On the home front: all glory, no guts. For most of Americans, freeing Kuwait was just another free ride.
During the six weeks of combat in the Persian Gulf, one of the local TV news stations in Washington ran a promotional clip with a wartime theme. It showed its broadcasters in pensive poses, had a flag flapping in the background, and then ran its slogan: "We'll get through this together."
It was done nicely enough, and was the sort of thing that must have been common during World War II. The tone it evoked was of loyal citizens bundling bandages on the home front while waiting for the troops to return. Watching it, I realized that I had never seen such an announcement, with its emphasis on everyone helping each other through a shared and difficult experience, during the Vietnam war.
The only problem with the ad was that it was a lie. Half a million soldiers were getting through something difficult and dangerous in the desert. Their families were disrupted, worried, and sometimes grieved. But the country as a whole was not "getting through" anything in particular. Indeed, the ability to feel, in a self-dramatizing "get through this together" way, like a country at war, without exposing anyone except the soldiers and their families to the inconveniences or rigors of real war, points to one of the strangest twists of our recent polities.
While the fighting was under way, there was no shortage of stoic imagery suggesting, as did the TV ad, that everyone was pulling together to get the job done. A Washington Post travel writer, without the slightest hint of irony, said in a column that he would do his part by "hop-scotching down the South American continent" on a U.S.-owned airline. "To stay home, in my opinion, is to bow to Saddam Hussein's threats," he explained. "I don't plan to yield to the Iraqi leader's intimidation, but of course that is a personal decision." Not everyone could be expected to be quite so brave. But many were! A spokesman for the Vail ski resort in Colorado said that, despite the dangers of travel, "People are still coming, and they are coming strong. We feel very, very fortunate."
My point about wartime sacrifice is not the familiar "class war" theme about who is in the army and who is on the slopes. Rather it concerns the bizarre struck-by-lightning nature of "getting through" this war: if you or your loved ones were not in Saudi Arabia, you were not involved at all. Duty free
The 500,000 soldiers in the Gulf made up one-fifth of one percent of the American public. If we assume, generously, that each of them had 100 immediate relatives or friends, and further assume, unrealistically, that none of those groups of 100 overlapped (as they actually did, since military families, like teachers' or steelworkers' families, tend to know each other), it would still mean that only 20 percent of the people in the country were touched by the war in even a secondhand way. The other 80 percent were "getting through" an experience that did not affect them except as something to watch on TV. When the war was over, many Americans felt, "We won." The U.S. military certainly won; most of the rest of us won only in the way that New York Giant fans "won" the last Super Bowl.
It is inevitable that a minority will bear the direct cost of any war. The difference is that in this case the government did not ask anything of people who did not happen to be in uniform or in the reserves when the war began. James Baker and Nicholas Brady went to the Germans and Japanese, asking them to put up more money; George Bush never made the same request of us. American soldiers fought among burning oil fields, in part to keep Saddam Hussein from exerting a stranglehold over the world's oil supply. Neither Bush nor anyone else in his administration seriously urged that we conserve gasoline, pay more for the gas we use, or alter our "way of life" to any degree so as to make ourselves less vulnerable to the next dictator in the Middle East.
Gasoline prices began falling almost as soon as the air war began, and by the time the war was over they were lower than they'd been before Iraq invaded Kuwait. There will never be a more propitious moment to apply higher gasoline taxes: The price was going down anyway, and American soldiers were risking their lives while we drove on. It would have been the simplest act of leadership for Bush to say: We've learned in the past few months that 1.60 gas won't kill us. Let's voluntarily keep the price there, for our own purposes, rather than letting some future Saddam Hussein drive it up when it's convenient for him--and we'll use the money to pay our soldiers give ourselves an incentive to conserve, and help American industry develop more efficient technology. We're asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives. The rest of us can risk a couple of dollars per week. Instead, as retail prices fell back toward $ 1.10, the press and administration heralded this as proof that America had really won the war. When Bush finally committed troops to ground combat, he asked, soberly, that Americans give a prayer for all the soldiers in harm's way. It was moving-and remarkable, for it was the only thing he ever asked us to do.
The explanation for this approach could be that Bush had come to see himself as a commander, whose goal first and last was to win a war, rather than as a national leader in the broadest sense. From the commander's perspective, any step that reduces domestic sacrifice or confines hardship to a specific group is useful, since it keeps complaints to a minimum and lets him get on with his work. The great wartime leaders-Churchill, FDR-emerged during struggles in which their nation's future really was on the line, and they looked for ways to link, rather than separate, the sacrifices the army and the public were making. The soldiers did the fighting, but the civilians collected tin cans and newspapers, ran local civil defense and draft boards, and endured a wide variety of price controls and rationing of everything from groceries to gasoline. During both world wars, the Korean war, and even, belatedly, Vietnam, federal taxes went up explicitly to offset the war's cost. By contrast, in America's "splendid little wars," against first Mexico and then Spain, presidents Polk and McKinley behaved more like commanders, letting the army do its job without imposing on anyone else.
