THE SILVER LINING
By Thomas Sullivan
The Montréal Review, April 2011
"The Fourth of July 1916" by
Childe Frederic Hassam
Hello. I hope that retirement is treating you well. This correspondence is both an apology and an expression of gratitude. I know that you are busy preparing to become a motivational speaker, so I will endeavor to keep it short.
First, the apology. I was among those who derided you for stating "I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me." In my column at the Tampa Sentinel I wrote that your comment was "a madman's self-aggrandizing claim to divine intervention." But in the ensuing years your prophecy has proven to be true. You were right. The nation did need you, and desperately. Please allow me to explain.
Since World War II we have spent untold billions on efforts to overthrow and forcibly reshape a number of nations. Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980's, and so forth. These actions have resulted in immense pain and hardship for people around the world. No one ever asked us to do this, we just decided for some reason that we were exceptionally good people who should be in charge of directing the world. We simply assumed it was an appropriate thing to do. It was a lot like The Brady Bunch, where the wise patriarch (Mike) struggles to keep six kids, a wife, and a cheeky housekeeper in line while holding down an important job as an architect. Well, okay, it was similar to that show, but without any humor or happy endings.
But our actions were always undertaken secretively, like a father spanking an unruly child behind closed curtains so that the neighbors don't see. And they were carried out in a manner that ensured maximum deniability and minimal American casualties, if any. But then we got lazy and sloppy just around the time someone invented the television. Who knows why this is -- perhaps LBJ was thinking of JFK and got distracted by fantasies of having an actresses serenade him on his birthday as well. As a result, the fiasco in Vietnam became a well publicized exception, allowing American citizens to peek into the dark basement of our government's foreign policy. But our leaders learned from that mistake and the door was quickly shut. And closed it may have remained had you not heeded your celestial call to service. Those of us in the opposition, and perhaps you yourself, did not realize that you were being directed to reopen that door.
And fling it open you did. Quickly we found ourselves embroiled in two wars of "reconstruction". The ratings-hungry press kept cheering you on, but the rest of us sat by and watched as generals, presidents, ambassadors, special envoys, and puppets squabbled like college freshman blundering through a group project. Meanwhile the pain became immeasurable, the cost staggering, the damage to life and property too long to list. And not just over there in the desert, but on the home front as well. Get a load of this -- here in my hometown we have been reduced to shutting off most of the streetlights and our police force is down to two people, a husband-and-wife team strangely enough (I think it saves the city on health care costs). Our high schools are implementing computer based programs so that classrooms can hold up to sixty kids without violating class-size laws. Many of us are beginning to suspect that our nation is cannibalizing itself to pay for our wars. But on the other hand, we thank our lucky stars that we aren't in Iraq , which is now broiling under 100-plus degree heat with almost no electricity and is still reeling from daily car bombings.
Quite simply, our ego and our sense of superiority have been damaged. Deeply, deeply damaged. And for that we should be grateful. I know that sounds strange, given that pain and misery are usually unwelcome things, so let me elaborate.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it's also true that it takes a tragedy to raise a nation. Ours is a proudly inventive country, but also one that moves forward primarily when forced to by catastrophes. Hence, once enough children lose fingers to a cotton loom, we ban child labor. Only after the system melts down (again) do we get serious about reigning in financial abuses. We ignore leaking pipelines in "insignificant", faraway places filled with elk herds munching on grass until a well explodes in the Lower 48. And so on. But somehow, in some way, a big and brutally painful lesson arrives and we take heed. Like the Germans and Japanese before us, we have now been handed our lesson about the tragic perils of invasion and war. And with shattered men and women coming home to a stagnant economy, we have finally learned that wars have no heroic victors, only victims.
But we couldn't have done it without you! We needed someone to fire up the pain machine so we could grow (like my high-school football coach used to say, "No pain, no gain"). You listened, took to the difficult job with vigor, and gave us exactly what we needed, though through all the resulting acrimony you may not realize it. We owe you our gratitude.
The preeminent rock band Poison once sang that "Every rose has its thorn." I now realize that a corollary to this insight exists - that every thorn has it rose. These wars are thorns that remain stuck in our side, but one day we'll pluck out those irksome barbs and steer clear of the pricker bushes for good. And then a beautiful rose of wisdom and knowledge will surely burst forth.
I also recognize that I owe you an apology for what I wrote. It was a confusing time for me personally, being assigned by my editor to cover the phenomenal rise of Pets.com when so many other important things were going on. But mostly I lacked the foresight necessary to see the lesson plan unfolding, and that is no excuse for the personal nature of my attack. So in conclusion, I ask for your understanding.
Best wishes and thank you for your time.
The Tampa Sentinel (defunct)
Thomas Sullivan's writing has appeared in Arts&Opinion and 3AM Magazine, among others. He is the author of Life In The Slow Lane, a memoir about teaching driver education. For information on this title, please visit his author website at http://thomassullivanhumor.com .