|U.S. CONGRESS IS DRAFTING A BILL proposing the re-introduction of war bonds. "War bonds," says Senator Mitch McConnell (R - Kentucky), "will give voice to countless Americans who are looking to make a difference in this time of need." No details have been given, however, detailing how the new war bonds will differ from already available government savings bonds, T-bills, or a multiplicity of savings certificates.
It seems like an exercise in nostalgia, more than anything
else, and the kind of thing that ambitious politicians like to be seen
doing in the absence of any other compelling duty. The fact is that the
economic situation today bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of a time
when everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bugs Bunny shilled bond drives. There's
no "war economy", except for the recession we were heading toward before
Sept. 11th, and economic logic dictates that discretionary income would
be better spent buying consumer goods than locked up in savings. After
all, the last time war bonds were issued, there was nothing to buy while
war industries were pumping wages up after a decade of depression.
Back then, government coffers were empty after years of
public works projects under the New Deal. Today, the U.S. has a fiscal
surplus, and the current "war on terrorism" can be funded for at least
another year, perhaps more, based on current weapons stockpiles and military
budgets. It's unlikely that GM will be re-tooling its plants to switch
from SUVs to tanks, while last year's gas hog is laid away under a tarp,
unable to take to the road thanks to fuel rationing.
I can't help but wonder, though, about what kind of fond
wish for a more austere world -- as imagined by those who, for the most
part, never lived through it -- lies behind unrealistic notions like the
return of war bonds, as voiced by elected representatives who, if quizzed,
would never gainsay the wisdom of the market, while acting steadfastly
against its obvious logic. I hate conspiracy theory, so I won't spout some
dark fantasy about a government preparing us for a world of constant war,
made palatable by a sly effort to sell us the nostalgia for a previous,
more comprehensible conflict. It's a compelling fantasy, equal parts 1984 and Winds of War, but I'll leave its propogation to those more devoted to victualling their paranoia.
The truth is a bit starker: the new war -- and it is a
war, regardless of how lopsided the forces, how indistinct the enemy, how
unclear the objective -- is something entirely new, and the newness is
terrifying. It didn't start on September 11th, and it won't be over anytime
soon. It might go from "surgical strikes" and a crusade for justice to
messy, multi-front conflict, hobbled and conditioned by any number of sometimes dismal political alliances. It might, despite our best and wisest efforts to the contrary, turn into a "clash of cultures", and diminish the democracy it so stridently professes to defend. Faced with such vague but awful prospects, the mind turns to nostalgia, to the familiar, to a fond wish for a better world, a comforting past, no matter how bleak that possibility.
Because no one who lived through the Second World War
will tell you that it was fun, that it was joyous, that they felt constantly
ennobled through their sacrifices, whether it was a lack of nylons or butter,
or the possibility of violent death or the loss of loved ones. Living through
the war, any sane person wanted nothing more than for it to be over, and
dreamed of the world that would follow, one of peace and plenty and security
and a blissful escape into the trivial and diverting. That world, once
it arrived, was trivial and diverting, to a fault, and perhaps more than
a few people looked back on the dark times they'd left behind with some
fondness, missing the sense of purpose, but they were a minority, and were
no doubt aware of how absurd it would be to leave behind comfort and peace
for scarcity, fear and war.
But the human mind, especially the group mind, convulsively
demanding satisfaction through the confusing prerogatives of a society,
is never neat, or lucid, or logical. In New York, survivors of the World
Trade Center attack have been obsessively visiting a makeshift gallery
of photos of that day, hundreds of photos taken by professionals and amateurs,
attempting to make sense of what happened to them, of what's still happening.
We know we can't escape the tragic reality of war, so it's natural that
even congressmen are trying to re-imagine it, to mould the grim reality
to suit a less unsure vision of the future.
And so we have war bonds, and "God Bless America", and
benefit concerts that we hope, vainly, have less to do with the egos of
the performers involved than with some unifying moment where everyone from
P. Diddy to Billy Joel to Justin Timberlake is actually part of the same
culture, an idea that would seem risible a few months ago. In awhile,
we'll be trying to divine just who would be our Vera Lynn, our Frankie,
our Glenn Miller Band. Anything to avoid the heartbreak of realizing that
we'll never have that moment, that the current war is like our current
world: fragmented yet all-encompassing, truly global yet capable of striking
at a household, at our workplace, without warning.