Homefront: Life during wartime

The business of bombing, grown-up fairy tales, and patriotism for postmoderns.

Published March 27, 2003 7:10PM (EST)


Bob Isakson is one of the many American businessmen who will be profiting -- we would never say "profiteering" -- from the war on Iraq. He is the head of a company called DRC Inc., which has been awarded the enviable task of postwar cleanup. According to its Web site, DRC "provides a total solution to your disaster relief needs." While the company counts as some of its main services "Hazardous Waste Response," "Demolition Management" and the provision of the extra creepy sounding "International Work Camps," Isakson promises that the mission in Iraq will be "different." He won't just be tearing things down and carting them away -- he'll also be building schools as part of America's massive postwar aid program.

If Isakson is as much of an expert on disaster relief as his Web site claims, he may wish to turn his attention to American schools instead. Unfortunately, with huge education budget cuts across the board and massive debts in the nation's school systems ($200 billion and growing), one suspects those domestic contracts will not be forthcoming.

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"What's a prisoner of war, Mommy?" "Are we civilians too, Mommy?" As news from Iraq becomes less and less reassuring, New York's Mayor Bloomberg suggests a new approach to talking to kids about the war: Don't tell Junior anything.

Instead, he advised in a press conference Wednesday, focus on "good stories with happy endings." Bloomberg also reminded everyone that we shouldn't scare kids because "they can't do anything about security."

The implied assumption, that adults can do something about security, is a lovely fairy tale indeed, and one that should help us all sleep better at night.

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First Person

Notes from a reservist

The writer is a medical supply sergeant waiting to be called to the Middle East.

I finished my basic training course nine years ago. Since then, I have managed to complete both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree as a civilian. I am a student in the academic study of philosophy, religion, classical humanities and, most intensely, American literature and history. My mentors and colleagues have been writers and thinkers of exceptional capabilities -- and many of them make a habit of "deconstructing" some of the things in which I find profound meaning.

One of my first faux pas as a graduate student was at an academic conference, during a session where professors and graduate students read papers analyzing the cultural effects of such films as Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."

One young man's paper discussed how, despite the graphic realism of its combat scenes, the film still served as a narrative of heroism, and no doubt would serve as a recruitment tool for today's military. This, he emphasized with a dismal tone of voice and dour expression, was not a good thing.

During the question and answer session, I addressed this young man and announced to a crowded room of listeners that, while I agreed that there was nothing beautiful or heroic about combat, there remained a real-life necessity for American citizens to prepare themselves to meet adversaries on the battlefield. Despite our best wishes and ideals, people across the globe have yet to dispense with warfare as a practical solution to conflicts, and I cannot agree that our nation should be the first to disarm. No doubt in our lifetime there will be a situation that calls upon our citizens to fight a bloody war, and my preference is that those citizens go voluntarily rather than as draftees. If Spielberg's realism prompted a select few to step forward for that duty, then I find no trouble in that.

After I spoke, the room fell silent. The young man, still standing, swayed silently back and forth until the session moderator moved on by saying, "OK, thanks for your comment. Next question."

I felt embarrassed after that session, grandstanding as I did about "real world" ideals that smell of banality to most academics. But that's what basic training was about: getting us ready for the cruel necessities of, yes, the real world.

For me, the most memorable moment of basic training occurred when my platoon was on a break in a parking lot. Many of us were kneeling down or sitting on a curb to pass the 15 or so minutes in conversation, a welcome rest in the middle of another long day of training. The sun blazed down, and I had my uniform blouse off and my T-shirt sleeves pushed up to catch a few rays.

Along with our drill sergeants, my platoon had been assigned a West Point cadet as some sort of intern -- a cadet no older than I was, but who commanded the same authority and potential to terrorize recruits as did the drill sergeants. There was one recruit in my platoon, a man named Obijayne, who was of particular interest to this cadet.

We all liked Obijayne. He was kind of quiet and easy to get along with; he got in his share of wisecracks but always had a word of encouragement ready for anyone, and had cool stories to tell us about being from Morocco. The cadet picked on him, we thought, because he was a few years older than us. Or maybe it was because he was Arab. We couldn't tell what it was, and it didn't matter to us anyway. Obijayne was just part of our team who kept getting singled out.

As we sat on break, a few of us realized that the cadet had pulled Obijayne away and into a field to do the grass drills we referred to as "front, back, go!" Obijayne jogged in place, dropped to the ground, rolled left, then right, and jumped up at each of the cadet's commands, dripping with sweat and struggling to keep up.

"That fucking cadet," one guy said. "I'm getting out there with him."

And so all 54 of us, men and women alike, jumped up from our break and ran out to the field to "front, back, go!" with Obijayne for another 15 minutes, in the heat.

But that was then. Nowadays I stay glued to the news, hoping for the safety of the soldiers I know and the soldiers I don't know. Just this past December, I attended a noncommissioned officer school, and many of my classmates are likely in the desert right now -- a Ranger, two infantrymen, a tank commander, a decontamination specialist, a gunner, an MP, a land surveyor. I spent anywhere from 12 to 18 hours per day for 13 days in a classroom with these guys, conducting morning exercise, sharing three meals a day, studying together, and even playing a few hands of spades.

And as with Obijayne, I don't want any of those guys out there under fire without me falling in right behind them.

-- Kristen L. Rouse

By Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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