[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I usually plug other people’s books, but in this coronaviral moment when so many of us are inside and isolated, I picked up a book I wrote long ago on the collapse of the triumphalist American war story in the hell of Vietnam. While I can’t claim to be the best judge of it, I’ve found it strangely compelling at this moment (as you’ll see from my piece below). After all, if an American sense of triumphalism hadn’t morphed into what, in that book, I called “triumphalist despair,” it’s hard to imagine how Donald Trump would have ended up in the White House via a “Make America Great Again” campaign. If you feel the urge to turn off the TV and read something, think about getting your hands on that book of mine, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Once upon a time, Studs Terkel did call it “as powerful as a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus.” Tom]
History Is More or Less Bunk
The Light at the End of the Tunnel?
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me quote a Trumpian figure from long ago, Henry Ford. That’s right, the bigot who created the Ford Motor Company (and once even ran for president). Back in 1916, in an interview with a Chicago Tribune reporter, he offered this bit of wisdom on the subject of history:
“Say, what do I care about Napoleon? What do we care about what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? I don’t know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across and I don’t care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
As it happened, Napoleon Bonaparte died only 42 years before Henry Ford was born and I’m not sure he tried to cross anything except a significant part of Russia (unsuccessfully). My suspicion: Ford may have been thinking, in the associative fashion we’ve become used to in the age of Trump, of Julius Caesar’s famed crossing of the Rubicon almost 2,000 years earlier. But really, who knows or cares in a world in which “bunk” has become the definition of history — a world in which Donald Trump, in news conference after news conference, is the only person worth a tinker’s dam (or damn)?
In fact, call Ford a prophet (as well as a profiteer) because so many years after he died in 1947 — I was three then, but you already knew I was mighty old, right? — we find ourselves in a moment that couldn’t be bunkier. We now have a president who undoubtedly doesn’t know Nero — the infamous fiddling Roman emperor (although he was probably playing a cithara) — from Spiro — that’s Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president who lived god knows how long ago. In fact, Agnew was the crook who fell even before his president was shown the door. But why linger on ancient history? After all, even yesterday’s history is water through the gate, if not under the bridge, and in these glory days of Donald Trump, who cares? Not him, that’s for sure.
A President Who Deserves the Medal of Honor?
All of this is my way of introducing a vivid piece of imagery that our president snatched out of the refuse pile of history and first used in late March. It was a figure of speech he’s repeated since that didn’t get the kind of media commentary — hardly a bit of it — it deserved. Nor did The Donald get the praise for it he deserved. Henry Ford would have been deeply proud of him for bunking, as well as debunking, history in such a fashion.
We’re talking about a president who couldn’t get a historical fact right if he tried, which he has absolutely no reason to do. After all, in early March, facing the coronavirus, he admitted that he had no idea anyone had ever died of the flu. Weeks later, he spoke at a news conference about mobilizing military personnel to deal with the modern equivalent of the flu pandemic of “1917.” (“We’ll be telling them where they’re going. They’re going into war, they’re going into a battle that they’ve never trained for. Nobody’s trained for, nobody’s seen this, I would say since 1917, which was the greatest of them all.”) He was, of course, referring to the catastrophic “Spanish flu” of 1918 in which his own grandfather died, but no matter. Truly, no matter. After all, that must have been 1,000 years ago in a past beyond the memory of anyone but a very stable genius. Under the circumstances, what difference could a year make?
Which brings me to the bunkable historical image I referred to above. At his March 24th coronavirus briefing, speaking of scary death counts to come (or perhaps, given what I’m about to mention, I should use that classic Vietnam-era phrase “body counts”), President Trump offered an upbeat glimpse into the future. His exact words were: “There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ah, yes, the light at the end of the tunnel. Such a bright, hopeful, and striking image that others among his supporters and administration figures promptly ran with it. Speaking of the then-latest grim coronavirus figures from New York state, for instance, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said: “If that trend does hold, it’s really good news about when this nightmare actually peaks, and then we start seeing light at the end of the tunnel.” Surgeon General Jerome Adams added, “What the president, in my mind, is doing is trying to help people understand that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.” And Admiral Brett Giroir, the administration’s coronavirus testing coordinator, chimed in: “There are beginning to be indicators that we are getting ahead of this — that there’s light at the head of the tunnel.”
A week later when things had grown far worse than he predicted, the president added, “We’re going to have a very tough two weeks” before the country sees the “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Now, historically speaking, here’s the strange thing: you could barely find a hint — whether from Donald Trump, his advisers, or media sources of any kind — of where, historically speaking, that striking image had come from. In official Washington, perhaps the sole echo of its ominous past lay in the sardonic response of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “The light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, “may be a train coming at us.” Or, as a friend commented to me, maybe it was light from a refrigerated truck like the ones New York hospitals are now using to store the overflow of dead bodies from the pandemic.
