Tell Me How This Ends
South of Najaf, Iraq in 2003, General David Petraeus asked the question which would serve as an early epitaph for the entire American misadventure in Iraq: “Tell me how this ends.” Today, Americans are asking the same question about a very different enemy.
Every so often, an event occurs which, like the receding of the tide, exposes the detritus left behind. As we watch the world pass by, day by day through the windows of our homes, Americans are being forced to confront the cracks increasingly present in the national façade. Even as our ship of state has taken on water, the lives of ordinary Americans receding further from the sunny shores, we have clung to narratives of exceptionalism, of a higher reality that existed over the horizon. As COVID reshapes our world and challenges our future, reality has taken the brunt of a bracing confrontation with myth. For if anything has been proven by the extraordinary events of the past two months, it is that the America we half-thought and half-hoped existed was a fading mirage. The COVID crisis has dissolved our recent perceptions in an acid bath and instead, America the fragile has stepped out the shower without a towel in sight. We can no longer pretend not to see the skeletal bones pushing through the national fabric.
Let’s start with the first myth that has died a brutal death: the myth of the industrial muscle of America, dormant, perhaps, but ready to be activated as it was in earlier days of war to flood the nation, and the world if need be, with goods. Sure, we exported the lower-end manufacturing, but ventilators? Medical tests? Medicine? High-caliber masks? Once we set our nation to production, we can solve any issue.
As it turns out, we can’t. The shareholder value revolution which swamped modern American industry congealed industries into ponderous goliaths, unable to supply the surge capacity to produce what the nation needs. Where we used to see in monopoly a dangerous concentration of production, we increasingly saw untrammeled efficiency instead. Yet efficiency has a strange way of looking like scarcity when need surges. Invoking Korean War-era statutes cannot reconstitute Korean War level industrial capacity any more than Canute could command the tides. Writing in 2007, journalist Barry Lynn observed: