Revisiting the Home Front

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For $3.95 the American Legion offers a red-white-and-blue "Support Our Troops," sign that you can plant on your front lawn and maybe pose for a photograph and say you were there: "Home Front, 2003." Because here we are - again.

So arrives the latest incarnation of a way of American life that has prevailed in one way or another nearly uninterrupted since Pearl Harbor. Surely there must be photographs, so they can look back in a few generations and say how it went and how - of course - it was nothing like World War II, but those folks did all right. Or not.

"Home Front, 2003" carries its own particular energies. Perhaps a cross between the watchfulness of a World War II citizens' air-raid patrol and the more abstract anxiety of the Cold War on Main Street U.S.A., with Rod Serling wondering aloud just how neighborly a small town would be if space were scarce in the basement bomb shelter. As political scientist Bruce Unger puts it: "Duct tape and duck-and-cover might be two sides of the same coin."

Either way, the idea is to do, well, something. What is a "home front," really? Perhaps an impulse in search of direction, a question of what there is for us to do over here while the country's at war - hot or cold - with someone "over there."

What, exactly, to do? Post a sign on the lawn? Tie a yellow ribbon to a tree? Attend a war rally - pro or con? Send a salami to your boy in the Army?

For one thing, check Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's five-color alert barometer. It's up a tick from yellow or "significant" risk to orange for "high" risk, the third spike to orange since the warning system was created a year ago. The implied message: stand by. As they said in the Big One, World War II: "Don't you know there's a war on?"

The government would have you check certain Web sites for further information. The Centers for Disease Control has one (www.cdc.gov), as does the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov), and Ridge's agency (www.ready.gov). Consult these to plan for possible terrorist attack at home, a threat that may rise with the beginning of the war in Iraq.

In 1979 David Byrne sang "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around ... " and on Sept. 11, 2001, suddenly the irony of "Life During Wartime" seemed indulgent. Suddenly everything seemed less amusing, and people were saying there was no time for dancing or lovey dovey or even a little joking around to ease tension on the "home front."

Life, people said, had entirely changed, which only echoed journalist Marquis Childs who, in recalling the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, remembered "all of us saying, 'Nothing will ever be the same again.'"

Maybe the common wisdom on the "home front" was right then and quite right again 60 years later. But when you look at www.ready.gov - with its descriptions of emergency supply kits, home shelters, evacuation plans and sundry terrifying weapons - it seems as if you're standing there in 1953 reading a Cold War primer on civil defense.

A fond wish from "Home Front, 2003" might be to live to see the day when all this chatter about Cipro and duct tape seems as amusing as one of those government public service spots from the 1950s, the ones where the voice-over repeats "duck and cover, duck and cover," and school kids are shown scrambling under desks.

Unger, who teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., grew up in those days in Brooklyn, N.Y., and remembers that his elementary school issued dog tags to the children. In retrospect, he can only assume this was done to make it easier to identify his corpse in case of nuclear catastrophe.

If today's "home front" warrior puts down the duct tape and pauses to check the color on the Alert-o-meter, the stateside Cold Warrior might have emerged from beneath the desk to consult the "Doomsday Clock," a somewhat less precise instrument.

It made a potent symbol of nuclear danger, nonetheless, first appearing on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947. The Cold War was on, the Truman Doctrine had drawn the line against the Soviets. It was sure scary, but we had the Bomb and they didn't. Not for another two years, anyway.

The first "Doomsday Clock" put the time at seven minutes to midnight. As the Bulletin saw it, the closest we came to the abyss was two minutes to midnight in 1953, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. tested hydrogen bombs within nine months of each other.

As of this writing, the time is seven minutes to midnight, just as it stood when the clock began in 1947. The French have an expression, c'est plus ca ... - well, perhaps under the circumstances, the less of that the better.

Lacking government imprimatur, the "Doomsday Clock" never triggered an air-raid siren or troop deployment. Nor did any shift in the hour hand ever really seem to be telling you to do something. Today's Alert-o-meter - moving from green for "low" risk to red for "high" risk - is meant to prompt particular responses from federal, state and local law enforcement and military agencies.

And the rest of us? Listen for instructions and, of course, follow those carefully mapped and diligently practiced home emergency procedures. Or maybe just run around Home Depot with all the composure and dignity of a "reality TV" contestant, buying enormous quantities of duct tape, filter masks and plastic sheeting. For further information, consult Paul Ford's unforgettable performance with the saber and the funny helmet in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

That 1966 Cold War classic in the rather narrow movie category of "Home Front Comedy" is at least as useful as anything else in fathoming what it means to remain "alert" for "suspicious" activity.

