I've been following your posts and book list, and have a recommendation: The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel.
Non-fiction (Finkel was an "embedded" reporter with a US Army battalion for 8 months between April 2007 and April 2008.) This is the All Quiet on the Western Front of the Iraq war.
A harrowing book- be prepared for that. I wanted to quit about 1/4 the way through. But I felt a duty to read it clear through- if the guys lived it and Finkel chronicled it, I could at least read to the end.
Karl Marlantes’s What it’s Like to Go to War is a Viet Nam and postwar memoir that belongs on returning soldier reinstatement and chicken-hawk cautionary reading lists too.
When reading about the roadblock tragedy today in your first post about Afterwar, I thought of the similar scene in One Bullet Away….
When you read What it’s Like to Go to War, consider if any part of Marlantes’ suggestions for bringing veterans back whole into civil life remind you of scenes in the film The Best Years of Our Lives. I was reminded of his book when I watched the film again recently with my kids. The movie is old but not dated for this topic.
From another reader on the same topic:
You mentioned Karl Marlantes's harrowing Matterhorn, but an even better book for this topic is his follow-on non-fiction What it's like to go to war. He addresses these exact issues, not just from the standpoint of the trigger puller, but also from the viewpoint of the officer who orders artillery and air attacks that kill dozens.
In your list of books about healing moral injuries, I hope you mention Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam. It is one of the most profound and humane books on healing trauma I have seen (indeed, it is one of the most profound and humane books I have ever read).
If you haven’t read it [JF: I have], it is structured as a meditation on Achilles’ moral breakdown in the Iliad, culminating with his dragging the corpse of Hector around the walls of Troy—all filtered through Shay’s work with the men (Vietnam veterans) he has treated for combat trauma. The notion that combat trauma is as old as combat, and that loss of honor through being forced to commit what “normal,” civilian society sees as crimes is at its root, has stuck with me for many years.
I know and tremendously admire this book and join the reader in urging others to find and read it.
Afghanada, a radio drama by the CBC in Canada. A reader in Toronto says:
I don't know if you already know Afghanada, but it was a radio play on the CBC. Khan Soror, a well-know Afghani actor played a a part and advised. Scott Taylor was the military advisor, so it was gritty and sounded real to someone like me (reserve force).
Late last night I explained why I thought that Nancy Sherman’s Afterwar was an important non-fiction entry in the still-not-large-enough canon of works explaining our modern chickenhawk-era culture of war. I named a few related works, and this morning I find reminders from readers of others that certainly deserve mention too:
Consequence magazine. Consequence describes itself as an “international literary magazine focusing on the culture of war.” I am chagrined to say that I had not known about it, but at least I do now. A few days ago it published a review of God is Not Here, by Bob Shea.
The FX one-season series Over There, which I saw when it originally aired ten years ago and also admired. Its possible that it was too ahead-of-its-time, for a mainstream audience, in its darkish view of the Iraq invasion and the aftereffects.
Restrepo, a powerful documentary film by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that follows a U.S. unit through a year in Afghanistan. The film came out in 2010; a year later, Hetherington was killed while covering the Libyan civil war.
One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick. Fick was a young Marine Corps officer during the invasion of Iraq and also fought in Afghanistan. His book was one of the earliest notable memoirs of the war.
I know there are more, but that will hold us for now. Thanks for the reminders and tips.
Update The video of the Georgetown session is now online. You can find it here, or in embedded version in my preceding post.
In my “Tragedy of the American Military” article early this year and in many updates since then, I’ve referred to Ben Fountain’s great novella Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as the emblematic work of fiction for our Chickenhawk age. As a reminder: a chickenhawk nation is one willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously — in particular, thinking seriously about the wars to which it will be committed, and about what will happen to the troops when they return (except for halftime ceremonies at football games, like the one Billy Lynn portrays).
