Soldiers and autoworkers

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I was on my way back to work, driving south on Central, when I glimpsed this older guy. He was in the midst of picking up some odds and ends off the sidewalk that he'd dropped or spilled - I'm not sure which. It was his attitude that struck me; something about his posture that said, "What next?"

I didn't see how things played out. Like I said, I was in my car. He was on foot. I saw him just long enough for his image to register before I was blocks away.

It was a real every-man-for-himself moment.

Those moments seem to be piling up. Like in Iraq. Last week, American troops turned the protection of that country's cities over to Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi government declared June 30 National Sovereignty Day. There were celebratory parades as American troops were marched back to base camps, where they are supposed to remain until Dec. 31, 2011.

You would think this would have been big news. Over 4,300 American troops have been killed in Iraq. No one knows how many Iraqis have died, although the figure is almost certainly more than 100,000. While the turnover does not mean that Iraq is at peace or that Americans there are out of harm's way, it is still a huge step, a change that many of us had a hard time imagining a year and a half ago.

In this country, the story came and went. It feels as if most of us have had it with Iraq. Even though people are still dying there and it costs us about $12 billion a month, it's become part of our national wallpaper. It's a dusty image on the evening news. We eyeball it and drive on.

I don't know how Iraq came to be this way for us. Maybe it's because it was never an actual threat. After we found out there were no weapons of mass destruction, that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11, well, all this emptiness made things a little unreal for those of us not actually having to live every day with the ensuing heat and violence and fear.

But then we've done everything we can to make war as seemingly unreal as possible. We eliminated the draft, which made war a kind of spectator sport. With a volunteer Army, the only people who go to war are those who, in effect, ask to go there. The rest of us have little at risk in this bargain - unless, of course, we're related to a soldier, or a soldier happens to be a close friend.

It's basically every man (and woman) for themselves.

Soldiers, at least, have jobs. This is more than you can say for a growing number of us. Unemployment rose in all the largest metro areas in the United States for the fifth straight month in May. In Kokomo, unemployment now stands at 18.8 percent; it's 17.5 percent in Elkhart. These are both towns that once, thanks to the auto industry, could boast plenty of good jobs. But now that the auto industry's on the ropes, things have changed.

Think how bad things must be in Detroit, the Motor City. General Motors and Chrysler are bankrupt. Thousands of jobs have been lost, benefits cut. The news is full of stories about families who find themselves unable to pay their bills or feed their kids.

You wonder what these folks are going to do. Will they ever be able to find jobs that provide them with the kind of pay and benefits they enjoyed when they belonged to a union and worked in an industry that was practically synonymous with the American Dream?

It doesn't seem likely. Manufacturing, we are told, is on the way out - at least in this country. Even the Information Age is old hat. It's the Conceptual Age now, right-brained, intuitive and empathetic.

Trouble is there doesn't seem to be a lot of empathy for autoworkers or anybody else who works in a factory. They're a little like the volunteer soldiers in Iraq. Mostly, we're just glad not to be in their shoes. Trying to imagine what that's like only makes us afraid.

In his oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Studs Terkel makes a haunting observation about so many of the Americans who lived through that time. He says that when bad things happened to them - they lost their jobs or their homes or went broke - they blamed themselves. They didn't protest the system. They didn't demand change. Instead, they figured that somehow, someway, they were to blame for their misfortune.

That people personalized what happened to them in this way may have prevented a revolution from taking place in this country.

As usual, it was every man for himself.

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