THERE is something about the seaside that is essential to my soul, such as it is, from time to time.
The sea and the beach are eternal. The waves come in, no matter what. It is basically the same, whichever sea it is. I have swum in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and the Adriatic, Aegean, Mediterranean, Black, Caribbean, and North seas. In spite of all the global warming stuff, I have the feeling that many years from now, long after I am gone, seas and beaches will still be pretty much the same.
Now, I'm just back from the Atlantic, off Virginia Beach. The people there tolerate northern tourists quite well, but doing so requires a sense of humor. One evening, as I drove to one of the ubiquitous resort markets for ice cream, the local church billboard read, "We are saved by tithes." When I went back in the morning, "tithes" had been replaced with a juvenile term for women's breasts. On my return trip to the house, the last word had been dropped and it read, "We are saved by "
The Sandbridge Seaside Market provided me a morning New York Times and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, a harsh dose of outside-world reality to go with my coffee. When I asked about the Times the first morning, the lady at the cash register said, "Yes, we get it. See, we're a real city." The availability of the Times as evidence that any place is a real city would be disputable, if one had the energy for such debates while enjoying the sand, under the sun, with happy grandchildren playing in the waves.
I was also cheered by the bathing suits. They seemed smaller than in previous years. That is undoubtedly due to the fact that women don't want any more Chinese cloth soaked in formaldehyde next to their tender skin than is absolutely necessary. Then there were the Amish. The men were bearded and in black trunks; the women, even the little girls, wore long bathing dresses and little caps.
I tried to give myself a break from the news but was unable to shake the habit, resulting in a full dose of President Bush on the Iraq war, once again. This time, in another attempt to avoid biting the bullet and ending the war, he made some singularly maladroit comparisons between the war in Iraq and America's Asian wars last century in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
I can't tell whether he actually believes the things he says, which would call into question his mental acuity, not to mention what he was doing in class while modern history was being taught by earnest teachers at Phillips Andover or Yale, or whether he was just trying out another lie on us, to be put alongside the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; the nonlink between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda; "Mission Accomplished"; bringing democracy to the Middle East and a sure oil supply for America; the stuff about how we have to fight them in Iraq so we won't have to fight them in Crawford, Texas, or how one last surge of dead American soldiers and Iraqis will win the war.
The Iraq war isn't any of those other wars. First of all, only an incredibly ignorant person can think that the situations of those four countries at different points in history have much to say about each other. Iraq, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam are not cut-outs, nor are they pictures in a coloring book that one approaches the same way each time, changing only the color of the crayons.
Japan was part of World War II, for heaven's sake. The Japanese war machine aspired to rule all of Asia, under their emperor, a god, in what they called their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.
This was part of a worldwide war, stretching from Hitler occupying Europe and even islands in the English Channel to whatever islands in the Pacific Japan was able to grab and occupy. Korea and Vietnam took place firmly - at least for the United States - in the context of the Cold War, which pitted the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and People's Republic of China against the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and, in Korea, the United Nations.
To roll those three separate wars over the course of 34 years into some sort of generic war with endings that are supposed to serve some didactic purpose in making Americans understand and accept what Mr. Bush is still trying to do in Iraq so as to avoid admitting that it is a bust and that it is time to wrap it up, is a colossal insult to our intelligence. It is also critical never to forget that with every day the Iraq war drags on, more Americans and Iraqis are killed in the name of his absurd notions.
I tried to make it a point not to let Mr. Bush and his war spoil my vacation. At the same time, the quietness of the beach, which should only be disturbed by the waves rolling in, was shattered regularly by war planes roaring overhead from nearby bases at Norfolk and Hampton Roads. Big toys for big kids - each plane costing an easy $25 million. The only acceptable show of noise, from my point of view, was a violent electrical storm that occurred one night, knocking out the electricity.
I was encouraged to see old Sen. John Warner (R. Va.), no less, returning from a visit to Iraq to say that 5,000 U.S. troops should be brought home by Christmas. He didn't say so, but it was clear to me that the first 5,000 would serve, in effect, as the first wave to penetrate the sand castle that this administration's Iraq war policy amounts to. The first water in would equal the beginning of the end for such an edifice.
I don't know that the Democrats would be any better. Some of them seem determined to scare us with global warming the same way that Republicans try to scare us with war and terrorism. My 10-year-old grandson said he sometimes loses sleep over global warming, which he pointed out could - if it is a real danger - be a phenomenon of his lifetime, as opposed to mine.
In spite of the newspapers, I still came back from the beach heartened to continue to try to make sense of what Mr. Bush and the rest of the Washington menagerie are doing to try to get us to imagine that they are governing the country with their heads screwed on straight. The children, the waves, and the Coronas had to have helped.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.