Thursday, December 8, 2011
"Communism. Capitalism. It's the innocents who get slaughtered."*
If a poll were conducted asking people to name the most important historical event in their lifetimes, I don't think the event that took place twenty years ago today would even be among the top five. History pushes the past out of our consciousness much more quickly than we think. Significant events also seem to shrink in importance as they move away from us in time. Natural disasters, wars, or terror attacks superimpose on one another, and the past ten years has certainly seen enough of all three.
I was in the Navy when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved on December 8, 1991. We didn't know it at the time, but the event, which appeared to be extraordinarily good news for just about everyone in the world, was a catastrophe for us.
When I joined the Navy in 1988, Ronald Reagan's hubristic 600 ship fleet was close to being realized. The end of Desert Storm and of the Soviet Union three years later were back-to-back shocks from which the Pentagon has yet to really recover. By the time I left the Navy in 1995, the word "downsizing" was on everyone's mind, if not on their lips. While the Army was simply handing out pink slips, the Navy was forcing people out with stricter retention standards. George W. Bush's dubious "War on Terror" has merely emphasized the perception that the U.S. military is spoiling for a fight with an enemy that is simply no longer out there.
I recall seeing a political cartoon at the time Gorbachev was initiating the last great thaw of the Soviet era. It depicted Gorbachev shaking hands with Fidel Castro, saying "Glasnost!" To which Castro replies, "Gesundheit!" Clearly, Gorbachev believed that he could keep the Soviet Union intact, but he, like everyone else, was overtaken by events. He resigned on Christmas Day, 1991, and communist rule came to an ignominious close.
You would have to be at least as old as I am to really remember what the world was like during the Cold War. It wasn't simply the threat of nuclear annihilation that made the period so gloomy. While most people were contentedly getting on with their materialistic lives, for Cold Warriors it was a world in which it seemed the sun never shone, a spiritual ice age, a low intensity nightmare from which we suddenly awoke twenty years ago. Many people in the West began to crow "victory", including some historians who committed the historic error of believing that it was the end of history as we know it, that our way of life had vanquished theirs, that our values had prevailed. In actuality, economies had fallen, not ideologies. The arms race had bankrupted the Great Enemy, not their Five Year Plans.
Nothing captures the Cold War era more powerfully than one of the most probing and sad reflections on the East/West stand-off, the grimly beautiful film adaptation of John le Carré's espionage classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, directed by Martin Ritt in 1965 and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. The world it explores seems to be under an interminable blackout, as if a Third World War were actually being waged somewhere. It's almost the same atmosphere as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - betrayal, deceit, suspicion are all around the protagonist, Alec Leamas. He is instructed by his superiors to behave like he's had it with being a spy, like he's lost faith in the righteousness of his side, so that agents for the other side will try to contact him and he can infiltrate their ranks and discredit one of their most powerful agents. But they get their hands on Liz, his girlfriend, who is a professed communist but entirely innocent. They arrange for Leamas to escape, but when Liz is killed as they are climbing over the Berlin Wall, Leamas decides to die with her rather than climb down on the other side to safety.
Surely, no one had more mixed emotions about the end of the Cold War than John le Carré. It had been his bread and butter, the catalyst for nearly all of his novels. Though he has managed, in the twenty years since, to write successful novels, and even incurred a little controversy (he was charged with anti-semitism for his Jewish protagonist in The Tailor of Panama), Le Carré has clearly lost his métier. But then, so has the Pentagon.
* Leamas's line to Liz in the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.