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Life On the Home Front in the War Against Terror
9 November 2001
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 we received.
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 almost audible. 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 food franchises.
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.