Thursday, April 3, 2008

In the Blink of an Eye

I’ve always considered myself to be part of a strange in-between sort of generation. I was born in 1961, so I was too young to be part of the sixties and too old to be part of Generation-X. There was no cause that my generation was excited about. We were at the tail end of the baby boomers and the start of the me generation.

The music my friends and I listened to in high school was the stuff playing on the FM stations, not the top 40 disco that was popular. We listened to rock and roll from the late sixties and early seventies, as if we were disappointed in what our own era had to offer. Most of my high school friends got married and had kids right away and those that went on to college were intent on professions most likely to guarantee the highest income possible.

I don’t remember any artists, poets or saints.

I went into the Air Force when I was nineteen. I was in the San Antonio airport, waiting to get on a bus to basic training when all the television screens went live to New York City. It was December 8, 1980 and John Lennon had just been shot. It was the quietest I’ve ever seen an airport and it seemed that the world stood still.

I took it as an omen.

President Reagan was sworn into office the following month and when I think of my thirteen years, seven months and twenty-three days as an airman, my time was defined by those Reagan years.

I’m a cold war veteran.

Lots of people I’ve met over the years have been surprised and occasionally stunned to discover I was in the military. I guess I don't seem like someone who would have enlisted. They see what’s happening in Iraq now and they wonder why anybody would enlist.

I wonder the same thing.

Those were different times. People like me joined the military because we didn’t have a lot of other options and it was a way to pay for college – at least that’s what they told us. There were guys who joined because that’s just what the men in their families did. There were guys who’d run into trouble and it was either the military or jail. There were a lot of us who didn’t know what to do with our lives. We just knew there was nothing for us where we were.

We never thought about the possibility that we could be killed. We talked about it now and then in hypothetical terms, but the reality was that we had a lot of years where the United States didn’t get involved in any significant military actions. Now and then we got reminders that life could be a little more dangerous for us than for civilians. There were terrorist threats and bombings, but that was the kind of thing that those of us in our twenties knew only happened to other people.

There was one thing we were afraid of that most people have forgotten and younger people never experienced. We were afraid of the Soviet Union. We were born afraid of them. It’s strange when I think back on a lifetime of that fear of the unknown and the idea that at any time, a global nuclear holocaust might happen and end life on this planet as we know it. Our culture was obsessed with the possibility.

I was stationed in Europe for the better part of the 80’s, and we couldn’t travel to Eastern Bloc countries. We had to report contact with anyone we ran into from one of those countries to the Office of Special Investigations.

Not much chance of that happening in those days.

I had just moved back to the states when the Berlin Wall came down. I couldn’t stop watching the news. I cried. I was jealous that I’d left too soon because I felt like I should have been there. I never believed it would happen in my lifetime and then it did. It seems like a nearly forgotten part of our history now, but to that point, it was the biggest thing that had ever happened in the world as far as I was concerned.

Everything changed overnight.

I never met a Russian until a year ago. Irina moved to Denver from Moscow six years ago. She’s twenty seven years old and after the first time we talked, I realized that she has no concept of how people my age were raised to think of Russians – well, we called them Soviets – and how her parents’ generation thought of us. We thought of the Kremlin and Soviets ready to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at us and we thought of Soviet people standing in lines for toilet paper. I have no idea what they thought of us.

I watched our fifth year in Iraq pass us by with no end in sight and I wonder what event will mark the end of this for the generation fighting this war. I hope the day will come when those kids too young to remember life before the first Gulf War can experience the feeling I had when the Cold War ended.

It didn’t take long for us to forget about it, but it was a nice feeling while it lasted.


Yellow said...

I know where you're coming from here. I was born in England, UK in 1972, and I'm a child of the Thatcher years, coal mines being closed, no more free milk given out in the classroom (Maggie Thatcher - Milk Snatcher we chanted). She pushed peoples 'rights' and so people's concern for their 'responsibilities' go to hell. The threat of a Soviet Nuclear Launch was on par with the fear of IRA bomings in the UK.
One thing I've always wondered - I understand the USA's fear of Soviet agression, but I have never understood the apparant hate, pure hate, of anything linked with communism. My parents always voted Labour, and my dad in particular is a Socialist to the core. I understand the workings of capitalism, but I still see anti-commie content on American TV. However, this may be me being sensitive and defensive, or it may be an outdated stereotype. Can you help?

