A Perilous Time

Observations

March 21, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

We envisioned obliteration, not decapitation, but the passage we have undergone is momentous either way. Peacetime was before. War is now.

It hardly matters whether we believe it should have come to this. It has. Suddenly, those of us in this hemisphere are less significant. For the moment, what goes on over there is all that counts; the rest of us are bystanders, handwringers or cheerleaders.

If we're lucky, what happens here will remain inconsequential for the duration. If it's a fast war. If casualties are minimal. If terrorists don't reach us. Maybe it will be over soon, and we will be free to return to the pleasures of the mundane, to springtime graduations and weddings. To family reunions.

Maybe, if it's a fast war, we will avert recrimination and divisiveness. Maybe the histories to be written will need pause only momentarily on this Persian Gulf War. Just like the last.

Maybe there will be no comparisons to Vietnam.

Surely, we are united in that hope.

But those jitters we feel today arise from the knowledge of an alternate outcome, a recognition that wars often are unpredictable and ruinous and tragic. Deaths will come, we know that. If it lasts long, what else will come? A wider conflict? Terrorist retaliation? Economic hardship? Social schism? Rising anti-Americanism?

If we are edgy these days, maybe it is because we know that no matter how superior our forces, wars put everything, everything, on the line.

The polls reflect Americans solidifying behind the war effort. But, if the war does not go well, the fissures will reappear. "I do not remember historically ever launching into a military incursion with the country as divided as it is now," said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

As President Bush catalogued his reasons for war, he lacked a provocation of the kind that became rallying points for other presidents, the sinking of the Maine, for example, and Pearl Harbor, and the invasion of Kuwait. Bush has taken us to war without that sort of "smoking gun." For only the fourth time in modern history, says D. Scott Bennett, a Penn State political scientist, one country has launched a "preventive war" against another.

"Preventive war" has a specific definition: "One country goes to war with another," says Bennett, "because they anticipate that a conflict is likely to come some time in the future but fighting the war now is better than fighting it later." The classic example was when Japan, anticipating eventual conflict with the United States in the Pacific and fearing growing American military strength, attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. (The other examples, Bennett says, are Germany's attack on Russia in World War I and Israel's on Egypt in 1956.)

Similarly, Bennett says, President Bush justifies his attack on Iraq because he says Saddam Hussein will only become more dangerous. Better to hit him now.

If all goes well - a quick outcome, the uncovering of weapons of mass destruction - Bush's risk will pay off. "The debate about whether this was the right decision will be silenced," says Alex Roland, a Duke University historian and Vietnam veteran.

If the war goes badly, however, the second-guessing and protests will grow. "After a war begins, there is always a rallying around the flag," says Bennett. "But we also know in every war we've seen in American history, the popularity of the war and the popularity of the president goes down and dissatisfaction goes up."

For the moment, few have even adjusted to the idea that we are again in a full-fledged conflict, with all that that entails. Ironically, the attempted killing of Hussein Wednesday night, more than any other episode in the lead-up to this conflict, provided the most tangible reminder of what war visits on human beings.

Death.

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