Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2001 / 9 Tishrei, 5762

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

The US has gained an understanding of the costs of war for which its European allies have hitherto wished in vain -- SHORTLY after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced an earnest film aiming to show what courage on the home front was all about.

The studio chose England in the summer of 1939 as setting for its film, the opening scenes of which portray a politically oblivious English matron, the sort of caricature who heads into town on the morning train to pick up an expensive hat, and then conceals her feathery extravagance from her spouse. But soon comes September, and war. The droning of enemy planes low overhead alters everything. And this same housewife, Mrs Miniver, rises to the occasion, stewarding her family through the Battle of Britain.

With her support, her son leaps to join the Royal Air Force. Her husband pilots the family boat down the Thames to help the navy. She herself handily disarms a Luftwaffe pilot who turns up among her garden geraniums.

Mrs Miniver inspired Britons - Winston Churchill, the prime minister, called it "more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions." But it was the American reception that proved spectacular. Americans flocked to cinemas to study the heroism of the English rose, making the film more popular than any of that decade bar Gone with the Wind. Part of the US fascination stemmed from self-doubt. Lacking their own experience of home-front valour, Americans wondered: could they too, if necessary, rise to the occasion?

And so they continued to wonder, for a full six decades. For postwar America, the America of the period that ended so abruptly on September 11, was something of paradox - a superpower, a strong fighter, but also a self-conscious naif, not tested on its home turf.

In the early part of the cold war, of course, there were still many Americans - soldiers and former soldiers - who knew war abroad. But in recent decades and with the end of the draft, that knowledge has receded, turning the US into the equivalent of a nation of oblivious hat-buyers. Americans never dreamed that their nation would create, as President George W. Bush did last Thursday, a powerful Office of Homeland Security. This circumstance shaped US behaviour abroad.

Americans were aware of their missing experience and sought to compensate for it, however artificially. To inform themselves about the Soviet Union and Europe, successive administrations hired European-born experts such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski - people who had personal experience of the threat at hand. Citizens travelled as tourists to divided Berlin to peer from Checkpoint Point Charlie into that unknowable - communism.

But especially after Vietnam and as the cold war faded, it was difficult for the US to convince itself it truly confronted risk of attack. And if America could never be hurt, what did "elsewhere" matter? US officials might mouth the old line, but the will to act or plan was gone.

This cavalier mood was especially prevalent in the mid- and late-1990s, the period in which Hollywood gave us another war film, as cynical as Mrs Miniver was earnest. Wag the Dog was the story of a poll-obsessed White House that manufactured a mini-war to increase its political standing. Although the film exaggerated, it accurately conveyed the US conviction that "abroad" was becoming something unreal, even fictional. Short strikes from high over Iraq or Yugoslavia might be all right, but was it really worth undertaking projects that might disturb a night's sleep at home? It was even hard to write consistent policy.

This attitude disillusioned America's allies and European citizens. If the US had declared itself to be opposed to terrorism, why did the White House not take London's side when it came to the Irish Republican Army? If the US stood for freedom, why did it not move to topple Slobodan Milosevic earlier? The Allies might be right or wrong on such specific issues. But they were certainly correct in their perception that America did not always acknowledge the stakes of the game it played.

The most sinister thing about US inconsistency was that it caused America to be misread by its enemies. It is said that Somalia, where the US engaged and then fled after the death of 18 soldiers in Mogadishu, convinced Osama bin Laden that Washington would do anything to avoid the sight of body bags.

This may have been true, on some occasions, of body bags containing professional soldiers killed in far-off places. What bin Laden failed to understand was that body bags containing New York's neighbourhood firefighters killed at home would produce quite another reaction.

In other words, if anything positive can be said to have come of the September 11 suicide bombings, it is that they have given the US something of the understanding of war that Europeans have always wished it might have. America too has now been tested, and has discovered in herself a Miniver-scale resolve. Both US citizens and the government are now proceeding more confidently. This is what Mr Bush meant when he said on Thursday that "we have found our mission and our moment".

The change may not bring the sort of formalised multilateralism European leaders hanker after, but it has given new life to the US side of the old special relationship with Britain. Prime ministers have always been welcome in the US, but none since Churchill has been so appreciated as Tony Blair was when he appeared in the gallery to watch Mr Bush outline his war plans.

