FOR THE FIRST time in your life, America is at war. The crisis may seem confusing. There are no outward signs of war or destruction. The neighborhood seems peaceful. School goes on as usual, the mall remains open.
Yet some things are different. Christmas decorations have been replaced by American flags and yellow ribbons. Parents have started worrying about the Middle East. Classmates who have relatives in the military seem to cry for no reason. And war bulletins keep interrupting your favorite television programs.
Although the war is 6,000 miles away, TV brings the missiles, bombs and terror into your living room. Everyone gathers to watch the 6 o'clock news, where kids like you in Israel and Saudi Arabia are seen struggling with gas masks. Nobody wants to play video war games when the news is over.
America is at war with Iraq, and you want to know why.
Last summer, in the early morning darkness of Aug. 2, more than 100,000 Iraqi troops stormed across their southern border into Kuwait, a tiny nation about the size of New Jersey. Awakened by the sound of 350 Iraqi tanks rumbling through the streets of the capital, residents of Kuwait City watched from behind shuttered windows as the invaders shelled government buildings and seized everything from hospitals to radio stations.
Because Kuwait's armed forces were outnumbered by 50 to 1, there was really no organized resistance to the invasion. Kuwait's leaders, including members of the royal family who had ruled for 234 years, escaped by helicopter into Saudi Arabia, but more than 6,500 American and British civilians, many of them oil workers, were left behind.
Reaction around the world was swift. Within hours, the United Nations Security Council voted 14-0 to condemn the invasion and demand the "unconditional and immediate" withdrawal of Iraqi forces. The United States government quickly banned all trade with Iraq and began making plans to send American soldiers, planes and ships to the Persian Gulf.
At first, President Bush feared that Iraq's army might push on and invade Saudi Arabia, which lies to the south and west of Kuwait. This would have posed a serious threat to American interests, because Saudi Arabia is one of the United States' main allies in the Middle East, and also the No. 1 oil producer in the world.
Although Iraq's troops did push to within one mile of the Saudi border, they never crossed the line in the sand.
By the end of August, troops from the United States, Britain and a number of Arab countries who opposed the Iraqi invasion had arrived to help guard the Saudi border. Then, as the Iraqi troops dug in and tightened their grip on Kuwait, Bush and Iraqi $H President Saddam Hussein launched a five-month war of words and nerves.
Hussein defended the invasion by arguing that Kuwait had once belonged to Iraq, so his government was simply reclaiming lost territory. He also charged that Kuwait's leaders had been trying to hurt Iraq's economy, which was already a mess because Iraq had just finished a costly eight-year war with Iran.
Bush responded by calling Hussein a "liar" and comparing him to Adolf Hitler, the barbaric German dictator who started World War II and caused the deaths of millions of innocent people. Bush insisted that Iraq free all the American civilians it was holding as hostages (which it eventually did), withdraw its troops from Kuwait, and restore the former government to power.
In an effort to force Hussein out of Kuwait without war, the United Nations stepped in. It is a group of more than 150 countries working for peace and international security. The U.N. put pressure on Iraq by cutting off essential supplies. Meanwhile, a multinational force of troops poured into the Persian Gulf as American and allied military leaders began planning an attack on Iraq, in case economic and diplomatic pressures failed.
Just after Thanksgiving, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved the use of military force against Iraq if Hussein did not remove all his forces from Kuwait. To give last-minute negotiations a chance to end the crisis peacefully, the U.N. set a deadline of Jan. 15.
Hussein refused to budge. Both sides got ready to fight.
In the early morning darkness of Jan. 17, American, British and Kuwaiti planes launched intensive bombing raids upon military, communications and transportation networks in and around the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
After six days, allied planes had flown 10,000 sorties -- A sortie is one mission by one plane -- making the aerial campaign one of the largest in the history of warfare.
Though the air assault was punishing, Iraq still was able to hurl flocks of Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia and to knock down a total of 17 allied planes, 10 of them American, in the first six days.
U.S. generals see no speedy end to the war. Massive air raids are expected to continue for at least two more weeks, and a ground campaign is being readied to drive entrenched Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.