WASHINGTON -- For the first time since Vietnam, the United States has troops in three simultaneous messes in three corners of the world -- Florida, Somalia and Iraq.
This is true even though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, and the other officers who lead the armed services are extraordinarily reluctant to risk the fragile prestige of the military in no-win situations.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, pressure to use force has come from civilians, from presidential candidates George Bush and Bill Clinton and the liberal editorialists of the New York Times to see military solutions in a growing number of trouble spots.
"What the country faces is a philosophical question about the use of force," says House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis. He announced plans yesterday to call General Powell and others for hearings on how bad things must get to trigger the use of American troops.
Not since the late 1960s, when U.S. troops faced danger in Vietnam, the Mediterranean Sea and riot-torn cities at home, have soldiers been deployed in three hot spots at once.
But now, televised scenes of camouflage-clad soldiers striding purposefully off some transport jet appear so often that even officers in the Pentagon have a hard time remembering the nine events that have involved U.S. troops this year:
* Last winter's shortages in the former Soviet Union, leading to an Air Force airlift of food and medicine.
* The eruption of Italy's Mount Etna, followed by the dispatch of U.S. Marines who diverted the lava flow away from a threatened village.
* Riots in Los Angeles, causing President Bush to send 4,500 soldiers and Marines to keep order.
* Ethnic warfare in Yugoslavia, culminating in the agony of Bosnia, which led to the dispatch of a U.S. carrier to the Adriatic coast and the use of Air Force transports to carry humanitarian supplies.
* The escape of drug lord Pablo Escobar from a Colombian jail, followed by flights of Navy and Air Force surveillance planes in an unsuccessful attempt to track him.
* Threats by Iraq's Saddam Hussein to reabsorb Kuwait, leading to the hurried dispatch of a battery of Patriot missiles to reassure Kuwait, along with more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines for a series of desert exercises.
* Famine and civil war in Somalia, provoking the dispatch of Air Force transports to carry food to Somalian refugee camps.
* Mr. Saddam's offensive against Shiite dissidents in southern Iraq, and Mr. Bush's subsequent order of a "no-fly zone" across Iraq's southern tier.
* Hurricane Andrew and the dispatch of troops to Florida.
Of these, Bosnia has proven by far the most controversial. Some inside the government in June favored decisive U.S. or allied military action to stop the killing.
But General Powell and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney convinced Mr. Bush that sending U.S. forces would lead inevitably into a Vietnam-style "quagmire."
"What they are saying," Mr. Aspin said, "is that we should use the military only as the last resort, only where there is a clear-cut military objective, only when the commitment is not open-ended, and only when we can send in overwhelming military force. . . . It is time to ask the question of what the American public wants the military to do."