We've been at war "against terrorism" for a month now. Do you feel unified, patriotic, full of eager collective purpose? Writing on the New York Times Op-Ed page ("A Better Society in a Time of War," October 19) Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam hopes Americans will say goodbye to lonely nights dropping gutter balls down the lanes of life and come together in "civic community" as they did during World War II. (World War II? Uh-oh. Wasn't this supposed to be one of those little quickie mini-wars?) He writes nostalgically of "victory gardens in nearly everyone's backyard, the Boy Scouts at filling stations collecting floor mats for scrap rubber, the affordable war bonds, the practice of giving rides to hitchhiking soldiers and war workers." Those would be certified heterosexual, Supreme-Being-believing scouts, I suppose, and certified harmless and chivalrous hitchhiking GIs, too--not some weirdo in uniform who cuts you to bits on a dark road.
Putnam quotes approvingly a passage from an oral history of the war: "You just felt that the stranger sitting next to you in a restaurant, or someplace, felt the same way you did about the basic issues." Like the importance of keeping black people out of that very restaurant, perhaps, and of putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. As for war bonds, give me a break! You'd have to be a true masochist to buy war bonds today, given that President Bush has just engineered, under the guise of economic stimulus, another gigantic tax cut for wealthy corporations and the rich, and an airline-bailout package that underwrites the multimillion-dollar salaries of industry executives while offering nothing to the nearly 100,000 who've lost their airline jobs.
Whatever the war may do for, or to, the miserable Afghan people, it's certainly putting lots of fiber in the breakfast cereal of the liberal intellectual classes. This is a popular war with the pundits and talking heads and recovering Vietnam protesters--even more so than the Gulf War, which featured such hard-to-ignore drawbacks as the fact that the United States was defending a feudal monarchy (did women ever get that pesky vote in Kuwait? Not so far--maybe next century). This war has much grander ideological themes: West vs. East, modern vs. medieval, forward vs. backward, good vs. evil, us vs. them. You can spend so much time defending the moral legitimacy of bombing Afghanistan and damning Noam Chomsky to hell that you never need to get around, really, to the question of what the real-world consequences of this war are likely to be. Five and a half million Afghans starving, as predicted by Oxfam, if the military campaign prevents delivery of humanitarian relief? Thousands of new Taliban fans and recruits for anti-American suicide missions? A protracted war with a determined, hardy foe that draws in Central Asia, enrages the Muslim masses and destabilizes Pakistan or Indonesia or another country to be named later? Is World War III worth it if it gets people planting victory gardens and giving blood?
These are the questions we need to be thinking about, not celebrating the potential of war to give "us" a renewed sense of national purpose, as in different ways five historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and Roger Wilkins, did on a recent Lehrer NewsHour segment. Many--Graydon Carter, Roger Rosenblatt, Maureen Dowd--have welcomed the post-9/11 era as putting an end to materialism and frivolity and boomer self-absorption, but what could be more self-absorbed, more boomerish, than to see war as an occasion for self-improvement and growth? There's a gendered element, too, as Philip Weiss noted in the New York Observer: Whether or not more men than women support the war, as Weiss claims, 9/11 and its sequelae have definitely rehabilitated such traditional masculine values as physical courage, upper-body strength, toughness, resolve. The WTC attack is men vs. men--firefighters v. fanatics. (It would seem positively ungrateful to ask why, in a city half black and brown, the "heroes" were still mostly white, and, for that matter, still mostly male.) You can see the gender skew everywhere--in the absence of female bylines in Op-Eds about the war, in the booing of Hillary Clinton during the Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden, in the slavish eagerness of the media to promote the callow and inadequate Dubya as a strong leader whose "cockiness" (interesting word) and swagger are just what Americans need in the hour of crisis. And Dubya's a boomer too: "Bush has told advisors," writes Judy Keen in a USA Today puff piece, "that he believes confronting the enemy is a chance for him and his fellow baby boomers to refocus their lives and prove they have the same kind of valor and commitment their fathers showed in WWII."
Refocus your life, bomb a village. Maybe we should bring back the draft -- for 50somethings sorry they missed out on Vietnam.
Flagwatch. Readers may remember that in the wake of September 11, my 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, wanted to fly a flag (although not enough to buy one herself), and I didn't. Those soft touches at The Weekly Standard called on their readers to deluge her with Old Glories, care of this magazine, and the New York Post reprinted their appeal--for a combined 600,000 readers. The preliminary results of the "Flags for Miss Pollitt" campaign are in. Total so far: One actual cloth flag; one paper flag on a toothpick, suitable for decorating a frozen daiquiri; one newsprint flag cut out of a daily paper; one flag-themed mailing sticker; one flag refrigerator magnet; one check for one dollar; and one ten-dollar bill, with instructions to "buy your mom some red, white and blue flowers and give her a big hug." I suspect the flowers for me will metamorphose into makeup for her, but I did get the hug. There were also three or four unsigned misspelled letters urging me to go back to Afghanistan, where I obviously belong. I could not have made the connection between flag-waving and jingoism clearer myself, and the point was not lost on Sophie, who's rethinking her position. So thanks, Weekly Standard readers, keep those cards and letters coming!
© 2001 The Nation Company, L.P.