At the start of the school year, our 9-year-old, David, regaled us with stories about his new gym teacher. "He's a Marine," David proudly announced. When the children whined about doing laps around the soccer field, the teacher filled their heads with tales of lugging grenade launchers over much longer distances. The kids loved it. The teacher ladled it on thick.
A week ago, David mentioned that his gym teacher would be leaving the school. "He's been called up," he explained. And then, his eyes shining, David wondered aloud if "he might be a hero."
Whether we like it or not, American culture will change as a result of this war. And while we've been saturated with the ways in which our lives will be poorer, more hassled, less predictable or perhaps even foreshortened, we have not focused on the improvements this intrusion of hard reality will work.
One corrective that is already underway is an unapologetic appreciation for the greatness of this nation. During his presidency, Bill Clinton went around the world seeking forgiveness for imagined American sins. Sept. 11 hasn't changed him. In a speech at Georgetown University, he persisted in this theme, implying that our current woes are some sort of cosmic payback for the crimes of slavery and dispossessing the Indians.
While this sort of analysis has been standard fare for 30 years, it now rings particularly hollow. Bill Clinton was a great fan of international treaties and conventions, on the theory that raw self-interest ought not to inform American policy. Instead, we were to be guided by the wisdom of "the world community." But meaning no disrespect to some very amiable foreigners, it is not at all clear that the rest of the world is our moral superior. In fact, quite the opposite.
Nor is it the case that treaties and conventions enhance our security, collective or individual. The old Soviet Union and Iraq both happily signed the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and then proceeded to fill huge vats with smallpox, anthrax and other pathogens. The signing of treaties makes for lovely ceremonies. But they are for the weak-minded -- and the complacent. And we are not complacent anymore.
Americans have been reminded in the most graphic possible way that much of the world remains a swamp of ignorance, hatred and backwardness. Bill Clinton cannot stop talking about American slavery, but slavery is still practiced today -- guess where? -- in parts of the Muslim world.
Sanity and prudence will probably appear last in California, and yet Hollywood producers are promising to offer less gratuitous violence and sex, and more patriotic fare. This is unalloyed progress.
Also, the existence of true threats is bound to reduce our hysteria about artificial and exaggerated ones. While some have argued that the media response to the anthrax attack was out of all proportion (and it was), it was still far more commensurate to the threat than earlier scares about alar, cell phones causing brain tumors, dioxin, silicone and second-hand smoke, to name just a few of the endless parade of horribles that have kept ratings up for desperate broadcasters.
Another thing that is bound to change -- and this will cause aortic aneurysms in tenured professors at our best universities -- is the whole concept of military service. The liberal ruling class still has not shed its visceral dislike of the American military. This tension, which began in the Vietnam era, was still evident during the presidency of Bill Clinton, when mutiny, or at least disrespect for the commander in chief pervaded the military services, and the Clintonites felt a corresponding contempt and disdain for those in uniform.
And while the Gulf War certainly displayed the American military to good advantage, it was not crucial enough to our security -- or was not perceived to be -- to engender the kind of reverence that military heroes earn when their exploits really do protect the way of life back home. The idea that serving in the military is an opportunity for honor and heroism, instead of a license to commit crimes against innocent civilians, has returned. And children all over America, not just those, like David, who are being reared by two conservatives, will love and admire American soldiers, airmen and sailors.