Lisa said...

Oh sure. Ask me an easy question ;) I'm glad you've asked something bound to spark some lively discussion. I don't know the history behind why the United States became so rabidly afraid of communism that we allowed things like the McCarthy hearings to occur in the 50's. Establishing a fear of the spread of communism and our self-proclaimed role as the superpower responsible for preventing its spread around the world kept us in the Cold War for all of those years. Movies like "The Manchurian Candidate" and the depictions of Red China and Soviet bread lines painted communists and communism as evil in the minds of the average American. Our current stance on terrorism and the platform of fear that our government has been operating on has a very deja vu-like feeling to me. I don't think very many Americans of my era were exposed to a more open minded view of communism, although I come from working class roots and so my family was not at all "establishment". I always thought and was taught to believe that the ideal of communism was a good one, but as a form of government, it didn't appear to work out very well in practice. Kibbutz living in Israel and communes in the 60's and 70's seemed to work for those who participated, so I never really had that innate fear and loathing of communism, per se, just a fear of nuclear annihilation. My personal opinion is that we were and continue to be subject to just as much propaganda about communism as communists were about capitalism. Fear keeps people in check. I think it spills over into attitudes today, which is why so many Americans seem to have an irrational fear of nationalized medicine, even though it's worked well in just about every other western nation in the world for a very long time. I don't think a lot of Americans accept it, but I think there is an American arrogance that is the result of government propaganda that makes people believe that we know best, even though clearly with 1 out of every 100 Americans in prison -- more than any other country, with something like 9 million children with no health insurance, with nearly 2,500 juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole -- all things not done in any other civilized country, we ought to learn some humility. But I do have hope and optimism for the future. It's just that "we" need to stop being so selfish and "we" need to start thinking about doing things that are good for the country as a whole and we need to stop allowing special interest groups and private industry to dictate our future. Having said all of that, don't get me wrong. I do love my country and although I love to travel and I enjoyed living in Europe, I am happy to be living in America. I'm not "proud to be an American". I think that's a silly slogan. I'm an American by random chance. I'm a citizen of the world and a human being first. I don't know if that helps, but thanks for letting me get it off my chest :)

Lisa said...

Oh, and I guess I didn't answer your question about Americans and communism now. I don't remember the last time I heard anybody even mention communism -- except for some ridiculous reason we still want to maintain an embargo against Cuba -- that one is lost on me. We're too busy learning to hate radical fundamentalist Muslims right now to worry about communists anymore.

Vesper said...

Lisa, darling, I have tears in my eyes and I thank you. Your words, both on your post and in the comments, filled my heart. Thank you for sharing your memories and your thoughts. It is exhilarating to see that we think so much alike.

debra said...

Mt niece enlisted in the National Guard because they told her they'd pay for college. But she was unable to attend because she was away so often and was unable to concentrate on her studies. When she was told she'd be deployed to Iraq, she said, "But they told me there wouldn't be a war." She's home now, still having challenges with her memories.

My father-in-law is 86, and, to this day, is afraid of "the communists and socialists" He talks about WWII and Stalin. He was in the engineer's corps in the Army during that war and remembers what, as he says, "those Russians did to people."

Yellow said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly about propaganda, and our British Broadcasting Corporation is very guilty of scare tactics, blatantly slanted articles and shock headlines which then bear little resemblance to the content. Arghhh.
I also agree with your point about the ideals of communism as opposed to the failings of the organised government. Happy ranting.

Bernita said...

Perhaps not the place to say my daughter will deploy to Afghanistan in August for the second time.
She had wanted to be a soldier since she was 13.

Denis said...

As a soldier stationed in Germany in the 80's, you had every reason to be afraid of the Soviet Union. If there was a land war during your duty period you would have met Russians long before you met Irina! American common belief, (going back to my days on a nuclear submarine) was that our nuclear weapons 'deterred' the Soviets. The American fear of communism makes sense for the elitists who rule but was drummed into the common people as propaganda. In this same fashion, it is the 'for profit' health providers that have convinced the common man that national Health is evil. Muslim fundamentalism will take Communisms place as the enabler of the Conservative ruling class propaganda. The thing that any enlightened person should be afraid of is 'the Police State' and we are mostly there.(We started on the path with Richard Nixon) Youth today seems to have no awareness of what is happening around them, besides Britney Spears and what they're told by Fox News.

