In the United States, we have had the impossibly good fortune of keeping our wars and our homes thousands of miles apart. Throughout the past century, our military has been involved in hundreds of episodes of foreign conflict. Yet, with the obvious exceptions of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, we have had to see very few images of war from our own doorways. Certainly, we have never awakened to our neighbors being gunned down or our towns being burned. Though we have never seen the fighting firsthand, American civilians have established practiced responses to warfare, rituals unique to people who can only define war in terms of television broadcasts and letters from friends in the military.
These rituals have included, chiefly, sacrifices – a family surrendering a son to the draft, a corporation restricting its use of rubber to accommodate the industrial needs of the armed forces. Awareness has been the other vital component of the citizen’s reaction to war. Among Americans of every age and race, there has existed an eagerness for news on the troops and a ubiquitous, never-ending discussion of the war at the office, at the market and at the dinner table.
“There’s a war on,” people have said for generations, in simplistic explanation for the tone of the country. But very little about the recent mood of the American people has indicated that there has indeed been a war on, for just over a year now.
Rather, it’s been calm. In fact, it’s been too calm. And the calm denotes an interesting, if overlooked, historical event: the first time that we have had a war without a wartime. Although we initially feared one, there was no draft, and it’s no longer necessary for us to skimp on everyday items to conserve materials for the military. Protests against this war have been paltry, and the media’s attention to them has been even less substantial. Our exemption from having to sacrifice has led to our laziness when it comes to awareness, and we seem to have things more important than war to talk about this time around. This war initially seemed exciting – we were finally going to “get Saddam.” In the end, however, we declined both the enthusiasm characteristic of World War II and the fury synonymous with Vietnam. Instead, we chose apathy. All of this is a shame, most of all because it is our war with Iraq, muddled and masked, that perhaps deserves more attention than any other American war in history.
Isn’t the war in Iraq over? Even the most oblivious Americans probably caught a few rounds of the CNN footage that showed Baghdad’s giant statue of Saddam Hussein crack and collapse several months ago. But just as the war never had a legitimate beginning, it has not seen a formal ending. U.S. soldiers are still dying every day in the chaos of Iraq’s transition state. This tragedy no longer interests the press, as most of the coverage of the casualties has been demoted to brief blurbs in tiny print. The daily death counts are usually just low enough to stay under our radar, but they are still coming in steadily. And while most average Americans do not claim to understand the complicated motivations behind waging and sustaining wars, this is the first time in our history that the overwhelming majority of us have no idea of what our troops are doing over there.
It seems that the current administration is counting on us to keep up our willingness to be lulled into ignorance. It is desperately milking our vulnerability, our agreement to keep our civil criticisms to ourselves in exchange for protection from terrorists. We are to blame for throwing our hands up and blindly trusting our government as infallible. Now, though we have applauded President Bush’s invectives against terrorists and while we have been moved by his misty-eyed announcement of Saddam Hussein’s capture, we should be unable to dismiss the most egregious mistake the government has made. It’s a development straightforward enough for even the least politically educated among us to understand.
We looked and we looked, but we couldn’t find the weapons – only dead American soldiers and Iraqi civilians laying side by side. It has been one year. Concerning this issue, Bush has abandoned majestic speeches forevasive mumbling. The astounding misstep has been discussed on everything from the cover of Time to “Will and Grace.” Suddenly, people are alarmed, incredulous and embarrassed. It’s as if every uneasy American is simultaneously exchanging a glance with his or her neighbor, a look that conveys the sinking feeling that accompanies realization of a costly error.
This response is long overdue. We have spent the past year being too frightened and too busy to ask questions. But now all of the questions that we should have been asking have been answered for us, and our very last chance at upholding traditional wartime awareness and sacrifice is at hand. Awareness has been handed to us: we were wrong. Whether we will sacrifice or not is still our choice. Will we relinquish our daily paranoia over red alerts and airport scares to finally acknowledge the needless damage of the last 12 months? The rapidly approaching presidential election should reflect a new American ability: the capacity to own up to our blunders. It won’t be easy, and it won’t make up for our negligence. But it will help to restore our reputation as a society that will always be willing to treat war seriously, even when awareness is unpopular and sacrifice is scary.