A week ago I attended and had a small part in a session at Georgetown in which veterans of our modern wars talked about something usually missing from our talk about “saluting the heroes” or “boots on the ground.” That something was the effect on the troops of the decisions they had to make in combat and the “moral injuries” they inevitably incurred in even the most successful and “glorious” wars.
For instance, in a terrible real-world case described at the Georgetown session: During the occupation of Iraq a young U.S. officer, commanding a roadblock checkpoint, sees a car barreling toward his soldiers at night. He gives all the established “slow down” and “turn back” warning signals. By this point in the occupation the Iraqis knew how the checkpoints worked and what the rules were. But as the car continues to bear down, the young officer finally orders his men to do what the rules of engagement called for: to riddle the car with machine-gun bullets before it could get close enough to set off a bomb — if that is what it contained. Only when they go to inspect the wreckage do the Americans learn that they have just killed an Iraqi couple, with their young daughters, who had been hustling to the hospital so that the pregnant mother could deliver another child. The soldiers were doing their job; the Iraqi family suffered more than a “moral injury”; but those soldiers would also never be the same. Two of them later killed themselves.
The literature of war has long dealt with impossible choices and moral injuries. Just in semi-modern history we have works from Cold Mountain to the The Red Badge of Courage about the U.S. Civil War; All Quiet on the Western Front from the German side and the great war poets from the British side, about the first World War, and the non-comic parts of Catch-22 about the second; now-largely-forgotten works like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Hunters about Korea; Matterhorn and others about Vietnam; and the dozen other titles that will come to mind.
The closest we’ve come for our modern wars would include The Hurt Locker, whose angle was that Jeremy Renner’s anti-IED specialist found meaning mainly in his recklessly dangerous work; or Homeland, whose angle is that Claire Danes’s CIA analyst has been driven crazy by the clues she missed; or maybe American Sniper, whose moral calculus involving Bradley Cooper’s sharpshooter I won’t try to untangle.
I am sure there are more, but for now my point is that Afterwar is a real step forward in assessing what America’s modern wars have done to — and also for — the one percent of America’s people who have fought them, and how the other 99% of the country should respond. For instance, it has an entire chapter on the tangles of that familiar phrase, “Thank you for your service.” One veteran says to a civilian, “Don’t just tell me ‘thank you for your service.’ First say, ‘Please.’” Sherman explains why this means, “Don’t take for granted my service. Don’t be cavalier in a call to arms. Take greater responsibility for the wars that our country wages.”
If a video of last week’s session goes on line, I will mention it, because many of the veterans’ accounts were remarkable. For now I will strongly suggest that you get and read this book.
Let’s continue our saga of the professional sports-world’s embrace of military imagery, costuming, and honoring-our-heroes celebration. A reader points me to this piece by Dan Wetzel, in Yahoo, on why the coach of a team named the Patriots, who himself grew up in Annapolis where his father was a Naval Academy coach, refuses to wear the dress-up camouflage gear other NFL staffs and cheerleaders have displayed during this month’s “Salute to Service.” Wetzel writes:
Belichick's commitment to the cause [of respecting military service] can't be questioned. What can be questioned is the league demanding someone wear a camouflage hat. It is a mostly meaningless gesture and doesn't signify anything. It's a sort of forced, show-pony act that has become pervasive….
Maybe the league's intentions here were 100 percent noble. Considering its publicity-conscious way of doing business and that recent paid patriotism scandal though, it can also feel like this is more about what the military can do for the NFL than what the NFL can do for the military.
The reader adds:
Speaking of Belichick, do you think he's a Stoic i.e. a true follower of the teachings of Epitectus? Given the hysterical bed wetting many Americans are engaging in currently in the wake of the Paris attacks, I think we could all use a dose of stoicism.
Short answer: Yes. I am agnostic in most of the passionate debates about whether Belichick’s Patriots symbolize good or evil. (I like the sheer efficiency with which they win, and their amazing years-long sequence of little-guy receiver and running-back stars. But because I’m not from Boston it would feel phony to make them “my” team.) I will say that I like the Stoic style.
