Everything will change now, or not
Nothing will ever be the same again.
We hear it over and over, about all sorts of things in all sorts of contexts, spoken in all sorts of iterations.
Everything will change now.
We heard it after the Vietnam War and Sept. 11, in the wake of the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, as we recovered from the ravages of superstorm Sandy, after the killing of George Floyd, and throughout the pandemic.
Now it's Ukraine.
The Russian invasion will change the post-Cold War order, will transform NATO and Western alliances, will forever render Vladimir Putin a pariah and Russia an outlaw state, will stem the erosion of democracy around the world.
I envy others their instant certitude. But I remain dubious.
In the early confusion of traumatic events, it's easy to misread what's happening, and easier still to misread the response. Often, we find ourselves yearning for an outcome and mistake the change we want for the change we have yet to get.
The ancient Greeks might have been the first to vocalize that change is life's only constant, and history teaches us that nothing is ever as it was before, but that's not what people mean when they say that nothing will ever be the same. They're talking about epochal change, change you don't look back from, change that transforms life as we know it and does so in such a way that we see it happening.
And yet our nation continued to get involved in dubious conflicts overseas after Vietnam, our gun culture was scarcely touched by Sandy Hook, some people on Long Island and other places ravaged by storms continue to buy and build on land at great threat from water, the fate of police and criminal justice reform is very much up in the air, and some companies and bosses are now saying that as the pandemic becomes endemic they want their workers back in their offices. That's not to say that nothing significant took place in reaction to those events, only that the outcomes were far more muddled than predicted.
When it comes to change, Buffalo Springfield is a better guide. It was back in 1966 when the group sang:
There's something happening here
But what it is ain't exactly clear
Granted, those were tumultuous times and hard to read, but aren't they all?
Here's the thing about change: It is rarely viewed best in the moment. Evaluating it requires perspective. It's not unveiled, it unfolds. It begs for the judgment of history.
It seems inevitable at this moment that the war in Ukraine is going to change some things in some ways. It has to, right? Nothing this dramatic, this stark, this horrifying, this unjust, can fail to change things, right? But how? And how definitively? How can we know without knowing who will prevail in the conflict and in what fashion?
Russia's military was in Afghanistan for 10 years. The United States was there for 20. And what changed? Afghanistan is still poor and isolated and deeply troubled. We learned lessons, but will they stick? The Soviet Union crumbled, true, but here is Russia once again in a country that doesn't want it there, facing another insurgency it likely cannot win which will produce … what?
The changes we see there and elsewhere in the days and months ahead will be real. They will have some impact. Some of it, like the price of gas at our pumps, will be measurable. And transitory. But much of it will not.
After all, here we are 56 years after Buffalo Springfield, and battle lines are still being drawn, marchers are still in the streets singing songs and carrying signs, young people are still speaking their minds and getting resistance from behind, and paranoia still strikes deep.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.