Enlisting seemed to be good idea at the time


December 07, 1990|By ROGER SIMON

Enlisting in the "peacetime" army has got to lead the list of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

The commercials would come on late at night when consumer resistance was low. The ads for the "Army! Navy! Air Force! Marines!" emphasized the useful skills, the leadership qualities and the friendships you could obtain in the military.

Nowhere was the likelihood of real combat or actual death mentioned. But heck, I'll bet those "ring around the collar" commercials weren't a hundred percent accurate either.

Now, volunteers in the U.S. armed services not only face actual combat in the Persian Gulf, but they can't even go home when their enlistment is up.

Didn't read the fine print, did they? Nope, they are stuck in service to their country for the duration. Not that America won't be grateful to them when they come back:

Employer: "You got any skills?"

Combat veteran: "I can defuse a poison gas canister and fieldstrip a rifle during a sandstorm."

Employer: "Well, normally we'd start you on the hamburgers, but I guess you can move right up to the fries."

As has been pointed out numerous times, our peacetime army is not representative of the nation as a whole. It is disproportionately poor and undereducated.

A few centuries ago, this would have been taken as normal, even desirable. Wars were seen as a way of "cleansing" society of unwanted elements. Today, we don't see it that way. But a nice, drawn-out war would boost our economy.

You may have already noticed a few stories: Gas mask and bottled water companies are doing fine in America these days. High gasoline prices are helping the economies in states like Texas and Oklahoma. And as we all know, the Great Depression was not really ended by anything Franklin Roosevelt did; it was ended by World War II.

Not that we can expect the same economic benefits from a war in the Persian Gulf. It will be too short. Our president promises us this.

It will be sudden and decisive and over pretty quickly. You can read his lips on that one. And if he could have gotten this war started at some reasonable time -- last Wednesday, say -- he probably could have had the boys and girls home by Christmas.

George Bush's optimistic assessment of the length of a gulf war is based in part on geography and in part on Saddam Hussein's inability to get replacement parts (assuming he does not already have them in stockpiles that we do not know about) and the assumption that all of America's wonderful technological toys will work.

They won't, of course. If there is anything you can count on, it is that some of our military hardware will not work in actual combat. It never does.

In World War II, many American torpedoes simply bounced off Japanese ships. In Vietnam, rifles jammed. Today, in an era when the toys have become vastly complicated, it could be anything.

But don't worry too much about the hardware. That is not our whole secret to victory. We have an ace in the hole: the American fighting man. (Women still unfairly are forbidden combat roles.)

The image of the American GI as superman -- even after somewhat mixed reviews from Grenada and Panama -- is persistent. I found it this week in an essay in a news magazine by an ex-Vietnam war correspondent, who wrote: "An army trained to take on the Soviet superpower should be able to beat -- and beat quickly -- a Third World force."

Right. You bet. Those Iraqis are just a bunch of towel-heads, just like the North Vietnamese were just a bunch of monkeys in black pajamas. And our boys -- trained to beat those big, strapping Russkies!-- will make mincemeat out of them. Yup. Count on it.

Except that the Iraqis have the single most valuable combat tool one can have: experience. You can say the eight-year Iraq-Iran war was fought by two stumblebum armies, but there is no replacement for actual combat. Our men have had only training. The Iraqi fighting men have fought a modern war and survived.

But there is only one way to really find out who has the better army: war. And this is what George Bush is tilting toward.

In August, when he imposed sanctions on Iraq, he did not say four or five months was the limit of his patience. In August, he did not say sanctions had to work quickly or they would be abandoned. But he is saying that now.

He is saying it for a number of reasons, but the most important one is the need for Bush to wrest the initiative away from Saddam Hussein. So far, Saddam has been calling the shots. He invades. He lets some hostages go one week. He makes threats the next week. Then he promises this week to let all the hostages go.

And our president must sit in the Oval Office and listen. Just like Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office and had to listen to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Waiting for sanctions to work makes George Bush feel passive and weak. And he will not tolerate that. He wants to seize the initiative even if he has to launch a war to do it.

And the freeing of the hostages does not solve his problems, it makes them more difficult. Before, Bush could justify a war as a way to protect American lives. If the hostages are really freed, however, Bush's excuse for war is to return the emir to the throne of Kuwait. And just how many American lives is that worth?

From Bush's point of view, however, war must come relatively quickly if it is to come at all. By the end of next year, Bush must start actively campaigning for re-election. And he must have a resolution of this crisis by then.

George Bush has been in a war and has seen actual combat. So it is not possible for him to like war.

But it is possible for him to need one.

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