The Labor Day weekend marks the official end of summer, usually offering a final burst of reflection, with the singing of the crickets of late August bathing consciousness in a sad symphony of vague melancholia. We yearn to remember summer through the haze of lazy, happy days when nothing much happened. Not this year. News of suicide bombs in Iraq, horrendous wind and high water in our own South and anti-war protest in Texas seize our attention. Reflection this year carries high anxiety.
The destruction of New Orleans breaks the hearts of everyone; never in our history, not even in the Civil War, have we seen a great city abandoned. Not even the most churlish critics of our military begrudge the dispatch of thousands of National Guardsmen, Navy ships and Coast Guard cutters to deal with pain and loss. At least not so far.
Tragedy on the Gulf Coast washed Cindy Sheehan off the front pages and the television screens. The skirmishes at Prairie Chapel Ranch are quickly forgotten, and where are the correspondents assigned to Aruba and the search for Natalee Holloway now? For once, the cable-TV networks have dropped their pursuit of obscure crimes to follow a bigger story.
Self-inflicted farce surrounds Cindy Sheehan, a mother whose grief over the death of her son in Iraq made her a perverse celebrity. She began her vigil to compel President Bush to grant her a second audience to talk about the war in Iraq, but at summer's end she pronounced herself "happy" that the president had declined to meet her again because otherwise she never would have become the icon of antiwar sound and fury. Who does not sympathize profoundly with a mourning mother? But she turned herself into an embarrassing rival only of Jane Fonda as a would-be maker of national policy.
Now there are new appeals to America's enormous and generous heart. Infusions of money, blood and medicines must answer the pleas for help for the helpless displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Flood and destruction allow ordinary Americans to make sacrifices the war in Iraq has not demanded. Pent-up frustrations over the war seek an outlet, with the urgency of Lake Pontchartrain breaching the 17th Street levee, to do something for those suffering.
Not many of us want to hear appeals for sacrifice to save Iraqis, no matter that saving them is in our own interests. George W. Bush frequently compares the moral rightness of the war in Iraq to the righteous war fought by "the greatest generation," and it seems to me that he's correct that taking democracy to Iraq is as important as taking democracy to Japan six decades ago. But he should be more eloquent in explaining why.
It's not enough to remind us that the men and women who got up and went to work in the Twin Towers, or who died in a corner of the Pentagon or in a bean field in Pennsylvania, were the heroic dead of the first battle of a genuine war against the United States. If September 11 is to become a date to live in infamy, with the lasting iconic power of December 7, we have to believe there is a strategy like that laid out by FDR. Just saying so is not enough.
Does Osama bin Laden understand, as Admiral Yamamoto did, that sneak attacks on the innocent only "awaken a sleeping giant, and make him very, very angry"? Indeed, do we understand that?
Sacrifice is always difficult. A mother who loses a son in battle, after all, feels crushing, indescribable pain whether she believes her son died in vain or as a hero of the nation. But how the public sees the protests of a grieving mother bears on how the distant army sees its duty, and it's the responsibility of the commander in chief to make sure the public sees clearly.
Hitler was surprised when the British did not give up when he blitzed London, so he set out to break the British spirit with "Coventrieren," a tactic to extend the destruction of Coventry to 20 additional cities. But instead of breaking the British spirit, "Coventrieren" strengthened it. The people of Coventry began rebuilding their houses and factories at once.
Hurricane Katrina and Cindy Sheehan must be similar tests of the spirit. The winds of the storm, like the winds of war, beat against our emotions and our will, and the American will to survive must prevail against the despairing voices that, as the poet says, will wake us only to drown.