The guns of winter

January 05, 2003

NOW IT STARTS to get real. All across America, thousands of families are going to be saying their good-byes in the weeks and months to come. At least 30,000 and maybe as many as 200,000 members of the Reserves and National Guard are being called up in anticipation of a war against Iraq.

They'll be leaving their jobs and businesses, their spouses and parents and children, their homes and neighborhoods, to do what's expected of them. These thousands of men and women are answering the call to duty just as millions have in the generations that have come before. Many will be joining the 60,000 regular troops already in the Persian Gulf region, and the tens of thousands of others currently deployed there.

This is the way America goes to war now. It's the 21st-century equivalent of the sort of mobilizations that heralded the start of World War I. In the sunny summer of 1914, as millions of European citizens thronged the streets, cheering for war, the great powers moved ponderously toward the outbreak of hostilities. Nothing could stop them, once they started. Not one could afford the humiliation of pulling back. War itself became the point; the causes barely mattered.

That's not to say that there aren't differences this time around. Although President Bush visits army bases to cheers, the country is hardly in the grip of war fever in this dark winter of 2003. The numbers involved are far smaller, and the casualty rates will surely be lower if fighting does break out.

But the inevitability of the march to war seems uncomfortably reminiscent of that earlier conflict. What could Iraq do now to save itself? Historians point out that in late July 1914, Serbia capitulated to all of Austria's demands, following the assassination in Sarajevo, but Austria declared war anyway. Are we in for a rerun? Can Baghdad find a way to let Washington off the hook?

Baghdad, admittedly, may not be so inclined. Then war it is.

Before we get there, Americans should offer a salute to the men and women in uniform who are making sacrifices, large and small, for the sake of their country. Danger and pain await them. One thing the world has learned from the lesson of 1914 is that war is not quite the glorious parade people imagined it to be back then. We live with different sorts of illusions now. With any luck the consequences won't be as terrible as they were 89 years ago.

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