When It Comes to War, The Sexes Are Still Split

Vietnam ended marriages. The husband was for the war and the wife was quietly against it. Maybe they were Republicans, and the wife turned slowly Democratic. She didn’t talk about it openly. The husband’s change of view came years later, and was reluctant.

That was before feminism, but it seems as if the same divide is occurring over the war against terrorism. I left the country in mid-October, but before going I was at several gatherings where the women ran down the jingoistic rhetoric of the Bush administration, and then the men drifted off and discussed the war in somewhat gonzo terms. “What do you think we should do?” I said to one friend. “Go over there and ice ‘em,” he said. We shook hands. At a birthday party, a biker told me about off-the-books assassination squads that roam free in mountains in the Far East. We both grunted with approval. A third friend and I drank red wine before his stone fireplace and talked about how some action was required. An artist, but he seemed to be saying “Love it or leave it,” and I found myself agreeing.

The women are the doves. Susan Sontag expressed contempt for American actions overseas in The New Yorker (and was promptly pilloried). A woman friend said to me, “Why do you feel patriotic?” In The Nation , Katha Pollitt ridiculed the notion of putting a flag in her window. My wife is for flying the flag (the whole idea of a symbol is that it doesn’t mean one thing, she says), but she has been passing around an article by Arundhati Roy in The Guardian , which describes Osama bin Laden as the inevitable fallout of American murderousness. Here is her Arundhati’s roundupi:

“The millions killed in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia; the 17,500 killed when

Israel-backedbytheU.S.-invaded Lebanon in 1982; the 200,000 Iraqis killed in Operation Desert Storm; the thousands of Palestinians who have died fighting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And the millions who died in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Panama at the hands of all the terrorists, dictators and genocidists that the American government supported, trained, bankrolled and supplied with arms.”

My wife says there is something at the basis of the Arab response to America that is ineradicable and must be heeded. The American Indians killed themselves rather than being made slaves to our ways 150 years ago, she says.

The women may talk, but who is making the decisions? Men. Look how overwhelmingly male the power structure suddenly is. Of course there’s Condoleezza Rice, but her part seems like the trouser role in light opera, the woman wearing a mustache to everyone’s amusement.

Men are taking on the war-making job, and apparently society wants them to do this job. I remember the time years ago when I was with a girlfriend in a midtown sushi restaurant, and a drunk crashed over a glass divider and started getting violent. My girlfriend grabbed my arm. “Do something. You’re big,” she said. (I chased the guy out on the street, along with the chefs.)

The gender split was there on Sept. 11, of course. One could only marvel at all the men’s faces in the wonderful double truck The Times ran of the firefighters who died. Over 300, and I don’t think there was a woman in the lot. Now when we go to war, it is men who will decide (absolutely), men who will fight (overwhelmingly) and men who will die (chiefly). All the hijackers were male. (And as one friend says of Islam, it’s Judaism with an extra Y chromosome.)

On my way out of the country, I met the wife of a Navy SEAL in San Diego.

“My husband and his friends, all they talk about is they can’t wait to go over and kill these guys,” she said.

“Are you worried about him?”

She nodded. “But this is what they were trained to do.”

She was saying, This is what they live for . Even if she objected, there’s nothing she could do anyway. The same primal impulse has possessed the country: the obedience to a male principle.

My wife points out to me by e-mail that it doesn’t have to be this way, that women’s powers have been misunderstood for a long time: “Less than 30 years ago, women couldn’t have their own bank accounts (without father or husband co-signing) because women were thought to be too female to know how to handle money; we didn’t get the vote because we really didn’t know how to handle politics; etc., etc.”

If women had power now, she says, policy might be altogether different. She answers my hawkishness: “I can’t see it in black and white-too short-sighted and naïve …. When my Jordanian friend who is Ivy League–educated tells me that her Ivy League–educated cousin would like to see the United States reduced to rubble, I know that this is more complicated than one bad nut.”

I’ve never really been divided politically from my wife, but this issue might do it. We may have to agree to disagree, the way that couples did back during Vietnam.

I have friends-men-who would have censored the Susan Sontag piece. They want to limit debate, before people get too sensitive about what we’re up to. No doubt Arundhati Roy, Susan Sontag and Katha Pollitt are all feeling the heat right now, are feeling socially isolated by the mainstream media and, more important, that anyone else who might share their views is piping down.

There is something retro-masculine about that spirit: laconic, keep your mouth shut. The other day in The Washington Post , an article referred to Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, as an official who is “reputedly” part of the hard-line faction in the administration and who is said to be “a hawk” (and “the prime advocate for a U.S. campaign to overthrow Saddam”). It is common knowledge that Mr. Wolfowitz is the big hawk. What a miserable state of affairs when the leading newspaper of the capital is left to numbly speculate on the mental framework of one of the architects-or anti-architects-of policy. Is that how war is conducted, behind closed doors? And just whose agendas are unfolding? How many lunatics are in the map room?

I sense the same patriarchal respect in the refusal to question the decision to send the firefighters into the Twin Towers. If the terrorists believed that they had come up with a way to topple the buildings (as people have speculated they did), then why didn’t the Fire Department have any understanding of the same issue? In war, you shut your mouth.

(The broad license we are now granting authorities brings to mind the war against hate groups in northern Idaho in the early 90’s.

Anti-Semitic hate groups had killed Alan Berg, the Colorado radio talk-show host, and set off bombs in Coeur d’Alene. There was widespread fear. The feds came in and wanted informants. So they trampled Randy Weaver’s civil rights and then destroyed his family in the bargain. Who remembers Alan Berg?)

All the same, the annihilation of the Trade Center has brought many old doves like myself to a terrible adult understanding: Like it or not, the United States runs the world. Our way of life is now at stake. And the questions arise: Do we like the way things are run generally? What is the responsibility of a superpower?

The United States has made countless mistakes, yes-as have all regimes and all empires. Doves like me denounced our country on many of the occasions Arundhati Roy cites (and others she doesn’t, like Bill Clinton’s attack on the Sudan pharmaceutical plant). But overall it has conducted

itself with restraint, and in the process become a beacon of freedom. Half the people of the world, Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics wrote in The Guardian lately, would emigrate to the United States if they could. Ms. Roy would not have a literary reputation were it not for the wide-open cultural climate the West has established, and that our country solidifies.

Doing nothing in response to violence won’t make violence go away. The expectation that violence can be cleanly controlled on the delivery end is to be hoped for, but naïve. Wars are messy and will always have uncontrollable consequences. Some of those consequences will be happy (Yasir Arafat going after demonstrators in the West Bank), and some will be unhappy (the damage to Pakistan).

So far, the most interesting of the unintended consequences has been domestic: the blow to feminism. That’s one we can reverse. Women should be playing a prominent role in this discussion. They’re not the only ones who remember Vietnam.