on the Home Front in the War Against Terror
by John Chuckman
America at war no longer provides the teary, sweet image
of Jimmy Stewart, charmingly awkward in a lumpy wool uniform,
being shipped off to save the world. No, America's version
of war has become utterly bizarre fifty-six years after World
In the War against Terror, our professional soldiers (Our
"boyz in hawm's way") are pampered like sumo wrestlers preparing
for a big match. It is a lavish style of warfare that only
the world's most expensive army could possibly afford.
Between greetings to the many on-site television cameras
for folks back home and catching up on the latest flicks,
they enjoy hot pepperoni pizza, gulp Bud Light, and peruse
Airforce-expressed copies of Playboy - all with an intense
awareness of serving the forces of goodness and decency. Their
mission is to wait patiently while the top twenty feet of
Afghanistan are reduced to rubble. They are confident their
cause is right knowing that our jets thoughtfully sprinkle
the Afghan debris with emergency food packets.
But wartime life in America, away from the Afghan Front,
competes fiercely for weirdness.
On my last visit to a Mobil station, having followed the
pump's computerized instructions to choose my method of payment
and grade of gasoline, I was filling the tank when a new message
started blinking across the diodes: "Always remember September
11!…God bless America!…Always remember September 11!…God bless
I felt cheated by this surreptitious method of lumping Texas-football
patriotism into a $10 gas purchase. Cheated because I had
promised myself not to stop anywhere with "God bless America!"
signs. I prefer my religion and my patriotism stored safely
apart, like the two highly volatile chemical compounds that
they are. Buying from stores with "Honk for America" and "Be
Proud to Be an American!" is as far as I go indulging America's
drawling, unshaven, belligerent, belly-over-the-belt patriotism.
When you drag God into it, we part company.
The blinking, patriotic gasoline pump came after several
days of observing life on the home front in the War against
Terror, all of which brought me to single, inescapable conclusion:
nearly two months on, it is definitely time for America to
get a life.
I have to say that once inside the Mobil, the display of
September-11th merchandise was modest, at least compared to
the Irving station a week before which had sweats, tees, bumper
stickers, little flags, and a large selection of lapel pins.
The irony at Irving was overwhelming because, as perhaps few
Americans would know, the company's founder is an eccentric
Canadian gazillionaire who lived for many years in the Caymen
Islands to avoid taxes. Echoes of Dr. Johnson on patriotism
were almost audible.
Our neighbors across the street have established a ritual
of emerging from their front door twice a day to put up their
flag and take it down, closely following the flag-etiquette
instructions I recall from the 1956 edition of the Boy Scouts
of America Manual. They do forget sometimes, but they are
These home-front patriots are the same good folks who, when
we were new to the neighborhood and I politely objected to
their having their driveway snow plowed across the street
into our front yard, advised me, "You don't own the sidewalk."
Then there was the time that their vagabond cat, which it
turned out had not been given shots in 6 years, bit another
neighbor. When she raised the matter of her medical costs,
their answer was, "There's no leash law for cats."
I don't really know whether there is a connection between
cuckoo-clock flag etiquette and being the most obnoxious neighbors
we've ever experienced, but the ritual does set them apart
from others on our street who choose to fly flags. Most keep
it casual like some wash draped out to dry from an upstairs
window or a front porch rail. Somehow this approach seems
more in keeping with the rusted car and tractor parts that
litter so many of America's yards and driveways.
As I walked past the donut shop one day, right under the
giant "Honk for America!" sign was a display bristling with
scores of flags. At first, I regarded this as an unusually
enthusiastic display of patriotism, but a man standing at
a table with a fistful of dollar bills quickly corrected my
first impression. I wondered whether there was a deal for
a flag with a dozen jelly donuts or maybe a half dozen, but
I wasn't curious enough to walk over and ask.
My favorite patriotic sticker, often seen on the sides or
backs of highway trucks, is "Be Proud to Be an American!"
Each time it rumbles past, I think, "If only I could while
peasants, who wouldn't know what New York is, have limbs blown
off by pilots at 30 thousand feet who managed the remarkable
feat of achieving 'air superiority' over a 14th century land
in record time." And there is something positively heartwarming
in being ordered to be proud.
A gift shop on the New York Tollway probably set the high-water
mark for make-a-buck patriotism. About a third of the store
was filled with September-11th merchandise. The extent of
the display made me wonder how they filled the store before
"The Tragedy." Dramatic, new graphics on shirts, hats, glasses,
and banners lured a steady stream of patriots from seeking
the slightly-fetid washrooms after a stop at the grease-pit
I only thank God I don't watch television. The chaotic, fast-cut
assault of greed, patriotism, and twisted religion would be
unbearable. And I'll bet each station has an official War-against-Terror
logo with some limited-time offers for merchandise.
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