Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Megalopolis

When I was maybe 10 or 11, I went with my family at night up into the mountains above Santa Fe. Old enough to watch horror movies, I knew this couldn't end well. The broken, wooden National Forest Service sign was warning enough. Beyond here were murderous hitchhikers, desert death cults, Indian burial grounds.

Yet what I saw when my mother finally parked the car, high up on a mountain road, chilled me far more than anything I'd seen in a theater. Above me extended a vast expanse almost milky with stars, more than I'd ever seen, framed on all sides by icy mountains and 80 foot tall, silhouette-black pines.

Stunning, yes, but I knew I was standing at the gateway to something incomprehensibly vast and formless, so much bigger, so much emptier than anything else I'd seen in my young life. And like a chasm, t threatened to swallow me into its infinity.

I ran back into the car, into the comfortable domesticity of upholstery and blinking LEDs and familiar electronic pings and cookie crumbs.

It wasn't until I was 18, in a college classroom, that I learned that there was a term for this, the sublime, a coinage of Edmund Burke, who contrasted it to the beautiful, in much the same way it would later be contrasted with the beautiful by countless conservative thumb-twiddlers who shared Burke's enthusiasm for establishment Protestantism and the free market.

As I've grown older, I've learned to appreciate that which dwarfs me, and, 200 years on, discovered that the sublime and the beautiful are not mutually exclusive. If anything, I find that the irrational and the overwhelming interest me far more than anything that suggests a divine order to the universe.

And yet that sense of massiveness and terror of the void comes at me to this day, at times when I don't expect it. I see it when I'm walking through desolate parking lots surrounded by 40-story towers at midnight, when coming out of my office on a rainy early evening into a dimly lit alleyway, high walls around me on all sides.

Or, most profoundly, when I land in one of the great Asian megacities by night. You are surrounded by half-darkness, and then suddenly it looms before you. Lights blink in icy blue marking the runways, with the cityspace cut up by massive highways illuminated with yellow sodium-vapor lamps, dotted with cranes marking the ever-expanding skyline.

But somehow they remain obscure. How many Americans have heard of Dongguan, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Wuhan in China, or Bekasi or Medan in Indonesia?

I take a commuter train out of Bangkok into the suburbs, where the contradictions between the old Asia and the new are at their sharpest.

The megacity is without profile or shape, without boundary save arbitrary political edges, primarily erected in the past 30 years or so as part of the mass influx of rural populations. They are places of constantly pouring concrete, of dusty lots and rickety scaffoldings, farmers' fields interspersed with eight-story buildings.

The handful of fugitive slums in Bangkok line canals and railway tracks out on these peripheries, and are built of sheet metal and often old billboards, including-- with no apparent irony-- those with the smiling faces of political candidates and cheery slogans about developing the nation.

Across a cinder-block wall, a few inches and several magnitudes of income away, a new gated community rises up, with fountains and avenues of royal palms. The identical houses are built in white concrete with wedding-cake baroque ornamentation and massive reflective glass windows, the architectural answer to a Bach cantata played as elevator music.

In the old center, the city groans under its weight. Old shophouses with wooden windows abut crystalline shopping centers along traffic-clogged streets below elevated metro lines. Everything is atop everything else. I sit down at a cafe slotted into the megacity's core. The exposed pipes and butcher block are intended to mirror a loft space, an attempt at a cozy spot in Brooklyn or London on a cold winter morning rendered in a shopping zone in the sweltering tropics, one simulation in an infinite sequence.

It's hard not to read the megacity as a harbinger of doom of some sort, whether spiritual or environmental or social. It's no accident that in previous eras, Friedrich Engels visited Victorian Manchester and saw in it the breeding grounds for the communist revolution he saw erupting from the inherent contradictions of an industrial society. Émile Zola documented the overgrown Paris of the corrupt Second Empire and personified it as a contemptuous courtesan named Nana-- a name later given to a spermy neighborhood in central Bangkok-- who meets her end as "a shovelful of putrid flesh." And these days, countless journalists and scientists look at smog-choked Beijing and parched Cairo and see nothing but incipient catastrophe.

One's imagination takes flight at the elaborate corpses our current cities will leave. It's remarkably easy to see the collapse of the metropolis in the mind's eye. One imagines Dhaka washed into the rising Bay of Bengal, massive housing developments uninhabited and rusting in South China, the glass and steel skeleton of Abu Dhabi underneath shifting dunes.

