Tuning In, Tuning Out to the War

Times Staff Writer

This is a war that Americans expect to win, a war they support by large margins. It’s also a war that many hope to keep from dominating their everyday lives.

Last weekend, San Franciscans welcomed the Across the Bay 12K race, even if runners had to be rerouted off the Golden Gate Bridge. In De Kalb, Ill., Huntley Middle School -- never mind the dozen cancellations -- went through with its annual eighth-grade trip to Washington.

In Orange County, organizers overcame second thoughts about holding the Miss La Habra pageant. An Amish quilt show went forward as planned at the county fairgrounds, and golfers with flag pins teed up in Newport Beach for the Toshiba Senior Classic.

At the First United Methodist Church in Brighton, Mich., the Sunday service was comfortingly uneventful, save for the opening hymn’s pointed fervor: “Lead us forward into freedom / From despair your world release / That redeemed from war and hatred / All may come and go in peace.”


As the nation braced for a second week of combat, even the war’s supporters were finding it as heartbreaking as it was compelling, and finding themselves torn between tuning in and tuning out.

The war “is so terribly sad, yet it doesn’t feel real to people. It’s just smoke at a distance,” said Rebecca Van Breda, 68, of Deltona, Fla., a Scottish immigrant for whom the war footage is a reminder of bombings in her hometown during World War II. Van Breda said she has spent this war in her garden, at lunch with her friends, at a lake -- anywhere but in front of the televised updates. “I think this war had to happen, and I support it. But I can’t watch, and I don’t like to talk about it. It’s too emotional for me.”

Nora Meymar, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher from Glendale, said she has not let war news intrude on her routines because she can’t bear to dwell on what her government has done. “It really depresses me because I think it’s really wrong,” Meymar said. Saturday found her determinedly celebrating a friend’s birthday with lunch and a trip to a day spa.

“I feel for the troops,” said Teresa Sanchez, a legal secretary in Chicago, making her regular pilgrimage to the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale’s on Saturday. “But I also feel for firemen and police -- they put their lives on the line every day too. In a way, we all do now when we leave home.” And in any case, she added, “How much of those shaky night-vision pictures can you watch?”

Most Expect Victory

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Saturday and Sunday showed that, although three Americans in four are “confident” that the U.S. will achieve its objectives, nearly the same proportion, 71%, say the war also has made them “sad.”

It’s a factor that may be a slight damper on the sky-high early support that is typical in the first days of a national crisis. U.S. support for the war remains high -- 72% -- but lower than in the early days of the 1991 Gulf War -- 80%.

And the audience for the war is less devoted than it was 12 years ago. Sixty-three percent of Americans said they have been following news of the war closely -- a fairly high number, but lower than the 70% who closely followed Desert Storm’s first days. Three out of four Americans said in 1991 that they rose early and stayed up late for the 24-hour updates from Baghdad; only 57% are reporting such dedication this time.


The home front has many disconsolate channel surfers. ABC estimated that 33.1 million viewers watched Sunday’s Academy Awards at any given time during the night. The ratings were off markedly from a year ago, but nevertheless reflected an impulse to switch away from repeated reports of captured and killed U.S. soldiers.

Millions of other Americans divided their weekend, however uncomfortably, between war and the movies, or chores, or family obligations, or the March Madness of NCAA basketball. Or bargain-hunting.

Though the travel industry was profoundly affected by the onset of combat, other businesses said they escaped the so-called CNN effect that kept customers home during the 1991 war.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest retailer, reported a boost in sales of camping equipment and lawn furniture as demand was stimulated by the opening of turkey-hunting season and the first day of spring.


Explanations for the mood this time are varied. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, for example, may have posed the simplest one: “War is brutal,” he said.

Others contend that Americans may not fully appreciate how brutal it really is.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “Most Americans don’t remember the Vietnam War, and they generalize about war on the basis of the first Gulf War and the Afghan war. They expect minimal casualties in a war that will be over very quickly.”

The tanks in the desert look like Desert Storm reruns. The grainy footage shot by journalists traveling with troops has the feel of reality TV and Web-cams. So far, even the exchanges of gunfire are more displays of technology than demonstrations of flesh-and-blood valor. “People think of it as a computer game,” Schlesinger said.


Moreover, Americans don’t share the financial and physical burdens of war as personally as in past conflicts.

David Kennedy, Stanford University professor of history and author of “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” notes that the draft in World War II helped pull 16 million men into the war out of a population of less than 150 million.

“Now we have a population of not quite 300 million and maybe 1.4 million of them in an all-volunteer force. In effect, we have a kind of mercenary army now, and its involvement in conflicts is not uniformly felt in this country because it is not drawn from the full range of American life.” he said.

Economically, Americans won’t feel this war to the same degree as past generations. “Even if this war costs $100 billion -- and that’s the high end -- that’s less than 1% of our annual GDP in this country,” Kennedy said. “It’s a lot of money, but compared to the size of this economy, it’s a drop in the bucket. It means we can wage a colossal military effort without breaking a sweat, economically speaking, at least at the moment.”


Add it all up, and “you can see how this war would come to have about it the air of a spectacle, of bread and circuses,” Kennedy said.

Opening Day Canceled

The situation has made it hard even for the most public-spirited citizens not to second-guess themselves. Last week, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig canceled the season opener in Japan, citing the “tense world situation,” even as NCAA President Myles Brand announced that “the American way of life goes on as scheduled” and that, therefore, the college basketball championships also should go on.

“Because I have experienced a little of what war can be like, I didn’t feel we ought to be playing,” said University of Pittsburgh senior forward Donatas Zavackas, who spent his childhood in wartime Lithuania. But then, he said, he heard reports that troops’ morale was being buoyed by picking tournament brackets. Now, he said, “I’m kind of changing my mind.”


It was unclear whether similar comfort will come from, say, the WrestleMania XIX pay-per-view later this month featuring the Miller Lite Catfight Girls -- Tanya Ballinger and Kitana Baker -- which is expected to draw 52,000 in Seattle.

But the demand for respite, Americans say, won’t go away soon.

“Face it,” said Michael Stern, a 53-year-old Chicagoan as he sipped coffee at a Michigan Avenue bookstore, “we know how this movie is going to end. We’re like an NFL team playing peewee football.” The television, he said, can be turned off; and a war-weary civilian can, well, go for coffee.

“It’s what comes afterward -- that’s the problem,” he said.


Times staff writers in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago and Washington, contributed to this report.