From a reader who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for many years in Japan:
The chickenhawk / military fetish … illustrates the thin ice we are walking on a la, on the obscure side, J. G. Ballard`s Kingdom Come. Ballard`s book is about an English town that goes fascist gaga over sports and shopping with a store manager staging a coup at the mall. Boundaries blur, candy turns to rocks, rocks turn to candy.
Your label of chickenhawk nation is easy to twist into that we should become hawks, all in. The chickenhawk nation has a certain passive ring to it, we seem to have gone beyond that.
I remember in the 60`s the F-4 flyovers before football games with one jet peeling off representing POW`s and MIA`s (I was about 10 at the time, part of the TV pregame), but I do not think anything special was done for baseball games, I guess too many, would break the budget. On a trip back to the US a few years back I remember being shocked at the overt, over the top patriotism before the start of a baseball game (again, TV), so I think we are a big step up and over what was done during the Vietnam War.
It is this extraordinary report, by Brian Castner, published today in Motherboard. It is called “One Degree of Separation in the Forever War,” and I promise you will find it worth the time, and later reflection.
I would like everyone thinking about, or voting on, American foreign and military policy also to read and absorb this essay. Readers owe thanks to Brian Castner for writing it. The public owes deep respect to the Hines brothers whom it describes.
In response to this past week’s NFL observances of Veterans Day, including camouflage-themed clothing for coaches and sideline staff, a reader sends a comparative note on how pro sports teams elsewhere recognize this occasion:
You mentioned lapel poppies in the UK the other day. Worth noting that how the UK observes Remembrance Day is very different even at sporting events. Here is some fan-shot video from the proceedings at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in North London this past Saturday:
In addition, every player had a poppy embroidered on their jersey. I find this way of marking the occasion far more meaningful than the overly jingoistic version that seems to predominate on our shores.
Veterans Day respects and gratitude to those who have sacrificed and served.
To spare effort by those getting ready to write in and explain this distinction: I do realize that the connotations of Remembrance Day, in England and elsewhere, are different from those of Veterans Day on the same November 11 date in the United States. Originally all these observances were Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I hostilities on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. As another world war began, the name was generally shifted to Remembrance Day, which in England serves the purpose Memorial Day does in the United States: that of recognizing those who died in the line of duty. (For more on the Civil War origins of American Memorial Day, see Deb Fallows’s item from Mississippi.) In the United States, Veterans Day is for those who have performed military service, living and dead.
Will Bardenwerper, who joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and served as an infantry officer in Iraq, has a very strong essay in the Washington Post just now on the hollowness of the “Salute to the Heroes!” rituals that have become part of professional sports, especially the NFL. The title gives you the idea: “How patriotic pageantry at sporting events lost its meaning.” Here is a sample:
I should appreciate these moments at professional sporting events. I did once, but not so much anymore. Neither do a surprising number of the men with whom I served…. These moments, after a decade and a half of continuous war, have become rote and perfunctory, unintentionally trivializing what began with the best of intentions.
And, more pointedly, about the scenes that might accompany the heartwarming videos of a service member being reunited with spouse and children:
When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Very much worth reading. Bardenwerper even has a “to do” suggestion at the end of his essay. Conceivably at some point the chickenhawk shamelessness of these spectacles will sink in.
Additionally, from a reader on the East Coast:
Yesterday at noon I posted on Facebook that, as a veteran, I was NOT “honored” when the NFL’s partners sell camo clothing.
I got 25 likes, and I only have 100 – 125 “friends”.
Here’s a strange story out of Annapolis that seems to fit within Fallows’s new thread on Chickenhawk Nation, or the tendency of the American public to express easy gestures of gratitude to the military without at the very least informing themselves about why servicemembers are deployed all over the world, let alone sacrificing anything themselves. (As the son of two retired Army officers, including a Vietnam vet, I’m a bit biased on this.) So here’s the story: Local fans of the Naval Academy’s football team have renewed a seemingly sweet but condescending habit of tossing candy to the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen that traditionally marches into the stadium at every home game. Things have even gotten ugly:
“[Y]ou get these little cretins who throw [the candy] 150 mph,” then-city police Sgt. Paul Gibbs told The Capital [in October 1998]. Well, the enthusiasts may have returned this season, because complaints resurfaced about the practice — don’t call it a tradition — of throwing Snickers, Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls, even hamburgers at the brigade.
