Sunday, January 02, 2005

Washington's New Year War Cry: Party On!

The New York Times
January 2, 2005
Washington's New Year War Cry: Party On!

ON the fourth day 'til Christmas, the day that news of the slaughter at the mess tent in Mosul slammed into the evening news, CBS had scheduled a special treat. That evening brought the annual broadcast of "The Kennedy Center Honors," the carefree variety show in which Washington's top dogs mingle with visitors from that mysterious land known as the Arts and do a passing (if fashion-challenged) imitation of revelers at the Oscars. This year, like any other, the show was handing out medals to those representing "the very best in American culture," as exemplified by honorees like Australia's Dame Joan Sutherland and Britain's Sir Elton John. Festive bipartisanship reigned. Though Sir Elton had said just three weeks earlier that "Bush and this administration are the worst thing that has ever happened to America," he and his boyfriend joined the president and Mrs. Bush in their box. John Kerry held forth in an orchestra seat below.

"The Kennedy Center Honors" is no ratings powerhouse; this year more adults under 50 elected to watch "The Real Gilligan's Island" on cable instead. But I tuned in, curious to see how this gathering of the capital's finest might be affected by the war. The honors had actually been staged and taped earlier in the month, on Dec. 5. That day the morning newspapers told of more deadly strikes by suicide bombers in Mosul and Baghdad, killing at least 26 Iraqi security officers, including 8 in a police station near the capital's protected Green Zone. There were also reports of at least four American casualties in other firefights.

But if anyone at the Kennedy Center so much as acknowledged this reality unfolding beyond the opera house, it was not to be found in the show presented on television. The only wars evoked were those scored by another honoree, John Williams, whose soundtrack music for "Saving Private Ryan" and "Star Wars" was merrily belted out by a military band. (Our delicate sensibilities were spared the sight of an actual "Private Ryan" battle scene, however, lest the broadcast risk being shut down for "indecency.") The razzle-dazzle Hollywood martial music, the what-me-worry Washington establishment, the glow of money and red plush: everything about the tableau reeked of the disconnect between the war in Iraq and the comfort of all of us at home, starting with those in government who had conceived, planned, rubber-stamped and managed our excellent adventure in spreading democracy.

Ordinary people beyond Washington, red and blue Americans alike, are feeling that disconnect more and more. On the same day that CBS broadcast the Kennedy Center special, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed that any gains in Iraq had come at the cost of "unacceptable" losses in casualties and that 56 percent believed the war wasn't "worth fighting" - up 8 percent since the summer. In other words, most Americans believe that our troops are dying for no good reason, even as a similar majority (58 percent) believes, contradictorily enough, that we should keep them in Iraq.

So the soldiers soldier on, and we party on. As James Dao wrote in The New York Times, "support our troops" became a verbal touchstone in 2004, yet "only for a minuscule portion of the populace, mainly those with loved ones overseas, does it have anything to do with sacrifice." Quite the contrary: we have our tax cuts, and a president who promises to make them permanent. Such is the disconnect between the country and the war that there is no national outrage when the president awards the Medal of Freedom to the clowns who undermined the troops by bungling intelligence (George Tenet) and Iraqi support (Paul Bremer). Such is the disconnect that Washington and the news media react with slack-jawed shock when one of those good soldiers we support so much speaks up at a town hall meeting in Kuwait and asks the secretary of defense why vehicles that take him and his brothers into battle lack proper armor.

Much has been made of this incident, yet it hardly constituted big news. It's no secret to anyone, including Donald Rumsfeld, that the troops have often been undersupplied. Dana Priest of The Washington Post heard soldiers asking the defense secretary "similar questions about their body armor" when traveling with him a year ago. In October, 23 members of an Army Reserve unit disobeyed a direct order to deliver fuel, partly because they decided that the vulnerability of their trucks made the journey tantamount to a suicide mission. As far back as last spring, Stars and Stripes was reporting that desperate troops were using sandbags as makeshift vehicle armor. Even now, reports The Los Angeles Times, National Guard soldiers are saying they have been shipped to war from Fort Bliss with "chronic illnesses, broken guns and trucks with blown transmissions."

