Magazine article The American Conservative

What Is It Good For?

Magazine article The American Conservative

What Is It Good For?

Article excerpt

In the nuclear age, there can be no just war.

A LONG TIME AGO, in a galaxy far, far away - actually, it was 1958, in the Royal County of Berkshire - I was staying with a friend from school one Sunday and, as a treat, his mother took us to Mass at the big American air base nearby. In those happy days, the guy in the guard hut did not pat you down with a metal detector before lifting the barrier. He didn't even ask for ID, as I recall, just leaned toward the driver's window, smiled, asked what our business was, and then let us through with a "Yes, ma'am" and a friendly salute.

The chapel was small, businesslike, perhaps rather austere. Above the altar was an electronic indicator board that would have started flashing THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, or some such, if Soviet bombers had suddenly been detected heading our way. At the back of the chapel, close to the exit, were two airmen in combat gear - jump suits, maps strapped to knees, lots of zips, foilwrapped Hershey bars stashed somewhere along with vitamins, Benzedrine, Russian phrase books, Swiss Army pen knives, compasses, possibly pistols, or, better still, revolvers. . .

"Introibo ad altare Dei," said the priest.

"Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam," said the server.

The two airmen followed the familiar, ancient liturgy, as they had done hundreds of times before. It was business as usual: kneel, stand, genuflect, bow, cross yourself, try not to let your mind wander or your eyes stray, and be ready to scramble if that freakin' sign begins to flash. It would not for a moment have occurred to these two good young men that there was anything incongruous about being dressed to kill while worshipping the Prince of Peace, and to kill, furthermore, on a scale never hitherto imagined.

Nor, I doubt, would it have occurred to anyone else at Mass that morning. So far as we boys were concerned, everything was not only congruous but admirable and glamorous. This was the real deal. We were in America, if vicariously, among people who came from the same gene pool as Pat Boone and Montgomery Clift, Doris Day and Natalie Wood, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. To have been a teenager in England in the late 1950s was to have been an American. We were the products of cultural imperialism, and we loved it. No yoke was ever sweeter.

The Cold War was a motion picture or a giant game of chicken or both. The U.S. was James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause." Russia the smirking boy with the comb between his teeth who chickens first but gets his sleeve stuck in the door handle and drives his car over the cliff. But there was more to this than glamour; it wasn't only make-believe. This was a world of certainty, of moral clarity. These airmen were defending us against atheistic communism and therefore against slave camps, mass murder, and nerdy clothes. To us the nuclear deterrent was cool, and it obviously worked because there had not been a world war for at least 13 years. I mean, duh! (as we had not yet learnt to say). Only wimps and fellow travelers were against the deterrent.

Now we live in another galaxy. In the 50 years since I knelt with those airmen, the world has changed out of all recognition, and then some. The Cold War has ended, and Western values have triumphed. Films that would once have been restricted are now rated PG. There are rock concerts in Red Square. The Mass is in English. Phil Spector has been banged up for murder. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

Was it worth it? To a liberal capitalist, certainly; to a liberal democrat, perhaps; but surely not to a conservative. The Cold War itself increasingly looks like displacement therapy, or a militaryindustrial scam. Who now seriously believes that Washington would have risked millions of American Uves in a war over Berlin? As for the nuclear deterrent, it's obviously time to join the peace activists. There will always be nukes, of course - you can't unsplit the atom - and while Russia and China have them, it is perhaps just as weU that the United States should have them, too. …

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