Monday, November 9, 2009

The Night They Brought The Wall Down: Twenty Years Later

It is amazing to me that it has been twenty years since they brought the Berlin Wall down. I remember watching in absolute shock as the denizens of Berlin took hammer and pick to that great division and brought down the single most telling and literal symbol of the Cold War.

I was 15 at the time, a sophomore in high school. Myself and my peers are probably the last generation to grow up during the Cold War, where NATO and the Warsaw Pact stood ready to defend their economic and social ideologies with all the weapons at their disposal, even the unthinkable ones.

Those were the beginning of some heady times. After Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev decided to dispense with the hardliners in each of their nations and come together as human beings, and talk to each other, the cracks in the Soviet edifice began to show. But the fall of the Berlin Wall was the actual death knell of the Soviet Union and her satellite states.

I visited the Soviet Union with my high school in the winter of 1991, and from what I was told it was like visiting a completely different nation from the former trips. Were we tailed by KGB agents? Sure, but even we could spot them. And the everyday people in the street were openly friendly to us, unlike in former times when they were afraid to be seen consorting with Westerners.

For years peace began to break out all over the globe. The Russians, and their Eastern European brethren, began to cry for freedom, be it artistic, political or economic. And they got it. Except for some hot spots where Communism held down ethnic rivalries and national aspirations, like Yugoslavia and Chechnya, a new day seemed to be dawning.

It even got to a point where Arab, Russian and NATO troops, lead by an American coalition, invaded and freed Kuwait from Saddam Hussein and his summertime invasion. And there even hit a point where, as a senior in college, I thought that there might even be peace in the Middle East, with the handshake on the White House lawn. That dream ended with a bullet in the head of a great man, Yitzhak Rabin, from a gun shot by a fellow Israeli.

My friends and I have often looked back at the days of our youth, where the Super Powers deployed great armies upon the land of Europe, and great fleets above and below the waves of the Seven Seas, with wonder and a bit of fondness. While I can still, with a bit of effort, still feel the fear of the nuclear Sword of Damocles which hung over the head of all mankind, all of us pine, at least a little bit, for the stability of the Cold War.

For since then it has not been all roses. Tens of thousands were massacred in brutal civil wars in the Balkans. Authoritarian governments have retrenched in Russia. Peace never took hold in the Mid-East, and in fact, several more small wars have been fought between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Authoritarian China has come onto the world scene as the new economic super power, and appears to have foregone a switch to a liberal democracy before adopting capitalism.

The religious Islam the United States courted to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was, unfortunately, left to its own devices after the USSR pulled out of that country. Left unchecked these men would then attack America, at first abroad, and later on our own soil. They were the watershed of the Post Berlin Wall world, now the Post 9/11 world.

Back in the Cold War you knew where you stood, and where everyone else stood. Alliances were rock solid. Even terrorists were the proxies of one side or the other. In the end all disputes went up the ladder; and if they had to go high enough, and the big guys got involved, people jumped when they were given the word. Nowadays things aren't so clear. Check that: they are not clear at all. Everyone has an agenda. National politics, without the threat of total annihilation, have taken a dreadful turn, with labels used by both sides completely out of proportion with whatever argument they are supporting.

Yet the continuation of the Cold War, as a detente or an arms' race, would have been unconscionable. Thinking in terms of just resources wasted on ICBMs makes me angry, for these are weapons we had no intention of using, but had to have "just in case." Military minds and strategic thought were not thinking straight back in the 1950's and 1960's, when the call for thousands of nuclear devices went out. And each of these devices were tens, if not hundreds or a thousand, times more powerful than the firecrackers the United States [rightly] used on Japan.

By the 1980's there was a palpable undercurrent of fear in all the populations of the world, or at least I felt it to be so. Nuclear weapons and the arms' race was always a huge matter in the news. I can recall several different covers of Time magazine dealing with either nucelar arms talks, or the deployment of one weapons system or another, and in particular the Pershing II, which some say did a great deal to bring the USSR around.

I was a child of people who grew up with air raid drills; hiding under their desks; duck and cover. We children of the mid 70's didn't such have things to cling to or terrify us. By then it was rather common knowledge that nuclear hostilities were the end of it all. What brought people completely around, though, was seeing it in movies. At least that's my opinion.

The Day After (1983) by ABC[] and Threads (1984) by the BBC []are two terrifying movies, with truly horrifying attack sequences, the links of which I inserted above. These two movies, in my estimation, brought home the complete pointlessness of the nuclear arsenals, except to keep at bay another nuclear arsenal. Their entireties are also available on Youtube, and I highly recommend both of them.

The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago today. An entire generation has grown up without it, and without the fear of the invasion of the Red Hoardes from the East, or the complete destruction of everything. But this same generation has bore witness to the instability of the Post Wall Era, the Era of the 9/11 World. We are now 8 years after the Fall of the Towers, as painful a memory as I have. But our world is none the better for it. Like it or hate it, our nation is still mired in a conflict in Afghanistan, with an enemy almost too small to defeat; and we are still heavily deployed in Iraq, though mercifully it does appear to be more stable.

These times offer me no comfort, even the cold comfort of mutual assured destruction. While the United States, nor any Western nation, nor even most Asian nations, faces any sort of existential threat, as were the Super Powers and their respective alliances were to each other, there is no stability. At home or abroad. It's as if the removal of the USSR as a threat and counterbalance to the United States has thrown off the kilter of the world, leaving all of us off balance.

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