Our Wars, Our Selves

We have become conditioned to the quick, low-risk war. Could we endure anything more?

A Nation's Resolve

April 02, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

We've been at war only two weeks, and already it feels like months. Imagine what months of war - which the Bush administration is now prepping us for - will be like. Imagine what years of war would be like.

Many Americans can no longer conceive of so prolonged a conflict. How could they? They have no basis for comparison. The last U.S. conflict that continued for more than a few weeks was the Vietnam War, and that ended 28 years ago.

In U.S. history, that is a long gap between big wars. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came 23 years after the end of World War I. The Korean War began five years (five!) after World War II. And U.S. troops were introduced into Vietnam 12 years after hostilities ended in Korea. As Americans, we are now in the widest stretch between great wars since the 33 years between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

It's not that the U.S. military has been unoccupied since Vietnam. Americans have fought plenty, but never for very long. Granada, Panama, the First Persian Gulf war, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan - all were relatively brief encounters. While some of them entailed U.S. casualties, none brought the sort of trauma visited upon America during and after its major 20th-century wars.

The short wars have not involved the horrendous losses, sacrifices and social upheaval at home that occurred in the longer ones. The promise that the consequences will be relatively minor is what makes it even possible for presidents to wage small-scale wars. With the exception of Somalia - a bloody miscalculation - the small wars have been so quick and successful that they have barely endured in the consciousness of most Americans let alone inspired any kind of national soul-searching. The question is whether America could any longer sustain a more costly war.

Some have trouble believing that we could, short of a war for our very survival. "We wouldn't tolerate the type of prolonged war that we've had in the past," says Tom Schwartz, a Vanderbilt University historian who writes on U.S. foreign relations and policy. "We'd almost have to be fighting on our borders to imagine that type of prolonged war."

Our patience, if not our attention span, seems overmatched for a long conflict. We are primed only for the lightning action. Even now, viewership of the war news has sharply slipped and many have expressed frustration with the slower-than-expected U.S. attack on Baghdad. So far, in fact, most of the shock if not awe in the war has come from surprise that the war wasn't over by the end of the first weekend.

"The gulf war and various other interventions seemed to say that with high technology and without a formidable adversary, we could have short wars with relatively few casualties," says Robert J.S. Ross, a Clark University sociologist who writes on globalization. "Now, when we see Americans stalled for six hours, we see quote, unexpected, unquote, resistance, as if the Iraqis were supposed to be toys. Huff and puff and blow them away."

The sense that Americans will not tolerate a longer war has been memorialized in the term "the Vietnam Syndrome." The thinking is that Americans were so traumatized by the Vietnam experience - by the killing sustained and inflicted by Americans, by the social upheaval at home, by the war-related recession - that the only war we will accept now is one that entails little sacrifice.

That was far from the case in the prolonged conflicts of the nation's past. Those were grand national traumas that caused hardship for all parts of the population, effected permanent changes and dislocations and triggered self-analysis - sometimes wrenching - that the country seldom undergoes either in peacetime or in its brief conflicts.

The magnitude of the losses in the big wars was staggering. More than 290,000 Americans died on the battlefield in World War II with an additional 114,000 U.S. servicemen and women dying elsewhere. Every community in the country mourned the deaths of young men.

The scale of casualties was less in Vietnam - nearly 59,000 American dead - but enough to cast a pall across the country and prompt ever-deepening skepticism about the war's justification.

In the first gulf war, 382 Americans died (147 in battle). As grievous as those deaths were, few Americans in a nation of more than 280 million personally knew anyone touched by the losses. Americans were far, far more likely to know one of the 42,700 people killed in a traffic accident in 1991 than a soldier who died in the gulf war.

The longer wars brought home other hardships generally averted in our short wars. Schwartz says the heavy taxes of World War II caused the biggest redistribution of wealth in the nation's history. World War II also prompted shortages of goods at home and severe rationing. Vietnam also generated economic consequences, including a severe recession.

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