Carleen Brice said...

You're talkin bout my generation. Except it wasn't foreigners who scared us. It was folks in our city.

Larramie said...

While our personal history begins on the day we were born, the world's doesn''s complicated, cyclical and so much more.

However I'm delighted to know someone else who cried watching the Berlin Wall come down.

Lisa said...

Vesper, I'm so glad you could relate. I'm often amazed at how frequently I have more meaningful discussions with my friends on line than I do with the people I see in my "real" life.

Debra, Your niece's experience with college is what happens to most of us. It all sounds good, but most of the time there are limited classes available and travel interferes with night classes too much to make much progress. I am sorry to hear that she is having difficulty dealing with what she must have experienced over there. I cannot imagine what these kids are seeing and going through.

Larramie made a comment that is relevant to your father in law's feelings, I think.

Yellow, The media does love to stir us all up and tell us what to think. It's up to us to see through the BS.

Bernita, I think it's exactly the place to say it. I am sorry that the world is such a dangerous place while your daughter is serving her country and I pray that she will serve her tour and return to you safely.

I have to tell anybody reading this that Denis is my uncle -- my favorite of course and we ended up talking on the phone after I read his comment -- there is so much to say.

Denis, To your point when we talked, your generation was actually dealing with the Cold War while dealing with the ground war in Viet Nam. I think nuclear deterrence did work for a long time. It was certainly a high price to pay and now that the "Iron Curtain" has been lifted, we've got an entirely new set of problems on our hands. I do hope young people start opening their eyes and paying more attention. I was horrified at the McCarthy hearings and the communist witch hunts that went on, but the rapid erosion of civil liberties that has taken place over the last decade almost makes McCarthy laughable.

Carleen, You make a really good point. Sometimes it's hard to believe that the civil rights movement and school desegregation all happened in my lifetime and I was old enough to be aware of it while it was happening. It's vastly important that while we need to move forward as a country, we can't ever forget the past.

Larramie, I'm glad you understand what I felt like and felt it too. I can still see it happening and it seems surreal to think that the world was divided in that superpower standoff for half a century.

Melissa Marsh said...

Oh, I remember fearing the Soviets back then. And Hollywood only reinforced the notion with movies like "Red Dawn" and "Rocky 4" (is that the right one? Where he goes to Moscow and fights the big Russian?). Yet when I took a Russian history class in college, I became fascinated with that country, of their xenophobia or "fear of the stranger" and I especially liked to study about Catherine the Great.

I remember when the Berlin wall came down, too. Amazing.

Sustenance Scout said...

So much to think about in your post and these comments, Lisa. My parents are both vets, my dad served in Korea and my father-in-law in Vietnam. I find it amazing how different eras of tension and fear evolve into even more complex eras of conflict. You'd think we'd have figured it all out by now. Meanwhile our armed services are strapped and our VA hospital system is in tatters. I'd say it's time we stop worrying about external threats and focus our time, attention, and resources on what's wrong at home. Like you said, a little humility and soul-searching would serve us well. Kudos for instigating such an important discussion. Now stop working and go have a beer! It's Friday! :) K.

Billy said...

I felt like I just saw Forrest Gump again as I read your post, for it took us through decades, from Lennon to the War in Iraq, in a most eloquent and thoughtful manner. I turned 18 in 1969 (not quite old enough to be a hippy), so I guess I'm one of the generation that asks "What have we failed to learn from the turbulent 60s?" My generation went on to become stock brokers and forgot about Woodstock and the Vietnam War.

As for today's soldiers, I worry that between 1/2 and 1/3 are experiencing depression, mental illness, or PTSD as a result of service--and are afraid to even report it in many cases--and I saw on Frontline the other night, as well as many TV docs, that the soldiers are divided: many want to do the job, but many wonder what that job is and are beginning to despise the Iraqis. What a difficult situation.

Like everyone, I want to be safe, but the world is smaller and there is less margin for error when we send in military forces. That's why I'm troubled when McCain glibly sings his Beach Boy parody of "Bomb Bomb Iran." Not funny, John.

War, global warming, earth crossing asteroids coming out of nowhere ... I guess I still think it's time to give peace a chance. The clock is ticking. I think everyone should be forced to watch the movie FILSAFE. Very sobering ending.

Lana Gramlich said...