For New York and Washington, unlike London, never knew until 14 days ago what it was like to wake in the night to the sound of planes overhead and to wonder, for a moment, whether those planes were "theirs" or "ours". And now they do.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


09/13/01: War against terrorism will rise from the ashes
08/15/01: Geography is no excuse for the state's economic stagnation. Its policymakers should take a leaf from Ireland's book
08/07/01: Teamsters may pay a heavy price for winning its batle in Congress
07/25/01: Towards a patent-free nirvana?
07/17/01: History proves the lasting value of tax cuts
07/10/01: Stem cell research has awakened a bitter debate in Washington but voters care more about other electoral issues
07/03/01: America foots the bill for Europe's largesse
06/26/01: America the litigious, land of the lawyer's fee
06/20/01: Five reasons for gloom about global growth 06/18/01: Show pity for Alice in Tax Wonderland
06/13/01: America must take a French lesson in trade
06/11/01: Time to dream the impossible dream for Iraq
06/07/01: Whatever happened to simple?
06/04/01: When the relationship between companies becomes as close as a marriage, the eventual break-up is often very painful
06/01/01: Loving and hating the Bush tax bill
05/30/01: Will Grisham soon be unemployed? In America's courts these days, there's no room left over for legal fiction
05/22/01: Republicans sample the rhetoric of confidence
05/16/01: Boeing has been promised $60m to site its headquarters in Illinois. The deal looks a poor one for taxpayers
05/14/01: Adam Smith in love
05/09/01: Those rotten Russian capitalists
05/07/01: Why tax havens provide shelter for everyone
05/04/01: Middle classes pay for get-the-rich folly
05/01/01: Money can't buy happiness? Think again.
04/26/01: Calling America's rogues and entrepreneurs
04/19/01: High earners right to feel lonely at the top
04/11/01: The right must learn the comfort of strangers
04/04/01: When domestic law arrives by the back door
03/30/01: A Lexus tax cut suits the jalopy driver
03/27/01: The unchallenged dominance of King Dollar
03/20/01: Natural selection of an intellectual aristocracy
03/16/01: The hidden danger of a regulatory recession
03/14/01: Is the American condition that boring? Why so many Oscar nominated movies aren't set in America
03/07/01: Trampling on the theory of path dependence
03/05/01: Fighting the good fight
03/01/01: It is time for Fannie and Freddie to grow up
02/27/01: IT's important
02/22/01: The guilty conscience of America's millionaires
02/14/01: The benefits of helping the 'rich'
02/09/01: The Danger and Promise of the Bush Schools Plan
02/05/01: Crack and Compassion
01/31/01: Debt is good
01/29/01: Clueless
01/24/01: A gloomy end for a half-hearted undertaking
01/17/01: The challenge of an ally with its own mind
01/15/01: An unexpected American family portrait
01/10/01: A fitting legacy for America's beloved dictator
01/08/01: The trick of tax 'convenience'
01/03/01: Time to stop blaming Greenspan over taxes
12/11/00: So smart they're dumb
12/06/00: How economic bad news came good for Bush
12/04/00: The Boies factor
11/30/00: "The inevitable demands for recounts erupted like acne…"
11/28/00: Fair play and the rules of the electoral game
11/23/00: The shining prospect beyond a cloudy election
11/21/00: Try the Cleveland model
11/16/00: A surprising winner emerges in the US election
11/09/00: Those powerful expats
11/07/00: What's right for America versus what works
11/02/00: Time to turn off big government's autopilot
10/30/00: Canada beating America in financial sensibility
10/26/00: When progressiveness leads to backwardness
10/24/00: The most accurate poll
10/19/00: The Middle East tells us the hawks were right
10/17/00: The split personalities of America's super rich
10/10/00: 'Equity Rights' or Wake up and Smell the Starbucks
10/04/00: Trapped in the basement of global capitalism
09/21/00: The final act of a grand presidential tragedy
09/21/00: Europeans strike back at the fuel tax monster. Should Americans follow?
09/18/00: First steps to success
09/13/00: America rejects the human rights transplant
09/07/00: Minimum wage, maximum cost
09/05/00: Prudent Al Gore plans some serious spending
08/31/00: A revolution fails to bring power to the people
08/28/00: A reali$tic poll
08/21/00: "I Goofed"
08/16/00: Part of the union, but not part of the party
08/09/00: Silicon Alley Secrets
08/02/00: Radical Republicans warm up for Philadelphia
07/31/00: I'll Cry if I Want To
07/27/00: Cold warrior of the new world
07/25/00: The Estate Tax will drop dead
07/18/00: Shooting down the anti-missile defence myths
07/14/00: A convenient punchbag for America's leaders
07/07/00: How to destroy the pharmaceutical industry
07/05/00: Patriots and bleeding hearts
06/30/00: Candidates beware: New Washington consensus on robust growth stands the old wisdom on its head
06/28/00: White America's flight to educational quality
06/26/00: How Hillary inspired the feminist infobabes

© 2001, Financial Times