WASHINGTON -- Public television has been running a series called "Making Sense of the Sixties" that strikes a particularly sensitive chord right now, as the country tries to make sense of the way the '90s have begun, with the United States again at war in a faraway place generally unfamiliar to the men and women fighting there.
One of the children of the '60s shown in the series recalls that, as a teen-ager approaching draft age, he had no idea where Vietnam was when he first heard of it, and within a year found himself slogging through its jungles toting a rifle.
It is not quite that way now; the quagmire in the Middle East has been in the news for years and American forces were in the Persian Gulf for about five months before President Bush launched the air attacks on Iraq.
But at least one of the basic elements remains -- the United States out doing the dirty business of a large segment of the world, amid sentiment at home that is divided about that dirty business. In the '60s, U.S. forces in Vietnam were said to be there to stop the inexorable march of world communism; today they are in the gulf region as part of an international effort ostensibly to liberate the conquered state of Kuwait, but clearly also to bring down the despot in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein.
A principal difference is that in the '60s the American presence was advertised by its main sponsor, Lyndon Johnson, as no more than another aspect on the on-going Cold War against an enemy supported and supplied by the world Communist powers, China and the Soviet Union. Today, in the gulf, the American presence is proclaimed by its chief author, George Bush, as the first manifestation of a "New World Order," wherein the world community acting in concert polices the globe to maintain peace against any transgressor.
The phrase itself makes you wonder whether the American president ever recalls that it is akin to what Adolf Hitler said he was seeking in the very war in which Bush as a young pilot was shot down. Hitler repeatedly proclaimed he was bent on establishing a "New Order," first just for Europe and later the world. Some will say that words don't mean much, but to many who lived through World War II the notion of a "New Order" still conjures up the twin menaces of Nazism and fascism.
At a minimum, President Bush should find himself a new wordsmith.
But what exactly is this "New World Order" of which Bush speaks as the governing concept of the American intervention in the Middle East? According to him, it is nothing less than a new way of dealing with disputes anywhere in the world now that the Cold War superpowers have been moving away from the nuclear edge. And the way this "New World Order" is to work is that the community of nations, acting in concert through a revitalized United Nations, will keep the peace by showing its collective resolve to oppose transgressors.
But sending upward of a half-million American armed forces into combat in the Middle East, what is new about that?
Does the "New World Order" mean that every time some outlaw leader or nation bucks the collective will, this will be the response? That looks very much like the old order that pertained in Korea in the '50s and Vietnam in the '60s.
When Bush first started selling his "New World Order" last summer, it was in the context of widespread economic sanctions against Iraq embraced by most of the world community, responding to his administration's very effective, even brilliant, rallying of international solidarity.
The scope and the painstaking consultation that went into the organization of the sanctions could fairly be said to be truly a "New World Order" in dealing with abridgment of the peace. But there is nothing new about its abandonment in favor of a shooting war.
It is being said that now that the war is on the American troops in the field must be supported to the hilt. That proposition is irrefutable, as is the wish that the war will be won quickly.
But if it is not, not only Bush's political future will be in jeopardy; the whole notion of a "New World Order" that resorted to force when economic sanctions had not been exhausted will lie
shattered as well.
That is why the duration of this war will be so critical in shaping how the world meets menaces in the post-Cold War era.
Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's
staff appear Monday through Friday.