The instant the first bomb landed in Iraq last week, this column started to look pretty irrelevant -- or, as some readers may prefer to have it, even more irrelevant than usual. So you will not be surprised to learn that, as a member in more or less good standing of the Ancient and Benevolent and Self-Serving Order of Newspaper Columnists, I found it powerfully tempting to get relevant in a hurry: to trot out such expertise as I possess in matters both foreign and military and to trump it up into an authoritative pronunciamento.
After all, isn't that what columnists do? Isn't it our job to have instant opinions on all subjects and to bestow them upon our ever-grateful public in a never-ceasing barrage of what we like to call "commentary"? The columnist who fails to have an opinion on the most pressing issues of the day -- and if the war against Iraq isn't pressing, the word has no meaning -- can scarcely be called a columnist at all, can he? Can she?
It's one of the rules of the lodge: Have your say even if you have nothing to say and no experience from which to say it. Which is why a number of my fellow columnists were to be found last week lecturing their readers about the war and oil and related matters, even though their customary subjects are tame and domestic. No, I'm not going to mention any names; it's another rule of the lodge. If you read the opinion pages, you know who the guilty parties are. But in their defense, let it be said that the temptation to write about matters in the Persian Gulf is indeed severe. We columnists may well be the most foolish of God's handiwork, but we know our duty when we see it; the fear that the world will stop turning if we fail to spout off on Topic A is powerful, and resisting it takes an heroic act of will.
Beyond that, people who are in the business of expressing opinions find it pretty difficult to avoid forming them. If you think I don't have opinions on the Iraqi war, think again; I have them in spades. It's just that I can't imagine why anyone on earth would be interested in them. When I venture to express one at dinner or during the evening news, my wife's eyes fog over and somnolent sounds caress the air. The dogs, who ordinarily attend my every utterance as an Olympian dictate, cover their ears with their paws and dig deeper into their beds.
What all these creatures know is: This guy doesn't have a clue. Ask him about cultural or literary affairs, about higher education or intercollegiate athletics, about the mass media or the publishing industry, about American politics or society -- ask him questions that fall into these categories and chances are he might have something informed, if not necessarily useful, to say. But ask him about foreign or military affairs, and what you'll get is a whole lot of wind and scarcely a scintilla of substance.
There was a brief period when it was, or might have been, otherwise. Nearly three decades ago I reported for work as a writer for the News of the Week in Review, published each Sunday by the New York Times. I was the youngest of its staffers by approximately a generation; the editors in charge of this small herd didn't know quite what to do with me, a problem they solved -- or shoved under the rug -- by having me write little analyses of controversies in the world's most distant corners. That I knew nothing of such matters was entirely beside the point; on-the-job training was what I needed, and Afghanistan could provide it.
Well, not literally. So far as I know I never wrote a word about Afghanistan. But in those days "Afghanistanism" was the newsroom term for foreign affairs so remote and so obscure as to be of no interest to anyone, and was thus the perfect pigeonhole in which to get rid of a 22-year-old know-nothing. So there I went, and there I slaved for 2 1/2 years, learning a lot about how to squeeze much fact into little space but almost nothing -- or at least nothing that stuck -- about foreign affairs.
Over those 2 1/2 years I found myself writing about subjects varying from India to Brazil to the Congo, and, later, of the conflict between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. On this latter I achieved the elevated state of instant expertise that is the journalist's stock in trade; when, in the summer of 1964, I began my new job as an editorialist for a newspaper in North Carolina, my very first pronunciamento was on that subject.
Nor was it my last; the exigencies of a three-member staff required that all of us from time to time issue dicta on subjects with which we were utterly unfamiliar, and for a decade I issued my full share. But my real interests lay here at home, in particular those related to the civil rights movement with which the South was then struggling, and as editorializing itself eventually began to pall I turned with new enthusiasm to literary and cultural matters; foreign affairs, urgent though they were and remain to others in my business, no longer were a part of my working life.
The same holds true today. I pay only cursory attention to foreign news, a fact of which I am hardly proud but a fact all the same. If for the moment I can distinguish between an F-15 and a B-52, it is only because like millions of other Americans I have found my mind involuntarily concentrated on such matters; when the Iraqi conflict fades away, as in time it will, so too will my brief immersion in military arcana. Upon occasion I envy my colleagues on the foreign beats, with their battered trench coats and their easy multilingualism and their savoir-faire, and I always admire their reports and commentary; but this is their world, not mine, and for me to pretend otherwise would be both vain and foolish.
Which is why in the weeks to come -- and I pray it is weeks, not months -- there will be in this space no bluster or whimper or anything else about either the conflict in the gulf or the conduct of those charged with managing it. Many other writers are more than competent to discuss those matters, and the rest of us should respectfully yield the forum to them. War isn't for amateurs, whether they be soldiers or journalists.