A chill rain dimpled the white marble sarcophagus at the Tomb of the Unknowns yesterday. It was a reminder that spring hadn't officially arrived yet, even though the magnolia trees were starting to show the slightest glimmer of pale blossoms.
Ryan Murgel, 31, of Denver was visiting Arlington National Cemetery with his wife, Julie, 31. "I think it's always a pretty powerful place," he said as a member of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry, oblivious to the water that pooled atop his hat, took 21 steps in each direction with machine-like precision.
The war shadowed life across Washington yesterday, at monuments and in grocery stores, coffee shops and homes. People went about the day's routines, but the conflict was never far from the mind.
Jana Clark, 24, an Arlington County English teacher, shopped at Pentagon City mall. "It was inevitable," she said of the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "Of course it's disturbing. Nobody likes to be at war. I have mixed feelings about it."
More than 80 miles west, at the Hi Neighbor restaurant in Strasburg, Va., the mood was less than philosophical. Melvin "Buster" Clem, 58, nursed his second cup of coffee and offered some tactical advice to coalition forces headed for the heart of Iraq: "I would turn Baghdad into a parking lot. You know, blow up the bridges, blow up the factories. Just level it."
"Yeah," his friend Terry Stinson, 43, agreed. "Just as long as we get Saddam."
Neither was fearful of a retaliatory attack by terrorists. "I'm a hundred miles from Washington," said Clem. "If I lived on Capitol Hill, I'd be scared to death."
At Washington's airports, the question boiled down to this: Should renewed fears of terrorism change travel plans? That debate was going on among the parents of a Howard County cheerleading team standing in the terminal of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Was it a good idea for the youngsters to fly to a tournament in Orlando, barely a day after fighting started?
Sharon Kulik wasn't so sure. "Cheerleading is a nonessential event in the grand scheme of things," she said.
Her husband, Jeff, took the opposite side. "Getting out of Washington might even be a bonus," he said as his 11-year-old daughter, Ashley, practiced cheerleading stances with a group of teammates, oblivious to the adults. The decision: They were going.
The war didn't seem to worry many passengers at Reagan National Airport either. "I felt like I did when I flew in a couple of days ago -- absolutely fine," said Sanjay Gupta, 40, a urologist returning home to Cleveland . "I'm feeling fully comfortable."
Outside, in the line of taxis waiting for fares, drivers from Middle Eastern countries debated the wisdom of U.S. actions. "There must be a better way," said Rizwan Ali, a driver from Jordan, who said he worried about family and friends in Iraq and Turkey. "Yes, Saddam must go, but maybe we should have waited. There are innocents there who don't deserve to lose their homes or their lives."
At the Plaza Market and Deli in the Fairfax Circle Plaza in Fairfax City, a crowd of customers kept Mabel Valle busy behind the cash register. While they supported President Bush's effort to oust Hussein, it wasn't hard for them to imagine what Iraqis might be going through: Many of them had fled El Salvador to escape war.
Oscar Garcia, 29, of Fairfax, a construction worker idled by the heavy rain, said Hussein should be removed because he has spent his country's oil wealth on weapons instead of his people.
"This guy is evil," he said. "He has made his country poor, even more poor than El Salvador, where I come from. And we don't have the oil like he does. I feel bad for the people because the people can't do anything about it. They don't support him, but the people are going to suffer the consequences."
For those with a personal connection to U.S. troops, the news that fighting had finally started brought a kind of dread.
"I just have a lot of anxiety right now," said Heather Wirtanen of Bel Air. Her husband, Marine Corps reservist Robert J. Wirtanen, was deployed at Camp Coyote in Kuwait. She learned from a TV report yesterday that his unit was in battle. Her two daughters, ages 5 and 7, don't understand the danger he is facing, she said.
When she turned on the television Wednesday night and learned of the U.S.-led invasion, Wirtanen started to cry. "And then I ended up sleeping on the sofa all night. I almost felt guilty stepping away from the TV; I have a sense of obligation to watch. It's the only real link I have to my husband, or really, the only current, up-to-date link I have."
For others, TV has been something to avoid. "I get too emotional," said Linda Jackson of District Heights. Her son Damien Green is in the Persian Gulf. The 23-year-old Marine corporal had been in the habit of calling her regularly during his deployment, but she thinks she missed his call this week. The realization that she may have lost out on a chance to talk to him before he faced battle pains her. "If you talk to anybody who's been to war, you know they don't come back the same way they went," she said. "I don't think he's going to be the same happy-go-lucky boy I sent over there."
Back at Arlington Cemetery, Katherine Harrell, 14, got out of the rain after helping to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The eighth-grader and her classmates from Atlanta's Eastside Christian School have been in Washington since Monday, visiting the traditional sights. The war hadn't put a crimp in their tourist plans.
"I'm kind of excited to be here now," she admitted. "Someday we'll tell our children that we were in Washington when the war started."