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Where's the shared sacrifice of war?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Another Christmas week has arrived with America still at war
  • Bob Greene says it seems as if many have half-forgotten that nation is in a war
  • During World War II, conflict was inescapable and on everyone's minds
  • Greene says nation lacks sense of shared sacrifice about war

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- Another wartime Christmas week has arrived.

Yet on the streets of the United States, it often feels as if this is a nation that has half-forgotten that its sons and daughters are in combat.

Not literally, of course; Americans are intellectually aware that the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq continue. And for the families of the young soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators in combat zones, the wars never go away, even for a single tick of the clock.

But the lack of shared sacrifice during these war years -- the sense that those of us at home go on with our lives pretty much as usual while the men and women who have volunteered to be in uniform risk their own lives anew with each rising of the sun -- is a notion that is especially acute during the holiday season.

How have our lives changed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? What has residing in an America at war done to the texture of daily life?

The answer, if we're candid, seems to be: not much.

"There was this feeling that was almost a part of the air itself during World War II," a man named Joe Clark was telling me the other day. He is 77, a retired antiques dealer and clock repairman who lives in Pickerington, Ohio.

When he was a 10-year-old boy growing up in Shelby, Mississippi, he had a newspaper route. Every day, he would get on his Rollfast bicycle and deliver, to the people in his county, the two big newspapers from up in Memphis, Tennessee: the morning Commercial Appeal and the evening Press-Scimitar.

"The newspapers had maps on the front pages showing the developments in the war zones," he said. "Everyone followed the battle news, every day. I did, even as a child. The mood at home was determined by what was going on in the war. It was a somber feeling: We were all at war, together."

Today, we have the technological capacity to view live television pictures from war zones. Yet there is this nagging feeling that most of the time, few at home pay particularly close attention. People talk about their frustrations with the Wall Street banks; people talk about the H1N1 vaccine and its availability, or lack of it; people talk about the economy that never quite seems to find traction.

But the progress of the wars? As a day-to-day topic of constant conversation?

"I think we'd be paying more attention if we were being asked to give up anything," Clark said. "The shortages of basic goods during World War II, the rationing, made it impossible ever to forget what we were all in the middle of."

I have a book, dog-eared and yellowed over time, that I occasionally leaf through. Written almost 40 years ago by social historian Richard R. Lingeman, its title tells its story:

"Don't You Know There's a War On?"

The book is about the American home front during World War II, and of course everyone did, in fact, know that there was a war on. The fascinating thing about the text is the details demonstrating how every aspect of daily life was changed by the war. The products that were difficult for civilians to obtain: rubber and leather and sugar and metal and gasoline, all removed from unfettered circulation and conscripted for military use. The ration coupons that were a part of every family's life. The way books, advertisements, movies and popular songs were transformed because they were being read, watched and listened to by Americans consumed by thoughts of war.

"The songs became more sentimental, and even if they weren't literally about the war, you could hear the meaning of the war beneath the lyrics," Clark said. "The songs were kind of wistful, and what they were saying was: 'I hope nothing bad happens to you. I hope you come home quick.' "

Thus it was, during the winter of 1943, that Bing Crosby's recording of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" became the pure distillation of American yearning. It was the deepest wish of the soldiers and of their waiting families; "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was anchored by the song's softly shattering final words: "... if only in my dreams."

Today we say all the proper things when we encounter a soldier or a sailor; "Thank you for your service" has become part of the language, and that is a good development. But somehow it feels too easy; somehow those words seem only to emphasize the idea that it is someone else doing the serving while those at home move through life as if little has been altered.

A boy whose bicycle was loaded down with fresh editions between 1941 and 1945 instinctively understood how wartime had changed the country in which he was growing up.

"The simplest way to put it," Clark said, "is that I don't think there was a single day when every person in the United States didn't think about the war."

Speaking of newspapers, I have a copy of the Washington Evening Star, the Extra edition of August 14, 1945, carrying the announcement that the war was over.

The paragraph in the lead story that is inadvertently jarring is the third one, referring to what President Harry S. Truman has just told the nation:

"The President -- just three years, eight months and seven days after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor -- announced the end of the war and decreed a two-day holiday of celebration for the American people."

The sobering part is those words:

"... just three years, eight months and seven days ..."

That is how long it took to fight and win World War II.

As this year's wartime Christmas week arrives, the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than eight years. The United States has been fighting in Iraq for more than 6½ years.

While, at home, life goes on.

"Sometimes it feels like we don't want to think about it," said Joe Clark, who once upon a time, every wartime day, tossed battlefield news toward Mississippi front porches.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.