Engelhardt, Cold War II or World War III?
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Déjà Vu All Over Again
"Such Consequences That You Have Never Encountered in Your History"
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story.