“I saw hamburgers lying in the street,” said Bill O’Leary, who has lived across from the stadium since the 1990s. For years, he has called for an end to the throwing. “They throw plastic water bottles at them, too.”
Beer cans were added to the onslaught during a game against Wake Forest in 2009. Since the late ‘90s, Naval Academy officials have repeatedly urged the public to stop this habit—“It shows a lack of respect for the uniform of our armed services,” according to one statement—but it keeps popping up. Here’s one lame defense from a local fan via Facebook:
“As a kid, I grew up watching the Brigade of Midshipmen marching from the academy to the games at the stadium. My first memories were that we would toss candy to them so they could have some treats during the game. It wasn’t ‘throwing candy at them’ to be disrespectful. Then sometimes they would have candy to thank us and toss it back,”
Short-version background to this post: what I’m calling Chickenhawk Nation is a country whose troops are always at war, but whose people are mainly untouched by war, and that tries to paper over that difference with ritualized “Salute to the Heroes” ceremonies, like today’s throughout the NFL. You can read the long version of the background here, or in other messages on this thread.
Today’s installment: how to think about the popularity of military camo gear among people who have never dreamed of enlisting, and the additional role of flags. First, from a serial entrepreneur who now makes his living as a mariner:
One of the thing I've noticed is that homeless people now festoon their rigs with American flags. This was brought to mind by the fellow who roams our neighborhood in [XXX] with a shopping cart picking up scrap metal, but I've also seen it on shanty boats in the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but I think it's lingered because of the thin patriotism that Chickhawkism fosters.
My theory is that by adorning their carts, tents, boats, etc with flags (the guy in our neighborhood has 4 or 5 on his shopping cart) these guys feels they are marginally less likely to get hassled by authorities. As someone who has been a vagrant here and their through my life, I know that being hassled by The Man is an ever-present burden that one is wise to take steps to blunt.
I could easily document this, but can't think of a way or reason to do it that doesn't further trample the dignity of these unfortunate fellow, so I just pass it along as something I've noticed in our current Cult of the Flag/ Chickenhawk times.
Further on the NFL-and-military connection, from a reader in Seattle:
As for our SeaChickenHawks: It’s difficult to reconcile that they’ve taken $453k from the military for such events when you consider this little-known but ugly incident between coach Pete Carroll and Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
The reader goes on to quote from this Deadspin account, unrefuted by Carroll or the Seahawks as far as I can tell, about Carroll trying to convince Chiarelli — who had been inside the Pentagon when the 9/11 airplane hit the building, and whom I first met when he was a young officer at West Point 30 years ago — that the whole attack was a hoax. Sample quotes:
Chiarelli—who grew up in Seattle—is a big Seahawks fan. His post-military work concerns traumatic brain injury research, a cause of some significance to the NFL. And both have plenty of experience leading groups of men on grand American stages.
The sit-down between Chiarelli and Carroll started off normally enough. They talked about the team, and then about head trauma. Chiarelli, who commanded the American forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, talked about the brain injuries he had seen there. But Chiarelli's mention of Iraq sent Carroll in another direction: He wanted to know if the September 11 attacks had been planned or faked by the United States government.
In particular, Carroll wanted to know whether the attack on the Pentagon had really happened.
You can read more at the Deadspin account. A further fillip on a culture that is symbolically reverent of “the heroes” but in real terms vastly distant from them.
In the context of this past week’s “Paid Patriotism” report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, about the way the Pentagon has been paying pro sports teams for patriotic on-field displays, a reader sends a screenshot from one of today’s games:
Sorry for the interruption, but I had to send this from the game on now. All of the coaches are dressed in camouflage!
