With hoops, movie hoopla, war and Iraq seem far away


IT WAS IN the studios of WYPR, watching the Marc Steiner Show from the other side of a glass partition, that the awful reality of war hit home the other day.

A man named Herb Keinon, who is the lead political reporter for the Jerusalem Post, was on the line with Steiner from Israel.

Casually, Keinon mentioned that he'd just sent his four young kids off to school with their gas masks.

Steiner, who is very good at this sort of thing, asked Keinon how that made him feel as a parent. Keinon paused for a moment.

Then he said, so matter-of-factly that a chill ran through me: "It's difficult to see your kid having to schlep that thing to school. You want to see him bring pencils and books. On the other hand, we went through it 12 years ago."

Contained in that simple statement, of course, was the reason why this war with Iraq seems so remote for the majority of the people in this country.

Even after 9/11, our kids don't go off to school in gas masks, terrified that a missile with a deadly chemical warhead will fall out of the skies at recess.

When we step on a bus over here, we don't worry that a suicide bomber with a load of explosives strapped to his chest could get on at the next stop.

In Israel, Keinon went on to say: "Every citizen walks around with the fear that they could be blown up every time they walk down the street to get a falafel. That mind-numbing fear colors everything Israelis do."

My God, our biggest fear over here is that the war might interrupt the NCAA basketball tournament. Or postpone last night's Oscars, which, in a tasteful concession to the seriousness of this business in Iraq, did not have the stars stepping from their block-long limos and parading across the famous red carpet flashing cleavage and designer gowns and three shelves worth of jewelry from Harry Winston.

Yesterday, on a glorious, sunny day in Baltimore, the war in Iraq seemed very far away.

In the morning, I watched Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, make the rounds of the Sunday talk shows.

Basically, Rummy's message was this: The war's going great. We're winning, the Iraqi leadership is in disarray, the surgical bombing of Baghdad was having the desired effect, Rummy said.

Except as the morning turned into afternoon, it became clear the war wasn't going great all the time, at least for some of the coalition forces.

There were reports of a fierce gun battle near the Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah, with U.S. troops missing, and some casualties and some deaths, captured in disturbing images on Iraqi TV.

There was a follow-up on the U.S. Army sergeant who stands accused of lobbing hand grenades into the tents of his fellow members of the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait, injuring 14.

Even though we're in the middle of a war, we still seem shocked whenever U.S. troops are wounded or killed, which never ceases to amaze me.

Isn't that the whole point of war? To kill the other guy before he kills you? Even though much of the Iraqi army seemed to be giving up even before our forces appeared on the horizon, you had to figure some Iraqis would stand and fight.

As I watched the reports, I thought back to a hot summer night 33 years ago when I sat in a restaurant in New York with a good friend, who was going into the Army in the morning.

There was a bloody war in Vietnam going on at the time, and my friend was sure he'd end up over there, in some horrible jungle with people shooting at him, and the thought had him scared out of his mind.

"It's weird to think this could be the last time we do this," he said at one point.

Aw, hell, you'll be back before you know it, I said.

It was easy for me to say this - I was going off to college, where the biggest danger I faced was the food in the cafeteria. Then my buddy poured us another beer from the pitcher on the table, and we didn't talk about it for the rest of the night.

Anyway, sure enough, he ended up in Vietnam, as a combat infantryman, and he saw some heavy fighting. He was lucky enough to come back, all right, but not before getting shot up pretty good and spending a year in a VA hospital with holes up and down his arms and legs.

Now, though, with all our bombs and cruise missiles and military superiority, I guess we figure no one on our side has to die anymore, which is a joke.

But it was hard to think of death yesterday, on such a pretty day, and then it was time for March Madness: Indiana vs. Pittsburgh, Syracuse against Oklahoma State, Maryland, off its thrilling, unbelievable win Friday night, taking on Xavier.

On the TV, I watched pretty cheerleaders cheer and college bands play fight songs and young, strong athletes run up and down the court.

On another channel, they were showing the Bay Hill Invitational, where it was raining like the end of the world and Tiger Woods was fighting some kind of intestinal problem and still running away with the golf tournament.

In between, there were commercials for Cingular Wireless and Mazda and Applebee's and all the rest, just as there always are. If there was a war going on, it seemed far, far away.

And in the morning, I knew this: My kids would not be going off to school in gas masks.

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