Revisiting the Home Front

In 2003, Americans are in a new place as they face a different kind of war.

March 20, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

For $3.95 the American Legion offers a red-white-and-blue "Support Our Troops," sign that you can plant on your front lawn and maybe pose for a photograph and say you were there: "Home Front, 2003." Because here we are - again.

So arrives the latest incarnation of a way of American life that has prevailed in one way or another nearly uninterrupted since Pearl Harbor. Surely there must be photographs, so they can look back in a few generations and say how it went and how - of course - it was nothing like World War II, but those folks did all right. Or not.

"Home Front, 2003" carries its own particular energies. Perhaps a cross between the watchfulness of a World War II citizens' air-raid patrol and the more abstract anxiety of the Cold War on Main Street U.S.A., with Rod Serling wondering aloud just how neighborly a small town would be if space were scarce in the basement bomb shelter. As political scientist Bruce Unger puts it: "Duct tape and duck-and-cover might be two sides of the same coin."

Either way, the idea is to do, well, something. What is a "home front," really? Perhaps an impulse in search of direction, a question of what there is for us to do over here while the country's at war - hot or cold - with someone "over there."

What, exactly, to do? Post a sign on the lawn? Tie a yellow ribbon to a tree? Attend a war rally - pro or con? Send a salami to your boy in the Army?

For one thing, check Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's five-color alert barometer. It's up a tick from yellow or "significant" risk to orange for "high" risk, the third spike to orange since the warning system was created a year ago. The implied message: stand by. As they said in the Big One, World War II: "Don't you know there's a war on?"

The government would have you check certain Web sites for further information. The Centers for Disease Control has one (www.cdc.gov), as does the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov), and Ridge's agency (www.ready.gov). Consult these to plan for possible terrorist attack at home, a threat that may rise with the beginning of the war in Iraq.

In 1979 David Byrne sang "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around ... " and on Sept. 11, 2001, suddenly the irony of "Life During Wartime" seemed indulgent. Suddenly everything seemed less amusing, and people were saying there was no time for dancing or lovey dovey or even a little joking around to ease tension on the "home front."

Life, people said, had entirely changed, which only echoed journalist Marquis Childs who, in recalling the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, remembered "all of us saying, `Nothing will ever be the same again.'"

Maybe the common wisdom on the "home front" was right then and quite right again 60 years later. But when you look at www.ready.gov - with its descriptions of emergency supply kits, home shelters, evacuation plans and sundry terrifying weapons - it seems as if you're standing there in 1953 reading a Cold War primer on civil defense.

A fond wish from "Home Front, 2003" might be to live to see the day when all this chatter about Cipro and duct tape seems as amusing as one of those government public service spots from the 1950s, the ones where the voice-over repeats "duck and cover, duck and cover," and school kids are shown scrambling under desks.

Unger, who teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., grew up in those days in Brooklyn, N.Y., and remembers that his elementary school issued dog tags to the children. In retrospect, he can only assume this was done to make it easier to identify his corpse in case of nuclear catastrophe.

If today's "home front" warrior puts down the duct tape and pauses to check the color on the Alert-o-meter, the stateside Cold Warrior might have emerged from beneath the desk to consult the "Doomsday Clock," a somewhat less precise instrument.

It made a potent symbol of nuclear danger, nonetheless, first appearing on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947. The Cold War was on, the Truman Doctrine had drawn the line against the Soviets. It was sure scary, but we had the Bomb and they didn't. Not for another two years, anyway.

The first "Doomsday Clock" put the time at seven minutes to midnight. As the Bulletin saw it, the closest we came to the abyss was two minutes to midnight in 1953, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. tested hydrogen bombs within nine months of each other.

As of this writing, the time is seven minutes to midnight, just as it stood when the clock began in 1947. The French have an expression, c'est plus ca ... - well, perhaps under the circumstances, the less of that the better.

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