Cabinet War Rooms

When I was in London last summer, I visited the Cabinet War Rooms for the first time. They were Churchill’s underground headquarters during WWII and have been turned into a breathtaking museum. I was reading Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day about a love affair conducted under the pressure of the blitz at the time and the novel combined with the museum—and in particular a woman secretary’s recorded reminiscence of what it was like to have to spend the night in the war rooms, walking down the corridor in a dressing gown, past sentries, early in the morning, to brush one’s teeth before work—to foster in me a nascent version of respect for those who worked in the government during the war, the first twinkle of admiration and curiosity for those in the military in many years. When I was little, my dad told me about visiting London in the fifties and finding it still bombed out; I remember him showing us around the Barbican where he had walked thirty years earlier. I was also a huge fan of “Danger UXB” on Masterpiece Theater, sighing each week as the devastating Anthony Andrews tried to detonate yet another unexploded bomb (or UXB). But, more recently, memories of Churchill and “the war effort” have been displaced by others. As a Woolf scholar, I’d been imagining the blitz from the perspective of a pacifist, not really thinking about the very different terror of those who were in the midst of conducting the war while bombs were falling.

This weekend, I was in Washington D.C. for the first time since September 11 and it made me think again about capitol cities in wartime. I visited my college roommates: one lives just ten blocks from the Capitol Building, the other is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. On Sunday, we (my one roommate, her husband, her beloved toddler and infant, my beloved toddler and I) all walked down to the Capitol. The barricades are intense--much more so than anything I’ve seen in New York—and depressing. There are soldiers and police around, but the presence is not what I’ve seen in London or Paris in moments of heightened tension. We are at war, it is true, and these precautions make some sense but there is something weirdly virtual about them, too. D.C. is not under attack now as London was in 1941, though it looks from all the concrete barriers as though some think it is—or might be. These barricades and fences make the city seem far less majestic and the country seem less like a democracy. I’m not sure if they made it seem like something else: I wondered if, decades from now, I would be dragging the beloved toddler through some new version of the Cabinet War Rooms—an exhibit detailing how, back in 2001, precautions were taken against a terrorist threat that, in retrospect, marked a terrifying hour and one of our finest or if, as I fear, that is no more the case than Bush is Churchill, let alone a great man of peace.