The reality of it will probably be far less interesting. Given the cheapness of contemporary building materials, the ruins of megacities will probably form a mass of glass and concrete, rust stains and seeping oil. And somehow it seems fitting that the largest habitations the world ever knew, erected so fast, will dissipate equally fast. The modern city becomes entropy itself.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Stendhal's Ghost

I'm not sure when I first found out about Stendhal, or heard the name Stendhal, but I remember the first time I recognized Stendhal as such, it was when I was a teenager in Italy, en route from Pisa to Florence, and I read for the first time about Stendhal Syndrome, the condition-- named for the writer upon his visit to Florence-- in which the sufferer is so overwhelmed by the beauty of his or her surroundings that he or she becomes physically ill.

As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (that same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of the nerves); the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.

But it wasn't until I was 21 that I read Le Rouge et le Noir, a novel that read much more like a soap opera than I would have expected. And for the next few months, I became haunted by references to Stendhal, and references to his protagonist, Julien Sorel. In books, in magazines, I found the names again and again. Or to the concurrence of the red and the black-- which in the novel, were supposed to symbolize the split between the liberal trends spearheaded by the nascent bourgeoisie and the conservative theocratic elements in France during the gloomy, reactionary days of the Bourbon Restoration. Or a bottle of chartreuse at a posh bar reminded me of Stendhal's other major work, La Chartreuse du Parme. References birthed other references. All led back to Stendhal.

"Stendhal's ghost is following me," I said to no one in particular.

In our lives we are haunted by names, objects, allusions. We hear old songs again and again, see a certain beat up Saab all over town, learn the names of architectural features or obscure household items. And then they're everywhere.

It turns out that there is a name for this-- the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, named for the terror organization founded by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof that briefly terrorized West Germany in the 1970s and later made famous by an Oscar-nominated film. Someone-- no one seems quite sure who-- heard of them, and saw them everywhere.

One could argue that this is an epiphenomenon of the archival nature of the contemporary world. Social media, news aggregator sites, links upon links, and viral videos all form a deluge of raw information, and it seems ever more likely that we are susceptible to the phenomenon.

But we've always lived in information-saturated environments. The only difference is that now this environment is something we can explicitly categorize as information. Before we interpreted the world in terms of Google Maps and Twitter, we interpreted it in terms of northward flying geese, the whorl of a sunflower, the slow movement of Cepheus across the night sky.

Did our remote ancestors experience this? Did they suddenly notice the way a certain kind of quartz veins its way through the rock? Did they find that an orchid only grew on the shady side of a tree?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On Reverie

I had gone to see a late movie, and I was wandering around, bored, alone, anxious. I wound up at a chain Japanese restaurant, even though I wasn't that hungry. To sit down in a well-lit place with vinyl booths and the air conditioning turned on too high, to stare at the reflection of hanging lights against dark glass, I knew, would somehow make me less miserable. It wasn't until I finally sat down that I realized I was trying to place myself in an Edward Hopper painting, one I used to stare at as a child in the art museum in Des Moines.


And yet I feel infinitely more alone when I'm communicating through a computer. Seeing the social world as a shimmering holograph beyond the room in which I'm sitting, it becomes so easy to deceive myself into thinking that the rest of the world lives a happier, more normal life. Either that, or my thoughts devolve into schadenfreude, and I turn the people just beyond my reach into the dumbest, most grotesque, most pathetic people I've ever encountered. Or both. I look at the happy couple and think how hideous their children must be.

A true solitude, one that doesn't keep other people at arm's length, seems at times to be increasingly rare. It is the solitude of reading a physical book, of writing in a notepad, of a long hike in the mountains.

Many things have been said by intellectuals and writers in support of this kind of solitude-- that it improves cognitive capabilities, that it allows for greater empathy by providing a yardstick for one's social world, that it heightens human perception.

What seems unsaid is that it provides a sort of freedom to wander around inside one's own mind without having to vocalize it, without having to attempt to communicate or try to impress someone. An error in grammar, a flawed perception, a socially unacceptable attitude, a flight into self-indulgence, vanity, lust, animal instinct, awkward comment, difficult to articulate subtleties, questionable abstractions, excessive bitterness, or sheer rapture. When one is alone, there is no contradiction between emotion and outward demeanor, between express communication and inward thought. Instead, the solitary reader or writer or walker is free to explore the relationships between all of these things, between one's own thoughts and what one perceives of as a "personality."

