It's the U.S. cavalry to rescue, big time, but when to rein up?

MIKE LITTWIN

December 16, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

We are at something-like-war. This is not unusual. Since Pearl Harbor, America has often been either at war or at something-like-war. You could look it up.

But this something-like-a-war in Somalia is very different.

In this case, we have landed troops in the name of good. Not out of self-interest. Not for some geopolitical design. Not to save democracy. Not to keep obscure dominoes from tumbling. Not even in the name of justice, but of good.

We didn't capture some tinhorn dictator, bomb some other tinhorn dictator's house or overpower a Caribbean outpost. Instead, we have done something fine. We have taken a beachhead in the name of the dispossessed, the starving, the weak. It's like Liberty's torch has been transplanted onto the hood of a humvee.

It is like nothing I've seen.

Even in World War II, we didn't fight the Nazis and their evil -- remember, we turned away ships loaded with Jewish refugees, sending them back to their deaths -- until the Japanese forced us into the war. We entered that war, our finest moment, as an act of self-defense.

We don't have any motive this time. The relief effort at the point of a gun is the good war we like to think all our wars are, even if we know they're not. This is who we want to be, the good guys.

You see, for better or worse, what they've done in Somalia is put the romance back into soldiering. This is the cavalry come to the rescue, just the way Hollywood used to tell us it would be.

And there was nothing at all romantic about the gulf war, a high-tech, smart-missile light-show of mass destruction that was once explained to the American people as a war about "jobs, jobs, jobs."

Maybe it made us feel strong for a time, but did it make us feel good?

We can feel good now. But we could feel better. There are many peculiar aspects to the fighting in Somalia, but the most unusual has to be the role of the media. There would be no soldiers in Somalia except for the pictures of children dying from starvation and the story of the punk warlords who steal the food from their mouths. We saw the pictures so often that, finally, we had to either turn our heads or act. What else are we to do with this enormous army and no apparent enemy?

But the role of the media continues. The reporters and the TV cameras are ahead of the Marines, just as they were on the beach at Mogadishu last Tuesday. They beat them inland to the dying fields, sending back more pictures of starvation and also pleas from aid workers that the Marines move more quickly. Each day the Marines delayed, 100 people starved.

This is where it gets tricky. The generals told us there were limits. The generals said they needed to be certain they had sufficient (read: overwhelming) firepower before taking on the punks with their gun-laden pickup trucks. And now they've moved in force. Just like in the movies, but only when the generals felt the risks were minimal for loss of American lives.

What risks are acceptable? How many American lives should we be prepared to sacrifice? We are arguing with the United Nations about our role in disarming Somalia as opposed to helping feed it.

We are there to do good, but only so much good. That's a hard lesson, which you are free to either accept or reject. But the lesson gets harder.

Some people ask why we are in Somalia and not in Bosnia. Former Secretary of State George Schultz has asked most pointedly. The Serbs have been practicing what they call "ethnic cleansing," putting Muslims in concentration camps, transporting them, murdering them, in much the same way the Nazis did the Jews.

As Schultz points out, we were told never to forget what happened to the Jews. He asks what that means. He says it must mean that civilized people can't stand aside and watch the atrocities in Serbia.

He is right, of course. The heroic thing to do would be to join the Bosnian cause. Flyovers? A commitment of troops? How many at how much risk and for how long?

The real question is: How heroic do we want to be?

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