Stars and gripes: wartime etiquette at home

From subdued Oscar gowns to Dan Rather amid the NCAA, life goes on - with a difference.

With war unfolding some 6,000 miles away, life on the home front for most Americans has so far been both strikingly different and oddly the same.

Certainly, the war has been omnipresent: More than ever before, citizens have been surrounded by televised images of battle, with continuous live coverage allowing them to keep track of the conflict while at home, at work, and at the neighborhood coffee shop.

Concerns about terrorism have brought the war home in new ways, as well. In Washington, D.C., the marathon was canceled for security reasons. New Yorkers and Washingtonians now ride the subways with members of the National Guard.

Yet in many ways, life has gone on as usual. The Academy Awards ceremony was held Sunday night, though with an abbreviated red-carpet pre-show. And the NCAA basketball tournament is proceeding on CBS, albeit with Dan Rather's periodic war updates: "If news breaks out," he promises, "we'll break in."

To some extent, experts say, there's a dual dynamic at work: Ever since 9/11, Americans have been told that they should not alter their routines or let a sense of crisis permeate their lives - or the enemy will have won.

But at a time of war, the public wants to show support for coalition troops abroad. And for many, that raises new questions of what's appropriate - with everything from entertainment to politics coming under fresh scrutiny.

"This is something we've always wrestled with," notes Randy Roberts, a cultural historian at Purdue University. "On the one hand, you don't want your life to be interrupted. But on the other hand, it does interrupt our lives, so how do you [find a] balance?" During World War II, he notes, baseball wasn't canceled. And Hollywood not only continued making films, but was viewed as essential to the war effort, helping to boost morale on the home front.

Still, at the Oscars on Sunday, war's influence was evident in the subdued mood - and the sea of demure black and beige gowns.

More telling, however, were the speeches - and the reactions to them. Although much of Hollywood has been vocally antiwar, most stars kept their speeches free of politics, relying instead on subtle statements such as dove pins.

But there were exceptions: On winning the Oscar for best actor, Adrien Brody said his experience making "The Pianist," a Holocaust film, made him "very aware of the sadness and dehumanization of people in times of war." He urged: "Let us pray for a peaceful and swift resolution" - and got a standing ovation.

But when accepting the award for best documentary film, director Michael Moore called Bush's presidency and the reasons for war "fictitious," saying "Shame on you, Mr. Bush." He was roundly booed.

Surges of patriotism - and reduced tolerance for dissent - are typical responses to war, say historians. Even citizens who oppose the conflict often don't want to be perceived as undermining troops when they're in harm's way.

Yet there's also a danger that free speech can be stifled at a time of national crisis, some say. The line between legitimate objections to war and unpatriotic speech is hard to define - and usually subjective.

"One effect of war is very often to reduce the range of free expression," says Paul Boyer, a history professor at the College of William and Mary. "Under the umbrella of patriotism and support for the war, people who hold dissident views are silenced."

Often, the emphasis on patriotism is stronger when the nation has been divided in the run-up to war. During World War I, a conflict many Americans opposed joining, nationalist sentiment ran so high that orchestras banned Beethoven and frankfurters were renamed "hot dogs" (similar to the recent renaming of French fries "freedom fries" - although France is not the enemy).

Even before the fighting began in Iraq, Republicans roundly condemned Senate minority leader Tom Daschle for seeming to suggest that the conflict was a result of Bush's "failed" diplomacy. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Senator Daschle's words came "mighty close" to comforting the enemy.

And country-music group the Dixie Chicks found its songs suddenly pulled from radio playlists after the lead singer said she was ashamed to come from the same state as Bush. She has apologized.

While heightened national unity and a tendency toward restraint are common at war's outset, the mood can dissipate depending on how the war goes - and how long it lasts. America's involvement in World War I was so short that there wasn't time for the "superpatriotism" to wear off, says Professor Boyer. But in World War II, the mood shifted as the war went on. The public grew restless, feeling the pinch of shortages.

Most observers expect this war to end relatively quickly. But it's the postwar rebuilding phase that could prove the most interesting test of the nation's mood, "because that's when they'll call on Americans to make sacrifices, in terms of money," says J. Fred MacDonald, a professor emeritus of history at Northeastern Illinois University.

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