Amid war talk, voices from past remind us of the cost in blood

January 30, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ROBERT AYRES dropped out of the University of Maryland, joined the U.S. Marines and reached Guadalcanal early in 1943. On his first flight over the Japanese airbase at Munda Point, they lost Lieutenant Moss, who was hit by flak and died instantly. They lost the gunner Henze, whose leg was severed and who died in a hospital. They lost Captain Moore and Private First Class Reed, who had to parachute from their plane. When Moore and Reed landed, the enemy beheaded them both.

Think of them for a moment.

Dorothy Davis of Rockville joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps and spent the winter of 1944-1945 working in a badly shelled French hospital. Ice and snow made it tough to get the wounded in. Sometimes frostbite was worse than bullet wounds. Davis stood over big, tough kids with their heads split or their stomachs torn open. She remembered the first thing many of them said. They wanted their mothers.

Think about them in the midst of the newest war talk.

Daniel Brewster graduated from St. Paul's School of Baltimore and then dropped out of Princeton to join the Marines. He landed at Okinawa in April 1945. His platoon came under fire from nearby caves and bunkers. Two guys next to Brewster were hit and killed. Brewster, crawling through ditches in a nearby rice paddy, stuck his head up to look around. A bullet hit his helmet from behind, splitting his scalp and showering his face with blood, but miraculously leaving the future U.S. senator alive. But Brewster would have to survive half a dozen more wounds before his tour was done.

Think about this as we prepare to send Americans off to battle again.

In Washington the other night, President Bush issued the bugle call for the first great war of the new century. Some of the words were pretty stirring. I listened to them with a new book at my side, called Answering Their Country's Call: Marylanders in World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, edited by Michael H. Rogers), where I read about Ayres and Davis and Brewster and so many more.

"If war is forced upon us," President Bush declared, "we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military. And we will prevail."

That we will prevail militarily, there seems little doubt. That the war is being "forced" upon us, though, there is much doubt. It is shouted across every nation on the planet, where the mood against America has turned ugly. Is it possible that America is right and the rest of the world is wrong? The loyal British government backs us (though most of the British public does not) and we've coaxed nervous support from a few other countries. But the anger at what is perceived as American power and arrogance (and our enormous thirst for oil) is now palpable.

And, for all of Bush's declarations of great solemnity -- "This nation fights reluctantly," he said, "because we know the cost, and we dread the days of mourning that always come" -- the president understands something else.

This nation has a taste for the right kinds of war. We relive the great ones all the time, in movies that rightly praise the nobility of the effort but never quite translate the full agony, and in such places as TV's History Channel, where the old World War II video is so prevalent that some call the station "the All-Hitler Network."

The vast majority of us are protected from real war by the distance of time or by television. The last time we went to war with Saddam Hussein, the generals explained everything to us on TV. The fighting went on just out of sight. The generals stood in their sanitary war rooms, with their pointers and their videos shot from distant airplanes, and delivered the dry logistics into our safe living rooms. There were no kids with their stomachs torn open; we heard nobody cry out for his mother. The closest look at soldiers was watching parades when they came home.

But we've been distanced from the reality of fighting and suffering and dying -- on either side of the battle. And, though Bush said new evidence will be released in coming days, he still offered no proof that Iraq poses an immediate threat to the United States -- that the war is being "forced" on us.

In Washington, his speech drew cheers on Capitol Hill. On the morning talk shows, he was praised for the power of his delivery. But critics have asked: As long as weapons inspectors are active, and Iraq unlikely to pose a threat as long as they continue, why can't they continue indefinitely if it keeps everybody out of war?

In this country, we've been protected from the reality of battle. World War II was a long time ago. Vietnam and Korea we try not to think about. The gulf war is recalled through a haze of patriotic bunting and generals editing out the rough spots. The coming war is presented as America's effort to bring down the madman Hussein.

But brushed aside is the anger in the Arab world that could prompt expanded trouble in the Middle East and a new generation of enraged terrorists. Brushed aside is the effect on American's economy. Brushed aside are the kids to be wounded on both sides of the battle, wondering why the talking and the inspecting couldn't continue indefinitely as they call out for their mothers.

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