March 05, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston, When the war began, the young teacher had worried about the fear she saw in the faces of her third grade. We had talked then about how and how much to reassure children. Her desire to protect them had struggled with her desire to acknowledge that war was indeed fearsome. What should children know about war, she had wondered, and how should they know it?

But when the teacher called back on Victory Day, it was with a different report from the classroom and playground. She was worried now about the cheerfulness of her young charges. The ease of war had erased their anxiety. The glory of war had trumped its terror.

As the international good guys trounced the bad guys, as America won, her children played Scuds and Patriots. Gradually, her own vast sense of relief at the end of the killing had developed an edge. What had the children learned about war and is it what they should know?

I listened to this teacher and to her restraint in the middle of a national celebration. I had no answer for the questions that she raised. But her reservations resonate when I think about adults as well as children: What will all of us learn about war and is it what we should know?

Like the teacher, I was among those who believed we should stop short of fighting. For most Americans, the passion to fight depended on the number of casualties they imagined. I imagined them by the tens of thousands.

Yet once it began, most of us who questioned the war were left with one shared wish: that it be short and victorious, that our soldier sons, daughters, mothers and fathers come through it safely. Well, we got what we wished for.

In its 43 days, there were more Americans killed in the plane collision in Los Angeles than in the collision in the Persian Gulf. Our military performed and so did its hardware. We stayed on the right side of that elusive line that separates moral from immoral behavior in war. We beat Saddam Hussein, rescued Kuwait. And best of all, we did it quickly.

Yet, despite the vast, unifying sense of relief at the body bags that will come home empty, there is still a wound. An unexpected, unrelenting worry about the meaning of an ''easy'' win.

Vietnam, with all its horror, taught us about the sweaty, terrifying brutality of war. Will the gulf teach us about a swift, surgical, antiseptic strike? Vietnam taught us about the terrible toll of war without victory. Will the gulf teach us about the glories of victory with only ''collateral'' carnage?

And Vietnam taught us to be reluctant about getting into another faraway war. What message will come from the Gulf? Don't be afraid?

On V-Day, the speeches were also aimed at a long domestic debate. The victorious ends will surely be used to justify the peacetime means: the military budget and buildup of the 1980s, that came at the cost of bridges and schools and children.

Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense, said with I-told-you-so delight that during the Reagan years we were ''buying more than $600 toilets.'' He will surely ask for more. Which of our leaders -- those who bask in being ''right'' about this war or those who worry about being ''wrong'' -- will say no to Stormin' Norman, Colin Powell and their commander in chief?

Americans who measure national strength in the health of our families and our economy are stilled by the martial celebration. So are those who count the lost souls on the city streets as well as the cheering souls in the Kuwaiti streets. For a time their words will be damp blankets under a flag-strewn sky.

Neither the teacher nor I would trade victory for defeat or wish a single more casualty. We got out of this without chemical warfare, without nuclear holocaust, without domestic devastation -- by the skin of our teeth. Still I understand why she worries about 8-year-olds who have known only a good little war. If this is how they, how we, will understand war: good and little.

Last week, at recess this woman stopped a fight on the playground with her normal, routine admonition: ''This is not the way we solve problems.'' On the faces of her children there was a look of disbelief.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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