The Disquieted Americans

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – April 13, 2003, Sunday

The Disquieted American

I AM NOT by nature an anxious person. But like everyone else who has lived in New York City for the last year and a half, I have spent plenty of time fretting. Sometimes the worries are fleeting and lurid and specific (a suicide bomber exploding as I turn east down 47th Street from Sixth Avenue, a radiological device in a panel truck detonating as I walk past the federal building in Foley Square), and sometimes they take the form of a more amorphous dread. I don’t find the fear debilitating, but it is chronic and a little fatiguing.

During the ramp-up to the war in Iraq, I was even more acutely anxious, but I was also unusually . . . wide awake. I felt like a born-again citizen, interested in international affairs and national security and America’s place in the world in a way I hadn’t been since my McGovernite adolescence. These last months, I have spent more hours reading news articles with foreign datelines than during the previous 25 years combined. I am devouring books of a kind — Bernard Lewis’s ”Crisis of Islam,” Bob Woodward’s ”Bush at War,” Kenneth M. Pollack’s ”Threatening Storm” — that I would never have opened before. This new policy-wonkiness has surprised and, on occasion, embarrassed those around me. At a dinner party a little while ago, when a British novelist declared Israel’s government morally equivalent to Iraq’s, my counter, in its nuanced entirety, was a brief, sputtered declaration ending in a four-letter word. I had never in my life unleashed such anger on a stranger.

But I don’t regret these outbursts. As someone generally given to excruciating ambivalence on such matters, I have enjoyed the opportunities to feel strongly. And it has been a pleasure to watch members of a jaded chattering class occasionally engage, for a change, in serious, impassioned debate. New Yorkers’ suddenly rampant contentiousness is the flip side of our rampant anxiety, of course, the yang to the yin. (Or two complementary yangs. Whatever.) If our local risk of terrorist retaliation is greater than average Americans’ — and who doubts that it is? — don’t our opinions about this war, pro and con, deserve a privileged standing? This is the consolation prize for New Yorkers, who are always predisposed to drama-queen self-importance: a new way in which we can feel singularly, dreadfully special.

So it was with oddly mingled relief and regret that as the president issued the final 48-hour ultimatum, I found myself heading far away from New York, on vacation with my wife and daughters. We had been planning the trip for more than a year. We had already bought the tickets and booked the rooms and read the guidebooks and got the inoculations, so despite the natural nervous impulse to hunker down, we decided to stick to our plans rather than postpone the trip until the girls’ summer vacation. In our damn-the-torpedoes holiday fashion, we made the same choice as the Bush administration — which had, in its own way, already bought the tickets, booked the rooms, read the guidebooks and got the inoculations and was dead set on going to Iraq this season, before the weather got too hot.

By the time of our departure, the vacation itinerary was so thick with historical resonance as to seem almost like fate. At the start of the first big, transformative war of the 21st century, I spent three successive weeks in three countries against which America fought its big, transformative 20th-century wars: Japan, Vietnam and, if you count the cold war, China.

As we approached Tokyo, I looked west out the airplane window and wondered whether, in the event of an attack by a North Korean MIG, I would be able to register the sight of an air-to-air missile before it blew us up. I had just finished ”The Threatening Storm,” the book that nudged me from fretful, overinformed 50-50 fence-sitting to fretful, rueful 53 percent support of an Iraqi invasion. I had been on a plane when I started it, too, traveling from Los Angeles to New York in February. During that flight, my immersion in the unhappy minutiae of Iraqi history and U.N. weapons inspections had been interrupted by my seatmate, a stranger in her 30′s taking full advantage of the free business-class wine. Somewhere over the Sierras, she looked up from the magazine she was reading and asked me, out of the blue, ”Is Saddam Hussein’s regime really ‘unambiguously horrific’?”

It had been a year since I was last overseas flashing a passport, publicly declaring myself an American. I had flown to Paris a few months after Le Monde declared that ”Nous Sommes Tous Américains,” back when we were still being treated as lovable and indomitable (albeit oafish and faintly deserving) victims. Now, waiting in the FOREIGNERS line at Narita airport immigration during the countdown to Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was a little more circumspect than usual about advertising my nationality to a mob of foreign strangers. If it comes to it, I’m willing to defend regime change, but I know that to most people in the world all my careful liberal caveats would seem irrelevant. Nationality is destiny, I realize, especially right now, and especially when one is abroad.

When I have visited Germany, I’ve noticed a kind of Third Reich newsreel running in my head, but I figured our stop in Japan would be a time out from ambient war thoughts. The first afternoon in Tokyo, though, in the Shitamachi Museum of everyday urban life, I was drawn to a display of World War II artifacts, including a hand-cranked World War II air-raid siren. My 13-year-old daughter whispered, ”Do the Japanese hate us because we bombed them and beat them?” No, I explained, they don’t. I didn’t mention that her grandfather served in the Pacific from 1942 to 1944, trying to kill Japanese. Later, as we walked down Omotesando-dori past the Gap and J. Crew, KFC and McDonald’s — and, weirdly, Howard Baker, the American ambassador, idling in a souvenir shop called the Oriental Bazaar — the only old buildings I noticed were a compound of low-rise modernist flats. They are, I was informed later, where some of the American occupation forces lived. American occupation forces: I am reminded, of course, of Iraq, and our prospective years of nation-building there. I wonder if a couple of decades hence, Baghdadis will be buying Starbucks grande lattes and Gap Easy Fit Jeans along Sadoun Street.

