known it all these thousands of years, seems to be going down, too. And that means there will be no way, no matter what The Donald may think, to wall out intensifying storms, fires, or floods, mega-droughts, melting ice shelves and the rising sea levels that go with them, record temperatures, and so much more, including the hundreds of millions of people who are likely to be displaced across a failing planet, thanks to those greenhouse gases released by the burning of the fossil fuels that Donald Trump loves so much.

Undoubtedly, the first genuine twist in the rise-and-fall version of human history -- the first story, that is, that was potentially all about falling -- arrived on August 6th and 9th, 1945 when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It soon became apparent that such weaponry, collected in vast and spreading arsenals, had (and still has) the power to quite literally take history out of our hands. In this century, even a "limited" regional war with such weaponry could create a nuclear winter that might starve billions. That version of Armageddon has at least been postponed time and again since August 1945, but as it happened, humanity proved quite capable of coming up with another version of ultimate disaster, even if its effects, no less calamitous, happen not with the speed of an exploding nuclear weapon, but over the years, the decades, the centuries.

Donald Trump was the messenger from hell when it came to a falling empire on a failing planet. Whether, on such a changing world, the next empire or empires, China or unknown powers to come, can rise in the normal fashion remains to be seen. As does whether, on such a planet, some other way of organizing human life, some potentially better, more empathetic way of dealing with the world and ourselves will be found.

Just know that the rise and fall of history, as it always was, is no more. The rest, I suppose, is still ours to discover, for better or for worse.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

A vote for doom: Trump is defeated — but the state of chaos remains

In 2016 as now, he was the candidate of chaos. Yes, he was a billionaire (or wanna-be billionaire or in-hock billionaire, not to mention a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel), but from the beginning he appealed to the forces of order in America that were also, as it happened, the forces of chaos. Donald Trump entered the presidential sweepstakes, or to be completely accurate rode an escalator into it, from stage right. In another universe, he could have entered from stage left and he wouldn't have given a damn either way.

After all, there never really was a left, right, or center for the king of apprentices. There was never anything but the imposing figure known as The Donald, the man of the hour, any hour, past, present, or future. Whatever his political position of the moment, he reflected one thing above all: the underlying chaos and bad faith of a world of wealth, power, and ever-growing inequality, a world, as it happened, just waiting to go down.

Now that he's defeated, count on one thing: he'll take as much of this country with him as he can. If he has his way, when he finally decides to jump ship, money in hand, he'll leave the rest of us at a vast mask-less rally with death running wild in our midst. From the beginning, he was always the orange-faced, yellow-haired personification of chaos. Now, just as the Republican Party did in 2016, this country has taken on his chaos as our own and, in the wake of the recent election, one obvious question is: Are we, too, scheduled for the ventilator of history?

Do I sound extreme? I damn well hope so. We're in a gridlocked, post-election moment of previously unimaginable extremity in an increasingly over-armed, ever more divided country that used to be known as the "last superpower" on Planet Earth. It matters (but not enough) that that aged Democratic centrist Joe Biden has taken the presidency and, if all goes faintly as previously expected, will make his way into the future White House. Without a Senate majority, however, and with a reduced majority in the House, without the Democrats having taken a single state legislature from the Republicans, and with Donald Trump's America still fully mobilized and ready for... well, who knows what... don't count on good tidings ahead.

The Personification of Carnage

From the start, he was imperial America's candidate of decline, even if few recognized it at the time. Still, it should have been obvious enough in 2016 -- it was to me anyway -- that his trademark slogan, Make America Great Again, was nothing short of an admission that this "exceptional," "indispensable" nation of ours, the greatest superpower in history (or so this country's politicians then liked to believe) had, in fact, seen better times.