History? Yes, there actually is a history here, even if it’s from a past so distant that no one, not even a president with a “very, very large brain,” seems to remember it. And yet few who lived through the Vietnam War would be likely to forget that phrase. It was first used, as far as we know, in 1967 when the war’s military commander, General William Westmoreland, returned to Washington to declare that the conflict the U.S. was fighting in a wildly destructive manner was successfully coming to an end, the proof being that “light” he spotted “at the end of the tunnel.” (He later denied using the phrase.) That memorably ill-chosen metaphor would become a grim punch line for the growing antiwar movement of the era.
So let’s say that there’s a certain grisly charm in hearing it from the president who skipped that war, thanks to fake bone spurs, and has talked about his own “Vietnam” as having been his skill in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, in various home-front sleep-arounds. He once even claimed to radio personality Howard Stern that he should have gotten “the Congressional Medal of Honor” for doing so. (“It’s Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful,” he told Stern, speaking of those STDs.)
In any case, to have picked up that metaphorical definition of failure from the Vietnam era seems strangely appropriate for a president who first claimed the coronavirus was nothing, then a “new hoax” of the Democrats, then easy to handle, before declaring himself a “wartime president” (without the necessary tests, masks, or ventilators on hand). In some sense, President Trump has been exhibiting the sort of detachment from reality that American presidents and other officials did less openly in the Vietnam years. And for this president, Covid-19 could indeed prove to be the disease version of a Vietnam War.
Given his success so far with that largely unchallenged light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel metaphor, I thought it might be worth mentioning a few other choice phrases from the Vietnam era that the president could wield at future news conferences. Take, for instance, President Nixon in his 1971 State of the Union Address: “We have gone through a long, dark night of the American spirit, but now that night is ending.” Or the classic description by an anonymous U.S. major of the retaking of the town of Ben Tre in the wake of the Tet Offensive of 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Or, should the president want to stick with General Westmoreland, there’s always his 1967 National Press Club speech highlighting progress in the war: “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”
Give Donald Trump credit. He seems to be leading the richest, most powerful country on the planet in an ill-equipped, ill-organized, ill-planned battle (though not in any normal sense a war) against the pandemic from hell. Whether or not it ends in a Vietnam-style helicopter evacuation from that hell (or even from the White House) remains to be seen, but at least the imagery chosen so far has been unnervingly apt, though next to no one in our increasingly bunkable world even noticed.
Peace in the Dark?
Still, in a Trumpian spirit, let’s take the president and his team at their word for a moment. Let’s consider what glimmer of grim hope might be discovered in that light they claim to see flickering at the end of the coronaviral tunnel — at least when it comes to twenty-first-century American war.
Let’s start with the obvious: like the Black Death of the 14th century that ended feudalism, it’s at least reasonable to assume that, whenever it finally disappears (if it goes at all), Covid-19 will indeed have ended something on this planet of ours. Imagine an American future (more than 100,000 body bags worth of it) in which the global economy has been thoroughly cracked open and the Pentagon and the U.S. military, perhaps the most powerful institutions in twenty-first-century America, find themselves among the wounded and the crippled.
Let’s imagine, as with the USS Theodore Roosevelt, that the coronavirus is likely to run riot through the closed ranks of that military, filling some of those very body bags. What, then, of the conflicts our twenty-first-century “warriors” have been fighting from Afghanistan to Iraq to Somalia and beyond, those never-ending post-9/11 wars of terror (officially, of course, “on terror”)? Will our troops, trainers, advisers, and military contractors soon find themselves in what may be little short of pandemic wars?
Can you even imagine what that might involve? One thing crosses my mind, at least: that such wars will become too dangerous to fight and that, sooner or later, American troops might simply leave Covid-19 battle zones for home. Such possibilities aren’t in the headlines yet, although reports of the first tiny evacuations — of Green Beret units — from such pandemic battlegrounds are just beginning to pop up and the first U.S. trainers in Iraq seem to have been withdrawn (“temporarily”) due to the spread of the coronavirus in that country.
It’s true that these initial small steps seem like anything but the equivalent of the final dramatic evacuation from the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975 as North Vietnamese troops moved into town. Still, with the first tiny evacuations seemingly underway, my question is: Could the coronavirus turn out, in some strange fashion, to be a grim, death-dealing peacemaker for Americans? The United Nations of diseases? Is it possible that, on the hotter, more imperiled planet to come, the hundreds of American bases still scattered around the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion and all those troops, as well as the forever wars that go with them, could be part of our past, not our future?
Could a post-coronavirus planet be one on which the U.S. military and the national security state were no longer the sinkholes for endless trillions of taxpayer dollars that could have been spent so much more fruitfully elsewhere? Could there, in other words, be just the faintest glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel from hell or is that still darkness I see stretching into the distant future?
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.com 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