It was at the very beginning of my days of adulthood – grad school to be precise – when nineteen terrorists smashed two planes into the sides of two sky-scrapers. I was sitting in the student union at university in Boston, watching people jumping from high windows, firemen running into the ash. I remember it all. It was to be my first war; well not my first war. I’d already done some short stints in Kosovo and eastern Congo. But my first war, the first one about me and mine. The “war on terror” that for Americans was about pictures of bombs mostly on the nightly news and political criticisms of 43 for an ill-fated invasion.
I came of age in the heady times that Francis Fukuyama called the “End of History”. I know, I pick on old Frank a lot; he is just such a perfect lightning rod for all the pent up accumulated hubris of the ‘administrative state’ convinced we are just one worker training program, judicial strengthening grant and Vladimir Putin summit away from utopia. I came of age when wars were to be a thing of the past. I came of age when ‘The era of big government was over’ (that was 42, before 43 brought it back). Government is like a crack addiction; the answer is never less. ‘Nothing else matters’ by Metallica and ‘Live and let die’ by Guns and Roses were the songs of the day – a mild harmless existentialism was ours. Nothing like wretched nihilism of now. But ours was an age when the big considerations were part of the past. Even the EU, I was actually in the EU (Spain) when the single currency EURO was rolled out, epic solutions that would finally relegate all considerations to a box on a form filled out and filed in Brussels.
I did not think the story of my life would be summed up by the three words: war, depression and pandemic. War – of course the ‘War on Terror’ which for me was lived not only on the TV but on the blasted sands of West Africa. For six years I fought the war – against Al Qaida and ISIS and Boko Haram – though I am not a soldier. In point of fact, soldiers – while essential and to be honored – are not the whole story of war. I’ve taken more jihadis off the battlefield than any platoon – 6000, maybe 15,000 – depending on how you count. I’ve had people in harm’s way; I’ve spent many a worried sleepless night. And I’ve also sheltered from the bombs. Of course those wars were to a certain extent mine – but I’ve also participated in other people’s wars. Uganda, Congo, Nagorno-Karabakh. Trying to be the ‘good guy’ – if there is such a thing. I’ve written a novel about the Uganda war, from the point of view of our enemy. Empathy, that is the first casualty of war.
To be sure, those are my stories – but depression? Wasn’t that about dust-bowls and bread-lines and stock market crashes in the deep past. But I’ve lived two of them, well perhaps one and a half. But these, so have you. And in this, I’m exceedingly lucky, as perhaps are you. Because the real victims of the depressions are the generation that people (me included) love to pick on, the Millenials. They were just emerging from college, when the great recession (it was a depression) of 2008 hit. And it almost wiped away the world… Setting us all back years – I remember watching my nest egg drain down to the price of a crappy car. But I at least was gainfully employed in my wars; put my head down and move forward. Not so on your mama’s couch. Then, just as they start to get their legs under them, a few short years later a pandemic wipes away more years. They don’t buy houses – Millenials don’t. Nor are they having children. No wonder they’ve become Maoists – the system sure does feel rigged. Maybe utopia will lie beyond a sophomoric course in “How to be actively anti-racist”.
Which brings me to pandemic – because this one took me totally by surprise!! Perhaps because it was so sudden. I never realized how quickly a pandemic burns – one month I was closing the lid on the last of the Christmas cookies and the next I was engaged in toilet-paper-fights up and down the aisles (OK I wasn’t, that’s an exaggeration). And because it wasn’t supposed to be so. 2020 was for me to be an epic year, after six years of West African wars. It was not supposed to be a year cowering in fear of ‘vectors’ I used to think of as friends. Seven million dead now – the 5th highest death rate for a new disease in history (I’m not counting multiple explosions of the Black Death). A world shuttered, closed for business. A single-story year (which of course had lots of sub-plots) – a year that will give birth to movies and novels (I’m gonna write one) and reminiscences about “where were you when…?” – same as 9-11.
All this has led me to be thoughtful, especially because I’m also closing a chapter of my own personal story. “The unexamined life…” as it were. I think the main takeaway for now is a sense continuity. For those born in the 50s or perhaps the 60s onward, ours were the post-generations. Post-war, post-poverty, certainly post-pandemic. Those were things of the past. The United Nations was going to deal with the wars and our scientists and our CDC the diseases. Sure the Russians were out there, but nobody really believed there would be war. Mutually assured destruction was very compelling. Ya, we knew of the gulags and death camps and killing fields, but that was over there – the West was over all of it. Europe was descending into a nice cozy brew of sticky cheese and overpriced wine; the United States was rapaciously building new houses and bigger cars in which we were consuming our seven-pound-burritos. That all ended, well I guess in 2001 – for my generation; and the last twenty years have returned us to history – to an anarchy awaiting that finally came. My point? Progress is not a reasonable hope.
I’m currently in the former Soviet Union, in Armenia – for a few more days at any rate. I’ve weathered the pandemic and my latest war here. For me, my fifth or sixth (again depends on how you count) – for the Armenians, well they are innumerable. They count their adversaries among names that only appear in codices dredged from the bottom of lakes or inside ancient caves: Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ottomans. War – for the Armenians – is nothing new. And pandemics? Didn’t the invading Mongols hurl Black Death riddled bodies over the walls of Amberd Fortress to soften the battlefield before breaching the walls?
Genocide, which is as much about disease as it is about anything else – death-marches into the desert. The Armenians have weathered the pandemic and the next war with stoicism and a certain amount of fatalism; “We are in a bad neighborhood” as my friends here repeat often. Because its true. Being in a place old and yet still optimistic, still looking to the future – confident in who they are even if they feel tremendously vulnerable to the predations of far-more-powerful enemies; that is something that we as Americans could learn from. With no real external enemies, we far too often turn on each other.
I wonder if the new generation of Americans will be different? Those who are just now coming of age, who don’t remember the Soviet Union but will recall the days that the airplanes stop flying. I wonder what lessons they will take, for their own future – what kind of world they will seek to build out of the wreckage of ours? The human story is cyclical – birth, growth, death and rebirth. Creation, debasement, extinction and renewal. While our tech might improve, that should not be mistaken for an improvement in the way human beings reason – if anything the farther away we go from our cultures and traditions the more wicked and violent we become. But faith also renews itself – our great revivals in America put that on display; the rebirth of Protestantism from the wicked debauchery of Rome before that.
These are some of my musings on a quiet Sunday in Yerevan. To those who have stayed with me this long, thanks for joining me. It is, after all, a year for reflection. For none of us has ever lived anything like what this year has been.