Yes it's Veterans Day Wednesday, but during the years when I lived in England, where people really know about the horrors of war, no one would even think of dressing up like that. If you wanted to honor vets you wore a red poppy.
And of course red poppies on the lapel are very widespread Remembrance Day tributes in the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. It’s worth noting that the camo theme in today’s U.S. football games applies not simply to the caps but even to the Bose headsets, as you see here.
The significant point, I think, is that the American public has seen things like this so often that we barely notice any more. The re-themed Bose headsets are another detail that Ben Fountain might have worked into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though perhaps he was worried about making the satire a little too broad.
Update Thanks to a reader for pointing out that in a special salute to the troops, the NFL’s online shop is offering a full 15% off list price to veterans and service members.
Pro football looms large in modern America’s consciousness in all ways, but notably so in what we’ve been discussing as ChickenhawkPaid Patriotism. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, builds its whole plot around a halftime “Salute to the Heroes!” at a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys game. And NFL teams were prominently featured in the Sen. McCain/Sen. Flake exposé on the Pentagon’s underwriting of pro-veteran and pro-troop displays at sports events.
A reader writes about why he objects in particular to the NFL:
Just wanted to say it has long bothered me that the National Football League foists "tributes to the military" during its games. (Other leagues might bother me just as much, but I pay less attention to them).
I can think of no demographic group in the United States that has a lower rate of service in the US military than the players, owners, and coaches of the National Football League. For members of the NFL, it is virtually always “my career over my country.” I am almost 60 years old, and a lifelong fan of football, but of the thousands of players who have played in the NFL in my lifetime, I can recall only two players—Roger Staubach and Pat Tillman—who have served in the US military. [JF note: I am sure there are more, but like the reader I don’t immediately think of them. I checked the NFL’s site for players/coaches with military connections. The list is here, and it’s mainly “father served in Vietnam,” “brother is in the Reserves” etc.]
Plus, the NFL as an organization does all it can to avoid paying taxes to support those who do serve. And its owners generally have their nose in the trough to gather up as many tax dollars as they can to subsidize their profit-seeking enterprises.
In terms of real military service and support, it would be difficult to find a more concentrated cluster of physical and economic wimpiness than the National Football League.
On the more substantive questions of the real respect and accommodation for troops, veterans, and their families, a reader with a military background writes:
I often find myself dumbfounded at the superficial "support" thrown to veterans and as a veteran, insulted at the jingoism-driven lack of true oversight over military spending. For whatever it is worth, I felt I ought to lend you my humble two cents.
I am veteran of the Canadian Army living in the U.S. I served in Afghanistan prior to settling in Virginia with my U.S. wife. Another aspect of the “chicken-hawk economy” that I think is worth more public scrutiny is how veterans integrate into the workforce.
Many large U.S. firms have veteran hiring targets and specialized veteran recruiters. Businesses typically view "veterans" as a homogeneous group that is stereotyped as "you must be good following orders," or "repetitive tasks don't faze you," and many others. Some are positive, but most I typically find off-putting and indicative of a society that understands little (nor seems to want to understand) of what service entails.
Every veteran is unique. Some 25 year olds negotiated peace settlements between warring tribes. Some 25 year olds fixed armored vehicles. Some 25 year olds ran Pashto-language radio stations. The work performed by former members of the military should be treated equal to work performed by non-former members of the military by potential employers.
I am confident enough in the work done by veterans overseas that it can (or should) easily compete with those with equivalent civilian world experience. I find that US hiring managers seem to want to avoid the details of my service, in favor of a more superficial treatment of me as a "veteran" who can "obey orders." The accomplishments of veterans are not given the opportunity to speak for themselves because of this "chicken-hawk society" in which those not directly engaged with the armed services pay it lip service but do not want to dive into the grittier details.