I was so gladdened by the end of the Cold War & so much more saddened by the promotion of the US's "new" enemy. I'm a Gen-Xer. When we were young they were calling us the "me generation." I wonder why the change, sometimes...

Shauna Roberts said...

Enjoyed learning some more about your history. It brought back memories. I remember so clearly John Lennon's death and the fall of the Berlin Wall and how world-altering both events seemed.

I think the fear of communism in the U.S. goes back at least to the 1920s. I don't know enough about history of that time to know how it started.

The various wars we've been in seem to have spawned lifelong hatreds. Some people I know who came of age during WWII still hate and look down on the Japanese, those who fought in Vietnam feel the same about the Vietnamese, and now i'm hearing similar things from soldiers in Iraq. We're supposed to be freeing those people, but we've bolloxed it up so badly that both sides seem to view each other as enemies.

debra said...

I also remember when the Wall came down. what a moving time!
My daughter, some of her friends and I have been talking and reading about the McCarthy hearings. We've watched videos of them and they are astounded by what happened. Questions about history repeating and these kids' place in all of it are voiced all the time. I am so glad that they are interested and talking about it.

My niece re-enlisted. She said that the military gives her the structure and stability she feels she needs right now.

Bernita, I agree with Lisa's words: this is exactly the place to talk about your daughter. I also wish her a safe tour and return.

Lisa thanks again for addressing such an important issue.

Patti said...

first of all, did we tell each other that we were both born in '61?! just another sign...

second, the german had a saying as we grew up. "never trust a russian." her experience with the war growing up in germany taught her this. when i got engaged, i told her husband was russian just to mess with her...he's a fellow texan.

after the wall came down a large piece of it came here to a museum. boy and i frequented museums when he was growing up and i had taught he to be repectful of the art and the other pieces. "look with your eyes" was the mantra. but when the wall came here, i knew too well the history, and i had to touch it, i had to be a part of it, one with it. when boy saw me reach out and touch it, he was mortified...then i told him why and he slowly reached out and touched it too. i'll never forget that day.

life is a ride...

Lisa said...

Melissa, It's amazing how pervasive movies are in our lives. Until I met a "real live Russian", the only ones I'd ever seen were the bad guys in movies.

Karen, I think this country has a history of diverting our attention (and our tax dollars) away from domestic social issues by creating fear about the rest of the world. There's always an enemy.

Billy, Although living with the threat of nuclear war wasn't good, I have to wonder if what we have now is any better than the peace we had through deterrence.

The hostility you referenced toward the Iraqi people is something that I am troubled to read more and more often and it truly is frightening. I'm really concerned that we may soon have a population of very troubled Iraq veterans that will be as bad if not much worse than what we saw with so many Viet Nam veterans.

I was thinking about "Failsafe" when I wrote this post. It sort of defined the 60's and 70's I think.

I'm ready to give peace a chance.

Lana, I don't know why the change, but we do seem compelled to label ourselves, don't we?

Shauna, I may have to find out more about what started our fear of communism. At one time it was certainly a perfectly respectable and reasonable thing to be a communist in this country -- until it wasn't.

You are so right about the lingering hatred and distrust that not only remains with those who lived through various conflicts, but that is passed on. The Jewish community certainly has no love for the Germans and the Germans I know who weren't even born when WWII happened live with a sense of guilt and shame for the holocaust.

Victory in war doesn't seem a very apt term when nobody ever really "wins".

Debra, I'm glad to hear this has sparked more discussion and I'm especially glad that it brought the McCarthy hearings to light for your daughter and her friends. I wish "The People's History of the United States" was the text used in schools. Our educational system is not very good at teaching kids about history that we're not especially proud of.

I understand your niece's sentiment. If I didn't need the structure and security of the military, I'd never have hung around as long as I did.

Patti, I don't think we did, but I'm pretty sure I knew we are the same age.

Yes, there's no love lost between the Germans and the Russians either. I recently learned that there were Germans held in Russian POW camps for years after WWII ended. There was such a mess in Europe after the end of the war -- and because it started a good three years before we joined in, I don't think we have much of a sense in this country of how chaotic things were in Europe after we'd come and gone.

I can only imagine what you must have felt to touch a piece of the wall. I can't imagine at all how your mother must have felt.

steve said...

