18th January 2012: Cold War Memories & Afterlives

From an email to Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis on 17th January 2012:

 

Cold War Memories

 

1. My first ‘encounter’ with the USSR was aged 7 with the televised closing ceremony to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. I had a sense of viewing an alien, strange culture, with sombre music. I distinctly remember the USSR’s mascot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHqdWFpJkpk). The Andropov and Brezhnev eras seemed quick and fleeting: news reports of their deaths.

 

2. I was holidaying in New Zealand with family and New Zealand grandparents during the 1982 Falklands War. The headlines of New Zealand’s Dominion newspaper focused on the HMS Sheffield’s sinking.

 

3. US President Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApTnYwh5KvE and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dq6ZsF6bzOA) terrified my primary school class-mates and I. Around the time of the Able Archer exercise, there was a nuclear war scare in Australia focused on the Nurrungar and Pine Gap facilities. In 1984, my primary school (Marong) had a poster of the ABC tele-movie The Day After (1983) in the school’s common room. The school principal used negotiation between the United States and the Soviets as an example to me, during an argument I had with a fellow student; and later formed a class writing syndicate. From this period, I also remember the finale ‘Blake’ to Terry Nation’s dystopian science fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81) modelled on Nicaraguan rebels; WarGames (1983); the mini-series V (1983); the first televising of Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965); the BBC series Threads (1984); and most resonantly for me, the BBC mini-series Edge of Darkness (1985) in which environmental activists break into a nuclear facility. (My mother had died in a car accident when I was aged 4, so I was perhaps more influenced by this period than most.) Class-mates were influenced by the John Milius film Red Dawn (1984). Together with SDI, the Challenger space shuttle and Chernobyl disasters were perhaps generationally equivalent memories to JFK’s assassination: class-mates vividly remember the incidents, and where they were. As a result of Chernobyl, I became interested in 1990 about the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris; Stalker; The Sacrifice).

 

4. I was holidaying in New Zealand in 1984 when the Lange Government announced it was barring US nuclear ships from its waters. My New Zealand grandmother took me to visit the Beehive in Wellington – the New Zealand parliament. The foyer had peace sculptures. Wellington had social protests from peace groups, at the time.

 

5. Saddam Hussein’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait was discussed in high school as a social issue. I was again in Wellington, New Zealand, shortly before Operation Desert Storm broke out. I was reading Nostradamus at the time, and seeing social activist graffiti in Wellington’s main street, Lambton Quay (“no blood for oil” was a common phrase). The media focus was on CNN’s coverage; the Patriot missiles; and later, on the ‘highway of death’. During this visit, I discovered a copy of the USSR Constitution in my grandparents’ storage bookcase. They explained that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the USSR had attempted to hire staff from New Zealand’s electricity and geothermal industries, and that copies of the USSR Constitution were circulated during this period.

 

6. I was preparing for my high school’s final exams when the August 1991 coup d’etat attempt happened with Gorbachev. The first Australian news reports I saw focused on the Gang of 8, and then on Boris Yeltsin’s declaration on 19th August 1991. I was working on a short video film project at the time, and the coup d’etat attempt influenced the scripting and editing. I remember the time as a period of critical uncertainty about the USSR. Teachers tried for several years to explain Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost to us. Participating in a stage production of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men in 1990 helped to shape my interpretation.

 

Post-Cold War ‘Afterlives’

 

Grand strategies have ‘afterlives’: legacies that continue to reverberate long after events have ended. Books that have explored this include: Barbara Harlow’s After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (London: Verso, 1996); Kristin Ross’s May ‘68 And Its Afterlives (Chicago IL: Chicago University Press, 2002); Marianna Torgovnick’s The War Complex: World War II In Our Time (Chicago IL: Chicago University Press, 2005); and Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s The World Hitler Never Made (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

 

Some of how the Cold War continued to affect me over the next two decades:

 

7. U2’s imagery for its ZooTV tour (1991-93) — influential amongst my undergraduate university cohort — fused Marshall McLuhan and William S. Burroughs’ media theories; William Gibson’s cyberpunk aesthetic; CNN’s Gulf War coverage; post-Cold War triumphalism; and the geopolitical hopes for the European Union. Circumstances changed when the tour reached the Balkans during the Yugoslav War, in which concerts became experiments in Muzafer Sherif’s social psychology on defusing inter-group hostility.

 

8. In 1993, I read Peter Ouspensky’s book The Fourth Way (1957) on the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff. Both had been shaped by pre-revolutionary Russia and by escaping the 1917 Russian Revolution. At the time, I was taking La Trobe University undergraduate classes on cinema studies theories. I had the experience of seeing how lecturers and students were influenced by ideologies, during discussions of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser. The discussion of Marxist theories felt out-of-sync to me.

