I had my first atomic war paranoia dream in 20 years last night. It startled me awake in a cold sweat, but then felt sweetly nostalgic.
I remember when the air raid sirens were tested every Wednesday, and our teacher would sometimes pause, and occasionally we’d practice a sort of “Duck and Cover” drill. In the late 70’s, Duck and Cover was starting to fade. By the time I was doing it, it had become a sort of hybrid fire drill. We’d all get up, and line up against the cinderblock walls of the hallway. In the 70’s, we’d still go fetal. In the early 80’s, we’d chatter while the teachers poured bourbon in their coffee. By the time I hit high school, the sirens had stopped. After all, we “won” the Cold War in my junior year. And the writing was on the wall long before that.
It was, though, drilled into my mind that the end of the world was only 20 minutes away. Missiles were pointed at my backyard. Washington, DC. Ground zero. No hope of survival. All that would be left was a crater and, duck and cover or not, as soon as the sirens went off for real, we had less than half an hour to live. The TV told us this, the movies told us this, the news told us this, and so did our leaders, our teachers, and our parents.
My childhood dreams were usually set against a post apocalyptic wasteland. Or, you know, I was in a Tron game. Or I was a ghostbuster. But, still. Doomsday on the mind.
My dream last night was an odd mix of that childhood apocalyptic fear and the show Breaking Bad. I was cooking and selling meth with my mother (dead these ten years) and we were constantly fighting. We had a crazed distributor we were trying to sell our product to, and the three of us were in a situation that was about to escalate to violence when, suddenly, a blinding white flash filled the windows and, in horror, we all turned to stare into it….and were burnt into oblivion.
What I’ve found, today, is that a little touch of that constant fear we all used to live with his crept back into my soul. Looking back, it was worse than the State of Fear we’ve been living in since 2001. These terror alerts – even in light of the fact that something actually did happen – seem so empty and…well, corporate. That word comes to mind. Maybe I’m overly cynical, but every single little thing today feels like someone is selling something. And not very well, either.
It was the same when I was a kid. The Soviets were bankrupt by the time Reagan took office. They’d become a straw-man, and that was fairly common knowledge if you stopped to look at the situation. But they were still sold to us as the big, bad bear. An easy thing to do, really. America needs enemies. That’s human nature. We all understand villainy and need to rally against it. The guys in black hats have been with us since before recorded history. They want your daughters, they want your land, they want your fire. Protect the tribe!
We also need an enemy we can understand. Korea, Vietnam…all of that was hell. So, despite the obvious shift to guerilla warfare in jungles and deserts, we continued to train our armies to fight a World War II-style land war in Europe. The ultimate sign that the “Greatest Generation” had the world by the balls. The Greatest Generation… These poorly-educated farmboy yokels thrown into all-out war. You can educate them and put them in suits, but you can never take that country-thinking out of them. The children of isolationists, raised on the Depression and conflict. A generation of post-traumatic stress, greed, and segregation. What has the Greatest Generation given us but backwards thinking? And, due to that, social upheaval, drugs, and a nation that has sold its soul to the corporations. A nation where every succeeding generation had to fight a pointless war for twisted ideals. They sent their children to Vietnam, and their grandchildren to an endless Orwellian war in Iraq. And, worse, they made it seem okay. They’ve trained us to be so complacent that we no longer complain. Our boys and girls come back in flag draped boxes and we don’t care. It may alarm us, but we’ve been turned into serfs. Armchair liberals. Well-heeled do-nothings working away half the day for pennies. We’ve become the worst kind of people – we, all of us, allow evil to succeed through our own inaction. And, worse yet, we pretend we amount to something because, from our condos and dog parks, we complain. The illusion of rebellion. It’s how we’ve been taught. To live the lie. We pride ourselves on recycling, yet turn a blind eye once it hits the curb and goes into the same truck as the regular trash. Nor do we have even the slightest concept of what recycling actually is as we throw out our car tires, our toothpaste containers…
We wear clothes and watch TV’s manufactured by children and slaves, then say that we believe in human rights. Is that the Greatest Generation’s version of human rights? White’s Only, thank you very much.
