War euphoria is fading Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

January 23, 1991|By Jack W.Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Slowly but inevitably, the American people are coming to realize that, for all the spectacular tapes of U.S. bombing and missile attacks on Iraq shown nightly on television, what is going on in the Persian Gulf is no video game.

The euphoria of the first days, during which American military officials boasted of an 80 percent success rate, has begun to fade to apprehension as other factors begin to drive home that this conflict, like all wars, means pain, death and uncertainty about its duration.

It turns out now that 80 percent success does not mean percentage of U.S. targets knocked out, but percentage attacked. Many have had to be attacked more than once, and aerial surveillance, hindered by bad weather, has not yet established the extent of damage. An early shift to a ground-war phase, or no such phase at all, does not seem as realistic a scenario now as the early euphoria suggested.

Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, five days before the first attacks, said he did not think the war would last "a matter of months." Now he says "it could conceivably be weeks, could conceivably be months." One reason, he says, is that "it's more important for us to be driven by considerations of minimizing our own casualties . . . than it is to try to meet some artificial deadline." Few can argue with that notion, although an artificial deadline was set by President Bush to start the shooting.

Along with this more cautionary official posture has come the nightly evidence that Saddam Hussein is still able to inflict the sort of psychological punishment that is a grim reminder to the living rooms of America of the human element that all the "smart bombs" and flashy video displays of military technology cannot erase from war.

The Scud missiles launched against Israel and Saudi Arabia, like Hitler's V-2 rockets that fell on London in World War II, have forced substantial defensive efforts and in effect kept the civilian populations in major cities hostage nightly.

Now, as the U.S. casualties have begun to rise -- less than expected, the military says, but rising nonetheless -- and pictures of captured Americans obviously under extreme stress are flashed on American television screens, the reality earlier blurred by all the space-age fireworks is beginning to sink in.

The first predictable reaction is a hardening of American anger and resolve. Congress, having aired its reservations about the -- war in the votes authorizing the use of force, has now largely fallen in line behind President Bush and American forces in the field, endorsing the all-out effort to get the war over with.

But the administration is well aware that the early euphoria was breeding high expectations and it is now working hard to clamp a lid on them. At the same time, the military is careful not to feed pessimism, denying the news media information on damage to the enemy and on American casualties -- human beings, not hardware. The reason, pure and simple, is a desire and intention to manage public opinion, recognized as a fragile yet critical aspect of the war effort.

Bush's penchant for categorical statements got him into deep trouble on the domestic front when he pledged firmly that he would not raise taxes and then agreed to. He pledged just as firmly that the conflict in the Persian Gulf would not be "another Vietnam," meaning it would be all-out and short. But he does not have the credibility anymore to invite voters to "read my lips," and the longer the war goes on, the more vulnerable politically he will become.

His office-holding critics are frozen so far by the presence of American fighting forces in the gulf and by a shared desire that the war is won quickly. But the street protests are under way already and, while they do not yet approach the size and intensity of those of Vietnam War days, they will only get larger and more vociferous if the war stretches out to "a matter of months" or more.

Television coverage so far has consisted largely of correspondents in hotel rooms and on air bases reporting the sounds and sightings of incoming explosives, and tapes of exotic missiles hitting enemy targets or intercepting enemy missiles. Taken together, they have fed a sense of an almost antiseptic war. But the captured airmen are changing that now, as will the body bags to come, pressuring President Bush to deliver on his promise there will not be "another Vietnam."

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.

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