Old wars, new generations

My memory of the Cold War comes with a strange and oddly specific recollection. I was a kid when the Soviet Union broke up. Like most American kids, I was raised on a steady diet of patriotic fervor with a dose of casual fear that our Russian adversaries might infect us with their wicked worldview. I was 9, so the details were a little hazy, but I got the general idea. 

Back then, kids like me really cared about Saturday morning cartoons. We didn’t have the round-the-clock cartoon channels, smart phones, or other distractions. If we wanted to avoid wholesome activities that fostered personal growth and physical wellbeing we had to watch as much TV as possible on the weekend.

One of the shows I watched all the time was The Chipmunks. Quick aside, how weird was the Chipmunks’ journey into popular culture? It all started when an ad executive cut a novelty Christmas song in 1958 based solely on the fact he could make his voice sound like a chipmunk when he sped up a tape of him singing. Add two more chipmunks and you’ve got three-part harmony. Then they became a major money-making franchise. That’s America, baby. That’s what we were fighting for.

Anyway, on December 17, 1988, a new episode of the Chipmunks aired that depicted Alvin, Simon and Theodore (and their exasperated manager Dave) going to West Berlin. They met a little girl separated from her grandfather on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

My childhood impression of the Berlin Wall was that if you tried to cross over the wall that you would be shot in a moat, but that people still tried anyway. 

So the Chipmunks help her out, but they get caught by the Stasi on the East German side. They think they’re going to be executed (fun cartoon!) but it turns out that the East Germans like rock ’n’ roll. They want the Chipmunks to sing one of their rock ’n’ roll songs.

Well, the Chipmunks oblige, but like a typical headline band they respond with a mopey power ballad that no one asked for.

The chorus rang, “Let the wall come down, tumble to the ground, and love will live in peace all around.”

Now, this wasn’t a good song. Let’s be clear about that. But damn if that wall didn’t come tumbling down right there in the cartoon. Turned out it was all just a dream, but so what. Maybe we can make this dream a reality.

Eleven months later, by golly, that wall really did come tumbling down. As a kid I made a direct connection between the Chipmunks and the fall of the Berlin Wall. As far as I knew, they did it. Alvin!

All this came back to me these past couple weeks as we watched Russia invade Ukraine. Russia’s not a Communist country anymore. It’s an authoritarian oligarchy, a nation led exclusively by rich men who use power to keep power. And yet, there’s Russia, armed with nuclear weapons, seeking to expand its borders in quest of empire. So it goes with the pursuit of wealth and authority. Such ambitions will only lead over borders into blood.

I’m not one to pretend to be some kind of foreign policy expert because of what I saw on the news. I’m a student of history and geography. I know a few things, but I’m mostly just a small time writer in the dense, wooded center of North America.

But I’m also a parent. A few nights ago my teenage son said, “Dad, I think my 20s are going have a lot of drama.” 

Now, a lot of people’s 20s are full of drama. That’s not particularly unusual. But my son wasn’t talking about parties, drugs, or joining some mediocre cover band. 

“I think I’m going to die in a place like Latvia,” he said. “Or maybe Lithuania.” 

I was floored. He’s been watching all this. He sees what Russia is doing and how the world responds. And even though we are smack dab in the middle of an imposing continent, surrounded by mighty oceans, he sees himself as a part of the greater world, a person who may have responsibilities to defend right from wrong.

Is it possible to be tremendously proud and terribly sad at the same time? I was.

I told him that it was unlikely he would have to fight in the Baltics. But we agreed that a 1 percent chance is still more than zero. We talked about the fact that the world is complicated. We talked about how we love where we live in northern Minnesota. I reassured him with a nervous chuckle that we hold the high ground here.

“Not that high,” he said, before going to bed. 

The Chipmunks can’t solve this one, because they didn’t really solve the last one. Democracy isn’t perfect. It’s easy to focus on the flaws of our system. Partisan rancor slows our response to critical problems. But those are the human flaws of people in a democracy. We can do better if we try. 

Authoritarianism puts fewer people in charge of more dangerous weapons. It puts children in war zones. This, far more than our competing political ideologies, presents the greatest threat to our lives and well-being.

The best way to tear down a wall is to avoid building one. The high ground is any land where power is shared by the many, not hoarded by the few.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 6, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. As a grade schooler in Keewatin in the early 60’s I remember a beautiful clear summer morning when the town siren stuck on for some reason. We all knew this was the signal for the Russians attacking.

    Our moms pulled us inside and hung on tight listening to WMFG, the local CONELRAD station for THE word, scared as hell

    It was only a malfunction. Minot AFB isn’t that far away…

  2. Tom Kiekhafer says

    This reminds me that we often forget to consider the world we will be passing on to future generation. My wife and I have two granddaughters, age 2 1/2 and 3. I try to think what their future holds. What tough decisions their generation will face and how will they remember our generation. We all need to keep in mind that the decisions we make today will affect future generations for decades to come. Let’s make sure they have choices.

  3. Joe musich says

    You are always so entertaining, informative and creative with your expressions on the world that lies in front of us all. Thank you for that. What can you do in the end but be there for your son as you are. I am old enough to remember the duck and cover preparations we practiced at both the Brooklyn and Cobb Cook schools. I remember frightfully walking home from school on random occasions convinced this would be the day. The atomic war bubble gum cards on display at the shop rite grocery did not help. The hope of Alvin was yet to come. I remember being totally shocked when seeing Khrushchev de board the plane on his shoe beating vacation to the U.N. What was shocking was that he looked like grandpa and not a monster from a now very collectible chewing gum card. So somewhat out of context but never the less accurate in the circumstance I borrow from HGWells, “Are we not men.” and in the background is Charlton Heston overshadowed by a destroyed Statue of Liberty. Another fork in the road appears. I was also on the street when Gorbachev came to visit a family who’s daughter appeared in the Peace Child play in Russia in the 80’s. Former Governor and Hibbing dentist R. Perpich made the connection of the Peace Child to Minnesota possible. Speaking of possibilities your young son has lots of them coming. Maybe he will be the next Rudy bringing citizens from the Baltic states for collaborations on seismic events that entirely improve the condition of all the world’s flora and fauna. Pass me that fork. It’s time for breakfast.

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