But, even with all those controls in place, and with our brains turned into Play-Doh, we need an enemy. We still need the big, bad bear. Something to unite (and distract) the tribe. With the Soviets gone, we moved on to terrorism. A slow drift that began, for America, in the late 70’s, was a queer little sideshow in the 80’s, and was manufactured in the 90’s to finally lead into 9/11.
Not that the government is responsible. The manufacture of the terrorist menace is more the result of our chronic naiveté. And, once over the shocking hump of 9/11, just something that’s really good for business. Which is where my cynicism comes in. There wasn’t all of this corporate mumbo-jumbo when the Soviets were in town. It was our steely-eyed soldiers facing them down with the Iron Curtain in between. It was dashing secret agents foiling their plans behind the scenes. It was war, fought by warriors who had sworn an oath to the Constitution. Or, at least, that was the image sold (and bought).
Now we watch this weird, useless scrabbling in the desert, misdirected and mismanaged. Private corporate mercenaries fight for us, and we hear how those companies make billions, and reach mysteriously deep into the government. Our 21st-Century wars seem so shallow, so much under the control of the profits.
Now, yes, that was always there. The Nazi’s wouldn’t have had their war machine if not for the American auto-makers, and the Cold War was all about private industry. The mercenaries were always there. The corporations were always sticking their fingers in the pie, and taking more than their fair share.
Maybe things are different now because we’re in the age of the internet. There are no more secrets.
Or maybe they just used to be better liars. Or didn’t have to try as hard. When the social civil war of the 60’s moved into the jaded complacency of the 70’s, we were too busy trying to catch our collective breath to pay attention to anything around us. Then we hired an actor to lead the nation, and he did what he did best.
My question this morning – were those days better? Back when we were ignorant, back when we were afraid. Before the Dawn of Information. At any moment, that white flash would herald a wall of fire and death. A simple, abrupt end to blissfully simple lives.
Now our lives are not simple. Deep down, we know. We all know that we’re living in the end days of the Republic. We all know what goes on in the world to bring us our limitless luxury goods, to keep us in flat screen TV’s and designer clothes and cheap milk, affordable gas, and poorly made, gentrified condos. We all know that slaves made our shirts, and that the black man continues to be oppressed even while one sits in the White House. We all know that our days – and our lives as we know them – are numbered.
But it won’t be a wall of fire that takes us out. No detonations above our cities, missiles streaking the heavens, or white flashes followed by mushroom clouds. The one thing we don’t know, now, is how or when the end will come. When will our cars run out of gas? When will we be poisoned by the lack of regulation on frozen dinners, bottled water, and that cheap milk and meat? As we lose money, and those corporate gods make billions, we can’t predict the outcome. As the Greatest Generation dies and leaves in its wake twisted, depressed fools, we aren’t able to see a way out. Our parents, who betrayed us in the 60’s and surrendered our freedom to the great Silent Majority, are now in charge. And, let’s face it, they’re crazy. They can’t get along with each other, let alone run a country. They’re guilty, addled on prescription drugs and crooked therapists. And they created my generation, now just beginning to ease into power, that has no clue which way is up.
And you poor fucking kids today. You fools in your teens and early 20’s. I pity your lives. I weep for your future. They’ve taken everything from you, gobbled it up, spit it back out into your faces. You don’t even rank decent bad guys. The summer blockbuster-quality of the Nazi’s and the Soviets are gone. Now you’re fighting partisans throwing homemade bombs. Strange, dirty men following a strange god in an alien land full of huts and tents and cave-dwellings. We had Red Square. We not only lived the lie, but we loved it. Embraced it. Believed in it as we lay huddled in a fetal position in the school hallway, waiting for the end, hoping we would be heroes, living the moment as if it, and the next 19 minutes, were our last.