Every generation is defined by love and war. In World War II, longing and passion were intensified as young women said goodbye to the men they feared they would never see again. Parting was a dreaded sorrow. Passion was tempered with terror and the fighting man was endowed with heroic qualities. The heart always knows the way.
Protesters of the Vietnam War carried placards saying "Make Love, Not War" and the antiwar movement often seemed to be as much about partying as burning draft cards and marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. The GIs in 'Nam were understandably bitter toward the guys who figured out ways to stay home to make out with the chicks in the streets.
Poets pen puns about embracing lovers disarmed by Cupid's archery and emboldened by arrows into the secret places of the heart. War is about tragedy and death, and dying for love is more suited to comedy, the happy ending that leads to marriage and symbols of fertility.
So it's not yet clear what poetic metaphors will arise from the war against Iraq, as the all-volunteer army dissolves the differences between the sexes in the coed Army. The military culture focuses more on disciplining sexual harassment than on encouraging romance.
But civilian ladies will not be daunted. Miniskirts will no doubt be back in vogue, worn with high heels and showing lots of leg to encourage male "lookists" at home. Civvies for men include khaki, black macho jackets, cargo-style jump suits and flak vests. One intrepid designer has even created a pullover sweater with a huge peace sign. You might call it Venus and Mars lite.
So what should we expect this Valentine's Day in the desire department? In the contemporary language of love, "relationships" are reduced to "hooking up" or "buddy sex" - sex without love - and this hardly inspires either impassioned prose or passionate poesy. "Shall I compare thee to a winter's day, the shortest in the year?"
Nor is it easy to be lyrical via e-mail, with its misspellings, fractured syntax and careless grammar. "If music be the food of love, take a byte out of cyberspace." Internet dating services are estimated to rise to a $l.14 billion business sometime next year, but a 30-second voice and video message replacing purring with whirring is a wacky way to woo.
Women still crave the courtesies of courtship, but it's often difficult to find a man who knows how to be playful with a liberated libido. Besides, women who compete with men by day are sometimes unable to relax into a romantic mood when night falls. The fulfillment of love, as Shakespeare amply documented in his romantic comedies, requires certain obstacles to overcome, and these are sometimes hard to find in our permissive sexual society.
The love conventions of the past tested the mettle and talents of the wooer, and it was usually the woman who set the pace. But in contemporary life, where single women have sought careers, single men seek younger women and the number of eligible bachelors thins, changing the odds and obstacles to male advantage.
Television's so-called "reality shows" about dating and mating have become the culture's sweet-and-sour fairy tales. We're expected to take perverse pleasure from watching the losers come to unhappy ends. It's no triumph of post-feminism to win the heart of a fake millionaire whose appeal lies in his ability to lie and deceive on somebody's else's dollar.
It might help would-be Romeos on the eve of this Valentine's Day to brush up on their Shakespeare, to find the apt phrase to woo with flair. If the object of the man's affection is an environmentalist, for example, he can take his cue from Orsino in "Twelfth Night," who describes his fair Olivia, as one who "purged the air of pestilence." Or if the loved one has bad breath, recite the sonnet in which the poet announces that perfume offers more delight "than in the breath that from my mistress reeks." Yet, he loves to hear her speak. (No greater or wittier love hath he.)
When all else fails, there's always Puck, all too aware of the foolish sentiment that arises from affairs of the heart: "What fools these mortals be." These are hard-hearted times for the faint of heart in love and war. But aren't they always?