Apparently, people who write titles for politico-military thrillers about nuclear brinksmanship find the language of The Star Spangled Banner just too good to resist. It must be the power of dark irony, to turn words of patriotic celebration into a warning for patriots. For example:
Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a 1977 drama starring Burt Lancaster as a renegade air force general who takes over a nuclear missile silo and threatens to start World War III unless the president, played by Charles Durning, releases a document to the public demonstrating the U.S. government’s bad faith in conducting the recently ended Vietnam War.
By Dawn’s Early Light, a made-for-TV film from 1990, spins a similarly Strangelovian tale, where the president played by Martin Landau tries to get control of the military from renegade officers seeking a pre-emptive strike against a late-Cold War Soviet Union.
And earlier this year novelist Greg Dinallo published Rockets’ Red Glare, a techno-thriller that imagined a connection between the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and a potential nuclear war at sea in the late 1980s.
Now, we can add to the list another Twilight’s Last Gleaming — this one a new novel of America’s decline and fall by John Michael Greer.
A silly little war
Greer is one of my favorite writers on peak oil and its impacts on American society. I’ve enjoyed the non-fiction books where Greer has drawn on history to show how economic and political turmoil caused in large part by high oil prices might bring American industrial civilization to a end.
In his books as well as on his popular blog, the Archdruid Report, Greer develops his theory of catabolic collapse, predicting that the American empire will not go out suddenly with a bang, but over time, with a whimper.
In his latest (and perhaps greatest) non-fiction work, Decline and Fall, the End of Empire and Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, published earlier this year, Greer offers a hint of the premise of his current novel — namely, that defeat in an overseas resource war could be enough to push today’s fragile American empire over the edge:
[After] a disastrous and unexpected military defeat…very nearly the only thing that maintains U.S. power, and the disproportionate share of the world’s wealth that is the payoff of that power, is our readiness to pound the bejesus out of Third World nations at the drop of a hat. If we lose that capacity, we could end up neck deep in serious trouble very quickly indeed. Yet the military downsides of America’s obsession with high-tech gizmos, in a world where complexity just gives the other guy more opportunities to mess with you, are taking shape in a wider context that has its own bad news to deliver to fans of U.S. global dominance.
Our oil under their soil
Greer’s new novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming is set about a decade in the future in a world much like today’s, but with more expensive oil and a more advanced rival for global supremacy — China.
The story opens with a familiar U.S. adventure to secure the resources of a Third World nation, in this case located in East Africa, that has just discovered a supergiant underwater oil field off its coast. The effort is made more urgent for the White House by advanced oil depletion.
The CIA is able to foment an insurgency against the government, giving the U.S. an excuse to invade. But after hostilities begin, things don’t go as planned. Covert intervention by the Chinese pulls American defeat from the jaws of victory and sets off a chain-reaction of military, political and economic disasters.
These threaten not merely nuclear annihilation for the world, but also, what might sound scarier to Americans, serious consequences back home: a Wall Street crash followed by massive inflation and civil unrest. Whether it all ends in a military coup, a modern-day civil war or worse is anybody’s guess.
Sharing much more of the plot would require a series of spoiler alerts. So suffice it to say that Greer’s story is true to the genre of the political thriller, gaining tension as one side’s tactical move is met by the other side’s surprise counter-move.
Peasants and presidents
Set in dozens of locales across the globe and featuring a cast of thousands including extras in the form of troops in battle or citizens at the polls, Greer’s rapid-fire narrative offers a stark contrast in style to one of my other favorite post-peak scenario spinners, James Howard Kunstler.
In his World Made by Hand trilogy, Kunstler imagines America after its collapse as a largely agrarian society that sounds a lot like the early nineteenth century. And he pictures this new-but-old society through the eyes of a single protagonist.
For example, the first book is narrated by Robert Earle, a former software executive turned carpenter, who interacts with a variety of memorable characters. Characters include Brother Jobe, the lovably creepy pastor of a community of evangelical refugees from the South who turn out to be pretty good neighbors in the upstate New York town of Union Grove and Wayne Karp, the flamboyant and sadistic boss of a junkyard colony outside of town who keeps his ragged followers in line with bread and circuses. Another book focuses on the beautiful clairvoyant healer known as the Witch of Hebron.
By contrast, Greer offers little of the character development that readers of literary fiction have come to expect. But while the reader gets to know only three or four of the story’s dozens of characters well enough to root for or against them, its fast-paced plot makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming a quick read that’s hard to put down.
The narrative adds realism through a wealth of detail from military lingo and descriptions of weapons systems, to glimpses into the workings of politics from the White House down to the legislature of a Midwestern state, to datelines that span the globe from an oil platform off the coast of Tanzania to the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. to a radar station in Shaanxi Province, China. (Though I wish Greer’s British publisher hadn’t misspelled the key dateline “Silver Springs[sic], Maryland,” a Beltway suburb favored by federal workers, in half a dozen subheadings.)
Overall, Greer’s extensive research makes the book credible. I hope its authoritative tone will help Twilight’s Last Gleaming make its way into the hands of the Capitol Hill types who really need to read this kind of cautionary tale against military adventurism, from Congressional aides to national security advisers.
The money shot
Given how Greer’s other books predict a grim future for America if we don’t start to change our wasteful domestic lifestyle and bullying foreign policy, it’s clear that any entertainment provided by the book’s plot is just sugaring the pill of the book’s lesson.
I don’t blame Greer for sounding a bit preachy at times — his opening section is titled “Hubris” to make sure readers don’t miss the point — since I agree with him that the value of humility and flexibility is a national lesson that Americans urgently need to learn.
In Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Greer puts this lesson into the mouths of one of his Chinese characters, a modern-day Sun Tzu who advises Beijing leadership how to overcome superior U.S. military power by exploiting ideological weakness in American politics.
Once they’ve begun a military venture, the political leaders don’t have the option of backing out if they fail to achieve their goals. To do that, even to advocate that, is enough to end a career or worse, because a nation that has only known victory can’t tolerate even the semblance of defeat. So, once committed, they keep on trying to achieve victory even when the only rational decision is to withdraw. Escalation has always worked for them in the past; more precisely, escalation has never caused them to lose, and so it’s the only thing they know how to do.
A skeptical reader may counter that Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan (the latter of which officially ended just today) hardly count as American victories. But these conflicts were at worst standoffs from which U.S. forces withdrew when we chose with little damage to America’s global standing and, aside from veterans and their families, little impact on the home front.
By contrast, Greer makes a plausible case that in a near future where peak oil becomes more obvious, America’s next war could well be our nation’s first real defeat.
And even if that defeat happens in some African place whose name most of us can’t even pronounce, it could push the U.S. empire to the breaking point and lead to surprises at home for which the American populace is completely unprepared.
Ironically, such surprises could be just the changes that critics of American empire and proponents of a smaller, more honest republic have been waiting for. Shedding our unnecessary empire could help America — or whatever smaller, regional nations grow out of our 50 states in the future — embrace the best of our past to regain hope for a liveable future.
Without the burden of empire, we can again become a nation that lives largely off its own resources, trades with the world as equals for what little it needs to import and avoids entangling alliances or imperial adventures, just as George Washington counseled.
“Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest,” the founding father said in his famous Farewell Address of 1796. “But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing.”
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice