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War Games

Do we really know what we're in for?

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It would be nice to write about something other than war, but at the moment, that seems impossible.

Nerves are shot from here to Baghdad. My friend Larry Cox swears that a few nights ago, his heart nearly stopped while he was watching Channel 4 and Tom McNamara said that we were days away from war with Iran.

"Of course, this was the TV news in Tucson and he just had the wrong country, but my God--I thought for a minute somebody had told Bush that Iran had oil," he said.

The word of the Serbian assassination, however, was no mistake. You start to think, what next? Somebody firing on Fort Sumter. Or Pearl Harbor?

Meanwhile, up in the slickrock country, the tourist town of Moab has been roiled by news that the Pentagon's best new toy is called the Massive Ordinance Air Blast--MOAB for short. Jay Zuckerman, who lives up there, has been keeping his e-mail list current: "I can see the headlines now--Moab Kills Thousands."

Fortunately for the town's reputation--for the record, most local mayhem there involves incompetent mountain biking, collapsing salt domes and beer-related shootings during deer season--some wag realized that the letters could stand for "Mother Of All Bombs."

Cute, really, when you remember Saddam blustering back when about the Mother Of All Battles. Them are fightin' words in West Texas, and, by God, we're gonna whup him for 'em, even if it's taken a decade to get back to it.

Oddly enough, our government has managed to force the enemy to disarm before attacking him, which, when you think about, is a clever if not particularly manly tactic. Some people might call what the United States has been doing lately flat-out bullying, and, in fact, millions of people around the world and here at home are calling it just that. Not that the feelings of those Americans have the slightest effect on our president, who informed us the other night that his job is to protect us whether we like it or not from a man who might, make no mistake, have weapons of mass destruction.

Did you hear that? Weapons of mass destruction. (And why, by this logic, are we ignoring North Korea? Don't ask.)

All of which brings us to the most frightening headline of the last few weeks: "Bush Is At Peace With War." It's good to hear that the prospect of killing vast numbers of civilians and setting off a conflagration that will probably burn for decades isn't making him grumpy or sad. And why is Our Little Fella so fine? Because he reads his Bible every day.

We must assume, then, that either reading comprehension isn't his best subject, or that he concentrates on the bloodier-minded prophets and possibly the Book of Revelations. This is one problem with electing a Bible-beater president: Which Bible, exactly, is he beating?

So here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, gearing up for a war of vengeance with religious overtones--the sort of conflict that's made Northern Ireland great, that's making Israel and Palestine rich and happy even as we speak. But those places are small; the Muslim Middle East is big, and so are we. The whole world is likely to be sorry that our God-fearing leader didn't spend more time with the Gospels, or in a careful exegesis of, say, the short but instructive Book of Jonah. (There's more to it than the whale. Jonah wants to scorch the sinful city of Ninevah--located coincidentally in present-day Iraq--even after its people have repented. God declines to annihilate them. I once heard Father John Fowler, the former longtime rector of St. Michael and All Angels, preach a fiery antiwar, pro-compassion sermon on the just the last four words God speaks to Jonah, "And also much cattle." If only George W. had been there.)

Lately I've been reading not the Good Book, but accounts of the war in Vietnam--a rotten, defeatist pursuit, I am well aware. The most compelling one I've come across is Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore's and Joseph L. Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young. It's a riveting, meticulously researched account of the first major Air Cavalry action of the war, the battle of Ia Drang, in which more than 230 American soldiers were killed in a couple nightmare days in a hot, remote valley in central Vietnam.

The most frightening moral of this particular story is that both sides claimed victory--and meant it. The United States thought it had won at Ia Drang because the mobility and firepower of the big choppers helped our guys kill an incredible number of North Vietnamese; the North Vietnamese figured they'd won because they'd been able to engage U.S. forces, do significant damage, then disengage at will. (General Moore discussed the battle with the opposing North Vietnamese commanders 25 years later, and even saw their old battle plans.) That was all the North Vietnamese needed to win the long game, because they wanted the country way more than we did.

Do the Iraqis want Iraq more than we do? Certainly. Do they know it better? Undoubtedly. Do brave soldiers, superior technology and awesome firepower necessarily mean a clean, quick victory for the United States? See the Vietnam shelf at your library for the answer to that one.

The critical question, though, is whether we know what we want from the war we're starting. This is not me, liberal chick peacenik talking, but General Moore, who ends his book by saying that 58,000 lives later, some of the U.S. military had learned that the great military theorist Clausewitz had been right all along:

"No one starts a war--or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so--without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."

Pray for peace.

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