Saddam's one big misjudgment

Jack L. Levin

March 04, 1991|By Jack L. Levin

ONE MISJUDGMENT tops all of Saddam Hussein's egregious miscalculations. It surpasses his faith that his invasions of Iran and Kuwait would succeed, that there would be a sure revolt of Arab masses against their rulers in the allied coalition, that Israel would be drawn into the conflict by his cowardly missile attacks on civilians and that the allies would be too timid to engage his mighty army in the "mother of battles." It beats his confidence in world-wide support from his terrorist pals.

No, Saddam's one glaring miscalculation was underestimating American capacity to accept casualties and tolerate the extended suffering of fellow Americans.

He failed to understand that we constantly accept the casualties of thousands of American children dying of inadequate health care, and of millions suffering from hunger and homelessness in the midst of plenty.

He did not know that we accept the severe casualties among over 37 million of us existing below the poverty level, plus millions more of the walking wounded, the working poor who earn just enough not to quality for welfare.

He had no idea of how much we can shrug off.

We accept not only the ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed, but the millions of ill-educated who can never be fitted into our high-tech economy because half of our students fail to finish high school. We are resigned to the pain of those enduring layoffs, unemployment and underemployment.

We accept the deaths of thousands of hopeless Americans killed each year by heroin and cocaine addiction and the slaughter of bystanders by warring tribes of pushers and peddlers.

We accept 100,000 deaths in the past decade from AIDS, twice the number of those killed in the Vietnam War, and an infant-mortality rate higher than that in many third-world countries.

We accept these casualties of poverty, ignorance and disease with indifference to our standing as a civilized nation and with coldness to children and the elderly that makes Saddam Hussein look like a bleeding heart.

Saddam's calculation about us misfired for two reasons:

First, American gulf war casualties were remarkably light. Second, those casualties and hardships are borne disproportionately by those at lower income levels and not by the upper-middle and high-income strata. The scions of the well-off were mostly in college and executive suites, not sweating and shivering in holes in the desert. They did not have to join the Army to get a job, to get an education otherwise unaffordable or to make ends meet. There was no draft to impose the sacrifices of our gulf troops on people of affluence and influence. Those who call the shots were not being shot at.

Saddam miscalculated also in appraising our capacity for accepting casualties even when they are inescapably our own.

Certainly the nation's crumbling infrastructure affects every one of us, rich or poor, whose life depends on water, sewage, sanitation and transportation. Yet, we have been supremely content to accept gross deterioration without a whimper of pain or a cry of protest until it inevitably engulfs us.

In San Francisco, we stoically accepted known weaknesses in the double-deck interstate highway that collapsed during the 1989 earthquake. A continent away, in Baltimore, there are 3,600 miles of water mains, valves, transmissions and service mains, plus 2,000 miles of sewer mains, plus 2,660 miles of storm drains (several over 100 years old) and 153 bridges requiring repair or replacements -- all accidents which we are content patiently to wait to happen.

New York City nonchalantly took for granted the disasters in the making with wooden water mains, installed by Aaron Burr, still carrying water from reservoirs 125 miles distant.

Colorado took in stride the loss of lives and millions of dollars in damage from the bursting of a dam that had been rated hazardous years before the calamity.

The unseen human toll on our most vulnerable neighbors and the damage that time has inflicted on our vital installations far exceed the more dramatic, highly visible destruction Saddam has wreaked on hapless Kuwait.

Burning oil wells are fascinating to watch, while suffering people and putrefying sewers are just disgusting; but we resolutely endure both.

How could anyone miscalculate that the American people, capable of accepting such massive, deadly disintegration with disdain, would flinch at the prospect of even a few thousand war casualties? Saddam's mind was set on wartime Vietnam, where our patience for absorbing casualties wore thin. He never noticed "peacetime" America, where it seems virtually inexhaustible.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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