LOS ANGELES -- I'll always remember where I must have been when I heard the news on the radio — the announcement that President Bush would, later, announce that the war in Iraq was just short of the technical legal definition of victory. I must have been near Jonathan's office — I was at work, and Jonathan's assistant listens to NPR for some reason. "This changes everything," I think I said. "Stupid pledge drive," replied Jonathan's assistant.
My mind flashed back to six weeks ago and another radio report (again almost certainly heard near Jonathan's office), but a very different announcement: that President Bush would, later, announce that Saddam Hussein had to leave Iraq within 48 hours or the United States would start a war. Was it 48 hours from the announcement, or 48 hours from the announcement of the announcement? During a war, or within 48 hours of a war, there is no time for such subtleties.
Those two announcements of subsequent announcements bracketed a heady and unforgettable time for America, and it's important that we chronicle it now, lest it become forgotten, a piece of history never to be studied or used as ironic backdrop in yet-to-be-written memoirs about growing up in a dysfunctional family.
It seemed as if one moment, we were complacently watching our favorite shows, and the next, our shows had been pre-empted for war coverage, and then, just as suddenly, our shows were back and the war coverage went away — to cable, someone said. There, we were confronted with the awful truth of war — reports of images too graphic to be shown on American TV. That's when things started to hit home: we had awakened from our nap of peace, and this time, there was to be no snooze alarm.
We all wanted to be doing something, I remember, to contribute. And while a lot of people had been going without textbooks and medical care to pay for the war effort, that option wasn't available to everyone. So mostly we just supported the troops. Sometimes we supported them with a bumper sticker. Sometimes we supported them in a sentence that had a "but" or a "while" in it. Sometimes we supported them by getting mad at the people who had supported them, but used qualifiers. Different ways, sure, but the same message: if you were a troop, you were supported.
I don't want to sugarcoat things. As always in wartime, rumors abounded, and some of us believed them. We were bogged down. We weren't bogged down. The Dixie Chicks had been exposed as spies when they didn't know who won the 1942 World Series. Some town in California had either named an elementary school after Neville Chamberlain, or it hadn't. Ben Affleck and J. Lo were calling it quits. It's funny what you'll believe in a time of anxiety.
And then came the moment when the president came to the aircraft carrier to declare the technical non-victory. Amid the general happiness, I wonder if we'll ever know the full story of the war — there'd be so much reading involved, and then there's the Laci Peterson case competing for our attention, too. Still, whenever I see an American flag fluttering proudly from the corner of an all-news channel, I can't help but remember the time when an ever-changing nation called America became, for once, a nation changed.
Chris Marcil writes for television.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company