The impulse of reverie is akin to that of play. Yet as an adult, to simply "play," as it were, seems odd and regressive and antisocial, and it's hard to delink the word from any kind of sexual connotation. Ditto the word "fantasy." Outside of certain channels (explicit sexual desire, work-oriented goals, the less nerdish hobbies), to occupy the dreamy recesses of the mind, even for a short period, seems narcissistic, escapist, infantile, or some combination thereof.

Which in turn leads me to a terrible guilt, that I'm refusing to live my own life, or-- what is worse-- that I'm trapped in a narcissist's mirror maze, and the entire world reflects back onto myself, imitating love and solidarity, but never actually realizing either.

But I can't deny that to enter into reverie, and what's more, to keep it in a state of solitude, to refuse anyone else into it, remains therapeutic.

I take out my pen and write down a page no one will ever see, one I will never see again.

And I fold up the paper, drop it in the trash can, start walking home through long arcades, lights swarming with moths, and suddenly I find I'm smiling again.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Life During Wartime

Yesterday, as I spent the afternoon sitting in the park reading a book, a grenade was lobbed by an unknown party into a crowd of protesters at the Victory Monument, a few minutes' walk down the street, injuring 30.

It's a cliche to say that in times of war, one should live life as normal, so as to not "let the terrorists win." And there's truth there-- after all, we run countless risks in our ordinary lives without thinking it, and besides, we need to live our lives regardless.

Over the past week or so, the streets have turned into ghostly, empty passageways leading to the loci of mass protest sites, barricaded by piles of tires and guarded by militants wearing bandannas and armbands covered in slogans. The tension has been there.

But when the additional threat of unknown and unknowable violence, committed by unknown parties who seem tied to neither camp in the current political fracas, the tension turns to fear, and that spot on Ratchawithee Road becomes blackened dread.

Terrorists, it's typically argued, use the methods of terror to project their voice. And a good Foucauldian would also say that it's a claim of biopower, the use of dead bodies for political means. But what often seems ignored is the spatial dimension, the way the active group crudely hacks out a piece of landscape. It's not for themselves, it's not claimed territory.

And when the terror itself is not claimed, there is no voice. The bomb site is pure threat, a scar across the face of the city.

It has been suspected that the leaders of the protest and their well-placed supporters among Thailand's commercial and aristocratic elite are using Reichstag tactics to levy public opinion, or to force a military takeover of the government. But there is no evidence for this, and I doubt any will arise. And as for the government's forces, they have no interest in creating chaos-- the police are being held back, and all they want is their electoral victory in a few weeks' time.

But it's this unknowability that reflects the polygonal nature of the Thai body politic. The international media, along with the more partisan members of the local media, depict a simplistic picture of two groups, red and yellow, in favor of Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai government and the legacy of the Thaksin government before her versus those against them. But you have a broad range, including red shirts who have been disappointed by Yingluck's tenure and by the self-righteous populist hucksters in the Pheu Thai party, swaths of the PDRC group led by Suthep Thaugsuban who find Suthep himself to be ungainly and corrupt, the hardcore supporters at either end, the former supporters of Suthep who are bothered by his increasingly unbending and anti-democratic demands, the hardline monarchists with their hateful phobias of modernity and egalitarianism, and you have the vast body of Thais who are alienated by the whole damn thing. Now compound this with the machine politics of the Thai parliament in which invisible lines of patronage and clientelism dominate, with cliques led by thuggish big men, old alliances formed in boys' boarding schools and military college graduating classes and century-old Chinese immigrant business alliances and common lines of descent from illustrious ancestors.

This big something, so much messier and more disparate than the 24-hour news cycle is willing to admit, creates a situation where it becomes entirely unsurprising that some cabal somewhere, meeting in the soft-lit halls of power, is willing to hand a few thousand baht to some poor peasant or out-of-work builder to lunge a bomb into a crowd on a bright Sunday afternoon.

And I know I am still the outsider to it all, the youthful foreigner who only half understands the signs and speeches in their original language.

