Essay: War Fever

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: For months now, American forces have been gathering to invade Iraq. For months, voices on talk radio have argued in favor of war and there have been demonstrations against. The cable networks have been advertising their upcoming coverage, and here and there in America families have wept, saying good-bye to sailors and soldiers.

ANNOUNCER: Americans rallying to the colors.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But otherwise America does not seem a nation fevered or engaged by the prospect of war with Iraq the way America must have felt in those days of December 1941, after pearl harbor. I think of Rosie the riveter, and young men lining up to serve, and victory gardens. Growing up in the 1950s, I often heard adults speak of World War II with a mixture of nostalgia and pride. Though the German bakery had its windows smashed and the Japanese-American family was forced to a detention camp, adults would tell me, "you should have seen it– the entire nation united." In the 1950s, Americans were no longer in a warlike mood.

EISENHOWER: So help me God.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Dwight Eisenhower was elected president precisely to disengage us from war in Korea, and there would be no great parades when Korean veterans came home. Here in San Francisco Bay, this victory ship, the "Jeremiah O'Brien," was restored by veterans and others. It is open every day of the week to remind tourists and grammar school students alike of the war effort of the 1940s. And for the last several years, as the young men of World War II began to disappear from the world, much literary enterprise was devoted to extolling their exploits and bravery.

This literature of memory was silenced by Sept. 11. Americans realized that bravery is not the property of any one generation. Indeed, perhaps someday we will tell wide-eyed children what it was like in 2001 — how– despite occasional incidents of brown men being attacked or even killed for looking like or actually being of Arab descent– strangers on Sept. 11 were quick to help strangers. You should have seen it– the entire nation united. The anger, the high resolve of those days in September will be summoned again by another domestic terrorist attack. But curiously, the emotional intensity of Sept. 11 was diffused by the "war against terrorism"– a war, the president told us, unlike any we had known before, the war against terrorism resembles a Tom Clancy novel– espionage, terrorist cells in Hamburg, Germany, and Rochester, New York.

JOHN ASHCROFT: We believe we have Al-Qaida membership in custody.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Some Americans decry threats to due process, and immigrants complain of being targeted as spies. The recommended patriotic response to terrorism is normalcy.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Go down to Disneyworld in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: "Go on with your lives," the president urges the nation. The surprising thing is how little is asked of us. America has been lucky in its isolation. It has often been hard to convince us of our stake in foreign quarrels. In the 20th century, in the early days of both world wars, many Americans were unconvinced that we had any business preventing Europe from self- destruction. War fever of the sort America experienced after Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11 springs from a sense of an immediate threat — blood on our soil. Perhaps the Revolutionary War, certainly the Civil War, were feverish times.

Though as Martin Scorcese's bloody-minded film, "Gangs of New York" reminds us, the anti- war riots of 1863 were as fierce as war fever of the time. Newly-arrived immigrants refused to fight in a war that wealthy northerners could avoid with a cash payment. 100 years after the civil war's anti-draft riots, the streets of America would see demonstrations against the draft during the Vietnam War. Lately, while U.N. inspection teams scurry around Iraq, the nation is filled with suspicions. The Israelis are behind the plan. The Christian right, big oil, a Bush family feud with Hussein. War looms, an all-volunteer army will fight the war. Statisticians in Washington tell us the war will cost affordable billions of dollars. There will be no sacrifice. A rusting ship from World War II sits in San Francisco Bay to remind us of another time, when an entire nation was united.

I'm Richard Rodriguez.