Conceivably Weeks or Months

January 23, 1991

One week of war on real time under surreal circumstances should teach the American people a lesson: This is a conflict with so many variables that wary citizens must guard against euphoria and despond.

The initial exultation over the success of video-game-style air strikes is now a thing of the past. Scud missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, battered POWs paraded before the cameras by Iraqi propagandists, U.S. military brass contradicting one another on whether air superiority has been achieved -- these currently have created a downbeat mood that probably is no more justified than the upbeat mood that preceded it.

Despite a flow of information that has glued Americans to their television sets and sent newspaper sales soaring, even President Bush is reported to be frustrated in trying to assess the actual trend and tempo of battle. It is well to remember that conflict is always unpredictable. History is littered with tales of nations confounded in their war aims, forced to change tactics and strategy again and again, finally achieving peace of a kind totally unforeseen at the outset of fighting.

The talk from the American side has run from Sen. Daniel Inouye's now-inoperative prediction of a five-day war to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's latest glum prediction of "conceivably weeks. . . conceivably months." It has run from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's assertion that the Scud threat was virtually over to Maj. Gen. Burton Moore's later warning that this is not the case.

Hopes that air power would achieve a surgical, antiseptic victory over Iraq's dug-in, battle-hardened forces have been replaced by worried, almost frantic speculation on the timing of a ground war where casualties would be high and the U.S. technology edge a good deal lower.

Citizens cannot and should not be dismayed by all this. What looks like miscalculation may be deliberate disinformation. When troops move north, nearer the enemy, it could be in preparation for attack or just a maneuver to force Iraqi generals to eat up resources. Just when (if ever) the air war yields center stage to the ground war is a question that must be far more worrisome to the Iraqis than the Americans.

Moreover, the diplomatic option is always there. While the Bush administration quite clearly would like to end Iraq's aggressive capabilities in addition to ejecting it from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein could begin a pullout at any time, proclaiming himself a hero of the Arab peoples for having stood up to the United States while keeping his army intact.

War is a testing time not only for those in the field of battle but for those at home. The stress everyone feels at the moment will not vanish soon. Wise citizens will keep their emotions in check, their skepticism at the ready and their faith in their country unshaken.

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