WASHINGTON — Perhaps the most dubious cliche in American history is the one intoned over and again after terrorists killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001. That was the cliche that claimed that now “America has changed forever.” Well, forever lasted about two years, maybe three. Then American solidarity in the war against terror began to fissure, and, by the way, the president’s favorable ratings began to sink.
Now in the press the war effort is assuming the vague dimensions of monstrosities of yesteryear: Watergate, Iran-Contra, both being cautionary tales from which liberals hope Americans will learn to be better people. The time has come, they tell us, to hand this war over to the experts, for instance, Senator John Kerry, who might well have become president last time around if it were not for a treacherous cabal of Vietnam veterans who, the Senator believes, lied about his heroic service in Vietnam. If Senator Kerry is not to your liking, there is also Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose service during the Vietnam War was very much like Senator Kerry’s once he returned from Vietnam. No, America has not changed forever. Certainly American liberals have not changed.
Read the liberal press. Increasingly it reads like the press of what during the Cold War was called a “nonaligned nation.” Increasingly it appears that the American press “is not taking sides” in this war, this Republican war. Over the weekend it was reported that the Bush administration has been laying plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. On Monday the Washington Post reported that “The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.” The Post knows this because its reporters laid hands on “internal military documents.” So now those documents and the controversy within the military surrounding them are known to the public, the world public. Both news stories are out there for our enemies to make use of.
I read the second story en route to a place called Blackwater, USA. It is a facility in North Carolina where a private company trains security personnel for the world we were all made aware of on 9/11. Frankly I did not find it a happy visit. There is not much romance in this war on terror. For a few hours I watched special ops troops and police train in firearms, close-quarters battle, tactical driving, and other dangerous operations. There were mockups for training for urban warfare and for recapturing pirated ships and hijacked airplanes. I saw heavily armed men train to protect dignitaries from being ambushed. The place abounded with grim soldiers and retired soldiers training for dangerous missions against gruesome foes. Blackwater is a vast and impressive privately owned facility that is profitable only because there are hundreds of thousands of brutes around the globe who want to kill civilized people. Truth be known, the world has changed forever even if the American press has not.
In 1942, when all Americans recognized that we were at war, the press was more disciplined. Of course, President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged this discipline with such instruments as the Office of Censorship, authorized under the War Powers Act. Codes of reportage were established, and news organizations submitted thousands of stories to the censors. Some of the self-censorship appears preposterous today. On Palm Sunday of 1942 a blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow on the east coast. Neither the New York Times nor any of the Washington newspapers reported the mess that had blanketed their cities. You would not want the Nazis to know.
Yet now our enemies know about our propaganda in Iraq and plans being made for bombing Iran. During World War II the Times science writer, William Laurence, got word of our progress on developing an atomic bomb. He was warned by the Manhattan Project’s General Leslie Groves not to publish his knowledge. Legend has it that Groves told Laurence he knew too much already and “I shall have to hire you or kill you.” With the agreement of Times editors Laurence disappeared into the Manhattan Project, reappearing on the bomber that leveled Nagasaki. After that he wrote a series of articles on the development of the bomb for his newspaper and won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize.
America is at war, and it is not just the Republicans’ war.