Devastation. The word comes from the Latin verb, devastare which means to lay waste, which is derived from the Latin adjective vastus –empty, desolate.Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.
Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.
Putin knows devastation.
Putin was born in 1952, 7 years after the end of World War II, a war which saw his country and his family devastated. In Russia almost 13% of the population perished during the war, with over 7 million civilian deaths and nearly that many military deaths. More Russian civilians died in WWII than soldiers. All told almost 14 million Russians perished. These are only Russian numbers, not the whole Soviet Union. In contrast the United States lost roughly 400,000 soldiers and 1,700 civilians, altogether less than one percent of the total population.
The rolling tanks, the aerial bombardments, and the brutal warfare along the Eastern Front left Russia devastated economically as well: a quarter of its capital resources were destroyed and agricultural output was lower than it had been in the 1920s. Add the psychotic leadership of Stalin, who killed an estimated 20 million Soviet citizens, and the economic disaster of Communism to the destruction of WWII and you have a land made empty, desolate.
Both of Putin’s older brothers had died; the oldest, a few months after he was born in the 1930s, the other, of diphtheria during the Siege of Leningrad. More people died in the Siege of Leningrad than all U.K. and U.S. losses combined for the entire war.
Like his Baby Boomer peers in the United States, born to the G.I. Generation after the Great Depression and WWII, we can imagine that young Vladimir was a source of hope for his parents in the devastated emptiness in which war and death had left their family.
Unlike post war Russia, the post war America into which the Boomers were born was a cornucopia. Unlike the rest of the industrialized world, the United States had not been bombed into rubble. We were the exception. We had no industrial competition. Everyone in the world bought our stuff. They had no other choice. That was a unique moment in history. As the Economist writes:
These boomers have lived a charmed life, easily topping previous generations in income earned at every age. The sheer heft of the generation created a demographic dividend: a rise in labour supply, reinforced by a surge in the number of working women. Social change favoured it too. Households became smaller, populated with more earners and fewer children. And boomers enjoyed the distinction of being among the best-educated of American generations at a time when the return on education was soaring.To take this historically unique situation and economic anomaly, and to expand it to be a general assumption about national exceptionalism would seem to be a tragic mistake of epic proportions.
Yet these gains were one-offs. Retirements will reverse the earlier labour-force surge, and younger generations cannot benefit from more women working… In short, boomer income growth relied on a number of one-off gains.
Our Baby Boomer political leaders have never seen the resulting devastation of armies traversing our borders and laying waste to our territory. They grew up as well-cared-for children in the brand new, burgeoning suburbs, at a time of unprecedented optimism and wealth. It was an exceptional time in history. The strength and wealth of the nation were so secure that they were able to “tune in, turn on and drop out”, in that fit of Daddy-anger that was the late 1960s.
But you can’t really blame them for taking everything for granted. The suburbs had no roots, the new middle class corporate jobs meant GI dad moved the family for work, a few years in one city, a few in another. There was material wealth to be sure, but the Boomers were devastated in their own way, uprooted from their ethnic enclaves in the northern cities (if Catholic) and from their Midwestern cities, towns, and family farms (if Protestant), devastated psychically in the wasteland of Levittown and cul de sacs. In fact Baby Boomers now have the highest suicide rate of any generation. The Me Generation is an alienated generation. It was an exceptional mirage, material wealth masking spiritual devastation.
Tom Wolfe, himself of the Silent Generation sandwiched between the GIs and the Boomers, described the exceptional nature of Boomer self-absorption as having discarded the “age-old belief in serial immortality.”
The husband and wife who sacrifice their own ambitions and their material assets in order to provide a ‘better future’ for their children … the soldier who risks his life or perhaps consciously sacrifices it, in battle … the man who devotes his life to some struggle for ‘his people’ that cannot possibly be won in his lifetime … people (or most of them) who buy life insurance or leave wills … are people who conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream. Just as something of their ancestors lives on in them, so will something of them live on in their children … or in their people, their race, their community – for childless people, too, conduct their lives and try to arrange their postmortem affairs with concern for how the great stream is going to flow on. Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, ‘I have only one life to live.’ Instead, they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offsprings’ lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well. They have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things. The Chinese, in ancestor worship, have literally worshipped the great tide itself, and not any god or gods. For anyone to renounce the notion of serial immortality, in the West or the East, has been to defy what seems like a law of nature.The Boomer entitles himself to exemption from this legacy.
Since their transition into political power with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and the accession of Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in 1994, Boomers have proceeded to spend the principal of that exceptional material and economic endowment, so confident in themselves and the sheltered world they grew up in, and so confident in the America built and made safe by their fathers whom they revolted against, that they seek to transform all the world into clones of post war America through mass marketed "culture", porn, or force of arms: “Democracy, Whisky, and Sexy!” as they said in Najaf, Iraq.
