Iraq and Afghanistan: America's invisible wars
After seven years in Iraq and nine in Afghanistan, residents of York, Pa., talk about how the wars have become like a screen saver: always there but rarely acknowledged.
Standing in Continental Square in this southern Pennsylvania town in the early 1940s, it wouldn't have taken long to divine the subject foremost in the minds of the citizenry.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures York Pennsylvania
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You would have seen young men in olive-drab uniforms trudging up from the train station, looking for something to do to kill the few hours of their layover. Many of them would have dropped by the USO post in the square, where they would have been directed to an old schoolhouse over on Beaver Street to grab a bite to eat, play board games, and, if they stayed long enough, enjoy a dance with a pretty local girl.
Elsewhere in the square, you would have spied residents standing in line at a small booth to buy US war bonds. In the windows of all the shops and the big department stores – Bear's, Wiest's, and Bon-Ton – you would have seen large posters drumming up support for the war effort or darkly warning about staying on the lookout for Nazi spies.
If you had hung around long enough, no doubt you would have been swept up by community campaigns to collect scrap metal or tires for the defense industry. You would have heard boastful references to "the York Plan," a civic initiative that brought local manufacturers together to win huge armament contracts. And certainly there would have been some grumbling as well – about gas rationing and the dearth of ladies' stockings, a consequence of silk being siphoned off to make parachutes.
World War II, in other words, was inescapably Topic A – and probably every other letter of the alphabet as well – in York as it was in every other small town or big city in America in those days.
Today, nearly seven years since the invasion of Iraq and nine years into "the war on terror" – one of the longest conflicts in US history – York's Continental Square tells a different story. Or rather it tells no story at all in terms of the present military entanglements. There isn't a single visible clue that the country is at war. No posters. No banners. No ribbons. Nothing. Even the peace vigils that were held in the square every Friday afternoon starting in 2002 were discontinued in 2008.
"It's almost a forgotten war," says Leada Dietz, a coordinator of People for Peace and Justice, the York group that organized those demonstrations. "It's almost as though there is no war."
York, a manufacturing town of about 40,000 (in a county of 425,000) known for making barbells and Harley-Davidsons, is hardly alone in its aloofness from the war. Other than places where military bases are located and among military families, the two wars seem far from the emotional heart of Americans these days. Iraq and Afghanistan have become America's screen savers – always present but rarely focused on – something that opponents and supporters alike agree, though for different reasons, isn't good for the men and women fighting there nor for any clear sense of national purpose.
Polls bear out the wars' invisibility. A CBS News/New York Times survey conducted in early February found 52 percent of respondents identified the economy as America's most pressing problem. A mere 3 percent named the Iraq and Afghan wars as the nation's biggest worry.
It may be that a lengthy US conflict has never registered so faintly in the American psyche.