But the notion of an outsider's perspective having any value at all seems to be at present roundly dismissed. Yes, the media perspective has been shoddy. But the PDRC has been accusing any journalist who asks hardball questions, or, for that matter, questions the wisdom of ousting a democratically elected government, as being a Yingluck supporter. Keep in mind these are the same people who tried to commandeer the media and force them to only broadcast the news from their perspective a month ago, and who lack any apparent sense of irony.

But the thing is, when outsiders are told they cannot understand an issue because of their nationality, rather than taking this a stern rebuke, they tend to be reminded of the rants of Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, of the apologists for workers' rights abuses in Dubai and Singapore, and if we're to be a bit melodramatic, of the darkest moments of 20th Century Europe.

As I walk to work, I'm haunted by two specters: that of the authoritarianism that threatens to strangle me, and that of the terrorism that threatens to bleed me out in the street.

And that authoritarianism and that terrorism are united in their opacity. I'm living in a city that seems to be blanketed in a heavy fog of disinformation and violence. In a bit of jargon that George Orwell would have been proud of, a military spokesman, when asked about the tanks being held in Bangkok, answered that "the matter will be further explained on a later date."

When will it be resolved? The government has set an election date-- knowing full well they can expect a victory-- for the 2nd of February, but maybe that will be delayed. The PDRC refuses to negotiate, demanding an people's council (read: junta), and the more extreme members of his camp are suggesting scare tactics like shutting down all air control in Thailand. I'm reminded of the little boy who refuses to share his toy, and when asked to, simply smashes it against the wall.

For now, all I see in the future is awfulness. Even in the scenario I want to happen-- a peaceable election-- we will in all likelihood, see high emotions and ineffectual governance. The reforms needed will be difficult to pass and even more difficult to  implement. Democracy can flourish in Thailand, but until then, I sleep in a war zone.

Monday, January 6, 2014

In Din Daeng

My friends live in other neighborhoods throughout the city. In Thong Lo ("Golden Forge"), with its glittering cocktail bars and valet-parked Porsches, in Aree ("Generosity") with its tiny cafes and elegant mid-century homes, its warm colors and banana trees. But here, in Din Daeng ("Red Earth"), the city expresses itself as a blank zone, colorless and without shape.

Not too long ago, I went to an exhibition of photos of ordinary street life in Bangkok, most of which was rather anodyne, the sort of thing you see in tourist guides... street vendors frying chicken, beaming classical dancers in golden dresses, monks with alms bowls, all of them counterpointed against something like a businesswoman on an iPhone to indicate the juxtaposition of traditional and modern. But also on display were the photos of Rong Wong-Savun, a sort of Thai Walker Evans, depicting my neighborhood as it once was.



In the early '60s, at the height of the first Bangkok construction boom, the National Housing Authority redeveloped the old dumping ground on the northern outskirts of the city in the Robert Moses mode. The NHA tore down the slums, and in their stead, five-story housing blocks, akin to the khrushchyovka apartments built in the USSR in the same period, rose up with modern angles and white walls.


Nowadays, Din Daeng is to Bangkok what Southwest DC or certain areas of South London are to their respective countries-- a cast-concrete backwater at the heart of the national capital. From the window of a taxi, the apartment blocks continue for what seem like miles, the doors of identical buildings illuminated by floodlights, lining street after street, interspersed with minor government ministries, the overpasses and brick walls sprayed with angry political slogans.

On a closer level, Din Daeng is the migrant workers that smoke cigarettes from tenement windows, it is discount mu katha restaurants with mournful upcountry songs playing over the grilling of meat, it is the exhaust clouds over Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, it is the harmlessly insane woman who dances to the music in her head all day in front of her family's shop at the bottom of my street.

Why then, do I choose to live there? A lot of foreigners who live in obscure Bangkok neighborhoods praise their authenticity and friendliness. And there's a truth in that. I have my coffee lady, my washerwoman, my satay man who always makes the same dumb joke about not hitting my head on the aluminum hood over his stall. But "authenticity" is a problematic concept at best. And while there are genial people for sure, there are also the meth gangs that sit around chain-smoking and practicing their tough sneers, and lately, the tear-gas clouds that covered the area after political violence on Mit Maitri ("Friendly Relations") Road.

