With anxieties balanced by prayer, we try to maintain our daily routines, grappling with our sensibilities about the war in the Persian Gulf


January 18, 1991|By Jean Marbella

An article in the Jan. 18 Today section did not accurately reflect a statement by Johns Hopkins University history professor JoAnne Brown. In speaking about a generational shift in the United States, Dr. Brown was quoted as saying that people from the World War II era were on their way out. She actually was referring to decision-makers of that era, and that they now are retired or deceased.

The Sun regrets the error.

No war, not even one as unique as the Gulf war, begins on day one. Even before the first shots are fired, there are the ghosts of wars past to fight.

For all the relief expressed by Americans over this long-anticipated war finally starting, the public debate on the homefront remains overshadowed by the ghosts of Vietnam and World War II. Attitudes toward war have shifted with the generations, says JoAnne Brown, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University.


"The fervor with which we have gone to war at times in the past is not there now," Ms. Brown said. "All those people from World War II, the so-called good war -- they're going or they're gone. And in their place are a series of generations who fought or mourned the Vietnam War."

But all wars generate debate on the homefront, and the Gulf war likewise has consumed the nation's imagination -- its waking hours, cocktail chatter and dinnertime debates -- for some time now.

Part of it is the unique way in which this war unfolded -- the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of it all as troops were rushed to See the scene starting in August, but then saw no action until the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline passed.

"This has been the only war that was expected. We knew it was coming," said radio and television talk show host Larry King. "There's been nothing like this, ever."

Nor have we ever been so privy to learning of events almost instantly after they happen via television.

The situation has fluctuated wildly in just the last two days, and our feelings have followed suit. The elation over the seemingly successful first strike against Iraq on Wednesday night was followed by a grave turn as Iraq attacked Israel yesterday.

"It's a jolt," said psychologist Andrew Baum, of the Unified Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. "People let their guard down because things seemed to be going so well [Wednesday]. Now the risk is escalated again."

Many of us, it seems, are compelled to keep close watch on the war via TV or radios.

"For some people, just getting information is a way of handling their anxiety," said Mark Diehl, a pastoral counselor in Baltimore. "And the war is certainly a significant issue for us to be aware of."

A public crisis like a war can cause stress as much as a private crisis -- such as a divorce or death in the family -- does, Mr. Baum said. But a public crisis has the advantage of allowing you to talk to just about anyone about it.

"People have been really distracted," he said. "They have one eye on the radio or the TV and they're not paying much attention to what they're really supposed to be doing.

"You're sharing an experience with lots and lots of people," Mr. Baum added. "Everybody's going through the same thing.

"People keep talking about it," he said, "partially because they want to make sure what they're thinking is what others are thinking."

And so it became like one giant, national therapy session.

"People need to identify what their feelings are," said Judith Morawa, a Baltimore pastoral counselor, "because once they identify them, they can start deciding what to do about them. First name the demon.

"What I've been hearing a lot of lately is an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness," she said. "It's because people think, I can't do a thing about the war while I'm sitting in Baltimore."

Ms. Brown, the historian, said she senses a great deal of grief and depression over the Gulf war.

"The peculiarity of this war is there was no honeymoon period," she said. "Usually there's euphoria at first, until the body bags start coming back. But I didn't see that today, on the street, in the grocery store, or on the talk shows. The best I heard was grim resignation over the war."

There's a distinct lack of the kind of unity this time around compared to what went on during World War II, said another historian.

"In World War II, you had two things that united the people. One was the fear of Nazi Germany, and the other was the attack on Pearl Harbor," said Hopkins history professor Louis Galambos. "And they united the people in a way that has been untrue with any subsequent war."

While America's successful first day of battle "tweaked on the nationalistic chords," he said, that morning-after elation will be overshadowed by our memories of more recent wars.

"For a couple of generations, there will be a great deal of skepticism because of Vietnam," Mr. Galambos said. "There's a skepticism of government, of any foreign involvement, that didn't exist before."

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