War Is No Cause to Celebrate

WAR IN AMERICA is unlike war anywhere else in the modern world.

We have never been invaded by a stronger force than our own, never had to watch as troops marched through our streets, preserving or destroying as they saw fit. When bombs go off in a war, they don't shatter the glass in our bedrooms windows, or destroy our prop-property, or kill our entire families.

War in America is parades and yellow ribbons and American flags and national anthems. It is television specials about the gas masks other people may have to use to save their lives, sound bites about our divine responsibility for the preservation of world democracy, TV station identification breaks playing "Over There" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and store windows proudly displaying flags, combat fatigues and patriotic T-shirts and underwear.

For those who have friends or relatives in the Gulf, war becomes a more serious business. For them, war is the fear of a call from a Captain, the knowledge that they may never see their mother or father, their son, daughter or lover ever again. But for much of the American public, those who do not know anyone fighting in the Gulf, this war is being marketed like a World Series, a Superbowl or Wrestlemania.

A COUPLE of weeks ago I went to visit my high school English teacher. Sitting in on one of his classes, I noticed that many of the students had pinned American flags to their knap-sacks. Directing my questions to the class as a whole, I asked whether students generally supported the war. Greeted by a chorus of yesses, I asked whether support was for the general aims of the war, or more specifically for the troops. They looked at me quizzically. "We support the whole thing," one girl explained. A boy in the back of the room yelled out, "Yeah! Kick His Ass and Get His Gas!" The classroom erupted into hollers and cheers which my old teacher could hardly quiet.

For these people--most of them old enough to fight in the Gulf--war was a game. They hadn't thought about the people dying in Tel Aviv and Baghdad bombings, about children their own age dying in the streets and on the battlefields. They had thought (minimally) about our needs--gasoline--and about our goals--to win. And they were cheering wildly for our team, waving their flags, yelling their chants and sleeping well in their beds while around the world, their peers died in falling buildings.

War in America is a celebration. A celebration of American ideals, of a New World Order that we will impose, of a "team" that looks like it's probably strong enough to "kick his ass." As one T-shirt in the window of the Army-Navy Surplus store reminds us, "Don't Mess with the U.S."

The seriousness of war is belittled by the flag-waving and chants and most particularly by the persistent commodification of the battle. Shop windows display "Operation Desert Storm" shirts, badges and buttons. The hot new fashion statement includes American flag earnings and pins with little yellow ribbons tied around their poles.

Recently, some stores have begun to market Operation Desert Storm condoms.

At a posh Denver grocery store, the bakery section this week featured "war-time cake." Modeled on cake made in Britain during World War II rationing, when families lacked food and the country lived in terror of being invaded, this cake contains almost no milk or eggs. It was an invention of a time when there was nothing else to do but make do with what little there was.

For this ritzy Denver grocery store, war-time cake was a best-seller. A way for rich, patriotic American Dream translated into the vocabulary of war.

WHETHER WE SUPPORT the war effort or not, we must examine our commercial reactions to this event. Hall-mark sells Valentine's Day, Grandparents' Day and Thanksgiving. M & M/Mars always cashes in on Easter. AT&T; makes a buck at Mother's Day. Capitalist interpretations of these holidays may be sort of sick, but they are not wrong.

But when stores start to "make a killing" on war paraphernalia, our national tendency to look for the instant cash flow becomes a callous disregard for the lives being ended daily in the Persian Gulf.