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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2001 / 2 Tishrei, 5762

David Reinhard

David Reinhard
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As terror brought destruction, so must war bring sacrifice -- THIS means war.

But what does war mean?

Americans from President Bush on down have called Tuesday's terror an "act of war," and whether Congress passes an official declaration is almost beside the point. As Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said, "We are at war whether we say so or not."

But what does this mean -- really mean -- at the jagged edge of the 21st century? What will "war" require of us -- all of us -- not just the men and women of our armed services, not just our nation's spies?

It's a bracing question for Americans after the past half-century and not merely an academic one after Tuesday's bloody assault.

After all, we've had an abundance of wars in past decades. Some were traditional and more were metaphorical.

In past decades even the wars the United States won were not typical. The very name of the Cold War -- what John F. Kennedy called "the long, twilight struggle" -- signified something different than traditional armed conflict between nations. The Persian Gulf War -- flash-war in more ways than one -- was little more than a video-game extravaganza for most Americans.

And the wars lost or not won? Lyndon Johnson tied the hands of the military in Vietnam and only belatedly asked for a tax surcharge to pay for the war. Richard Nixon, for his part, ended the draft.

We've had Johnson's "war on poverty," Nixon's "war on cancer," George H.W. Bush's "war on drugs" and on and on. Jimmy Carterfought for energy independence, which he deemed "the moral equivalent of war."

"Men tell more by their metaphors than by their statements," essayist G.K. Chesterton noted in 1910. Perhaps so, but Chesterton made this remark long before Americans started going to war on the cheap.

We've indulged ourselves for decades in a loose use of the martial metaphor. Our "wars" on this or that have amounted to no more than a little war-whoop rhetoric followed by some spending increases. We haven't inconvenienced ourselves. Our leaders haven't summoned us to "wartime" sacrifices of our freedoms or treasure. And the result of our devalued war-is-heck resolve? Predictable failure from the war in Vietnam to the war on drugs. Generation made great sacrifices It wasn't always so. It wasn't so for what we now so lavishly -- so longingly? -- call "the Greatest Generation." It's worth recalling that this generation's wartime sacrifices did not all take place in World War II's combat zones.

Although too much can be made of the hardships on the World War II home front -- Americans who remained home enjoyed prosperity they had not experienced during the Depression -- sacrifice and inconvenience defined the war years. Beyond the loss, beyond the disrupted and destroyed lives, there were the everyday sacrifices.

Wages and salaries were controlled. There was a general price freeze and shortages, particularly in housing. Detroit stopped turning out automobiles. Gas and other consumer goods were subject to rationing, including for a time -- prepare to be shocked, Starbucks Nation -- coffee.

How intrusive was the war effort on the home-front? The War Production Board issued orders to reshape the look of men's suits -- no double-breasted jackets or cuffs, among other things -- and 10 percent reduction in the amount of cloth in women's bathing suits lead to the two-piece swimsuit.

What sacrifices and inconveniences -- what limits on our freedom -- will we accept in the war against terrorism? Will it, in short, be a real war with a real mobilization of forces abroad and at home?

What will we give up? Will we, for example, accept tax increases to pay for this campaign?

Will we buy war (on terrorism) bonds?

Will we pay higher airline ticket taxes to pay for sky marshals and other security measures?

Will we trim some domestic spending programs in order to shift resources to the war effort, as happened during World War II?

Will we cut back our car travel and oil use if the war triggers a disruption of oil from the Middle East? Will we ease environmental regulations to expand domestic energy production?

Will we accept limits on our mass events?

Will we tolerate long waits at airports and abide stepped-up air safety measures -- background checks, intense inspection, invasive searches?

Will we surrender some of our individual liberties and place more trust in government for our common good?

Will we be prepared to send our young men and women -- our sons and daughters -- to fight and die in faraway places?

Will we endure these wartime sacrifices when the years slip by or the battles go badly?

And will we stay the course when our casualties mount and our spirits flag?

In the end, will we fight the war on terrorism like the real war it became last week?

Heaven help us, do we have a choice after Tuesday's slaughter?

War is not heck; it is hell. And the occupants of the World Trade Center and Pentagon saw it Tuesday morning. Thousands upon thousands of body bags silently testify that this war is -- and can be -- no metaphor.

JWR contributor David Reinhard is an associate editor at The Oregonian. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, David Reinhard