And if not that transformative violence, the Boomer political class desires at least to invite all the dreamers here, knowing in their hearts, of course, that everyone in the world dreams to get that online degree and work in a cubicle to pay for the Boomers’ Social Security, Medicare and the War on Terror.
Are the Boomers on an extended ballistic tantrum? A cruise-missile hissy fit? Are they just acting out? They have proceeded to lay waste to the foundations of their inheritance, graduating from waging ideological wars on the institutions that raised them, to waging whimsical wars abroad, costing billions, from Clinton through Bush and Obama. As Baby Boomer Chris Hedges writes, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."
They have indebted their children and grandchildren with these wars of theirs, for some notional, Platonic ghost of Democracy, which brings with it market-opening opportunities for Whisky! and Sex! to these bedraggled traditional peoples who only know the ways of their ancestors and not our enlightened, modern ways, not for any real national threat, but spuriously, based upon lies and/or to cover up lies.
Putin knows about the wasteland left by Great Patriotic Wars, and knows about the decades of U.S. sponsored jihad on his country’s southern borders, and the unintended consequences and blowback of such sponsorship and intervention. (see: Boston Marathon Bombing)
Putin’s Mother Russia was not just devastated economically, it was devastated morally and spiritually after the war, annihilating its own future with some of the highest abortion rates in the developed world through the 1990s, with alcoholism, and other social pathologies of devastating effect on their people’s ability to continue as a people Rus.
Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward. -Vernon Law, baseball player, Silent GenerationRussia in general and Putin in particular have experienced the test of war and devastation, learned the lessons. Recently, Russian birthrates surpassed those of the US. As Tom Wolfe noted, this is an indication of belief in a future and a sense of continuity for themselves as a people and as a civilization. This practical politician does not want devastation again.
Having experienced the devastation of war across his country’s borders and in his own family, Mr. Putin finishes his op ed using the crusading, religious terminology of the American Baby Boomer political class, teleological “democracy”, while echoing the Declaration of Independence.
There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.America is exceptional to us because it is ours, not because of the historical, economic anomaly of the post war years, not because it stands astride the world as a Colossus.
Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Mexicans, Somalis, Vietnamese, etc. are not deformed Americans waiting to be fully Americanized. They are allowed to love their countries too, to think that their country is exceptional because it is theirs, whose blessings they hope to pass on to their posterity.
The devastation of the war and the devastation of Communism led to a devastation of the soul of that great people and their civilization, a civilization that is literally being born again.
The spiritual devastation of the Baby Boomers, their antiseptic yet materially rich upbringing in suburban alienation, has resulted in the material devastation of whomever gets in the way of their tantrums –be it the civic institutions they inherited, or the indigenous cultures of small countries who rub them the wrong way.
Baby Boomers took for granted the material wealth and security in which they were raised. They attacked the very civilization and institutions that had made them the best-raised and most educated generation of children in the history of the world to that point. They exempted themselves from their legacy and borrowed against their posterity.
Tom Wolfe recognized the unintended consequences for the Boomers' rejection of civilizational norms in the 1960s:
In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the hippie movement. At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, there were doctors treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious fevers of all time.The whimsical way in which Boomers go to war suggests a need for a great relearning of the rules of civilization. But it also suggests "war as psychotherapy" and is reminiscent of the “World War as an Afterthought” theme in the background of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, when a sick and decadent nation continually goes to war abroad while waging a domestic war on the minds of its pharmacologically pacified citizens, and on culture itself:
The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start from zero. At one point, the novelist Ken Kesey, leader of a commune called the Merry Pranksters, organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside--quite purposely--were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets, or as was more likely, without using any sheets at all, or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning…the laws of hygiene…by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.
This process, namely the relearning--following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero--seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America. -from Hooking Up
[Montag has just come home to find his interactive-television addicted wife overdosed on sleeping pills.]
The object he had sent tumbling with his foot now glinted under the edge of his own bed. The small crystal bottle of sleeping-tablets which earlier today had been filled with thirty capsules and which now lay uncapped and empty in the light of the tiny flare.The Boomer devastation, because it is wholly spiritual, is worse than the material and economic devastation that informed Putin's childhood, which probably made him all the more practical and ruthless.
As he stood there the sky over the house screamed. There was a tremendous ripping sound as if two giant hands had torn ten thousand miles of black linen down the seam. Montag was cut in half. He felt his chest chopped down and split apart. The jet-bombs going over, going over, going over, one two, one two, one two, six of them, nine of them, twelve of them, one and one and one and another and another and another, did all the screaming for him. He opened his own mouth and let their shriek come down and out between his bared teeth. The house shook.
Boomer devastation is in their psyche, the pain of their desolation screams out in cruise-missiles and F-16s, pissing away the material wealth that they inherited by bombing deserts.