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History

In my youth, I was promised a future in which Japan would take over the world.

In its stead, I received a future in which Japan is dying.

That’s OK. The Japan that would have taken over the world was not that Japan that I wished would have. It’s better this way.

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I don’t like what’s about to happen to the United States. I’m scared. But when I look at it, at the great arc of history, I have to admit that there is something deeply on target about Donald Trump coming to the presidency. It is only what could be expected. And a phrase keeps popping to mind: the Gatsbyean Doom. Trump is the Gatsbyean Doom. There could be no other. There are no ifs in history. All of American history has been aimed at this. The Gatsbyean Doom. Like a bobbing styrofoam cup at the brink of Niagara Falls. There could be no other.

I will say this: in 1990, with the ending of the Cold War, America lost a raison d’etre. We have not yet managed to find another one. We have wandered in malaise. In Trump we find a thicker, richer, new & improved malaise.

The Thirties & Forties had to lead to the Fifties. The Fifties to the Sixties. The Sixties to the Seventies.

In the depths of each phase, the forces defining that phase seem permanent. But already has been stamped their expiration date, and the next cycle cued up to overtake.

Since this month is the quarter-century anniversary of the First Gulf War:

In the early summer of 1990, my father taught me how to drive. Franklin County, New York is threaded with semiuninhabited back roads, excellent for the novice driver, and we spent hours practicing, me driving, us talking. Among the things we talked about was the situation then developing in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, was threatening to invade the tiny, oil-rich Emirate of Kuwait. America’s pundit class was talking itself hoarse in debate as to whether or not he had the guts to go through with it.

Yes, he will, I said, with the excitement of an adolescent who thinks they’re onto something. I had read a profile of the man in a recent Reader’s Digest. It had described him as a gambler, akin to Hitler in that way, a man who would keep on taking risks until he was bodily prevented from doing so. To my eye, that seemed perfectly astute.

No, he won’t, my father replied, with the weariness of a man who’s seen too much power politics in his lifetime. He just got off a treasury-draining, army-destroying, eight-year war with Iran. If he’s managed to stay dictator this long, he must have sense enough to know the United States government would never allow him to get away with it. Nothing’s going to happen.

My father was absolutely right. It was absurd of me to think (on the basis of a Reader’s Digest article!) that Saddam Hussein was that foolish. I was indulging my teenage sense of wanting events to be more dramatic than they were. Anyone with an ounce of brains could tell that despite all the saber rattling, the man astute enough to be a dictator for so long would know he was taking an unwinnable risk.

That fact that Saddam Hussein did indeed invade Kuwait is irrelevant.

‘Cause really, what the hell was he thinking? I really do want to know. There was, around 1990, some talk about how the end of the Cold War meant the decline of both superpowers, that the U.S., saddled with strategic overstretch and a massive deficit, was on the fade as much as the U.S.S.R.. I suppose Hussein convinced himself that was true. I know that in the run-up to the First Gulf War, the Iraqi government released a transcript of a conversation between him and American ambassador April Glaspie, during which she appeared to state that the U.S. would stay neutral. Maybe Hussein convinced himself that was true.

Granted, nobody predicted Bush. George Bush was the man America elected because Ronald Reagan couldn’t have a third term. He was one of the last scions of the old WASP ruling class who climbed to power simply because they were used to it. It was difficult to take him seriously. Yet this George Bush and his team put together the greatest accomplishment in American diplomacy since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the most impressive feat of American arms since MacArthur’s breakout from Pusan in 1950.

There was no reason to think any of this coming. It was all ridiculous. History is like that.

This question of Saddam’s intentions in the first war is matched with the question of Bush Jr’s intentions in the second. In both cases, the stated reasons cannot possibly be the whole story. So on what actual ideas were staked the fate of nations and the lives of millions? We don’t get to know. You and I, here in the realm of the common person, only get to live the consequences. We don’t even have the dignity of finding out what we’re being used for.

I’d like to just know. I really want to know.

Last night, watching the news come in from Paris, I once again experienced what I have come to call “That 9/11 Feeling.” This allowed me to spend some time dissecting the sensation.

The two principal spiritual aspects (or psychological, depending on how one likes to describe these things) are:

-a sense of distant horror. It’s akin to standing on a beach, watching a boat sink offshore, hearing the hands screaming and being unable to do anything. However, there is a difference in that one is witnessing human evil. It’s different from receiving news of a great natural disaster. There’s the pervasive awareness that this abomination is being performed voluntarily, by one’s fellow humans.

-a sense of foreboding history. Dave Barry once wrote of the Kennedy assassination: “we were getting our first strong dose of the craziness, the sense of events whirling out of control, that was going to be with us, stronger and stronger, through the rest of the Sixties.” When these events happen, it is both a shock and completely expected. The political and social forces that we know slide unseen beneath the crust of society burst forth, like a volcanic eruption. Rage coalesces into blood. And we can’t know where it’s going, but it doesn’t seem anywhere good. The pistons have exploded out of the engine; the plane is spiraling down.

Physically, the “9/11 feeling” creates a dry, empty sensation at the back of throat, similar to what I’ve felt when my children are very sick. It’s accompanied by a need to move around, but a difficulty in doing so, and an urge to talk, whether in person or online, to say anything, even gibberish.

Three occasions so far, I have felt this: on 9/11 itself, during the Boston Marathon Bombing, and now. I do not look forward to further opportunities to explore the feeling.

Staring at the sea this afternoon, it occurred to me that the urge to sail is not basic to human civilization. None of the various polities to leap to agricultural civilization (Sumeria, Egypt, Valley of Mexico, Papua, China, etc) were seafaring cultures. They were mostly riverine, enjoying the more predictable and useful fresh water. The Indians positively hated the “Black Water.” It’s not until we get to the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the early Indonesian kingdoms that we see real maritime societies.

So people aren’t too quick to go down to the sea in ships. It takes some prepping first, to get used to the idea.