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Big Universe Out There

Hanoi War Museum

In December 1985, I made my first postwar trip back to Vietnam. I had gone there in 1967 as an 18-year-old Marine, which had turned out to be a very bad idea and a life-changing experience. Eighteen years later, I wanted to see and experience the country of Vietnam, not the Vietnam War. It turned out to be both a humbling and a healing trip.

Very early on, my interpreter, a young man old enough to remember the war but not old enough to have fought in it, asked me if I had been wounded. When I said I had, and then explained that I’d received a few small shrapnel wounds and a hearing loss, he shrugged and quietly said, “Oh.” Clearly, to him, my “wounds” were of no significance, Purple Heart Medal or not.

Later we visited the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. It contains several rooms dealing with the American War, but many more rooms dealing with Pol Pot, the old regime in Saigon, Thailand, the French colonial era, and the millennia-long struggle with China. (An even more elaborate museum in Hanoi also details that long history of resistance to Chinese domination. The American War doesn’t even rate a mention in that museum.)

Even a cursory study of history makes it clear that things don’t always get better. Ask the Egyptians. Or the Romans. And the sun never used to set on the British Empire.

For eighteen years, I had been imagining that the Vietnam War was something that had happened to me. I was the star of the show. But on that trip I came to realize that I was an infinitesimally insignificant part of something much, much larger. Of course the war was not about me. In fact, the American War itself was hardly a pimple-on-a-pumpkin in the long history of Vietnam. The experience forced me to re-think my entire relationship to Vietnam and to that war.

Fast forward thirty-six years. It’s 2021. Donald Trump has been kicked out of the White House, but refuses to concede defeat. Dozens of allegedly responsible politicians at the federal, state, and local level—as well as television and radio talking heads—continue to parrot his claim that the election was stolen by devious and conniving Democrats. Millions of American citizens believe this to be true.

Meanwhile, Senator Joe Munchkin (who lines his pockets and the pockets of his family with fossil fuel money) and Senator Kyrsten Cinemax (God only knows what’s going on in her head) are the best allies Moscow Mitch McConnell and his Retrumplican cronies could ever wish for, making their task of obstructing any forward progress the Biden Administration might have made in repairing this grotesquely damaged nation ridiculously easy.

And thus it seems all but inevitable that the narrow Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the even party split in the Senate will both shift in favor of the Republicans in 2022. And that, combined with the number of Republican state legislatures that are passing restrictive voting laws guaranteed to disenfranchise large numbers of poor people and people of color, means that Donald Trump himself—or someone dangerously smarter than him—will be back in the White House in 2024.

Add to that our already radically right-wing Supreme Court, the militarization of our domestic police forces, the lunatic gun laws in this country, a few other odds and ends, and, well, to put it bluntly, we’re screwed.

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Recently, a friend said to me that things are going to get worse before they get better. But even a cursory study of history makes it clear that things don’t always get better. Ask the Egyptians. Or the Romans. And the sun never used to set on the British Empire.

 Back in 1776, Edward Gibbon published The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Will someone someday write The Decline and Fall of the American Empire? Then again, with global warming on the way, we may not last long enough for anyone to write that book.

Indeed, all this angst about the United States of America could be wasted energy in light of the approaching global disaster that seems even less unavoidable than a Republican Congress in 2022. What are the odds that the entire human race will manage to change how we live significantly enough to stave off the terminal future that awaits this planet and everything on it? Talk about being screwed.

Ah, but there is a different way of looking at all this, and it harkens back to what I learned in Vietnam in 1985: humility. Putting things in proper perspective.

Not long ago, I watched a program on PBS’s Nova about the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains 100 thousand million stars. Ours is one star—one teeny, tiny star—in the midst of all that.

And the universe itself, NASA estimates, contains at least 200 billion galaxies. Not stars. Galaxies. That translates into a number of stars, more or less like the one we see in our sky every day, that is the equivalent of something like the number of grains of sand on every beach on Earth. Try wrapping your mind around that number.

New stars are born every minute, and old stars die every minute. This has been going on for something on the order of thirteen and a half billion years. That’s 13,500,000,000,000 years. It will continue to go on for, well, God only knows how much longer, but I’m pretty certain it will be a very long time.

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Much longer than Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be here. Much longer than the United States of America will be here. Much longer than Planet Earth will be here. Or even good old Sol, our dearly beloved Sun. We think it’s all about us, but it’s not. It never was. It never will be. The universe doesn’t really care about us. It’s doing its own thing.

I find that both humbling and comforting.

WD Ehrhart