Comic relief

Whatever will collective memory make of us, here, now - flinching at the sight of every swarthy man stepping onto an airliner? The "Home Front" scrapbook would have to include those Garry Trudeau cartoons from only weeks after 9/11: Mike Doonesbury sweats out an airliner trip until he learns that the guy seated next to him, the Arabic-looking man in the turban, is just, well, a guy, just a nice fellow who sells Palm Pilots.

Nice comic relief. For some people.

Perhaps not for the Arab-American Secret Service agent who claimed that because of his ethnicity he was barred from boarding an American Airlines flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Christmas 2001. Maybe not for the five Arab-American men who joined with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee to sue four airlines for a pattern of discrimination.

"A new and disturbing trend is occurring at American airports, the practice of removing passengers because of their perceived ethnicity," Ziad Asali, director of the Committee, said when the suit was filed last June.

Small consolation for Asali to know that he was swept up in "home front" tradition. These times of ours would hardly qualify for the term were there not a heightened sense of "us" vis-a-vis "them." What's a "home front," after all, without intense anxiety about the enemy within?

How many people of Arab and Muslim background are still being held by Immigration and Naturalization Services and other government agencies? Under what charge and what conditions? The detentions are secret, and no one knows these answers for certain, says a spokeswoman for Amnesty International.

At a July hearing in Detroit, a region with the largest population of people of Arab descent in the country, a Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights referred to World War II in describing just how bad things could get for people of Arab descent in this country. While the Bush administration has no such plans, Peter Kirsanow mentioned the internment camps for Japanese-Americans and said that in the event of another attack on home soil by Arab terrorists, "you can forget about civil rights in this country."

"INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY" says one poster from the period, giving evacuation instructions to people in San Francisco. With the word "JAPANESE" standing in big, fat, black type, the poster casts a momentary pall over the good cheer prevailing in a thick picture book called V for Victory: America's Home Front During World War II.

Ah, here is the "home front" against which all others pale. Here are the great war factories, the campaigns to salvage scrap tin, rubber, paper, nylon and even cooking fat for the war effort. Here are Americans rationing gasoline, meat, sugar and coffee, buying war bonds, pulling on helmets and taking to darkened streets as air-raid wardens, spurred on by a chorus of war posters and buttons: "Kick 'Em in the Axis!" "Hasten the Homecoming: Buy Victory Bonds."

Much of this was for real, much of it the ritualistic participation that marks the "home front," where the war only appears mediated through image, word and sound. For those without family members or friends directly involved in the fighting, the whole thing can seem like some broadcast of a lunar landing.

Whatever the divisions on the World War II "home front" about entering the war, they essentially vanished with the news from Pearl Harbor. In terms of mobilization of the population, industry and the military, nothing in American history compares to this experience.

At the same time, historians say the impulse to remember all this fondly, especially in the events, books and movies surrounding the 50th anniversary of the war's end, have tended to throw the "Greatest Generation" into a flattering soft-focus.

Question the myths

Without disrespecting the achievements, historian John W. Jeffries, professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Wartime America: The World War II Home Front, says it's possible to question the myths.

Aside from those who suffered injuries, lost their lives or who lost loved ones in combat, how far can one talk about profound shared sacrifice in a wartime economy that created broad prosperity, lifting the country out of depression? asks Jeffries. Unemployment, for instance, fell from 15 percent in 1940 to 1 percent in 1944, while income and consumer spending rose.

Even in view of rationing - around which there was considerable grumbling, some hoarding and cheating - Jeffries says "it's a little hard to find, in truth, much real sacrifice on the World War II home front."

So it seems to go today, as the Bush administration plans to pursue another tax cut in the face of expenses related to anti-terrorism and war. To whatever extent our dependence on foreign oil compromises United States security, at no time has the President called for conservation or significant development of alternative energy sources.

Since 9/11, the message has seemed to be the opposite: spend, drive, travel, enjoy, as if Americans might collectively defy Osama bin Laden by putting shoulders together and applying the full force of our Visa cards.

There's that SUV-driving, mall-dwelling picture of the "home front. " There are also visions of firefighters heading up stairs when everyone else is heading down; of four airliner passengers desperately seizing what measure of control that could be had; of a tattered flag flying over smoldering rubble.

That day brings us to this one, marking this "home front" of a piece and still apart.

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