Donald Trump was then, and remains, a vengeful, preening peacock sent by god knows whom to make that reality obvious to one and all. That was certainly true of the slice of white, heartland, working-class America that decided to embrace the billionaire bankuptee and reality TV host. In a land of already staggering inequality, he was the one who would somehow give them back their lost status, their lost sense of American wellbeing and of a future that they could embrace for their children and grandchildren. And if he didn't do that for them, he would at least be emotional payback when it came to all the loathed powers-that-be in Washington who had, they felt, taken them down

His "base," as they came to be known in the media, whom he abhorred, adored, and played like an accordion, embraced the man who, in the end, was guaranteed to leave them holding the bag without the slightest compunction. In those years, they became his property, his very own apprentices, like the political party he also absorbed without a second thought.

When it came to that base, he became, after a fashion, their god or perhaps their demon, and so he remains today, even in defeat. Of course, he won't care if he ends up bankrupting them, leaves them in a ditch, or continues to rev them up at future rallies that, though they may spread death, leave him feeling whole and good and top of the line.

On the other hand, when Joe Biden, the definition of an old white man, finally limps into the Oval Office, he'll represent a return to normalcy in Washington, the retrieval of an America that was. The only problem: the America that was -- if you'll excuse the repetition of a verb -- was an America in decline, even if its leaders didn't know it. It was a country on course for a previously un-American version of inequality and so instability that once would have been unimaginable.

Who can doubt that Donald Trump himself was the personification of hell on Earth? He was the witch in the wardrobe. He was a satanic art-of-the-dealer (every deal, by definition, meant only for himself). He was what this country vomited up from the depths of its disturbed innards as a uniquely symbolic president. From the moment he delivered that Inaugural Address of his on January 20, 2017, he would also be the personification of carnage.

And yes, goad me a little more, and believe me I could go on. But you get the drift, right?

And yet give Donald Trump the credit he deserves. However intuitively, he grasped just where this country was and was going (and, of course, how he could benefit from that). He understood its fault lines in a way no one else did. He even understood how to run a campaign for -- instead of against -- a pandemic in a way that should have left him 20,000 leagues under the sea, not floating in a heated pool at Mar-a-Lago.

There couldn't be a grimmer moral to the American story than this: he knew all of us so much better than we knew ourselves. To so many Americans, he spoke what felt like reality itself. It mattered not at all that he looked like, felt like, and was a con man in a great American tradition, or that he had stiffed the government with those tax returns he'd never release. After all, whatever he was, he was the genuine (fraudulent) thing in a world where increasing numbers of Americans already felt conned by the 1% politics of a Washington that was filled with con artists of a different sort.

Now, despite the scads of lawyers he's called into action to screw the works, Donald Trump has missed his chance for a second round in the Oval Office and, as a result, rest assured, we'll all be left holding the bag. In the midst of the pandemic from hell -- don't doubt it for a second -- this will be another kind of hell on earth.

A Vote for Doom

Now, let's look on the bright side, because at such a moment who wants to just read a screed of negativity? So here's the good news: thanks to President Trump's defeat in election 2020 (however long it may take to play out in court), the world will go down more slowly, though how much more slowly remains to be seen. After all, there was one factor in any Trump second term that was going to be unlike any other.

Though it may not seem like it to us, the rest of what we would have seen from a Trump second term -- autocratic behavior, raw racism, a red-hot version of nationalism (white and otherwise), aggrieved masculinity, all amid the pandemic of the century -- would have been just another passing chapter in human history. In that long tale, autocrats and nationalists of every grim kind have been a dime-a-dozen and even nightmarish pandemics anything but unknown. Give it a decade, a century, a millennium, and it would be as if nothing had happened at all. Who but the historians (if they still exist) would even remember?

Unfortunately, that's not true of one factor in election 2020, though it played the most modest of roles in the campaign itself. That was, of course, the phenomenon of climate change, the human heating of the planet through the never-ending release into the atmosphere (and the oceans) of greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels.