Post 9/11 veterans engaged in an unprecedented type of conflict. The nature of counterinsurgency in the information age dictated that major decisions, that in prior generations would have been made by Colonels and Generals, were decentralized to some of the lowest levels. A generation of veterans holding some of the strongest leadership credentials of any generation is being undervalued and stereotyped by the society to which it returns. This is wrong from a business perspective, and an unethical way to treat those who served.
This has become a common refrain among the cautious—and it’s wrong.
For many fully vaccinated Americans, the Delta surge spoiled what should’ve been a glorious summer. Those who had cast their masks aside months ago were asked to dust them off. Many are still taking no chances. Some have even returned to all the same precautions they took before getting their shots, including avoiding the company of other fully vaccinated people.
Among this last group, a common refrain I’ve heard to justify their renewed vigilance is that “vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus.”
This misunderstanding, born out of confusing statements from public-health authorities and misleading media headlines, is a shame. It is resulting in unnecessary fear among vaccinated people, all the while undermining the public’s understanding of the importance—and effectiveness—of getting vaccinated.
Some of the plots to overturn the election happened in secret. But don’t forget the ones that unfolded in the open.
Last year, John Eastman, whom CNN describes as an attorney working with Donald Trump’s legal team, wrote a preposterous memo outlining how then–Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the 2020 election by fiat or, failing that, throw the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans could install Trump in office despite his loss to Joe Biden. The document, which was first reported by the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their new book, is a step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of the United States through a preposterous interpretation of legal procedure.
Pence apparently took the idea seriously—so seriously, in fact, that, according to Woodward and Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle had to talk him out of it. Prior to November, the possibility of Trump attempting a coup was seen as the deranged fever dream of crazed liberals. But as it turns out, Trump and his advisers had devised explicit plans for reversing Trump’s loss. Republican leaders deliberately stoked election conspiracy theories they knew to be false, in order to lay a political pretext for invalidating the results. Now, more than 10 months after the election, the country knows of at least five ways in which Trump attempted to retain power despite his defeat.
The Illinois representative thought the GOP was filled with democracy-loving internationalists. Now he sees the party as a corrupt shell of itself.
In each edition of my newsletter, I’ll bring readers inside The Atlantic, and discuss the issues that concern us the most. Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here to get future issues of Notes from the Editor in Chief.
Political courage is a fascinating phenomenon, particularly at moments when it is largely absent. Which is why I’m so interested in the imperiled career of Representative Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican who has described Donald Trump’s demagogy for what it is—a danger to the republic—and who possesses spine enough to excoriate members of his own party for succumbing to Trump’s imbecilic authoritarianism.
As Anne Applebaum described so well in her Atlantic cover story last year, “We all feel the urge to conform; it is the most normal of human desires.” Her essay, “History Will Judge the Complicit,” made the argument that collaboration, and not dissent, is the default posture of frightened humans, including and especially careerist politicians. Dissent can often lead to social and political death (and sometimes, physical death), and, as we’ve learned in the months following the insurrection of January 6, most Republicans would sooner cast people like Kinzinger into the wilderness than risk ostracism.
After last year’s eerie lull, flu viruses could be poised to return packing a bigger punch.
On Saturday morning, I finally rolled up my sleeve for the vaccine I’d been waiting for all summer: my annual flu shot, a technological marvel that I opt to receive every fall.
During non-pandemic times, the flu vaccine is a hot autumn commodity that holds a coveted place in the public-health spotlight. As of late, though, the shot’s been eclipsed by the prominence of its COVID-blocking cousins, fueled by debates over boosters and mandates. It’s also been a while since we’ve had to tussle with the flu directly. Thanks to the infection-prevention measures the world took to fight SARS-CoV-2 when the pandemic began, many other respiratory viruses vanished. Last winter, we essentially had “no flu season at all,” Florian Krammer, a virologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, told me. The human attention span is short; the flu’s brief sabbatical might have purged it from our minds at an inopportune time.
The jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of America’s local hierarchies.
