February 1, 2002

What Kind of Total Disregard for Humanity Do You Have?

• Warum ich so weise bin •

• Warum ich so klug bin •

• Warum ich so gute Bücher schreibe •

• Warum ich ein Schicksal bin •

Secluded away in the middle of Michigan, we (my friends and I) were not supposed to know that on August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait, in response (in part) to assurances made by U.S. diplomats over the summer, or so we (all) would later learn. There was no conspiracy to keep us in the dark, of course; it was just understood that the outside world became insignificant compared to trying to figure out which fellow camper one would invite to go, arm in arm, to the last dance. We did, however, in our room, have a clock radio. And we just happened to have it tuned to the news that morning, so we heard. And we announced it to the assembled campers during the flag-raising before breakfast.

Only later in 1990 did the panic start to set in. My friends and I were completely unprepared for the response of the Bush administration. Suddenly troops were mobilized, and I remember walking to school one day, telling my mother that I feared a land war in Asia. I knew I would be draft-eligible within a decade, and land wars in Asia tend to drag. But as long as the mission, as long as our troops in Saudi Arabia, were part of Desert Shield, then it seemed that nothing bad would happen in the U.S., at least. If my main personal fear was about a draft looming years and years away, then clearly I was pretty safe.

On January 29, 1991, everything changed. As per custom, our president, George Herbert Walker Bush, delivered a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. I had watched SoTUs before, usually while complaining about the displacement of other television shows. But this address was notable because the U.S. was already at war. I had never imagined the U.S. at war (back then, I was more receptive to ideas about the end of history…), and the sight disrupted and shook me and my friends profoundly.

Before the speech began, the news anchors gathered to discuss how representatives from both parties had made last-minute flag runs, to make certain that every Democrat and every Republican in the chamber would be able to sport a flag in his or her hand. These were not tiny pins, mind you, and, if memory serves, there were no yellow ribbons to be seen, either. These were honest, hand-sized flags, and they were waved with vigor and excitement at every opportunity. For this speech, the applause count was replaced by the flag-wave count.

Up until that point, the American flag had never, at least in my lifetime, been as ubiquitous. Maybe during a party's convention, or some sort of special July 4th celebration, maybe then a bunch of flags would come out. But, in general, the flag was something seen relatively rarely; no one on my block had one out, for example. Now, here in the Congress, every person on the floor had a flag. Pages scrambled to hand them out. Wave, wave, wave.

A newsperson's comment ingrained the event deeply in my memory. The Democrats, this person explained, do not want to look less patriotic than the Republicans. After all, only half a month had elapsed since S Joint Res 2, which allowed the use of force in Iraq. The resolution passed only by two votes (Gore…Lieberman…), and the large bulk of Democrats had voted against it. Still, Bush began his speech right away by reminding the audience that, as we listened, planes were flying sorties halfway across the world. Later, he explained that "The war in the Gulf is not a war we wanted." He outlined our objectives in Kuwait: "Our purpose in the Persian Gulf remains constant: to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, to restore Kuwait's legitimate government, and to ensure the stability and security of this critical region."

Flags waved, waved, waved in grandiose gestures.

Given the above criteria, then, Bush's war was a bit of a failure, as our planes and missiles did not help ensure a stability which has disintegrated over a decade. But the policy was not the important element of this speech, it was, rather, the aforementioned image of America at War. The politicians' competing to see who could be the most patriotic seemed base and opportunistic. And, even worse, the implied demise of the poor soul caught not waving his flag hard enough shocked us into wishing there was a second way. It is surprising to see how many of those 47 senators who voted against force in Iraq are still in the Senate (or at least made it through 1992 unscathed), but, then, they had the flags.

Back at home, we did not have pages scurrying around to make sure that we were all patriotic enough. My classmates and I were a rather pacifistic lot—and as good Massachusetts citizens, we loathed President Bush for what he had done to Governor Dukakis. We also hated him for selling out his home state to pretend he was a Texan, and obviously, we hated his war. As a result, his speech on January 29 filled us all with dread. We all had the Fear now, as we were no longer safe in our own country. We sat daily during 1991, clustered around the television in our homeroom during lunch, and watched as video-game image after video-game image came over the airwaves. We were cloistered and safe there in homeroom, but outside, America was no longer safe. Without yellow ribbons on our lapels and with an eagerness to argue the fine points of the war (a common example was to reduce the conflict to oil, pointing out that the U.S.S.R. was driving tanks into its former republics, crushing protesters, with only lip service given by the U.S.), we stood out, ready for ostracizing.

Clearly, nothing bad ever really happened. I never got rolled by any townies for not supporting Bush's war. It was popular, but it was not entirely popular. But after that speech, it became clear to my friends and me that we could never again be, in the eyes of others, good Americans. I hated seeing all those flags; it reminded me of May Day parades in Moscow or of footage from late-30s Germany. On that late January night, the flag became a symbol of oppression, of censorship, and of the clandestine crushing of individuality — the support of individuality having been what was supposed to make this nation great.

We hear stories as children about early Christians being forced by their Roman captors to make just one sacrifice, just one prayer to Jupiter or Caesar. Just one stick of incense lit, they say, and you will be free. Christians revere their ancestors who resisted making even that one ungrandiose gesture.