Years ago, I worked for an editor who ribbed me about having been a Marine Corps sergeant in Vietnam, a rarity in any newsroom. "The Marines," he said with a roll of his eyes. "They are the madness on the periphery that protects the sanity of the center."
The remark is on my mind again now, because I'm not so sure the U.S. Marines represent the wild-eyed periphery these days.
Speaking in terms of culture, not advocation, I find myself wondering about the center and its place in society. A large share of American political energy has taken flight. From a shared sense of direction, people have dispersed to the self-righteous poles.
It took two presidents and several bloody, unhappy years of Vietnam before 100,000-plus people demonstrated in the streets for an end to the fighting, or before officers were fragged in their tents in the field. This time, we've witnessed both in the opening hours of war.
It took a long time back then before our debates grew so hardened that we turned on the enemy among us -- the messenger, the news media. This time, 30 minutes after the opening salvo on Baghdad I received the first scorching e-mail about a gullible press misleading a gullible public -- as if the ability to synthesize random information was a gift accorded only those with a point of view.
What once required years to learn has now come home in days: the limits and political ricochets of firepower.
This is the first U.S. military action that I've covered from home terrain, so it could be that I'm mistaking a case of Information Age jitters for something more disturbing. But, still, the only newsmakers who have my empathy without reservation are the young troops, the third-generation working-class military men, the immigrants, the new breed of warrior women, the West Pointers and the other volunteers who have been handed an awful task -- and seem to be conducting themselves with a steadier hand than many of those grabbing headlines and seeking glory back home.
The war protesters who plunge confrontationally into police lines with their practiced V-formations in the name of peace? Those who spit into the lens of a camera? The counter-protesters who spray-paint the epithet "scum" on the garage door of an immigrant from France? Who gather up CDs from the Dixie Chicks and crush them under a tractor while waving American flags?
Count me out of those TV antics.
As for what Richard Nixon used to call the "silent majority"? Few people from my generation will accept that mindless label, and they shouldn't have to.
I believe, and my e-mails and phone calls support me, that a good many thoughtful Americans aren't clamoring or ducking, either one. They're searching. They're skeptical of those who lack skepticism. They're equally skeptical of those who are skeptical of everything except skepticism itself.
James, a Vietnam veteran in Los Angeles, put it this way: "The ground pounders over there are part of me. I don't want my soldiers to lose, but at the same time, I would like to find a way that George Bush doesn't get to profit from this in any way, shape or form."
Michael, a child of the '60s and rabid anti-Vietnam protester in Pennsylvania, confesses: "I find myself in the uncomfortable position of not approving of this war but feeling the need to support our country.... I've been wrangling with this for weeks and weeks to the point of obsession."
In Michigan, Larry asks: "How can we separate the policy from those who are called upon to enforce the policy?"
Searchers don't make headlines. But they make sense. The riptides of global ferment are pulling at the ankles of all of us, even those who think they possess high moral ground or future-vision goggles.
The Marines and the other troops in the field will determine the outcome of this battle. Either that, or it will be decided by the clock and public will. When that job is finished, we have to count on the sanity of the center. Or we'll find ourselves, all of us, embedded in conflict at home, if nowhere else.
It's not war but peace that is the invention of civilization.