Far too quiet on the homefront

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It was the first day of spring, the second anniversary of the Iraq war, the fourth day of the NCAA tournament. At the liberal church I was attending near Boston this Palm Sunday, the minister mentioned the tough winter that had dumped 108 inches of snow on the area. He said not a word about the 1,524 American soldiers killed in Iraq, at last count.

As I listened, a guest participant in the choir, he talked of the hope and rebirth that comes with spring and of the pleasure of watching college playoff basketball, with its teamwork, fraternity, and enthusiasm. He never did mention the war that slogs on thousands of miles away.

He wasn't the only one who seemed forgetful this anniversary weekend. Antiwar marches in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston drew thousands, but the crowds were far smaller than a year ago. Many news organizations neither bothered to announce these events in advance nor covered them in anything but the most perfunctory manner.

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I can't tell whether America is in denial or despair over events in Iraq, but I suspect it's some of each. The denial comes amid a flurry of flag-waving that's followed Iraqi elections and the Bush administration's insistence that peace is breaking out all over because of its own aggressive actions. Conventional wisdom this month is that the president is right. Conventional wisdom has turned an already meek press corps into church mice. But conventional wisdom in this war has been wrong many times before.

The despair, I suspect, keeps many people who are bitterly opposed to this war at home - and deflates turnout at those underpublicized and undercovered antiwar rallies.

Americans, it seems, would just as soon ignore the fact that 150,000 of our troops remain stationed in Iraq; that tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children have died in the crossfire; that some inadvertently have been gunned down at checkpoints where American troops - fearful, with good reason, of suicide attacks - sometimes shoot first and ask questions later; that the tens of billions of dollars we're investing there each year could handily cover health insurance for the millions of uninsured American children. And that even so, corruption in Iraq is rampant, unemployment stands near 50 percent, electricity is off more than on, and that nearly two years after the end of "major combat" reporters are still writing about the dangerous drive from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone a few miles away.

If the US government has figured out an exit plan, it's not telling us what it is. No. The message is strictly hail to the chief and let freedom ring.

War is always more palatable when we don't let its reality get in the way. The myth of war stirs pride; the ground-level reality, horror. Distraction may be the path of least resistance. So it's root for spring and the home team. Turn on the TV and watch the battle of college hoops. It's safe. It's prescribed - 40 minutes plus interminable ads that stretch the event to two hours. It's fun. And, except for the occasional elbow to nose, there's no blood.

But then, plenty of Americans seem to think the same holds true in Iraq.

The day after the Palm Sunday service, I told my cousin, who had invited me to the church, of my surprise that the minister hadn't mentioned the war. She said he and many in the congregation in the past have been outspoken in their opposition to the war and that, at times, their views had caused division in the congregation. Perhaps, she speculated, he had decided for the time being to pull back, to heal.

If that's the case, in one church near Boston and in pulpits across this country, it would be a terrible shame. Because peace in Iraq won't grow out of weariness or polite silence at home.

At some point, Americans will need to reengage in this conflict (and conflict it clearly remains, if one reads the battle-and-bombing stories often buried inside the daily news). If they don't, Iraq, like an earlier war in Southeast Asia, will just keep dragging on.

Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College.

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