Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2002/ 3 Tishrei, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A modest proposal to pay for the war | There's good news from Antietam, of all places, for George W. Bush and Congress, and maybe even for Tony Blair.

The war on Iraq, which seems to be on the way if not exactly not yet upon us, is expected to be hideously expensive, beyond the costs in blood and bone. But it doesn't have to cost the governments in Washington and London anything.

The news from Antietam, scene of the bloodiest single day in American history, is that private corporations are buying up naming rights for various parts of a re-enactment of the famous battle fought on the banks of Antietam Creek in September 1862.

If Salomon Smith Barney, the investment house, and Pepsi Cola are willing to pay a thousand bucks for the honor of putting up tents to hype the virtues of investment and belly-wash, we can only imagine how much Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Boeing and General Motors might be willing to pay for the exclusive naming rights for the Battle of Baghdad.

Corporate sponsors and 13,000 re-enactors will gather this week, not actually on the battlefield since that's U.S. Park Service land and the Park Service doesn't allow re-enactments on actual battlefields, to commemorate the battle that many historians regard as the most important, if not the most decisive, of the War Between the States (or the War of Northern Aggression, as the unbiased historians call it).

Some people think it disrespectful, if not sacrilegious, to put a commercial cast on the place where American lives were spent in battle, but of course the critics do not understand the profoundly reverential nature of your average American corporation. "Our corporate sponsors understand the commemorative nature of this event and its solemn and respectful nature," says the co-chairman of the re-enactment.

Of course they do. The re-enactment will include four major "fight scenarios" with a hundred pieces of real artillery, Hollywood pyrotechnics, hot dogs and Pepsi Cola. Every man of the regiment Robert E. Lee called "my great old 3d Arkansas," which lost half its men in Bloody Lane, would have been pleased to get a hot dog on that long-ago September afternoon. Not being part of the Pepsi Generation, the soldiers at Antietam didn't know any better than to push the blood and gore out of the way to drink from the creek. A.P. Hill and his Virginians arrived late at the end of a forced march from Harpers Ferry, just in time to deliver the crushing counterattack that saved Lee's right flank, but he would surely have arrived soon enough to curl Ambrose Burnside's sideburns if a Smith Barney man had been waiting in '62 to offer investment advice.

Naming rights are a new phenomenon, too late for World War II. Wouldn't Mutual of Omaha have snapped up the chance to make it Mutual of Omaha Beach? Slim-Fast and Weight Watchers would have fought each other with barrel staves to sponsor the Battle of the Bulge.

Naming rights were invented by the owners of major league baseball and football, and quickly spread to the minor leagues on campus. Jack Kent Cooke Stadium became FedEx Field, as Dan Snyder, the new Redskins owner, erased traces of franchise history. Rights to name players have been on the agenda of some owners - indeed, some owners are thought to be negotiating to rename themselves if the price is right. Preparation H has several owners, perhaps one not far from here, on its prospects list.

Now that the naming-rights phenomenon is plundering the nation's history, sports teams are small beer. The nation's monuments will soon be up for sale. The Lincoln Memorial is a natural to become the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial, Toyota and Honda will duke it out over the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Rights to Arlington National Cemetery should fetch a premium from a marble works or the association of morticians. If its membership, which consists mostly of undercover FBI agents, can raise the money, the Ku Klux Klan would be the logical purchaser of rights to the Washington Monument. The great spire, with its aviation warning lights winking like two beady red eyes, becomes a giant Klansman as night falls, when the lights play against its dorky pointy head. When nothing is any longer out of bounds, over the top or across the line, you can bet that Mercedes-Benz or BMW will be panting to sponsor the Holocaust memorial.

The organizers of a re-enactment at Gettysburg next summer, to mark the 140th anniversary of the battle, expect it to be the granddaddy of all re-enactments, the Rose Bowl of commercial pretense. The co-chairman of the event calls next week's Antietam re-enactment "the Super Bowl or the Masters Tournament, basically the top of the line."

Abraham Lincoln thought he got it right at Gettysburg: "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."

But what did Abe know? The smart bombs - "genius bombs" in the description of one military analyst - of the coming Iraqi war will relegate Antietam and Gettysburg to mere footnotes in the annals of re-enactdom. Live, in living color - and it won't cost the taxpayers a dime.

Is this a great country, or what?

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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