WASHINGTON — I remember World War II well. Our involvement - what we were doing to get ready and then our fighting of that war - was constantly in the thoughts of all Americans.
Conversations would start with "How are we doing?" or "Are we winning?" or with elation over a military victory. Americans were preoccupied with the struggle. That's my memory of how much we were a part of a war where it seemed clear to everybody who the enemy was and how important victory was to all of us.
Well, for a year and a half we've been involved in a kind of global war, and the reaction of the public is a lot different from then. Americans certainly rallied behind the president after Sept. 11, when he took our country into a war against terrorism. Shows of patriotism and public support and interest remained at a high pitch through the Afghanistan conflict. But since then, while the US carried on its "shadow war" against terrorists worldwide, this struggle has been so behind the scenes that a public which, according to polls, remained quite supportive of the war, has turned its attention elsewhere.
Indeed, as I mingled with people from around the country during the past month I hardly ever heard the war mentioned. I ate breakfast at a coffee shop near Orlando, Fla., where, crowded in with several other tables, it was easy to "listen in." Every morning there was a new group of these breakfasters coming in from the North on their way to a few days at Disney World. Sure, they talked eagerly about the fun that lay ahead. And they laughed happily over the warm weather they'd driven into while escaping the big snows up north. But there was much serious talk, too. Most of it centered on the economy: friends and relatives hit by the recession. One man I sat with volunteered that his son had been out of work for six months. I heard others speak of friends becoming jobless.
But not once - I repeat not once - did I hear any talk about the war.
What do I conclude from this?
Here I must underscore that I don't think the president has lost the public support he must keep to carry on a war that, as he has indicated, may go on for years. But the intensity of this backing after Sept. 11 has flagged somewhat. I'm sure President Bush and his top people have noted this. For one, public support is important when you ask Congress for money for war.
I think that public interest in this war will never become a constant. It will rise during successful US military engagements or with successes like the March 1 capture of the major leader of Al Qaeda, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Then, as the US continues its war behind the scenes it will be natural for Americans to talk of other things.
About here someone will be asking: "How about the many Americans protesting a war against Iraq?" Well, I wouldn't expect to meet any of them at that Orlando breakfast spot. Polls show they constitute a significant number of Americans - although not a majority. But if a war against Iraq becomes prolonged and there are many casualties, then that protest could become a powerful force, as it was in the Vietnam War.
Here I would add a caveat. The Vietnam protests that in effect stopped that war were driven by the draft, by young men who didn't want to be pulled into the war, and by their families and friends. There is no draft now, and the president has indicated there will be none. Thus a war protest may never reach the Vietnam intensity, even though this war may, in the eyes of many, go sour.
Finally, for sake of accuracy, I would like to tell readers that I didn't spend my entire vacation as a kibitzer at those breakfasts - although I have some experience along that line. I also got out to Disney's baseball park and watched the Atlanta Braves in spring training games. And had a lot of fun!