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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2001 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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The enduring geometry
of humans at war -- THERE is a phrase that is starting to appear in news stories and on broadcast news reports.

It's an easy phrase to skim right over -- except to do so would be a mistake.

Three words -- that's all. Yet they may turn out to be the three most significant words we face.

"For the duration."

That's the phrase. We had better get accustomed to it.

It's not as if our elected officials failed to warn us. Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation was informed: This will not be a quick war. This will last for years. This is a commitment that will cost us, perhaps dearly.

Americans said they understood.

Yet "for the duration" -- that phrase from another time -- brings the message home. The United States is in this for the duration. It's a word that has concrete-hard meaning and fuzzy ambiguity, all at once. The hard translation is that this will take as long as it takes. The fuzziness is that no one has any idea what that means.

"For the duration" -- derived from the verb "to endure." That is what is being asked of Americans.

We were told right away -- within minutes of the planes hitting the World Trade Center -- that the U.S. was on full alert. We accepted that, knowing it could not hold up to scrutiny -- knowing that no state of alert can remain full indefinitely, because full alert is, by definition, an extraordinary state. It is a peak -- and peaks must subside. But full alert has been joined by something similar, with separate side effects. Full alert has been joined by full-time attention to the war.

Some Americans resent that -- resent that daily life has come to center on the war and the war alone. They believe -- understandably -- that life should consist of variety, of a wide array of things to think about, both serious and light. And lately hours, even days, have been allowed to go by when the war, if not exactly secondary, has at least seemed parallel to other matters that compete for the nation's attention.

But then, in an instant, the duration returns -- the war reclaims what it owns. The war is the context, and will be. It is not as if our country has never experienced this before.

What do you think those news crawls at the bottom of the cable television channels are -- those moving lines of words, those parades of tersely summarized developments? The left-to-right lines of marching words that deliver news on top of news -- that bring news to the viewers even as a newscaster on the main screen is announcing news? They are merely the 21st Century version of those Times Square news signboards from the 1940s -- those lightbulb lines of flowing news that transfixed our parents and grandparents, who stared up from the streets below. It is news neverending, for the duration. The only difference is technological -- people don't need to leave their houses to watch the beginningless, endless news crawls. Times Square is home-delivered, in all kinds of ways. Has been since early September.

Time itself -- which for so long we complained moved too swiftly, time that in our overpacked world seemed to get away from us before we could grasp it -- has slowed. Days no longer seem like minutes, but like weeks; weeks no longer feel like hours, but like years. We move through molasses, for the duration.

The duration can feel mundane, momentarily. The secretary of defense on live television, briefing the Pentagon press corps and the nation, has gone from being a highly unusual sight to being an expected, scheduled part of our days. There are afternoons when Donald Rumsfeld begins to feel vaguely like a familiar geometry teacher with remnants of chalk on his suit-coat elbows, standing at the blackboard lecturing the class, his voice one that everyone in the seats has long ago become accustomed to. There are afternoons when all of this, just for a second, begins to feel conventional -- when the class in front of the geometry teacher waits distractedly for the bell to ring.

But then comes something jarring from the front of the room -- then come the words, the information, that remind us this will not become routine. We are here -- each of us, all of us -- for the duration. We will not be the ones to define its end.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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