Alas, the wars you prepare for are never the ones you have to fight. For decades the U.S. kept trying to win World War II again in a variety of not-remotely-World-War-II-like scenarios, deploying aircraft carriers, fleets of bombers, tanks and infantry in civil wars and insurgencies, against stateless terrorists and local warlords, with what you’d have to call mixed results. This week the U.S. announced it plans to reduce its army to its prewar size. Although this news would have sounded impossibly utopian in the ’70s or ’80s, now that it’s actually happening I have to confess it’s giving me a weird, unwelcome pang of … what? What sick Thanatotic part of the psyche could feel a faint disappointment that Armageddon never happened? Maybe it’s just the feeling of being obsolete, past one’s prime.
The Cold War was a big mythic story we all got to be part of, even us no-nukes peaceniks. There was a dignity in having an enemy that felt commensurate to us, the shadow superpower on the other side of the pole. Like us, the U.S.S.R. was an expansionist empire with grandiose delusions of a unique historical destiny. We were both willing to kill every living thing on the planet over competing economic systems (I’m sure the creedal differences of the 1600s seemed every bit as worth laying waste to Europe). Yet there was a tacit “Morning, Sam”/”Morning, Ralph” sort of understanding between us, even as we coolly gambled with the fate of the race.
Asymmetrical warfare is, among other things, narratively unsatisfying. People inflict casualties on you from out of nowhere and you don’t get to kill them back. It’s degrading fighting the fanatical amateurs of Al-Qaeda. Desultory skirmishes, roadside bombs, drone strikes and Internet beheadings — it’s all so sordid and inconclusive. You never even know when it’s over. Did we win the war on terror? What happened with that whole thing? It was like a TV show that steadily dropped in the ratings until you never even heard when it went off the air. It makes you yearn for the simpler, Manichaean conflict of the Cold War, the two superpowers looming over the globe like a couple of colossal radioactive monsters facing off over a toy cityscape.
Like most nostalgia, this is stupid, predicated on willful misrecollection — like feeling mushily fond in midlife of some band you thought sucked when you were actually young. The ’80s were a dismal, soulless time to come of age — a mean-spirited simpleton was president and jingoism, bigotry and greed were cool again. At age 13 I thought the kids in my middle school who wanted to nuke Russia were dumb gullible yahoos. (They grew up to be the dumb gullible yahoos who wanted to invade Iraq.) If you’d told anyone back then that the Cold War would end before long with the Russians just quitting, you would have sounded like some flower-child acid casualty. I’m relieved that we don’t have to worry about an all-out strategic nuclear exchange anymore, that the younger generation can look forward to a comfortable future of 20 years or so before the ice caps melt.
It’s odd that not having had a nuclear war isn’t regarded as one of the great achievements of the 20th century, alongside the moon landing and the Salk vaccine. I suppose it’s hard to design a monument to something that didn’t happen. It seems like some provisional testament to, if not our sanity as a species — that might be premature — at the very least a triumph of self-preservation over aggression.
Like adolescence, the Cold War was a time when we very nearly killed ourselves with testosterone-maddened recklessness, and, looking back, it would be easy to mistake the fact that we didn’t all die as proof that we were never in that much danger after all. Or to attribute to our own wisdom, responsibility or virtue what was really just dumb luck. But there are a lot of roadside shrines to carloads of kids who weren’t so lucky, and for all we know the galaxy may be strewn with the corpses of immolated worlds. Today Putin is assuring us he’ll use force only “as a last resort,” and our other old nemeses, the Chinese, are pointedly reminding us of their own right to defend their sovereignty. Maybe the most dangerous thing you can believe about adolescence is that it’s ever safely over.