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THE NATION | A Nation Waits

In Washington War Talks, 'If' Isn't the Issue

January 19, 2003|PETER H. KING

WASHINGTON — In the winter of 1940, as America edged toward war, Ernie Pyle paid a journalistic visit to the nation's capital. The vagabond columnist and soon-to-be-famous war correspondent found that the city had changed a lot in the 20 years since he first took its temperature.

"It surges and teems now," Pyle wrote, "whereas then it poked along. People, bent on missions, swarm about you in hordes. There is a different personality to the street crowds. A whole new spirit has taken hold -- a spirit of crusade, of importance, of vital men doing vital things."

He reported with amazement that the number of government workers had leaped to 145,000 (it currently exceeds 325,000) and observed: "As in most businesses, the bulk of them are clerks. They carry out policy, but they do not set it. They are people with jobs. But the upper crust of that 145,000, they are important.

"Their importance runs a scale of many degrees, but they have one thing in common -- they are all important to themselves. You can spot them everywhere. They're huddled, they're propounding, they're discussing. They have a mission, and that mission is to save humanity."

More than half a century later, with the country muscling up for another war, the nation's capital surges and teems anew. Pyle's vital men -- joined now by vital women -- can be seen huddling, discussing and propounding on the prospects of war.

The general war conversation here tends to be more nuanced than what can be picked up bouncing through the rest of the country.

Despite the occasional protest march, there is less discussion here about whether to go to war than there is about how to prosecute it and manage the aftermath.

The remark "it's not a matter of if, but when," is repeated so often that it risks immediate banishment to the wasteland of cliches -- where all overworked phrases must go, at the end of the day.

The daily lineup of think-tank discussions, news conferences and the like demonstrate just how far down the road the Washington war talk has traveled. One day last week, it was a panel at the Woodrow Wilson Center on "Prospects for Democratic Change in Iraq"; the next, a briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled, "Iraqi Oil ... the Morning After."

"You would think," said someone who will be identified here only as the Washington Insider, a regular of television talk shows and a guest at many of the town's tonier social events, "that here in Washington, D.C., there would be this kind of spirited, sophisticated debate going on about whether to go to war. That's how it was in 1940, when you had the internationalists and the isolationists arguing with each other. But it's not that way."

Instead, the Insider went on, many politicians and policy wonks who privately doubt the wisdom or propriety of preemptively invading Iraq keep their concerns to themselves -- lest they be portrayed as unpatriotic, nervous Nellies. And when war discussions do break out, they drift toward mechanical details and personality chitchat -- how much the invasion will cost this government department or that, what month will the action commence (February seems the most popular bet), which television correspondent will emerge as the next "Scud Stud."

In the current Washington of vital men and vital women, the Insider explained, to come to a dinner party and start talking simply about whether to wage war would not be considered "suave."

Not that the city has been giggling through a period of high levity. In little more than a year, it has absorbed the terrorist hit on the Pentagon, anthrax attacks and, more recently, the siege of suburban sniping. More than one Washingtonian asserted last week that, of all of these, the sniper attacks by far were the most unnerving.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, American flags and patriotic T-shirts were sold from carts and kiosks on seemingly every corner. Last week, in a cold snap, Americana trinkets were no longer on display and vendors instead were peddling earmuffs and scarves.

The security measures in place throughout official Washington remain ubiquitous and, in their own way, unsettling. Jersey barriers, various styles of fence work and armed guards can be found at the entrances to almost every major government building. Sentries can be seen keeping watch with binoculars from the rooftop of the White House, a dark little Kodak moment for the tourists below. At the Capitol, a visiting reporter who naively wanted to sit in on a war briefing to the Senate by the Defense secretary found out last week that it is no longer possible to enter the building without a special pass or an appointment.

"You need a reservation just to get into the U.S. Capitol?" he asked the guard who turned him away.

"Yes."

"When did that happen?"

"Sept. 11," the guard said through a knit mask. "No, make that Sept. 12."

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