American wealth and power usually have a certain look: glass-walled penthouse apartments in glittering urban skyscrapers, sprawling country mansions, ivy-covered prep schools, vacation homes in the Hamptons. These are the outward symbols of an entrenched oligarchy, the political-economic ruling class portrayed by the media that entertains us and the conspiracy theories that animate the darker corners of the American imagination.
The reality of American wealth and power is more banal. The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct. When he crowed about his “beautiful boaters,” lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honor, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.
The pandemic keeps changing, but these principles can guide your thinking through the seasons to come.
Updated at 9:28 a.m. on September 21, 2021.
For nearly two years now, Americans have lived with SARS-CoV-2. We know it better than we once did. We know that it can set off both acute and chronic illness, that it spreads best indoors, that masks help block it, that our vaccines are powerful against it. We know that we can live with it—that we’re going to have to live with it—but that it can and will exact a heavy toll.
Still, this virus has the capacity to surprise us, especially if we’re not paying attention. It is changing all the time, a tweak to the genetic code here and there; sometimes, those tweaks add up to new danger. In a matter of weeks, the Delta variant upended the relative peace of America’s early summer and ushered in a new set of calculations about risk, masking, and testing. The pandemic’s endgame shifted.
Eventually we might all have to deal with COVID-19—but a shorter, gentler version, thanks to vaccines.
Boghuma Kabisen Titanji was just 8 years old when the hyper-contagious virus swept through her classroom. Days later, she started to feel feverish, and developed a sparse, rosy rash. Three years after being fully dosed with the measles vaccine, one of the most durably effective immunizations in our roster, Titanji fell ill with the very pathogen her shots were designed to prevent.
Her parents rushed her to a pediatrician, worried that her first inoculations had failed to take. But the doctor allayed their fears: “It happens. She’ll be fine.” And she was. Her fever and rash cleared up in just a couple of days; she never sickened anyone else in her family. It was, says Titanji, now an infectious-disease physician and a researcher at Emory University, a textbook case of “modified” measles, a rare post-vaccination illness so mild and unthreatening that it doesn’t even deserve the full measles name.
These words came from an elderly woman sitting behind me on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The plane was dark and quiet. A man I assumed to be her husband murmured almost inaudibly in response, something to the effect of “I wish I was dead.”
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started.
There are no simple rules for timing on a third jab—but maybe don’t rush it.
After a long and tense meeting today, an FDA committee unanimously recommended that the agency authorize third shots of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for Americans who are over 65 or at high risk of severe COVID. The vote came after the panel voted overwhelmingly against the original question up for its consideration: authorizing boosters for everyone over 16. If the FDA follows the committee’s recommendation (as is expected), a CDC committee will help refine those guidelines next week, clarifying which groups qualify as “high risk.”
Even as we await these final decisions, the nation’s summer wave of COVID infections seems like it’s beginning to pass. Cases and hospitalizations are trending slightly downward. Now that we have more clarity about whether (and which) Americans need booster shots—and given that so many people are already getting boosters, eligibility be damned—more questions loom: When, exactly, should those people get those shots? Is it better to load up on extra antibodies as soon as possible, or should people wait until COVID rates start to rise again?
If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?
Illustrations by Guillem Casasús / Renderings by Borja Alegre
This article was published online on September 23, 2020.
There is a cohort of close observers of our presidential elections, scholars and lawyers and political strategists, who find themselves in the uneasy position of intelligence analysts in the months before 9/11. As November 3 approaches, their screens are blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb. They see the obvious signs that we all see, but they also know subtle things that most of us do not. Something dangerous has hove into view, and the nation is lurching into its path.
The danger is not merely that the 2020 election will bring discord. Those who fear something worse take turbulence and controversy for granted. The coronavirus pandemic, a reckless incumbent, a deluge of mail-in ballots, a vandalized Postal Service, a resurgent effort to suppress votes, and a trainload of lawsuits are bearing down on the nation’s creaky electoral machinery.