I started out with a long historical essay about this post, beginning with the anarchists. communists, and syndicalists of the late 19th Century to the Palmer Raids of the 1919-21,Sacco and Vanzetti, and the McCarthy era. Suffice it to say that there's been a long streak of anticommunism in this country ever since Marx and Engels wrote their manifesto. Some of it was justified, and some wasn't.

Stalin certainly was an evil man. But the Soviet Union of the post-Breshnev era had the possibility to make the transition from Communist totalitarianism to a European-style democratic socialism. The Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations blew it, and pushed for a kind of unregulated capitlism that would be considered extreme even here in the States. So now we've gut Putin and his puppet.

Bush has been wanting to renege on the ABM Treaty since he was elected by the Supreme Court. And the Russians know whose missles are targeted.

This post is extremely well-written, merging your own personal story with the Cold War.

Lisa said...

Steve, Thanks for filling in some more of the history of our anti-communist sentiment. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial actually took place in Dedham, Massachusetts, a town my grandmother lived in and where I spent at least half of my time growing up.

And thanks especially for reminding me about Bush and the ABM treaty. I'd almost forgotten that he was trying to back out of that.

Ello said...

Oh wow. Great post Lisa. I am really moved by this. It is amazing what has happened in our lifetimes. And what more will come. Your story of Irina reminds me of Sting's song The Russians? I remember the refrain "Pray the Russians love their children too."

Lisa said...

Ello, Yes, I had forgotten that song but that line was always so poignant and it's a great example of the attitudes before the end of the Cold War. It almost sounds strange now, doesn't it?

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent post, Lisa...I'm a decade or so older than you, so I grew up immersed in the cold war fear of the "Russkies," and still remember those "duck and cover" drills in grade school. My image of Russians was based on the grim, fierce visages of their leaders (Khrushchev, etc.) we saw in news photos. I pictured Russians as always wearing gray or black clothing and looking angry.

When I first read a Russian novel--Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE--I was buffaloed by the contrast between the intense, passionate, beauty-loving characters in the book and the grim images of Russians that had been implanted in my childish brain in the 50s. Now that the USSR has broken up, younger Americans can grow up without those negative images, despite the USA's continuing political differences with Russia.

On the other hand, I see the same sort of character stereotyping now going on with regard to people of the Islamic nations. It seems we always need to make some nationality or creed our Big Enemy.

Riss said...

This is an interesting time for you to post something like this given what I was just talking about with one of the people I'm staying with-he is German and I asked him what Germany's response would have been to 9/11 had it happened on their turf and what he thought about our reaction-in some ways the US is like Russia was back in the days of WW2, a giant monster that is so slow moving in it's actions (due to our egos and global tentacles and size) that we cannot be truly affective...his response was interesting and I learned a lot about US history-because I too am in this weird gray area. I was 7 ish when the Berlin wall came down, I was 8, 9, 10...whatever, when the Gulf War happened-I didn't have any concept of these things...and now I am a 20 something and the Iraq War is in my present and yet...I dunno. It's a strange time to be a thinking, young adult. Anyway, good post and I may have to piggyback and post bits of the conversation that I had with Alex-my resident German history/world history extraordinaire.

Lisa said...

Sphinx Ink, That's so funny you should say that about the dark clothing. Whenever I pictured the Soviet Union in my imagination when I was a kid, I always saw it in black and white!

I also had the same, "hey, wait a minute" thoughts when I read Russian literature too.

It's interesting to me that we actually do seem to be having a much larger infusion of Asian and Middle Eastern literature and actually literature from many countries over the last decade than I ever remember before. I've read a lot of books in translation recently and the internet and satellite television have done quite a bit to open up our understanding of Middle Eastern culture to a far greater degree than we ever understood the Russians or Eastern Europeans. Even the blogosphere helps to promote dialogue among people from all over.

Riss, Yes, you certainly must have a completely different world view, but how lucky for you to have a chance to live in Europe now and talk about what's going on in the world with people from another country. That kind of "globalization" is something that people my age really didn't get to experience much. Americans really didn't do a lot of world travel 25 or 30 years ago and we really were pretty insulated as far as what we knew about anyone outside of the states. When I was in my twenties, because I was in the military, there were very few people except other people in the military that I knew who had traveled much outside the US, but being in the military overseas also isn't like living there as a normal civilian. We kept to ourselves quite a bit of the time. I'll have to check out your blog and see if you picked this up and ran with it. Welcome back -- to Germany -- from Italy :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf