America at war no longer provides the teary, sweet image of Jimmy
Stewart, charmingly awkward in a lumpy wool uniform, being shipped off
to save the world. No, America's version of war has become utterly
bizarre fifty-six years after World War ll.
In the War against Terror, our professional soldiers (Our "boyz in
hawm's way") are pampered like sumo wrestlers preparing for a big match.
It is a lavish style of warfare that only the world's most expensive
army could possibly afford.
Between greetings to the many on-site television cameras for folks back
home and catching up on the latest flicks, they enjoy hot pepperoni
pizza, gulp Bud Light, and peruse Airforce-expressed copies of Playboy -
all with an intense awareness of serving the forces of goodness and
decency. Their mission is to wait patiently while the top twenty feet of
Afghanistan are reduced to rubble. They are confident their cause is
right knowing that our jets thoughtfully sprinkle the Afghan debris with
emergency food packets.
But wartime life in America, away from the Afghan Front, competes
fiercely for weirdness.
On my last visit to a Mobil station, having followed the pump's
computerized instructions to choose my method of payment and grade of
gasoline, I was filling the tank when a new message started blinking
across the diodes: "Always remember September 11!…God bless
America!…Always remember September 11!…God bless America!…"
I felt cheated by this surreptitious method of lumping Texas-football
patriotism into a $10 gas purchase. Cheated because I had promised
myself not to stop anywhere with "God bless America!" signs. I prefer my
religion and my patriotism stored safely apart, like the two highly
volatile chemical compounds that they are. Buying from stores with "Honk
for America" and "Be Proud to Be an American!" is as far as I go
indulging America's drawling, unshaven, belligerent, belly-over-the-belt
patriotism. When you drag God into it, we part company.
Besides, it does seem to me that on the matter of blessings, the
Almighty spoke pretty clearly on September 11, and it wasn't a blessing
The blinking, patriotic gasoline pump came after several days of
observing life on the home front in the War against Terror, all of which
brought me to single, inescapable conclusion: nearly two months on, it
is definitely time for America to get a life.
I have to say that once inside the Mobil, the display of September-11th
merchandise was modest, at least compared to the Irving station a week
before which had sweats, tees, bumper stickers, little flags, and a
large selection of lapel pins. The irony at Irving was overwhelming
because, as perhaps few Americans would know, the company's founder is
an eccentric Canadian gazillionaire who lived for many years in the
Caymen Islands to avoid taxes. Echoes of Dr. Johnson on patriotism were
Our neighbors across the street have established a ritual of emerging
from their front door twice a day to put up their flag and take it down,
closely following the flag-etiquette instructions I recall from the 1956
edition of the Boy Scouts of America Manual. They do forget sometimes,
but they are pretty regular.
These home-front patriots are the same good folks who, when we were new
to the neighborhood and I politely objected to their having their
driveway snow plowed across the street into our front yard, advised me,
"You don't own the sidewalk." Then there was the time that their
vagabond cat, which it turned out had not been given shots in 6 years,
bit another neighbor. When she raised the matter of her medical costs,
their answer was, "There's no leash law for cats."
I don't really know whether there is a connection between cuckoo-clock
flag etiquette and being the most obnoxious neighbors we've ever
experienced, but the ritual does set them apart from others on our
street who choose to fly flags. Most keep it casual like some wash
draped out to dry from an upstairs window or a front porch rail. Somehow
this approach seems more in keeping with the rusted car and tractor
parts that litter so many of America's yards and driveways.
As I walked past the donut shop one day, right under the giant "Honk for
America!" sign was a display bristling with scores of flags. At first, I
regarded this as an unusually enthusiastic display of patriotism, but a
man standing at a table with a fistful of dollar bills quickly corrected
my first impression. I wondered whether there was a deal for a flag with
a dozen jelly donuts or maybe a half dozen, but I wasn't curious enough
to walk over and ask.
My favorite patriotic sticker, often seen on the sides or backs of
highway trucks, is "Be Proud to Be an American!" Each time it rumbles
past, I think, "If only I could while peasants, who wouldn't know what
New York is, have limbs blown off by pilots at 30 thousand feet who
managed the remarkable feat of achieving 'air superiority' over a 14th
century land in record time." And there is something positively
heartwarming in being ordered to be proud.
A gift shop on the New York Tollway probably set the high-water mark for
make-a-buck patriotism. About a third of the store was filled with
September-11th merchandise. The extent of the display made me wonder how
they filled the store before "The Tragedy." Dramatic, new graphics on
shirts, hats, glasses, and banners lured a steady stream of patriots
from seeking the slightly-fetid washrooms after a stop at the grease-pit
I only thank God I don't watch television. The chaotic, fast-cut assault
of greed, patriotism, and twisted religion would be unbearable. And I'll
bet each station has an official War-against-Terror logo with some
limited-time offers for merchandise.
John Chuckman, a free-lance writer living in Portland, Maine, is a retired chief economist for Texaco Canada.