When Mr. Rumsfeld told Specialist Thomas Wilson in Kuwait that the only reason the troops lacked armor was "a matter of production and capability," he was lying. The manufacturers that supply the armor were quick to respond that they had been telling the Pentagon for months that they could increase production, in the case of one company (ArmorWorks in Arizona) by as much as 100 percent. But that news was quickly drowned out by cable and talk radio arguments over whether Mr. Wilson should or should not have consulted with an embedded reporter about the phrasing of his question. Soon Mr. Rumsfeld was off to Iraq for a P.R. tour (message: I care) in which he used troops as photo-op accessories and thanked a soldier for asking a softball question "not planted by the media." Washington could go back to worrying about more pressing domestic problems, like how to cook the books so that Social Security can be fixed cost-free.

The truth is that for all the lip service paid to supporting the troops, out of sight is often out of mind. Even the minority that remains gung-ho about the war in Iraq is quick to blame the grunts for anything that goes wrong. Specialist Wilson, Rush Limbaugh said, was guilty of "near insubordination" for his question in Kuwait; the poor defense secretary "was set up," whined The New York Post. The same crowd tells us that a few low-level guards are solely responsible for the criminal abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and in Guantánamo Bay, not any policy-setting higher-ups who may be sitting in that audience at Kennedy Center. President Bush even tried to pass the buck for his premature aircraft carrier victory jig to the troops, telling the press months later that "the 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished." Of course.

Back then, the Pentagon projected that our military occupation of Iraq would end in December 2004. But two days after appearing in the box at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the president donned a snappy muted green "commander in chief" jacket - a casual Friday version of the full "Top Gun" costume he'd worn on the Lincoln - to address marines at Camp Pendleton in California who were going to war, not coming home. (Slate reported this week that "nearly one-quarter of U.S. combat dead in 2004 were stationed in Camp Pendleton.") It was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Bush drew the expected analogy: "Just as we defeated the threats of fascism and imperial communism in the 20th century, we will defeat the threat of global terrorism." But three years into it, can we win a war that most of the country senses has gone astray in Iraq and that the party in power regards as a lower priority than lower taxes?

The ethos could hardly have been more different during the World War II so frequently invoked by Mr. Bush. As David Brinkley recounted in his 1988 history, "Washington Goes to War," the Roosevelt administration's first big push "was a tremendous voluntary program to reduce the deficit, encourage saving, trim spending and thus curb inflation - the sale of war bonds." Though bonds would not in the end pay for the war - that would require the sacrifice of paying taxes - F.D.R. believed that his campaign "would give the public a sense of involvement in a war being fought thousands of miles away, a war so distant many Americans had difficulty at times remembering it was there at all." Gen. George Marshall, the Army's chief of staff, took it on himself to write notes by hand to the family of each man killed in battle until the volume forced the use of Western Union telegrams.

Well, Mr. Rumsfeld has sworn he'll stop delegating condolence letters to his Autopen. But otherwise the contrast between the Washington that won World War II and the Washington fighting a war in Iraq is so striking it can even be found in the cultural lineage of the Kennedy Center show. That show's producer, as it happens, is George Stevens Jr., the son of the great Hollywood filmmaker George Stevens. In his day, the elder Stevens created his own wartime Washington entertainment: a glorious 1943 romantic comedy, "The More the Merrier" (just out on DVD), set in the newly mobilized capital, that, though fiction, is in itself a striking document of the difference between then and now. While it portrays a patriotic Washington as frivolously beset by party animals, bureaucrats and lobbyists as today's, there's an underlying ethos of shared sacrifice, literally down to the living arrangements necessitated by a housing shortage. It might as well be a different civilization.

Washington's next celebration will be the inauguration. Roosevelt decreed that the usual gaiety be set aside at his wartime inaugural in January 1945. There will be no such restraint in the $40 million, four-day extravaganza planned this time, with its top ticket package priced at $250,000. The official theme of the show is "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service." That's no guarantee that the troops in Iraq will get armor, but Washington will, at least, give home-front military personnel free admission to one of the nine inaugural balls and let them eat cake.