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Behind the Lines

Here in New York, half a world away, the war in Iraq is having its impact, changing politics and media and mind-sets at cruise-missile speed. What will New York and America do—and what will it be like to be an American—when the smoke clears? An examination of the war and its aftermath.

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War is exciting. Everything seems sharper, tauter, more on the surface. Television itself has become a tinderbox. Everybody is more responsive. And more fragile. And touchier. All sorts of new sensitivities are exposed. There’s both an intensity and a tentativeness to the war talk. A reluctance to ask but a need to know. It’s all still so new that you can’t be sure which direction people will go (years into Vietnam, for instance, you could look at a person and instantly know his views).

“Okay, so let’s talk about it,” a friend said at lunch the other day, as though getting to the real, painful thing in our relationship. This was a nice and expensive lunch, which I didn’t want to ruin. And yet it was the moment of choosing sides, of identifying yourself. Whatever the response, it was going to change things. In a word, you’d meet your brother or your opposite: One thrilled by the president’s implacable assertions of American might, the other convinced he’s a one-note impostor. One with a crabbed, ungenerous, fearful, unreasonable, sheeplike nature; or another, with a depth and understanding and passion and clarity that you might never have known was there. (Which is which, or who is who, depends, of course, on your own view.) One you embrace; the other you’re instantly cut off from.

Every day, the contempt each side has for the other grows more sweeping and personal:

“So what you’re saying is that you support suicide bombers?”

“No, what I’m saying is that if I say what I think, I could get suspended by my ankles in a freezing room!”

For instance, Michael Kelly, writing this month in The Atlantic, isn’t just making an argument, or taking a columnist’s contrarian view, but expressing that extra measure of scorn, derision, and animus for the other side—and, regardless of the nuances of their views, for everyone on it. The Times’ Paul Krugman, the actress Janeane Garofalo, the columnist James Wolcott (and, for that matter, Vanity Fair, the publication Wolcott writes for), the novelist Kurt Vonnegut (who served a similar role during the Vietnam War), and, of course, all Frenchmen everywhere are not just wrong, in Kelly’s telling, but callow, pathetic, unmanly, inferior, dishonorable.

It flows the other way, too. Krugman comes as near as any respectable voice in branding the administration a rogue group: “I’m saying that the men who are controlling our destiny are lying.” More and more, you hear the echo of the Europeans’ who’s-the-most-dangerous poll. “Bush is more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden, because like Osama he really believes in good and evil,” says a normally Establishment-centered friend, now full of uncommon fury.

There is, too, as part of this drama of the rending of the nation, the Times’ Tom Friedman, who, in a loopy column about “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” finds himself in near public tears for some mythically unified nation that, he believes, existed at a halcyon moment after 9/11. (Who bears responsibility for that lost 9/11 feeling may be a future political issue.)

The fracturing, against the background of the coming-together orchestration, seems to be occurring on a minute-by-minute basis. Jews from Gentiles. More-conservative Jews from less-conservative Jews. Republicans from Democrats. Emotional Republicans from economic Republicans. Don’t-rock-the-boat Democrats (who include most of those running for president) from ever-angrier ones. Yuppies from college students. Employed yuppies from unemployed yuppies. Men from women. People who don’t go to Europe from people who do go (especially to the country whose name we dare not speak). California from the rest of the west. And, too—and most telling for the ever-degrading center—those core Bush supporters who every day grow more belligerent, determined, intractable, hard-core, cocksure (the U.N. has never had the balls to do anything, anyway!) from those who have been reluctantly in favor (those hardened cynics of middle age), but who now find themselves dumbfounded by the immutable march. And, of course, America, as we light up the skies and gun the Humvees, from absolutely everyone else in the world (except Tony Blair).

It may be, against all odds, that after a quarter-century of political somnambulance, people have come alive again -- either ominously or hopefully.

Reality divides, Jekyll and Hyde:

(A) Bush is decisive, steadfast, methodical, nonequivocating, focused, unfickle, not brilliant perhaps, not well-spoken, but an honest—even far-thinking—steward of national security, surrounded by the best military thinkers ever to have occupied the White House. What you see is what you get.

(B) Bush, the illegitimate president, is a religious authoritarian with a total disregard for (and inability to grasp) nuance, who has obvious testosterone issues and is strutting about on the world stage oblivious to his own high-risk behavior. What you don’t see are family grudges, ulterior motives (Halliburton already lining up its Iraq oil-field contracts!), and vast messianic ambitions.

Each second, someone chooses a side and becomes ever-more righteous about it.

It may even be, against all the odds, that after a quarter-century of political somnambulance, people have come alive again—either ominously or hopefully. That a new, passionate opposition is in play (with each side maintaining that the other is really the would-be usurper). That something great and terrible is being born.

If this is true—this sudden, dramatic sundering—then the press has missed this story as it missed almost all stories involving the public heart these past many years.

In part, this is certainly due to the fact that the press is overexcited, too. It has converted itself, willy-nilly, into a wartime press corps. (It’s also a poll-driven press—and the polls say Americans support the war!)

The story is about the war as a fighting-man event, not a political event. It’s 90 percent a Pentagon story. No context, just blow-by-blow. The excitement is about going along, about having access, wearing war clothes, eating war food—a desire, finally, to be part of the scene, to be an “embed,” to hang out in Doha at the $225,000 briefing stage. It’s all spectacle. War is a media thing. Not just a ratings gift but a personal professional plum. Take advantage of it.


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