United we stand, hoping he's right


BOSTON - This is how war makes it debut: as a television surreality program.

We sit and watch weapons halfway around the world seek targets of opportunity. We watch the president in the Oval Office, with photos of his daughters in the background, saying, "We will accept no outcome but victory."

And this time the network doesn't return to Fear Factor. There is no need.

George W. Bush's war is now my war, your war, our war. Even those of us who disputed his arguments, disparaged his diplomacy, dismissed his logic and distrusted his worldview are left with one ironic, collective hope. We have to hope he is right.

Watching soldiers who look so very, very young, thinking of refugees and civilians, we are all reduced to one common denominator of a wish. We have to wish that the administration's rosiest scenario - a quick victory, few casualties, regime change, democracy - actually comes true.

Those of us who worry that this war will recruit another generation of terrorists, uproot allies and further destabilize the Middle East want one more thing. We want to be proved wrong.

Is this what they call rallying around the flag? Perhaps it's rallying around the gambling table. The president and his inner circle have bet the mortgage on this war, bet the whole future. And if we stand united, it's not to the tune of John Philip Sousa trombones or raucous war cries. We stand holding our collective breath.

What a different sort of union. On 9/11, when America was struck out of the blue, our country was in an era of runaway individualism. Even the military had begun to recruit men and women to become "An Army of One."

On that day, we were bound together by shock, vulnerability, tragedy. The old national motto, e pluribus unum - out of many, one - took on new meaning. For a time, we gave blood and signed checks. We were in "it" together, sure that al-Qaida and its Taliban enablers were the enemy.

From the very beginning, the president had trouble engaging the spirit for shared sacrifice. When he heard Americans asking what is expected of us, he answered, "I ask you to live your lives and hug your children." When we asked what we could do for our country, we were told to salute the flag and go shopping.

Over time, he seemed to squander that tender impulse for the common good. In the midst of all this, the administration even clung to a tax plan that promises more to financiers than firefighters.

In the international world, too, that post-9/11 unity was equally squandered. The ground zero of terrorism is now caricatured as the homeland of cowboy aggression. We go to battle with shattered alliances and a dis-United Nations.

The genial president, so often lampooned as a "frat boy," has become something of a loner who faced the camera Wednesday night after an aside to an aide, "I feel good."

So, the war on terrorism is now officially the war on Iraq. The target of opportunity has shifted from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. September of 2001 has been seamlessly, fantastically, connected to March of 2003. In the words of one battalion commander to his troops, "This is going to be the biggest statement to the world that you are never going to [expletive] with America like that again."

We are united again, this time, by anxiety and orange alerts. By mothers buying cell phones for their children. By Ari Fleischer's reminder to prepare for loss of life. United by the first shared sacrifice of war: peace of mind. And by the sorry fact spoken by John Kerry: "The only exit strategy is victory."

My journalistic colleagues have been "embedded" in the military. But we are all embedded in this gamble for democracy and a free Iraq.

After 9/11, Americans said instinctively that everything changed. The instinct became a mantra and then a cliche. Now, we trust that instinct. Deep down, somber Americans may greet this D-Day believing we are in an endless pursuit of the holy grail of safety.

But for the moment, we stand together ... around the gambling table. We have gone from "let's roll" to rolling the dice. And we hope they won't come up snake eyes.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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