Sandstorms and Sandy Beaches

Daily Encounters

Last week, the simultaneous start of the war and Spring Break left many feeling uneasy. As the last classes met and first bombs fell, students in the dining halls expressed their mild guilt at vacationing while Americans die, voiced their worries at braving the skies during a war—and then shrugged and packed their bags, still unclear whether it was appropriate to be enjoying the heat of the beach while thousands of American soldiers are fighting in the suffocating heat of the Middle East.

For me, the war began a few hours after my thesis was due. The final sleepless days of editing were interspersed with regular updates on the unraveling United Nations situation and constant images of Ari Fleischer’s face. The frustration of watching a war commence, alongside the sadness of watching young American, British, Australian and Iraqi soldiers and journalists die in technicolor, took its toll. As my thesis ended and the war began, a week of sunbathing in Cancun seemed equally mandatory and ridiculously obscene.

What, exactly, constitutes an “appropriate” wartime Spring Break is particularly unclear for students who have never lived through a longer-term war, or one in which more than 120 soldiers died. Gulf War “appropriateness” was easy—we continued attending middle school. This war is particularly surreal: outside of the newspapers, it is rather hard to believe that a war really is going on. In Cambridge, life, academic or celebratory, has not changed since “Shock and Awe” began, aside from regular skepticism on who came up with that title, and NPR’s new “Special Coverage” programming around the clock. Many students do not know anyone who is fighting; to much of the student body (though not all), Army culture is completely foreign. As a student, it seems, life goes on, including vacations.

So while the first bombs fell in Baghdad, I went to the Army Barracks Army/Navy Store to purchase a travel bag for my trip to Cancun, taking advantage of the marked-down army gear that some use in the sand storms of Iraq, and I chose to use in the sand dunes of Cancun. I purchased something called a “British CFP Pack,” and an “Ammunition Bag,” and used both as carry-ons, for such important belongings as my snorkel.

I then hopped on a plane and flew to this well-known Spring Break paradise, where bikinis (or no bikinis, depending on the beach) hold court, and resort owners go out of their way to make sure that vacationers forget about any “stress” whatsoever, including the bloodshed of fellow citizens and Iraqis alike 8,000 miles away. I was relieved.


And yet I still feel guilty. Politics aside, while at the airport or in class, most feel an urge to support the troops. There is a tangible sense that as the Middle East erupts in gunfire, we should be doing something other than traveling or taking notes. But Rosie the Riveter doesn’t exist anymore-she’s now Susannah the Social Worker, whose job is to protect America’s kids while some of their parents are at war, or Sue-Lee the Student, whose job is to keep learning how to be a better diplomat so that one day she can try to prevent scenarios like this one. Both are left in the position of continuing to support what they believe in, whether that be war or opera.

And so we continue taking trips and watching sitcoms, realizing that with the backdrop of war, we crave celebration and entertainment—anything to get away from the news. Ticket sales to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus have sky-rocketed in recent weeks, and as the NCAA Basketball tournament heats up, millions of Americans spend their days channel-flipping to check the “score,” one of which happens to be “American casualties in Iraq.” In between news briefs—many of which already stem from “The Daily Show” and “Extra”—a nationwide yearning for leisurely diversion has taken over, much like the surge in entertainment profits after Sept. 11.

On the homefront, the entertainment industry has responded, in a swift havoc of pushing back movie releases that now seem tacky and frivolous, while fast-forwarding others, searching for the politically-neutral feel-good movie/cash cow that everyone needs. Even the Oscars went on, with 33 million viewers grateful for the opportunity to mindlessly watch Hollywood pat itself on the back for four hours in subdued dresses (J. Lo wore a toga), with the usual $22,000 dollar-gift basket presenters, while the local news station interspersed the broadcast with announcements asking residents to donate sunscreen to the troops. At least the Academy patted the right part of the back this year, praising The Pianist, a war memoir that is perhaps the only unquestionably appropriate entertainment this week.

No one really knows how to behave. And so this week when I return from the airport with my army-style bags (yes, I am still in Cancun), I will attend my elective classes and learn about obscure literature in between an anti-war protest or two, and eat three meals a day in the dining hall, and in the evenings I will go to the movies with the free tickets I received as a post-thesis present. And the people that I sit next to will feel occasional pangs of guilt when we pass a t.v. screen—shouldn’t I be doing something? And we will sit there together, eating popcorn, as a country at war.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.