The questions continue

Anna Quindlen

November 27, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

IT'S HARD to imagine that there was an American household this Thanksgiving that did not have, at its holiday table, a liberal helping of war talk laced with confusion, skepticism and doubt.

Even in Dhahran, a truckload of soldiers driving past a group of reporters opened fire, armed with loaded questions. "I want to go home!" two of them shouted. "This isn't our war! What are we doing here? Why are we over here? We aren't supposed to be here -- this isn't our war!"

It's hard to know if the president is really listening to questions like those, shouted out by two young men who may die for his decision.

The threat of war sends presidents into a dizzying spiral of self-justification; George Bush could soon become as isolated from real public opinion as Lyndon Johnson became in the shadow of his war, and Richard Nixon's war rendered him from beginning to end.

Many of the questions have been inspired by the president's public fumbling for the right answers.

First we were defending the sovereignty of little Kuwait. Then we were repelling Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler. (This appears to be the standard by which all foes will herein be judged; whether they are properly Hitlerian or not. Madmen, too; they must be madmen.) When these reasons proved too broad, we segued to oil and jobs.

The president made a package of all, combined them with the impending threat of Iraq's nuclear capability and offered this to the troops on Thanksgiving Day.

Vietnam hangs like Marley's Ghost over these holiday celebrations, ready to provide us with the present and future contained in the past. For the president, this is as much a millstone around his neck as all the chains and cash boxes were around Marley's.

But I wish he could be taken by spirits, as Scrooge was, into taverns and kitchens and city streets to hear public opinion that is not hand-picked or filtered through the screen of advisers or reporters, to know the consumers of his foreign policy.

What he would see are Americans talking, talking, talking. Arguing. Anguishing. Wondering. Wishing. Remembering past mistakes and vowing not to repeat them.

We will not blame the troops this time for doing the politician's business; we know it is possible to support the soldiers and repudiate the policies. And we will talk about the politician's business as our own, before, not after.

We know from experience that the reasons to sacrifice our children's lives must be clear and compelling. The economic consequences of a stranglehold on oil are the most tangible, but the least effective rationale for this war.

If the president knows the American people at all, he certainly knows one thing: They never have been and never will be people who will knowingly trade their sons and daughters for economic stability.

The president left Saudi Arabia still trailing more questions than answers: if we are going to war to counter the threat of atomic weapons in the hands of a madman, does that make us the nuclear policeman of the world, ready to step in whenever some despot becomes technologically sophisticated and border oblivious?

Can we live as a country with the knowledge that once again the children of the poor and of people of color will be killed for the convictions of well-to-do white men?

And how much of the decision to go into combat will be reasonable, how much the president's subconscious fear of the wimp factor that has dogged him, and has always dogged our feisty nation?

Will this be a war built, on both sides, around that thankless business of of saving face?

George Bush tries often to be consumer responsive. Critics think this makes him unprincipled, and admirers believe it means he's pragmatic. It is a problem when he misreads the consumer.

Because he thought baby boomers were looking for the same thing in a running mate they wanted in a sports car -- recent vintage, good looks -- he impulsively chose Dan Quayle.

He overlooked the value Americans place on intelligence and experience. He cannot act impulsively again. He cannot overlook how smart and experienced the consumers are.

"What are we doing here?" the soldiers in the truck shouted. And there are millions more like them here at home.

Traditionally, a war begins and public opinion follows. And that opinion is bolstered by patriotism and loyalty, the feeling that American soldiers dying thousands of miles away deserve our unquestioning support at home.

It's happened backward this time. We are envisioning the body bags, and that is a very, very good thing.

If the president thinks a declaration of war would mute the questions of the people, he has misread his consumers.

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