We build up slow relationships to the spaces we occupy through our daily and repeated motions, whether they're relationships of love, or hate, or neither. My walk to the metro stop or the supermarket slowly fixes my relation to the city I live in, as the infinitesimal motion of coral polyps builds a reef.

I can, when protected by a thin layer of capital, move from place to place, and have done so any number of times, happily. Many others in this globalized era do so without that, with only an empty stomach and the hope of a job in Dubai or Los Angeles or Hong Kong. But it's hard to be truly adrift, to not have some link to place. And for this moment, I have found that link. I wake up, and the corner of the city that I see from my bedroom window is familiar to the point of intimacy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

National Anthem

My moto was stopped as we crossed the barracks that lent the Sanam Pao ("target range") BTS station its name. As the national anthem began to play, my driver, like everyone else in plein-air, immediately stopped. Three soldiers stood at attention, rifles at their sides, facing an arrangement of flags-- that of the king, that of the queen, that of the nation, before the rising eastern sun.

Like many other expatriates in Bangkok, I've come to bristle at the playing of the national anthem, a product of 1930s fascism in both its origins and spirit, with lyrics referring to blood and soil that very much fit the ethos of Field Marshal Phibun's tinpot tropical reich.

The bells that precede the anthem's play-- 8 AM and 6 PM sharp, another remnant of the Phibun era-- are Pavlovian at this point. I want nothing more than to run away and hide to someplace where I don't have to stand at attention, to prostrate myself as a gesture towards the nationalism I have always hated.

Of course, lots of foreigners in Bangkok maintain a principled contempt for the Thai national anthem, the hollow rituals that accompany it, the militant veneration of nationalist ideology, and the various flavors of gloomy propaganda pushed by Ministry of Culture bureaucrats. I certainly sympathize.

But, when so many of these Westerners are interrogated, they seem to be under the delusion that this ideology is essential and unchanging, and that an undefined "culture" prevents the citizens of the nation from actually possessing the capacity for critical thought. It's the same perspective found among British colonialists in pre-partition India (it's all caste, don't you see, if we leave there won't be a virgin left between Calcutta and Karachi) and Halliburton functionaries in the America-damaged sections of the Middle East (Islam makes them think this way, the Arab mind hates democracy). Though to be fair, what I find especially galling about the local version of this sort of intellectual imperialism is simply that I have to deal with it on a near-daily basis, so it pisses me off more, natch.

Now, there are also Westerners whose practice goes in the opposite direction, who are at pains to adopt Thai ways, and decry modernization and urbanization as a loss of "Thainess." These are the same Westerners who wai obsequiously at every turn, who are at near-constant pains to show off their (lousy) Thai language skills, and who attempt, with starry-eyed naivete, to adopt Buddhist practice.

Both of these approaches reflect fundamentally orientalist understandings. Yet both can speak to higher virtues on one level-- of iconoclasm, and of cross-cultural understanding, respectively-- but are bogged down as their practitioners let their unbending convictions obfuscate the messy complexities of human existence.

And, fundamentally, both are seen through the lens of the Western expatriate's single-minded pursuit of pleasure. What you hear being bitched about in Sukhumvit Road pubs by expats of both persuasions are the most superficial goddamn things: excessive fees imposed upon foreigners, the Asiatic obsession with fair skin. You don't hear those expats bitching so much about, say, the virtual enslavement of Burmese migrant workers, the Charoen Pokphand Group's near-criminal push towards American-style industrial agriculture, or the prawn farms that are destroying miles of the Gulf of Thailand coast. No, they get rankled by the incidentals that deny them the gloss of white privilege that they cling onto as their claimed birthright, much like the dispossessed aristocrats in interwar-period England trying to maintain their gentility.

I don't mean to tar every Westerner in Thailand with the same brush. Some of them are, even, ostensibly, close friends of mine. And these are the ones who haven't chosen either of the two above paths. They tend to be pragmatic, thoughtful, and cosmopolitan. Much like the people I try to surround myself with wherever I go.

But it is one of the central questions of living overseas. You are forced to ask yourself who you are, what your beliefs are, what your assumptions are, how to balance personal integrity with larger-scale respect.