As we headed out of Tokyo for our flight to Hanoi, we passed an antiwar march — a literally pacific, very Japanese-seeming march: neat columns of people, orderly chanting, giant drums, long flowing banners of yellow fabric.

Going to Vietnam would have provoked a frisson at any time, as it must for all Americans over 40. And flying into Hanoi, as opposed to Ho Chi Minh City (né Saigon), made the sense of retro transgression still more piquant, since even in my Viet Cong-sympathizing antiwar heyday 30 years ago, I thought of North Vietnam as a dark, Stalinist, irredeemably enemy place: N.L.F. good, N.V.A. bad. What a rich historical reversal, then, to find that the security presence today in Hanoi is far more modest than in New York. In Vietnam, we heard no fighter jets patrolling the skies. We saw no police or troops with assault rifles posted at approaches to the city. Even the men guarding the American Embassy seemed relaxed.

Just as we touched down in Hanoi, the American bombardment of Iraq began. Chong, the young man who picked us up, told us unbidden during the drive from the airport that he was ”for peace.” It became clear that Chong assumed from my surname that I was from Denmark. I told him no, but he didn’t understand, and I didn’t try very hard to set him straight. Semi-apologetically but matter-of-factly, he pointed out the spot where some of the heaviest American B-52 bombing occurred in 1972 and where the American P.O.W.’s (”including the Senator John McCain”) had been kept during the war.

The next day, our tour guide, a university graduate called Liep, who made clear his enthusiasm for Vietnam’s new free-market economy, also brought up the war — the war in Iraq. ”I hate Saddam Hussein,” he volunteered, ”but I worry about Iraqi people being bombed.” He paused. ”Like here, during the American war.” I took a breath. I told him that I shared his concern about civilian death and injury and that I was hopeful that precisely targeted bombs would make for less of it. I said that in Vietnam in the 60′s and 70′s, American policy wasn’t driven by self-defense or, in the end, by a concern for the welfare of the Vietnamese and that our policy in Iraq really is. Even as I made the argument, though, my distinction between then and now struck me as slightly lame. Unlike Saddam, I ventured, Ho Chi Minh was authentically devoted to his people, and that devotion was obviously reciprocated. We were passing near the long, long line outside Ho’s mausoleum, where the great man’s mummified corpse is on display. ”I’ll bet if Saddam Hussein’s body were put on display in Baghdad, Iraqis wouldn’t line up for an hour to pay their respects.” Liep said nothing, so I ended my ad hoc ”Wars of National Liberation: Vietnam Versus Iraq” symposium.

But then he asked me my age — his way, I realized, of asking about my involvement in the war in Vietnam. I told him I turned 18 in 1972, the last year of the draft lottery, just before U.S. combat forces withdrew; I lucked out. Liep was born in 1970, and he said that American bombs falling in Hanoi are his hazy earliest memories. Thinking about that fact, I felt overwhelmingly inclined to cut him (and, for that matter, everyone else in Vietnam) considerable slack for any reflexive opposition they may feel to big, well-intentioned American wars for freedom against small, AK-47-armed countries halfway around the world. In the debates over this war, Vietnamese opinions, like New Yorkers’ opinions, get extra credit.

Back in the states, a good deal of antiwar sentiment had struck me as automatic, driven both by visceral antipathy to George Bush and his administration and, particularly among people my age, by chronic Vietnam syndrome. Before the war began, I mostly hadn’t bought the Vietnam-Iraq analogy. But Hanoi nevertheless turned out to be a salutary backdrop for watching and thinking about this momentous and profoundly uncertain new epoch. As a (wary) supporter of this war, I found myself strangely pleased to be in a place where no American could possibly be complacent about a big U.S. military intervention — in a country whose very name is synecdoche for military quagmire and governmental folly-cum-tragedy.

Liep told us that the old-fashioned loudspeakers mounted on top of crude cinder-block posts all over Hanoi still broadcast government announcements and exhortations, but that people today consider them premodern artifacts and ignore the propaganda drone. Unlike when Liep was young, Vietnamese can now afford radios and can watch CNN; every morning in the tea shops, he said, the conversation is about America and Iraq. And though we were in a developing country half a world away from New York, I was just as connected as ever to the 24-hour media barrage: MSNBC, CNBC, the BBC World Service, Chinese news, Japanese news, German news, Italian news and French news. I had watched the Vietnam War on TV in America, and now I was watching the Iraq war on TV in Vietnam.

