Back when I was a kid, we had this thing called the Cold War. And it was awful and we were all going to die in a nuclear firestorm and blah blah blah. Except if you were a nerd; then it was amazing, because the Soviets had their gadgets and their planes and their tanks and we had our gadgets and our planes and our tanks and you could read about them and learn about all the details and the semi-classified procedures and understand how things worked. And it gave us Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts and all those guys. In fact, if you overlooked the thousands of nukes pointed at us, it was pretty great for a nerd.
Now it seems like Russia would like to be the bad guy again: Vladimir Putin has taken over the Crimea, is menacing Eastern Ukraine, and is talking greedily about Estonia. We put up sanctions, they put up sanctions, it’s a new Cold War, writ small.
Those Halcyon Cold War Days
I can remember many a Saturday when 13-year-old Wade was sitting in the food court at the mall, talking about the cool Cold War gadgets. Were the Typhoon-class subs from Hunt for Red October better than our Ohio-class? Despite our distinct lack of knowledge of hydrodynamics, we were able to have a strong opinion on that. F-16 vs. MiG-29? Did you know that pilots actually called the F-16 the Viper? After the plane from Battlestar Galactica?
We’d dissect why US fighters were able to shoot down Libyan planes so easily (Top Gun training, natch; didn’t you remember the movie? Although those “MiG 28″s were so laughable — obviously American-made F-5s). Then we’d enjoy our oily, delicious pizza from that place across from the box office at the Rotunda. I’d load it up with chili flakes, while Alex would comment how the cheese was actually a little spicy all by itself.
For the preteen nerd, this was the life.
The New Cold War vs. The War Against Al Qaeda
Let’s face it, Al Qaeda simply doesn’t have any cool fighter planes, and nobody’s going to publish a spread on the Taliban’s new Toyota trucks with the homemade AK-47 mount1. They have no cool uniforms, or sinister secret police, or anything. Briefly, they had some semi-dorky videos. All they ever really offered was the possibility that somebody, right nearby you, was in fact out to get you.
I’ve worried greatly about the idea of my son growing up in this world of generic, nonspecific fear, which is how we’ve principally responded to Al Qaeda. They may attack anywhere! They may nuke some big city, despite not showing any evidence of any activity at all! Anything bad that’s unexplained may have been caused by them, for instance a plane crash! It’s like waiting in a quiet house at night to see where the boogeyman suddenly appears. I can’t believe that’s a healthy fear, and I always wonder what it does to a person, growing up with that message all around.
This hypervigilance strikes me as a kind of muri, or overburden, which is wasteful and destructive in Kaizen. The gemba of the fight against Al Qaeda is everywhere, so we must be ready, we must worry right now, about these things we see today; but the fight is also demonstrably not in most places, so this worry is wasted. In the Cold War, the gemba was… over there. Nice and far away. It was a fantasy to be covered in spy novels and what-if books, not a worry for every day2. This false perception that anything can happen anytime leads to states of excessive nervous system arousal that must be particularly burdensome to any preteen or teenage male.
And then there’s that whole “if it’s not Al Qaeda, it’s some other Muslim” thing, which is a topic for some other time, but also tremendously disturbing.
Anyway, the point is: worrying about a nice, conventional superpower that will act in generally predictable ways seems much healthier. And filled with much cooler things for a kid to think about. Like the SuperJet, the PAK-FA, even all the crazy Russian military and paramilitary camouflage patterns. I’m not sure that I hope a new Cold War is our future, but it seems nicer in some ways; and, if it is, I hope that my son can enjoy these geeky things!3