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Psych Ops

Battleground New York: Why the war at home is a stalled campaign.

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Waiting for the other shoe (or, as one might have written half-ironically last year, the other Manolo) to drop is not, to say the least, a cheerful enterprise. There have been certain days when every single story in the New York Times is depressing. And when the Yankees were losing, that was depressing. Last week, an e-mail circulated suggesting that workers in government offices had been told not to take the subway on October 30 and 31, and that was inane and depressing in equal measure. Inane because of course they would tell us about a credible threat to the subway. Depressing because . . . Wouldn't they?

Amazingly, that's become a serious question. Politicians and commentators have been attempting to manage our feelings, and it's not unpatriotic to say that this is a job they've mangled. There's not (except for Rumsfeld) a communicator among them. John Ashcroft seems nervous beneath his mask of gravity, and his Delphic utterances (a credible but nonspecific terrorist threat; no progress in identifying the Anthrax source) are about as effective in informing and calming the public as tossing tea leaves. It's been like watching a month's worth of weather reports, all of which have been wrong -- and then discovering that they're incomplete or inaccurate by design.

The war at home obviously involves a large measure of psychology, but no particular approach seems mandated -- depressive Lincoln or blustery Churchill or suave, guarded Roosevelt can all achieve good results. What's important is the absence of apparent bullshit. War (this should have been one of the lessons of Vietnam) is too big to spin.

Drifting away from the event, with its focused sorrow and rage, into the murky, queasy, billowing present, it's easy to forget what so many of us were so eager to fight for -- the memory of our dead; the safety of our children. We begin to imagine that we're fighting for the abstraction of being an American. (We are, of course, fighting for the immense privilege of being an American; shouldn't we be?)

This is a notion that the Europeans and other Sontag-ian fellow travelers in our midst are at pains to reinforce. We're forced to stand up not only for our foreign policy but also for our celebrities, our tract houses, our workaholism, Disney, Moomba, Manolos (yes, he counts now as an American). In certain company, it begins to seem as if Americans were the ones fiendishly sitting in our caves, plotting . . . bad Hollywood movies and sending them out to destroy the world. Fighting this war makes everyone feel like the ACLU in Skokie -- yes, we have to defend Hollywood and gangsta rap, too, unpleasant as it can seem.

The cheeriest people seem to be those far to the left and right, whose central war aim seems to be the avoidance of the moral complexity that comes from living in this democracy. The rest of us have to get our mind around the idea that bombing causes suffering -- we cause suffering. (This, as we wonder why the 34th Street subway station has been closed again.)

The remoteness of the war, its abstractness, makes it, oddly, harder to rationalize: It seems to cost us nothing, is one undercurrent; What can it be worth? Thoughts like these are juxtaposed against the Taliban-produced images of the dead and those they left behind, in their vests and robes, with their hard, sad faces picking through the mounds of brown dirt -- their own ground zero -- that once were their houses.

This is its own form of torture, of course, and we want to be free of it. So you hear men -- all of us deeply versed, of course, in the science of modern war -- insisting, sotto voce, that the government should hurry up and send ground troops; at least that would initiate a crisp new chapter, bringing into play the masculine logics of conquering and holding territory and -- yikes -- of body counts. Women (another cocktail-party stereotype: If women ran the world, goes the highly credible but non-specific intelligence, none of this would be happening) tend to provide a chorus of anxiety: Are we doing the right thing? This is lily-livered hand-wringing, terrible for morale. It's also a question that, as we fight this war -- and we must, we must -- we should never stop asking.


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