A few weeks ago at a dinner party in Des Moines, someone put the war on the table next to the rice dish, and the room quickly heated up.
There is no need to rehash all the arguments. You already know their gist: Iraqi liberation or occupation? American arrogance or obligation? Each round of wine brought on a freer round of generalizations, bolstered by different manipulations of history.
Mostly it was civil, with the occasional cry of foul.
But the next day a guest called the host to apologize for the arguing style of a partner. The couple, you see, is divided on this.
So many of us - friends, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters - are on divided on this.
War is personal, even for those who aren't fighting it. And, like politics, it's polarizing. Vietnam may have been the gold standard for the parallel war of opinion at home, but the split then was mostly generational.
Now it's unpredictable. Opinion doesn't necessarily break down along traditional liberal or conservative lines. You assume you know where people stand until you hear them come out on the other side. There are also differences among immigrants from that region.
Even in an era of mixed political marriages, the Iraq war has divided couples to a degree I can't remember. One of the most poig- nant letters I've received came from a woman whose husband was dispatched to be near Iraq with his National Guard unit. She was vehemently opposed to the war. "I just cannot believe that 70 percent . . . of Americans think this war is justified," she wrote. "I have not talked to one person in the past several weeks that feels this is a just and moral action for our government to pursue."
Most people have found one of three ways to get through the divide: by avoiding people who disagree with them, by speaking their piece at social gatherings or by holding their views in check. To get into it is risky, but not talking about it leaves an elephant standing in the middle of the living room that no one acknowledges.
And there's a fourth way: by trying to intimidate the opposition.
Some Muslims in the nation's capital have said they don't speak at all now for fear of being labeled unpatriotic.
Apparently that's happening here, too.
As I was writing this, I got a call from Danielle Wirth, who teaches women's studies at Iowa State. She reported that people who are perceived to be of Arab descent have been targeted and heckled around Ames by men she described as "bubbas," emboldened by the military muscle-flexing. (Maybe they're the spiritual soulmates of the looters in Iraq.)
I've heard from some of their ilk. An Andrew Johnson, a self-described former Marine, wrote to take issue with my stance on the war, and in particular my suspicion that oil was a factor in why we went in. "You are pathetic," he wrote. "You actually won a contest on a radio station for most-hated person in Iowa. You actually beat out a rapist for this title. Now I know why."
I get paid to take some abuse, and he gave me more raw material. Still, I thought that was hitting below the belt a bit, especially since he indicated that I won that title even before the war. But since the war began, I'm not so sure I know where the belt line is. Many other writers, upset by my stance, have told me where to go. Mostly that's been to India, but Florida, New York and Baghdad have all been mentioned. And those are just the good places.
Emotions are high, and emotions are not always rational. Still, I don't understand how people who are championing America for its freedoms could stop reading the newspaper over a columnist's point of view, or smashing CDs over a singer's. Are they saying they'd prefer a government-controlled press or a dictatorship where opposing views were banned?
Nor can I understand how someone opposed to war could tell an anti-war gathering he wanted to see "a million Mogadishus" come out of Iraq. That battle left 18 American troops dead and 84 wounded. The words came from a Columbia University professor, no less.
A military victory doesn't end the disagreements, just as an execution doesn't end the death-penalty debate. Both sides are still saying I told you so. It's either: See, we liberated Iraq quickly with a minimum of casualties. Or it's: See, there never were chemical weapons or links to Sept. 11, and look at the chaos and the power vacuum we brought in.
Still, I'll take the dinner-party arguments, messy and difficult as they can be, understanding that we have the luxury of debating this from a distance rather than in the line of fire or of collateral damage.
I'm thinking it's a good thing if we can air our disagreements civilly and still be friends in the morning.
No, scratch that. Not just good. The only way to get through this.
Democracy lives (if we let it).