Through the Smoke of War, Signs of Progress


January 18, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — It may seem strange to see, through the smoke of battle, signs of civilization's moral progress. But the way we went to war does show how much wiser the world is than it was when the modern era began, in 1914. Desert Storm will produce no Rupert Brooke, no poet thanking God for providing war as a healthful, cleansing adventure, ''as swimmers into cleanness leaping.''

Never in American experience has the nation stepped up to war with such a measured tread. War is, inherently and usually, a passionate undertaking. But not this time. This is a war of policy and reluctance. It is an almost clinical exercise in economizing violence, a meticulously prepared war to obviate the probability of a larger and less predictable war later.

In the tenth decade of a century saturated with war, we know the subject too well to romanticize it, or regard it as an anachronism, or an aberration in the relations of nations. The fact that this is the first war of the wired world, with every stage televised everywhere, adds to its eerie aura of a violent minuet. Both sides know from the start which will be the winning side, militarily.

But precisely because the basic military result is predictable, it is crucial to concentrate on this century's central lesson: To know the military winner of a war is not to know the war's outcome. War is a political event, an eruption of violence in a continuum of politics, which will resume, radically altered by war.

The winning and losing nations of the First World War were clear on November 11, 1918. Nothing else was. Later we learned the war's outcome, meaning consequences: pacifism, fascism, the death of empires. Wars have long echoes. Desert Storm is

dealing with problems descending from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The winners of the Second World War included the United States and the Soviet Union. The consequences of the war included Soviet power in the center of Europe, and four decades of extreme danger.

Desert Storm's lesson for Arab nations depends on the destruction not only of Saddam Hussein's (replaceable) weapons but of his regime, too.

During the debates about this well-deliberated war, Iraq's real potential for future power encouraged exaggerations of its current power. Iraq is, beneath a thin layer of imported technology, a brittle, overreaching tin-pot country. This means that this is, in part, a didactic war. It is waged not just to neutralize a threat, but also, perhaps primarily, to make a point.

Two points, actually -- one about America, the other about Arabia.

Desert Storm occurs in the 50th year since Japanese torpedo planes at Pearl Harbor punctuated with an exclamation point a long American argument about whether this nation should be an active ingredient in international affairs. Desert Storm demonstrates that the future will be like the past, only more so. The hope is that a half-century of wars, hot and cold, has yielded to an epoch of rule-writing and that the mighty U.S. sword guarantees the pre-eminence of the American pen.

There are 21 nations in what is called ''the Arab world,'' but no real democracy. In recent years, political pluralism and popular government have been sprouting green shoots in previously stony ground from Latin America to Eastern Europe. But the Middle East has remained a region riven by political primitivism that is fueled by religious fanaticism and tribalism masquerading as nationalism.

A sense of falling further and further behind other modernizing nations exacerbates Arab feelings of cultural inferiority. Those feelings are deepened by the sterility of the truculence and militarism that are supposed to assuage such feelings.

Perhaps Mr. Hussein thinks he has learned from the past and for that reason is determined to repeat it. In the past, particularly in 1956 and 1967, Arab defeats have purchased prestige in the Arab world, a coin of real if precarious value.

But the way this war began -- and, we may hope, will end -- may demonstrate, at last decisively, that the locution ''Arab world'' is merely a geographic, not a political or even cultural, expression. The claims of similarity and unity are spurious. Remember, regimes governing the majority of Arabs are supporting the U.S.-U.N. position.

Indeed, the war's longest reverberation may be from the fact of Arab participation in the studied punishment of an Arab nation whose crime is transgressing values enunciated most clearly by the United States, the symbol of Western political values and of cultural modernity. Iraq's fate in the fighting will demonstrate, redundantly, that militarism is not an alternative to political modernization. In the modern age, military proficiency is increasingly a function of scientific, cultural and commercial modernity. The Soviet Union cracked beneath the weight of that great fact, which is one reason why Iraq is isolated.

The hope is that this war will be the thin end of a large wedge, sufficient to pry parts of Arabia into participation in the modernity that is capable of such technological prowess and moral purpose. Both that prowess and that purpose derive from


George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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