Bush may simply have decided that the PolkMcKinley model was right for the Gulf war. But something else was involved: a shift in political culture that George Bush both reflected and pandered to.
The critic Philip Rahv wrote his famous essay, "Paleface and Redskin," to argue that literary culture in America was divided into two great camps. On one side were the Palefaces, led by Henry James, who wanted things orderly and refined. On the other side were the Redskins, from Walt Whitman to Norman Mailer or, now, Tom Wolfe, who wanted to change the rules and reinvent tradition. The tension between the two, Rahv said, gave American literature its distinctive shape.
There is a comparable deep tension in American political culture, which could be called Miller Time versus Grindstone Time. Miller Time implies the idea of taking it easy, striking it rich, figuring out an angle that will let you sit back while others do the work. This is the only country whose founding document talks about the "pursuit of happiness," and where a major politician, Huey Long, could run for office on the slogan "Every Man a King." The electric golf cart, the "golden parachute" employment deal, the casual sayings like "Take it easy" and "Don't work too hard," the Miller Time ads themselves-these all reflect a sensibility that is not so obvious in, say, Germany or Japan. Gerald Ford lived out this part of the American dream when he went straight from the White House to Vail and Palm Springs. The Miller Time ideal is also built into our economic theory, which says that the individual's unending pursuit of "welfare"-more money, more leisure, more of the fruits of work with less of the pain-is the force that makes societies go.
But everyone knows that this is not the whole story, of individual motivation or of American life. The American political and economic system, which is supposed to release individuals from needless limitations, cannot work properly unless individuals put limits on themselves or agree collectively to limits. Otherwise we kill off all the passenger pigeons, no one pays his taxes, everyone bribes the police. Most parents are willing to save or sacrifice for their children's education, in part because it's economically rational but also because fulfilling this duty makes them feel satisfied and proud. The whole idea of duty is the antithesis of Miller Time, but duty has done at least as much as leisure to form America's view of itself. The Pilgrims shivering in the wilderness, the immigrants stitching in their tenements, Thomas Edison trying thousands of materials before finding the one that would work as a filament in a light bulb-these, even more than Gerald Ford, shape the idea of American values. Most people view hard work not as an evil but as something they take satisfaction from having completed or endured. Even the Miller Time ads play to the idea that leisure is more enjoyable if it has been earned: "You've just finished repairing a crack in a nuclear power station. Novi, it's Miller Time."
The satisfactions of working hard, as well as playing hard, are still part of American behavior. We see this in athletes preparing for championships, political workers during a campaign, even the exercise boom that has persuaded many people that they must punish themselves to be fit. Mormon parents still send their children on twer-year missions overseas; teenaged boys still practice lay-ups for hours, thinking that if they work hard enough, the NBA awaits; volunteers still sign up for the Marines precisely because they've heard it's tough. But over the past decade, the idea of waiting, enduring, taking pride from time at the grindstone has almost completely vanished from our public, political life.
This change coincided with the rise of Ronald Reagan, which is a cultural rather than a partisan comment. The sunniness of Reagan's character and his relaxed working habits personified the content of many of his policies, which was that we would do better if we were not so hard on ourselves. By contrast, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 seemed to express a hopeless, eat-your-spinach view of the future. When they were humiliated, they took the very ideas of "sacrifice" and "responsibility" out of political respectability too.
The result has been a structure of politics based on something everyone knows is impossible in his personal life: the promise of permanent Miller Time. Taxes won't go up, middle-class benefits won't go down, but America will still enjoy its mighty place in the world. Any subject that would involve middleclass sacrifice, from a means test for entitlements to a national service plan, is politically taboo. In his State of the Union address, delivered while thousands of Americans were in combat and nearly a dozen were held as POWs in Baghdad, Bush said that America must keep doing the "hard work of freedom." At that point, Bush could have asked for almost anything. If he had merely suggested, as a sign of commitment more tangible than yellow ribbons, that Americans buy low-interest war bonds to support our troops, millions of Americans would have responded. Your brothers and sisters are risking their lives, he could have said; surely you can lend your government some money for three points below prime. (Bush could have asked families who could afford it to buy $1,000 or even $5,000 bonds, and everyone else to do what he or she could. At $100 per American, the bonds would bring in $25 billion.) But Bush did not ask for anything. Not bonds, not taxes, not that we organize to take care of children whom two-soldier families had left behind, not that we donate to the refugee groups that were sure to face new demands in the Middle East, not that we do anything but watch and feel proud. Every specific proposal in his speech was either a new government benefit or a new tax break.
If the concepts of paying our way, doing our part, and earning our rewards had completely disappeared from American culture, we could forget about restoring them to our public life. But, as the volunteer soldiers themselves demonstrate, these ingredients are still part of the American makeup. They await a leader who can figure out how to bring them back into the public realm.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1991|
|Previous Article:||Wham, bam, thanks Saddam; sorry for the mess we left behind.|
|Next Article:||Sand trap; U.S. diplomacy did work: it got us into war.|