Of course, each country’s beamed-in war coverage was freighted with its own biases, which were all the more apparent when seen from abroad. I was dumbstruck by a couple of smarmy, jocular, sportscasterish anchors on Fox News. The nerdy Japanese commentators seemed to spend all their air time pushing toy soldiers and tanks around a diorama of the Middle East. And the French news channel, which featured a bearded intellectual wearing dark glasses in the studio in Paris, was absurdly heavy on antiwar protests — including a too-French-to-be-true video of a mime in whiteface lying down on a boulevard and pretending to be dead. Being overseas and being immersed in war news of a half-dozen different ideological flavors became a kind of family adventure in edutainment: for us parochial and solipsistic Americans, the idea of global interconnectedness seemed, at this moment in this place, a very real thing. At lunch in our (French-owned) hotel restaurant, my children and I joked about the freedom fries that came with the meal, and as we witnessed a French patron letting her bratty, dangerous 5-year-old misbehave all over the restaurant, I nicknamed the boy Quday.

But out on the streets of Hanoi, among the crowds of Vietnamese, my mood always defaulted to sobriety. I tried extra hard not to seem like an ugly American. I found myself gazing at the 50- and 60- and 70-year-old faces, the people who endured such unnecessary hell for so long. While Vietnam is beautiful and exotic and cheap, its allure as an American tourist stop is based on its nightmare past and our role, as Americans, in perpetuating that nightmare. My eagerness to visit had been partly ghoulish and partly a desire for some kind of absolution — by my very presence to offer a tacit apology and receive tacit forgiveness.

On the second day of the war in Iraq, we visited the Museum of the Revolution, whose exhibits chronicle successive Vietnamese struggles against the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, the Americans and ”the American-puppet machine.” I forced myself to examine the dusty, grimy low-tech munitions we used to kill them and the even dustier, grimier lower-tech weapons they used to kill us. I felt sick looking at the photograph of U.S. soldiers posing with big grins next to Vietnamese corpses. The next morning, when I read newspaper articles about the insanely outgunned Iraqi fedayeen’s surprising, sneaky, half-mad attacks against American troops along the road to Baghdad, I couldn’t help thinking of the insanely outgunned Viet Cong 30 and 40 years ago.

The next day we headed to an 18th-century Buddhist shrine, up a quiet river through a landscape that was the classic Asian ink-brush landscape painting come to life: abruptly vertical little limestone mountains covered in banyan trees and gray mists. We came abreast of another rowboat carrying a group of Vietnamese, Buddhist pilgrims. One of them asked Liep where we were from. America, he told them, and they continued staring as they chuckled and chatted among themselves in Vietnamese. We asked Liep what they were saying. He seemed reluctant to tell us. ”They’re talking about bin Laden,” he said, ”and your invasion of Iraq.”

Spending the war’s first weeks in Tokyo, Hanoi and Shanghai was chastening, as it obliged me to think about the real and terrible human cost of war — and about its unexpected resonances in other parts of the world — but I didn’t turn into a pacifist or even a dove. In my glass-half-full way, all those cities, freighted with so much anti-American history, left me groping toward a hopeful long view of our place in the world. ”They must hate us here,” my 13-year-old said as we wandered through the horrific war displays in Vietnamese museums. And you would think so: during our dozen years there, the United States killed and helped kill at least 1.5 million people. If anyone on earth has a right to hate America, it is their tens of millions of widows and children and friends. But the Museum of the Revolution is tatty, even by local standards, and lightly patronized; the inference is that the government is no longer highly invested in the war qua war. And as an American in Hanoi, you don’t even get the sense that the citizens themselves hold a grudge, particularly. For decades they were brutalized by imperialism, but their politics and their view of their place in the world seem built on something other than victimhood.

Of course, it is easier to be magnanimous and forgiving when, like the Vietnamese, you win. This seems like a lesson that Americans, as we stand astride the world, could afford to learn. ”We put the war behind us,” said Liep, who has traveled in Europe, ”and instead we focus on the future.” Maybe George W. Bush, after we win the present war, can finally try to make good on his campaign promise to conduct a foreign policy driven by humility.

As I saw the shockingly large billboards for Western companies surrounding the airport in Hanoi and felt the city’s go-go entrepreneurial mania, I thought,We lost the battle, but we won the war. The triumph of free-market economics in Vietnam and in China is inarguable. Both remain nominally Communist, and neither is a liberal democracy, but they are a lot freer in every sense than they were 30 years ago. Maybe the same will be said someday of Iraq. Maybe it is not Panglossian American fantasy to imagine that the citizens of Iraq and other Arab countries will someday regard us the way the citizens of Japan and Vietnam and China apparently do today: without love, but without loathing, either.

Those glimmers of long-haul quasi optimism are hard to sustain, though. As we stepped through the jetway at J.F.K., a functionary handed us pamphlets warning that we might be infected with SARS. And on the drive home, as our progress on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway slowed and then stopped, our Haitian taxi driver explained that because of the orange alert, new security checks had turned this stretch of highway into a permanent traffic jam, 24/7. Just the day before, he told us, they had suddenly closed the bridge completely. ”Life in New York,” he said, with a kind of good-natured, declamatory shrug.