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.