Today we wake in the shadow of war

Anna Quindlen

January 15, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

ON THE imitation wood-grain surface of the table lay a pile of fliers, small print dominated by letters two inches high: STOP THE WAR NOW!

Like Proust's madeleine on low-grade bond, it flung me back, to hundreds of undergraduate bulletin boards, dozens of speeches, but especially to one march in 1972.

I held my notebook like a shield between my face and the angry man, on his way home from the night shift, who was watching people move down the avenue beneath banners of peace.

"Put down that they're a disgrace to this country," he shouted over the noise of the chanting. "Put down that I'm a veteran of World War II."

By the imitation wood-grain table sat a man, narrow as an exclamation point, telling why he came to the first meeting of the New York City chapter of the Military Families Support Network.

"I'm a World War II veteran," he said softly. "My youngest son is in the gulf. I keep thinking there's going to be a war. There must be another way of dealing with this. It seems to be going on every 20 years. It has to stop."

Today we wake in the shadow of war, some from the sound sleep of onlookers, others from the long nights of parents, wives, husbands and children of soldiers.

The anti-war effort now is immediate and powerful, as though it were a kind of retribution.

This time, the activists seem to be saying, we will get it right.

There are marches and vigils planned aplenty.

There is an 800 number that provides information on resistance resistance and a 900 number that arranges overnight delivery of letters to senators and representatives.

Every leading religious denomination and several powerful labor unions have come out in opposition to war in the Persian Gulf.

This is not because of great similarities between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It is because of great differences between who we are now and who we were then.

With the end of the Cold War, the bust of our economic boom and the disintegration of our families, we are a nation struggling to understand itself.

One of the most powerful events of our national history was fermenting and souring 20 years ago, a war that divided and defined us in ways we came to hate.

Our national character has changed.

Our notions of masculinity, always linked to our notions of face and force, are different today.

The woman thing, as the president might call it, has shaped this event. Statistics show a gender gap: 57 percent of men in a recent New York Times poll favored military action if Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait by Tuesday's deadline, while 37 percent said we should give sanctions more time to work.

The results for women were almost exactly the opposite: 36 percent voted for immediate action, 56 percent for patience.

Our earliest image of this conflict was of women in camouflage fatigues kissing their children goodbye; say what we will about the idea that fathers are as important as mothers, it made some people think on a more human scale about what war means.

Last week a group of feminists demonstrated, personifying the button making the rounds: We're Going To War To Defend People Who Won't Let Women Drive?

To the extent that we still think of men as resolving differences through force and women through talk, there is a feminization of national feeling. Macho is no longer our national pastime, and there seems to be a declining number of little boys exhorted "Go out there and fight like a man."

So far, no "Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers.

"I love my country, but . . ." began two of the testimonials at the Military Families Support Network meeting.

We no longer have illusions about war.

We have seen the carnage on CNN. Some protesters are sending the White House black plastic trash bags, to remind the president of how people come home from combat.

The shadow that hangs over us all seems to be the shadow of another war.

But it is really the shadow of what we will think of ourselves when this is over.

Dorothy Thompson, for many years America's most prominent woman columnist, wrote a column after World War II about disarmament. "You cannot talk to the mothers with planes and atomic bombs," she wrote. "You must come into the room of your mother unarmed."

Some of her editors found her sentiments treacly and hard to take. They need to be updated in one respect; many of the fathers now feel the same way. Some people consider this a failure of will. I think it's progress.

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