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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE DAY THE WAR BEGAN: JANUARY 16, 1991 : THE ESSAYIST

<i> Richard Rodriguez, author of "Hunger of Memory," and the coming "Mexico's Children," (Viking), is a journalist with Pacific News Service</i>

All through those weeks, through the dry autumn and an unconvincing Christmas, we had been waiting for Jan. 15. And when it came, when those two digits lined up--all morning and all afternoon, when I wrote the date on a letter or in my checkbook, I imagined that I was staring at history.

As it turns out, it is Jan. 16 we will remember. The only question is: How will we remember the day? Will it become a day in memory as forthright as Dec. 7, 1941? Or will it be like Nov. 22, 1963, a day to regret, yet again, the end of our innocence?

Americans are notorious for being people who force themselves on the world. But Americans have always worried that we don’t understand the foreign. We have always imagined ourselves innocent of its complexities. Since our famous 1960s, American skepticism about our role in the great world has deepened. Americans say now that we don’t understand the Arab world--the “Arab mind"--any more than we understood the durable nuances of Southeast Asia. On the other hand, a generation earlier, the American, for all his famous innocence, prevailed over the cynical orders of Japan and of Germany.

On the night of Jan. 16, I went to observe an anti-war rally in downtown San Francisco. The faces were mostly young and white. There were skinheads and rah-rah collegians and street-corner loonies; there were high-school kids with wire-rim glasses and suburban revolutionaries who wanted to shut down the freeways.

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At the edge of the crowd, I looked for people alone to ask why they had come. One man, who looked in his late 20s, in a suit and tie, said he had no personal quarrel with the nation of Iraq. What did that mean? I pressed: Were there no circumstances that would prompt him to support a war against Iraq? His answer: “Only if Saddam Hussein attacked the United States.” I should tell you frankly that I belong to the generation of college students who took deferments to keep out of harm’s way during the Vietnam War. I did not fight in Vietnam and, even in retrospect, I do not regret not fighting. I do not regret having opposed the Vietnam War.

What Vietnam taught me as well as many other Americans--and what we passed to a new generation--is a skepticism regarding presidential rhetoric. Many Americans today are not inclined to accept the given. We look for Chevron oil or the Israeli lobby or CIA operatives behind the politician’s assertion.

President George Bush spoke on the evening of Jan. 16 of our opportunity to forge a “new world order.” Two hours later, a woman at the rally said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll let my son die for Standard Oil.” What our skepticism leaves us with is the fear of complexity--in another time we would have called it isolationism. “We have too many problems in our own country--we have AIDS, we have the homeless, we have unemployment to worry about,” the woman offered.

“No blood for oil” was the night’s theme. It was as close as the crowds came to suggesting an American foreign policy. No one I heard at the anti-war rally uttered the name of Lithuania or Kuwait, and no one suggested what the United States should do about dictators in faraway lands who overstep boundaries. There was no imagination of the intractability of evil in the John Lennon lyric that flowed down the street: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

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I doubt that Bush would have decided to bomb Iraq on Jan. 16 if there were not a volunteer army. At home, we have become accustomed to distinguishing ourselves from “the military.” Too many Americans these days, most especially Americans of the upper-middle class, are too steeped in skepticism to entrust their daughters or sons to foreign wars.

The women I saw on television--the wives and mothers of soldiers--in places like San Diego and Norfolk, Va., were stoic or weeping or dazed on the night of Jan. 16. Nonetheless, they opened their apartments to the national eye of the television camera. The camera poked around the living room and took in the hanging plant, the Formica table, the State Fair figurines, the sagging sofa, the kids in their jammies. These were not the houses of those who had received the most from America. They were the houses of those who most trusted America. Watching them, that night, I wanted to trust as they trusted, believe as they believed in the efficacy of action.

The next day, in the first hours, when the war seemed easy and seemed to defy the months of skepticism, the fighter pilot returned to an air base in Saudi Arabia, thumbs up, like Audie Murphy in the movies as in real life. We own the air.

If it all comes out as planned by the Pentagon, if it turns out that the technology I never trusted actually works, if it turns out that a robust dictator can be toppled, the fighter pilot will become more than a national hero. We will learn from him that we have the power to reorder the world to suit us. If the adventure fails, then Jan. 16 will remind us, will deepen us in the conviction, that we no longer understand the world.


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