About Us

Contact Us





First Chapters
September Issue

Waking up to the real world
George Olden

'...people anticipate war in the same way that we anticipate a rainy day – get some food in, put your feet up, at least there’s something good on the telly'.

After the shocking events of the 11th September 2001, there has been much talk of the day dividing the ‘Old World’ from the ‘New World.’ This is based upon the principle that the US has never before suffered such a large-scale attack of this nature on its continental mainland – having always previously engaged in conflicts on other continents. This is, we are being told, the end of “American innocence” – whatever that actually means. Some would say that that was lost a long time ago.

From a British perspective of decades of IRA violence, it somehow doesn’t look particularly like a New World. Nor, I would think, for a Spanish citizen living with the daily threat of ETA's bombs, for ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, or for that matter, for the ordinary Afghan people whose country has been all but destroyed by a succession of invading empires and regimes – of which the Taleban is merely the latest. It is perhaps timely to recall that we and the USA still bomb Iraq almost weekly.

No, this isn’t a case of the US waking up to a ‘New World’ but simply the ‘Real World’ – where fear and terror can intrude into your comfortable, high-income, SUV-driving, middle-class lifestyle.

Yes, I’m sure that it is a shock, but what the US is facing now is what millions of people in other countries have lived with for years. I work for an American company in London and I have watched, with growing disbelief, the hysteria that has gathered pace in the wake of the attack. Work in our office all but stopped for days after the events, as my American colleagues walked around with confused looks on their faces, or watched news-sites for information. And the confusion spread. The company immediately embarked on contingency plans, not questioning if war would come but when. They prepared for the worst: we now have torches and radios and bottled water, in case our offices are in an area that’s attacked. We have phone trees and emergency procedures. We might as well, in fact, be preparing for the Blitz. Worst of all, all around me in London and in the media I hear people talking of war. Indeed, newspaper headlines have been screaming the word for so long that it may be an anti-climax if it happens, for some people.

But everywhere I hear phrases such as ‘If war comes…’ in hushed, melodramatic tones, usually from people from generations never confronted with the reality of war. In fact, what conception can most of have now of what ‘war’ actually means? We watch conflicts on CNN or the news; we have live broadcasts and minute-by-minute updates. We praise ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for its authenticity. But take away the entertainment and how many people under a certain age and outside the armed forces can comprehend the danger and the fear? It seems that for young people talking about war is a thrill, a ‘TV moment’ if you like – because they cannot have any idea of the possible pain and suffering involved. Safe in the knowledge that they would never be called up to fight, they can anticipate war in the same way that we anticipate a rainy day – get some food in, put your feet up, but at least there’s something good on the telly.

People are waiting for something to happen, newspapers are full of this anticipation. When will Bush press the button and takes us out of this limbo that has existed since that fateful, tragic day? Of course, people who have experienced war take a different view. My grandmother, for example, who lived for the Blitz, or my Yugoslavian friend who saw the destruction of Sarajevo before fleeing the city. They aren’t talking of war and they’re sick of the relentless media hysteria. They’re just getting on with things. And this is the truth that the US must face now – life goes on, no matter how much the media wants us to believe in epochs and eras. In fact, it’s not a New World at all – it’s the same old, flawed one that we had before, and of course we will go on demeaning the miracle of our existence by spending our lives fighting and destroying each other and the planet. I’m very sorry for the thousands of victims in New York, and their families, but I have to say that it makes me a little cynical, too. After all, where were the candlelight vigils, memorial services and three minutes of silence for the dead of Rwanda, Chechnya or Bosnia, to name only three? Where’s the TV marathon of tearful celebrities raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the starving, homeless and oppressed people of Afghanistan?

As an article in The Independent recently pointed out, are we only capable of truly grieving for tragedies in Western cultures identical to our own? I’m not trying to be heartless here or demean the dead, but Americans have a tremendous capacity for forgetting, or not even knowing, about what terrible things are going on in the rest of the world. As Bill Bryson once pointed out, Iowa is a long way from anywhere, and even on the coasts the country is inward looking.

In many ways, the terrorist attack reminds me of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, although of course it is very different in nature. But the two events may turn out to have similar consequences, economically. Just as in 1929 and 1930, the Depression spread slowly and gradually out to affect every single person and community, so only three weeks after the attack in New York we still do not have a clue what the long term consequences will be. Yes, the US is going to become more like ‘Fortress America.’ Yes, there will probably be some kind of action in Afghanistan, even though winter is fast approaching and SAS experts who trained the Mujahadin against the USSR say that a land attack now would be “suicide.” And yes, the economic slowdown that was already occurring will probably be catalyzed by the collapse of consumer confidence. But the long-term prospects are more difficult to see.

George Bush’s popularity is high right now, but will this remain so if he either fails to retaliate or else embroils the US in a high-casualty conflict? He should remember how his father fell from astonishingly high approval ratings during the Gulf War (a short, successful campaign) to lose the election two years later, when the stagnant economy was uppermost in ordinary, voting American minds. And no one knows how bad the economic downturn will be, or what the effect will be on long-term East-West relations. Parallels have already been drawn between the decades of the 1920s and the 1990s, even without the World Trade Center attack to end the era of the 1990s. It is a tempting comparison to make: two decades of previously unparalleled prosperity and frivolity, a feeling of society’s comfortable impregnability, only to see this shattered by a terrible solitary event. But the comparison is misleading too, because of the vast, immeasurable changes that have occurred in the world over sixty years. Let’s not forget that the 1920s followed the Great War, whilst the 1990s followed… the 1980s. They could hardly be more different.

Historians love making comparisons, but the obvious conclusion that anyone can make from studying the two decades is that nothing is permanent, nothing lasts forever, nothing is certain. Economies are cyclical, and money and power rise and fall. But in a BBC1 documentary shown last year, examining the legacy of Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby,’ the comparison was drawn again between the 1920s and the 1990s to show the novels continuing relevancy. One writer on the film made a prescient point that stuck in my mind ever since. Hunter S. Thompson, comparing the mood of the two decades to the sinking of supposedly unsinkable Titanic, posed the question: “Where’s the iceberg now?”
Maybe, we’re just finding out.

© 2001 George Olden (Former Editor of Hackwriters now working in London)

More by George: Crowded Planet

< Back to Index
< Reply to this Article