Ten days ago the countdown to confrontation expired, and the air war began over Iraq and occupied Kuwait. As we speak, ground forces from all over the free world are mobilizing in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. This is history happening. There’s a bulldog general we call Stormin’ Norman, a wicked mustachioed invader we’ve never heard of, and a huge alliance clouding together to strike him down. “In war,” says a TV pundit, “you hit them hard, you hit them fast. You hit them with everything you got.” The guy doesn’t look like a soldier, but I trust him.
Anyhoo, we’re here today for the greatest contest in human memory. The Buffalo Bills have earned their billet at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Bay with their blitzkrieg no-huddle offense. And we’re about to get started. Here’s Whitney Houston, in a white tracksuit and a folded bandana tied around her head so her hair springs out. She stands at the mic. There’s a sheen of sweat on her cheeks and forehead. Flags are everywhere, little handheld freebies people are waving around.
And now, to honor America, especially the brave men and women serving our nation in the Persian Gulf and throughout the world, please join in the singing of our national anthem.
The orchestra kicks up. Whitney waves to the crowd, adjusts the mic, and holds her hands behind her back for the opening notes.
Oh say can you see …
My God, she’s got a voice. She’s not doing anything fancy to try and sell it. No squinch-eyed, handwaggling, sequined diva stuff. She’s just a young woman with an angel’s pipes. And she’s beautiful. Not peep show pretty, nothing carnal. She’s beautiful the way a mother is beautiful to her kid.
There are soldiers standing in ranks around her, men and women from different branches wearing all the exotic uniforms of our armed forces, from formal dress to BDUs and slouch hats. They hold at the ready the flags of the fifty states. Just a few days ago my dad told me, “We are Rome, son. Romans in Rome.” I asked if we would always be invincible. “Probably as long as your mother and I are alive,” he said. “But in your lifetime, maybe not.”
While the flag is so gallantly streaming, Whitney lands on a contemplative, almost meditative softness. The orchestra follows her voice while she drops her jaw, and out comes the rocket’s red glare in an open piercing chime. She flashes a beaming smile at the bombs bursting in air, and as she’s singing in Florida, antiaircraft guns spray tracers into green skies over Baghdad while our precision-guided munitions bolt down from the clouds.
Whitney can hear the homestretch coming. For just a moment during the rising o-oh of o-oh say does that, she lets slip a flash of the gospel inside her. Her shoulders shrug, her brows go down, her mouth rounds, and she wonders her head. When she gets to does that, that gospel wipes into joy. She tries to hold it in. She knows that this spectacle of sport we’re opening up tonight isn’t all indulgent pleasures – that this is America at war in early ’90s, and we’ve got men and women on the other side of the earth, stern professionals readying to risk their lives for the sake of the free world. But that happiness bursts forth anyhow, starting from her teeth and squeezing out from the corners of her eyes.
As the banner yet waves she tips her head back, a slight angling that shows the fragile underside of her jaw. The land of the free-e – a little dillip at the end skips upward into the clarion and disappears. There’s a rushing sound from the stands, the wind through the trees, a pounding rain, the raging surf. And the home – she leans back and lets her hands go out – of the bra-a-ave. She hangs on bra-a-ave. There’s a steady roar behind her now, all these Americans, these Romans brave and free and flawed, these undeserving kings and queens of the earth joining together in exultation.
Whitney does this thing on bra-a-ave, punching her arms above her through the long vowel. They’re not stiffened fists of defiance. They’re the casual lifted arms of the victor, like when a ref announces the winner of a boxing match – and this is before the game has even begun. We’ve only just resolved to go to war, and it’s already over. Saddam, you stupid son of bitch. Did you forget we’re Americans? Don’t you know all we can do is kick ass? Home of the brave, cocksucker. You’re gonna die.
The Buffalo Bills will lose to the New York Giants by one point scored on a 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
The war will be over in a matter of hours after our tank battalions finally rumble over the border into Kuwait. It’ll be too easy. We’ll kill their best fighters with fucking bulldozers. From start to finish the whole thing is a ticker tape parade. I’ll think back to the wars I read about in books – the punji stakes in Vietnamese jungles, the stormtossed landings at Normandy, the poison gas of the Western Front, the pale grey ranks forming up behind a rail fence for the march on Cemetary Ridge – and I’ll wonder if Desert Storm even deserves to be called a war. There’s no drama. No struggle. Or that’s how it will seem at the time.
In fact it’ll take thirteen years, a national strategy of no-huddle warmaking, and hundreds of billions of dollars before we finally drag Saddam Hussein out from his hidey-hole. He’ll be hanged to death in a stairwell. Our soldiers won’t be on gleaming display in Tampa Stadium anymore. They’ll be two or three deployments deep, humping across the Korengal carrying spare legs and arms in their packs in case their prosthetics break down during patrol. The economy’s going to bottom out. Our models will fail us. Whitney Houston will smoke crack and drown in a hotel bathtub. And we’ll hate each other because we all see that something very basic has gone wrong, but no one can agree what it is.