 

9. In 1994, I worked as a journalist on La Trobe University’s student newspaper Rabelais. Apart from calling “stop the presses” when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain died, three other incidents stood out (amongst many). First, I discovered that the previous socialist editors had envisaged LTU as similar to University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, and had supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba regime (the newspaper was funded and run by a student union rather than the university administration). Second, during an interview with LTU professor Robert Manne about his book The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1994), we talked about The New Republic, Edmund Burke, and centrist political positions (I had taken Manne’s undergraduate class on Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany). Third, the university gave me access to the archives of Rabelais and its predecessor Paringa, and to former editors, now influential in advertising agencies and Prime Ministerial speech-writing. I discovered that Rabelais had adopted a progressive anti-war stance during the Vietnam War; a socialist stance during the 1982-83 Australian recession; and that by the late 1980s, many LTU students were increasingly disconnected from the editors’ political ideology and simply wanted to finish their degrees. On a broad ticket, I co-ran for editor, lost to a scare campaign, and discussed activist psychology during an interview with author J.G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun; Crash). (The editorial team that won the election were taken to court by the state government over union articles which advocated shop-lifting; this incident led to dramatic funding cuts for all university newspapers in Victoria for several years.)

 

10. In 2001, I wrote an undergraduate essay (archived version with dead links and in-text errors like ‘Hoover Institute’ instead of ‘Hoover Institution’: http://is.gd/MwT0o6) on early Cold War disinformation for LTU’s politics senior lecturer John Chiddick. The essay quality is questionable, but the main experience was discovering a wealth of Cold War literature and archives in LTU’s Borchardt library. Many of the Soviet sources were undoubtedly declarative propaganda, yet it was fascinating to find a ‘different’ history to the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War and the 1946-50 period. Today, many of the journal archives have been replaced, in order for the library to have more space for computers and collaborative group meeting rooms.

 

11. When Saddam Hussein was captured in ad-Dawr, Iraq on 13th December 2003, I knew immediately from the site names ‘Wolverine-1’ and ‘Wolverine-2’ that this referred to the John Milius film Red Dawn (1984).

 

12. In 2005, I discovered that cyberpunk film imagery that had influenced me from 1983-97 had been used as a screening tool for some Aum Shinrikyo members.

 

13. In 2005-06, I decided to follow the SDI thread and looked at Herman Kahn’s career and theories for Masters research at Monash University. This was also a reaction to discussions in 2002-04 with critical futurist Richard Slaughter at Swinburne University’s strategic foresight program about Jonathan Schell’s ‘abolitionist’ approach. Slaughter was highly critical of Kahn, so I wanted to go to the source and evaluate it for myself. I applied Herman Kahn’s work to North Korea’s covert nuclear weapons program (http://is.gd/ibQCD5).

 

14. In 2010 during PhD preparatory research, I found and took notes for the Aviation Week Video Magazine documentary SDI: The Technical Challenge (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986) in which Robert Zalisk interviews SDI scientists on ballistic missile defence systems, and narrates conceptual videos on SDI’s planned capabilities.

 

September 11

 

15. Al Qaeda’s attacks occurred late in the evening of 11th September 2001, Australian time. I found out the next day, late in the afternoon, from a Herald Sun newspaper headline (I was concentrating on finishing my undergraduate degree after a stint in publishing). I did not see much televised coverage of the attacks, their aftermath, or the United States bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001.

 

16. I spent 20th-25th September 2001 in New York City: the first and (as yet) only time I have visited NYC. The plane played the films Shrek and Bridget Jones’s Diary as in-flight movies. I stayed with author Howard Bloom and saw the dust cloud over ground zero from the roof of his Park Slopes, Brooklyn apartment block. The Brooklyn fire station had memorials to dead fire-fighters, and the streets had missing person posters. At the time, I edited the US-based alternative news site Disinformation (http://old.disinfo.com/archive/) with a different approach to its current incarnation. I met with co-founders Gary Baddeley and Richard Metzger, and discovered that the attacks had taken out our server, and that the FBI had interviewed our designer Leen Al-Bassam. Metzger (now curator of DangerousMinds.net) and I talked in his Christopher St apartment about the attack’s psychological effects on New Yorkers. Manhattan was blocked off below 14th Street. I saw street vendors selling World Trade Center memorabilia and anti-Osama Bin Laden t-shirts. The local media did not cover protests in Washington Square Park, New York. Then-Disinfo.com contributor Preston Peet and I saw the Rollins Band play Irving Plaza on 24th September 2011, where Henry Rollins gave a pre-show patriotic speech to New Yorkers, and I felt like being in an historical moment (http://is.gd/92NApr).

 

17. In the week after the attacks, I turned to Susan D. Moeller’s Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York and London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 166-170) for a four-stage cycle on assassinations to explain media coverage: (1) replaying the initial event; (2) disclosing the perpetrator’s identity and seeking justice; (3) funerals and public mourning; and (4) closure: “when the media reassert the supremacy of the established political and social order.” (p. 167). For the next several years, I did not publish anything on September 11 conspiracy theories. The Disinformation Company subsequently reversed this decision when it published material by Alex Jones. I left TDC in February 2008.

 

Iraq War 2003

 

18. I was in the common room for Swinburne University’s Faculty of Business & Enterprise when senior lecturer Joseph Voros glanced at the television and told me the United States forces had started bombing Iraq. We both remarked that the day felt very strange.