And those questions are drawn into even sharper relief when the streets of your city are filled with marching demonstrators waving national flags and chanting slogans, when the people you knew as your florist, as your noodle vendor are out with colored armbands. When government buildings are being stormed, when students are being shot, when dismal demagogues like the red-clad Jatuporn Prompan and the yellow-clad Suthep Thaugsuban attempt to commandeer the national media outlets, when all the talk is of a "people's council" (a phrase that summons up the sound of boots in synchronized march on dusty boulevards, of slit throats and dumped bodies in the mangroves).

And those questions make me nervous about even writing this, about my position as an outsider-- after all, it wasn't long ago that an esteemed member of parliament from Chumphon Province led a crowd to assault a German photographer for being too nosy. I'm a bit anxious, but I know I'll be far more anxious if I simply remain in silence, or restrict myself to grumbling in the pub with the other Westerners.

So I write something, in order to palliate my doubts, in order to make peace with the place I've chosen to inhabit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

American Airplanes

The American airplanes that once flew over this part of the world have long since departed. Once they filled the sky in olive-green flocks, but now we only have remnants.



A concrete strip is cut into an island in the South China Sea. Chemical plumes lace the groundwater of Manila, Saigon, and Khorat. Horizontal concrete hotels stand in Southeast Asian cities, their bars paneled in wood with potted palms and velvet drapes, Jim Beam and Bacardi blended into tropical drinks for lieutenant's wives.



And of course the strips of bars with names like "Oriental Nights" where girls in pink fishnet stockings and go-go boots have been catcalling for decades, the sorts of places where Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken pointed guns at their heads, in towns where dislocated children with hazel eyes are born into uncertainty.



Sometimes the American airplanes were applauded. Other times they got spat on. And on the coraline islands of Vanuatu, they inspired the holy devotion of Melanesian fisherfolk.



Some of the Americans stayed. Others left and came back. You see the old men who live in concrete houses with local wives in old air-base towns like Nakhon Phanom and Udon Thani, or laughing over a seven-and-seven in the secret military bar on Sathon Tai in Bangkok.

Or you see them in sadder places, in sleazy pink-lit bars on Sukhumvit 22, eyes fixed in the middle distance, a Tiger beer in one hand and a slowly burning Marlboro in the other, and maybe they've got a greasy, thin burger made with gristly local beef on a chipped plate, cold fries going limp in a pool of ketchup. You see them leering in sleazy nightclubs where they listen to a band play covers of contemporary pop songs they can't stand.

And when they've reached their end you see them at the embassy in crooked sunglasses and a baseball cap that says U.S.S. NEW JERSEY, pushed around in a wheelchair by a Thai or Filipina wife who hates them, American children who pity them, signing their will.

Do you know what you're signing? the embassy official says.

The American airplanes came to Asia at a time when America was at its blindly optimistic industrial peak, when you could call Detroit "the Arsenal of Democracy" without smirking. The photos of the pilots are as bright-eyed and apple-cheeked as the Waltons.


They left Cambodia and Laos as UXO-riddled kingdoms of ghosts, Vietnam as a by-word for disaster, a legacy of hundreds of thousands of midnight murders in Indonesia, full-hearted support for the corrupt thugs running Thailand and the Philippines.

The lazy analogy is to call the Americans "cowboys"-- it's inapplicable, and yet somehow legions of clueless French and Germans still buy it-- but to be a cowboy implies self-sufficiency and a ruggedly individual spirit.

On the contrary, the American military machine in Asia in the mid-20th Century was just that, a machine, scientific in its approach, with lessons learned from cybernetics and systems engineering. War was laid out by men like the accountant Robert McNamara and the policy man Henry Kissinger, men in nerdish glasses, applying Taylorist principles of management to destruction and violent death.


And the ruins are accordingly mechanical: sulfur and phosphorus, carbon steel and vulcanized rubber. Even the food of Fordist America remains in the Carnation condensed milk poured into the coffee cups of Vientiane, in the Spam pressed into rice in Guam, in the slashed hot dogs on skewers offered as a street snack in Phuket.

But for me, the young American, it is now an antique society, existing in the same amber haze of history that cloaks belle-époque Paris and Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Things that, to a generation previous, were part of childhood TV broadcasts are now as horses and buggies.

And so, perhaps one day, I'll have nieces and nephews writing about the waning days of the imperial American urge. About their conversations with a Kurdish taxi driver, or their visit to a Pakistani town destroyed by drones. Atrocity is immediate. The process of history lets the act of killing unfold into a million subtleties.