Certainly, since the coal-fired industrial revolution began in England in the eighteenth century, the warming of this planet has been sparked and fed by us humans, but it is not, in fact, part of human history. It will operate on a timescale likely to leave that history in the dust. Once released, and if not brought under some reasonable control (as is still possible), it's a phenomenon that will stand, in the most devastating fashion imaginable, outside human history altogether. Unlike any other Trumpian phenomenon, once it truly sets in, give it a decade, a century, even a millennium, and it will still be working to ensure that Earth, to one degree or another, becomes a distinctly unlivable planet for humanity.

It's little short of passing strange -- you might actually call it suicidal -- that Donald Trump (and the crew he brought to power) would be quite so intent not just on ignoring or "denying" climate change, as is often charged, but on amplifying it by, in essence, actively setting this planet afire. The president's term for it was "unleashing American Energy Dominance." How strange, however, that his intent to destroy a habitable planet proved quite so popular, not once, but twice -- and who knows about a third time in 2024?

After all, a vote for Trump was, in essence, a vote for doom. At some level, it wasn't even complicated, but from a base that seemed to glory in those mask-less, chanting love fests for their One and Only, perhaps none of this should have been a surprise at all.

If Donald Trump has become something like a god to his supporters, then perhaps it's worth asking what kind of a god would be quite so intent on setting fire to the planet (and while he was at it murdering his own apprentices with Covid-19)? Perhaps we need to think of him, in fact, as our very own boatman Charon on the river Styx, paddling us all to what someday could quite literally be a hell on Earth.

After all, I'm writing this piece in New York City on a November day when it's 74 degrees outside (and, no, that's not a misprint). Yet another fierce tropical storm in a record year of them has drenched parts of Florida, a place that's no longer a swing state but, like Mar-a-Lago, property of The Donald. Meanwhile, parts of the West, having burned and smoked and flamed in a historic fashion across millions and millions of charred acres amid heat waves galore, are still smoldering (though hardly noticed by anyone), and the world couldn't be less together.

In a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell, green new deals or two-trillion-dollar climate plans will become more fantastic than Donald Trump himself. Still, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at least partially running a deeply divided country in the midst of a pandemic and an economy that's gone to hell, the pyromania will ease up somewhat. Some modest steps might even be taken toward alternate forms of energy and some to save the environment, as well as a humanity in distress. It won't be what's needed, but it won't be a torch either and that's the best thing to be said about our moment and why it truly mattered that Donald Trump was not reelected.

Now, return for a moment to 1991, when that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. America's power brokers then (including Joe Biden), believing themselves alone and powerful beyond imagining on Planet Earth, the inheritors of everything that had gone before, launched what would become disastrous forever wars, sure that this planet was theirs for the taking, even as history itself -- just imagine -- was ending.

Almost three decades later, that same last superpower is a democracy in decline, not to say chaos; an imperial power in decline globally; a military power that can't find a winning war to fight (even as Congress, no matter the president, appropriates yet more funding for the military-industrial complex). We have a 78-year-old man getting ready to inhabit the Oval Office and another 78-year-old preparing to oppose him in the Senate, while an 80-year-old runs the House. Doesn't this tell you something about a country swept away by a pandemic -- 100,000 or more cases a day -- and, despite assurances from Donald Trump, without a turnable "corner" in sight? And none of this would be the end of the world, so to speak, if it weren't for climate change.

Admittedly, Covid-19 has turned this country into a kind of hell on Earth, having been left to roam in an unprecedented fashion by a killer president. Cases are soaring, hospitals overwhelmed, deaths rising, and almost half of America can't think about anything but crowding together for presidential rallies, living mask-less lives, and "opening" the economy.

Trumpism has split America in two in a way that hasn't been imaginable since the Civil War. The president and the Senate are likely to be in gridlock, the judicial system a partisan affair of the first order, the national security state a money-gobbling shadow empire, the citizenry armed to the teeth, racism rising, and life everywhere in an increasing state of chaos.

Welcome to the (Dis)United States. Donald Trump led the way and, whatever he does, I suspect that this, for at least the time being, is still in some sense his world, not Joe Biden's. He was the man and, like it or not, we were all his apprentices in a performance of destructive power of the first order that has yet to truly end.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

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