This Is the Kind of War We Know and Love--Like 'The Big One' WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Stephen Hunter, film critic of The Sun, served in the U.S. Army Infantry.

I was walking through the newsroom some weeks back on a search-and-destroy mission for doughnuts, when I noticed knots people clustered in the glow of the room's several TV sets. The occasion was a speech by Saddam Hussein, in quasi-response to one of George Bush's ultimatums.

Saddam's rant was the usual zany-scary torrent of rhetoric, and of course there were no pictures available, so the geniuses at CNN had the bright idea of showing a radio. Now there's an image: people at a newspaper clustered around a television that is showing a picture of a radio.

But if you half-closed your eyes, the TV framework simply disappeared and you just saw nervous people and the radio. It was as if you had stepped back half a century into the war they still call the Big One. The scene recalled a famous, poignant photo from the Battle of Britain, where English schoolboys cluster about the same instrument, desperately listening to the score as a few of their fathers and older brothers tried to shoot down the Nazi bombers that were trying to bomb them.

And it suggested how deeply World War II is ingrained in everybody's consciousness -- it's the root experience of the 20th century, surely, even to the millions who came along too late to live through it and only experienced it distilled through popular culture into myth. And it suggested what was at once so familiar and, frankly, so satisfying about the recently concluded hostilities in the Persian Gulf -- the remembrance of the other war, the good one.

That's what was so strange about the past month and a half: It was as if you took a videotape of World War II and watched it on fast forward -- the whole six-year tapestry of pain and heroism and grief and panic and joy, crushed into six hectic weeks. It was "World War II: the Miniseries," World War II with the boring parts cut out.

Consider its version of that familiar character from the time before, the madman with the mustache. Arab culture and Arabic mind-set are so alien to American brains -- from George Bush's on down -- that the initial reading of Saddam Hussein as "another Hitler," however far from the mark it may prove to be, was absolutely inevitable. No other analogy was even available in the cultural memory of the West.

As had Hitler, Hussein invaded a smaller, weaker country; as had Hitler, he'd justified it with the usual guff, paranoid fears of persecution and an image of his own empire and majesty; as had Hitler, he'd embarked on this course in cold contempt of Western "weakness." And as had Hitler, he gave our anger focus.

Consider next the powerful meaning of "territory" in this war, unique to military conflict since 1945. Vietnam, in a terrible sense, was never about "territory": It began with the precept that the North was sacrosanct and would not be invaded; it continued through the melancholy discovery that a hundred thousand square miles of triple canopy jungle cannot be penetrated by high explosive bombs or effectively "liberated" by armor or "occupied" by infantry; and so finally it was just about accumulating a body count as some way of keeping track.

Nobody counted bodies in this one; but the board on which the campaign was waged was like a coloring book version of Europe on June 5, 1944: It was simplified and denatured of texture and nuance, made E-Z for our now-microscopic attention spans. There was Iraq, a kind of deflated triangle wedged between Syria and Iran, bordered along its bottom by Saudi Arabia and in one far corner of the tripod, the poor little tip of Kuwait. No matter how subtle and full of ruse and feint the tactics were, in broad-brush terms the strategy was simple: A schoolboy could have figured it out.

See, he puts all his guys down in the corner and he builds a big wall around them, and so . . . we go around the wall! As Colin Powell said, we cut them off and then we kill them; in cartoon terms, that's as simple as the strategy against Nazi Germany, which was merely to come at it from the West and from the East and crush it like a walnut in a vise. It actually made sense!

Then there were the airplanes. In Vietnam, the air war was an illusion, finally. Bombs simply don't work against an agrarian guerrilla force or against tunnel networks; they don't work against a people who will live in mud 50 feet beneath the surface for 10 years in order to beat you.

But the gulf war, like World War II, was a festival of air power, a carnival of predator's ball of fighter jocks hunting targets of opportunity. One of the hardest working of all the planes even had a World War II name, the "Thunderbolt II," although in popular terminology this ugly, awesome craft was nicknamed the "Warthog." It was pure throwback, however: an olive drab, shark-mouthed tank hunter that flew low and slow, a yard above the ground.

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