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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2001 / 5 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

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'But this is like
fighting the wind' -- I WAS having dinner at some people's house the other night, and -- as is probably the case at most houses in America -- much of the conversation was about the war.

I was especially interested in how one person at dinner felt about all of this, because he was John Glenn.

He's 80 now. If ever there was a symbol of the utter conviction that the United States can do anything -- conquer any enemy, meet any challenge -- he is that symbol. A Marine fighter pilot who flew 59 combat missions in World War II, he went back to battle during the Korean War and flew 90 more missions. In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, with U.S. confidence shaky as the Soviets threatened to take the high ground in space, Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, and perhaps the greatest national hero of his time. He served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, and then, at the age of 77, returned to space aboard the shuttle Discovery.

There appeared to have been no task too daunting for Glenn. Yet this new war, with its confusions and contradictions, seems to be affecting Glenn in all the ways it is the rest of us.

"All the other wars we had, the object was to win the battlefield," he said. "Use tanks, use planes, take their capital, and declare victory. War's over.

"But this ... this is like the wind. This is like fighting the wind. It doesn't fit within borders. You can hit them, but they'll pop up somewhere else.

"This doesn't seem to be the kind of war where you can look forward to them signing a surrender on the battleship Missouri."

With everyone talking about the new surge of patriotism in the U.S., I asked him if this exceeded anything he has seen in his lifetime. After all, his first space flight had set off a frenzy of patriotism dizzying in its intensity -- and he had been the object of that frenzy, almost a human American flag.

"It's always going to be a case of `us against them,'" he said. "In 1962, there was this sort of exultation over something that we accomplished. Now, though, the patriotism is just as strong, but it has a different quality to it. It's sort of. ...

"I don't want to say we're beleaguered, because that's not quite it. But instead of a sense of celebration in our patriotism now, there is a feeling of `We'll show them.' Do you know what it feels like? It feels like defensive patriotism."

There are times when it seems as if the world will never free itself of warfare. I asked Glenn if, on that magnificent flight in 1962, he looked down at a sight no American had ever seen -- the sight of the Earth, from the vantage point of orbit -- and had regarded it in a different way than he had imagined.

"You look down, and you think about all the borders you fly over," he said. "You fly by those borders so quickly, and you think of all the things that people do to each other because of those borders. It makes you think of all the man-made problems we come up with -- and about why we aren't better at turning them into man-solved problems."

He said that 80 is a difficult age for any man to get used to. His days in space are over; he maintains his lifelong interest in government in his role with the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at the Ohio State University. As for our new national state of increasing levels of "full alert" ...

"How can we be any more alert than we are now?" he said.

He's learning about it every day, just as the rest of us are. At an airport in California, he set off the metal detector on his way to a flight. He removed a tiny pen knife from his pocket; the security guards confiscated it, and said it would be mailed to him.

But he kept setting off the metal detector. He pulled everything out of his pockets; the alarm kept sounding. A security guard asked him to take off his shoes.

So -- in this sad and sobering new American era in which even John Glenn, like the rest of us, is considered a potential threat to national security until proven otherwise -- he removed his shoes for the guards. There was some metal in the shoes' material. He finally was allowed to go to the boarding gate.

G-dspeed, John Glenn. G-dspeed to all of us.

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

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