“There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been; the meaning of life has been lost in the wind” — less famous but arguably more devastating lines by Bob Dylan than when he queried the answers blowin’ in the winds of civil rights.
Last week’s 20th anniversary of 9/11 when 2,996 people lost their lives, and August’s Saigon moment when the choppers exited Kabul after 2,448 American dead, leaving so many friends behind and endangered, called up the Dylan in me to try to make psychic sense of such unmitigated but not unrelated disasters.
Let’s back up 20 years before 9/11. In 1981, as I searched along the Thai-Laotian border for evidence of biochemical weapons dropped on the Hmong as “yellow rain” — likely provided by the Soviets to test on hill tribes that had helped us in our not-so-secret war — my ABC News colleague Bill Redeker was in Afghanistan, where the Soviet military was most certainly waging a vicious but ultimately fruitless campaign. At least 3,000 Afghans were killed by nerve agents in what declassified CIA documents later recorded as 43 Soviet gas attacks.
When we took up after 9/11 where the Soviets left off, we doomed ourselves to 20 years before the mast. Lest we repeat Santayana, let’s ask if our conviction that we can do better is justified by recent history.
Fast forward to 2021, when the long march from 9/11 through the criminal insanity of the Iraq War and the assassination of Osama bin Laden 10 years ago to the Vietnam redux of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with desperate humans falling to their deaths from C-17s, revealed that we appear to learn nothing. Military intelligence had no scenario for a 10-day eclipse of Kabul. After our longest war, that’s how much they knew? Small wonder given that our airports put lipstick on security theatre, that Twitter-termed Gator-Stater Ron DeathSantis outlaws mask mandates, that south to the Delta we are in a losing battle with delta, and they play taps in Treme.
With Roger Federer out for possibly career-ending knee surgery, it sure smells like the end of days. The fire next time consumes the West, there is smoke on waters inexorably rising and bedroom whisperers win Grammies. It isn’t enough to bemoan the state of affairs. We need a path away from dystopia. We won’t find it in Facebook algorithms. Or Arizona reauditing the election until the chads hang together so we don’t hang alone. Somewhere on the Garden State’s back nine, the clown prince awaits rolling away the stone or at least making the cheese on burgers grate again. To chill us, there’s CBD in water and THC in gummies. I get high with a little help from my friends while I await Amazon’s Pavlovian fix. Deliver me.
Somewhere in this carpet of years that has rolled up around me I got gray, my parts started coming apart, colleagues went to rest in peace, but Leonard Cohen’s crack in everything began to let the light in. Nearer the end than the beginning, I relish every sandwich, make time for friends, don’t regret office days missed, stick to my spouse like gorilla glue, get down on the ground with the grandpup every chance I get, dream of hotels, beaches and splendid cities unmasked, places and people holy with the celebration of the quotidian wonder of living, not yet on the other side of the dirt. Don’t count the candles, just keep blowin’ on ‘em.
In the throes of the Vietnam era, we thought we would shake not stir the culture. We had bell-bottom blues and flowers in our hair, we had the music, we wanted the world and we wanted it now. The Me decade let it bleed out. We gave up on society in favor of betting on ourselves. By the time coke had perforated its last septum and the drum-machines of disco had rusted into grunge, we had a serial philanderer in office and fundamentalist insanity waving its flag. Soon after, 9/11 caught us sleeping because we thought we were the exception. No war in living memory had reached our shores. We would sure show those Soviets how to nation-build.
We no longer have to ask “How’s that workin’ for ya?” We start what we can’t finish, we legislate motherhood in Texas and pry the guns from our cold, dead hands. Despite it all, the kissing Cuomos can’t stonewall anymore. There’s something in the air. Sure, it’s a Manichaean heavyweight bout with the forces of regression and ignorance. Our masks are our metaphor. The better angels of our nature are waiting in the wings. When we are free to inhale again, we’ll be little improved but we’ll have another fragile chance. It starts right here, not over there. You don’t need a weatherman. Everyone knows it’s windy.