The Line in the Sand : The Fate of Kuwait and Beyond : 'I Go Hours Feeling Nothing But Pride, Then I Get Fear'

"Oh Lord, by this meal you bring us together in joy and peace. Keep us always united in your love. And Lord, one other thing. Please watch over our beloved Marc, who is somewhere in the desert today. Please keep him safe from harm. Please don't let him be killed in the war. Amen."

Amen. Most years, it would have been Marc, the oldest of the four children, who carved the turkey, but this year Grandpa Powers did the honors. Like 250,000 other GIs, Lance Cpl. Marc Langlois of Coral Springs, Fla., was poised for battle halfway around the planet.

Thanksgiving was such an odd holiday this year, that hole at the table so filled with emptiness. Grandpa wished it were him in the desert instead. And Grandma said she'd go, too. She'd pull out that fellow Saddam Hussein's mustache with a tweezers, a hair at a time.

Donna Langlois, Marc's mom, got weepy. She is famous for that. "I go hours feeling nothing but pride, then I get a fear that runs up and down what I call my motherhood bone," she said, her thin voice choking to a trickle. "Like at that very instant he's dead. Or hurt. Or made not whole."

Imagine it, Marc over there in the Persian Gulf. Marc, who thinks sand is a good place to spread out a beach towel and hoist a volleyball net. What a scary and unpredictable world this is. They say 20,000 Americans could die in just the first few days of combat. The idea of it just stops a person cold.

How has this happened, just when things had finally looked so good? Hadn't the world finally learned to talk instead of fight? Isn't that what these past two years had been about, the Cold War over, the superpowers shaking hands, pockets replenished with a dividend of peace?

All the isms had become wasms, or at least they did not seem to matter so much. The nuclear death-march had taken an about-face. The world had passed some threshold into a new order of nations. One scholar had even dared to say it was "the end of history" the way people had previously known it.

The "end," it turns out, was only a pause. There may well be a new order to the world, but the thirsts for wealth and power go unslaked.

Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein understood that geopolitical shifts had left a void in the Middle East. For half a century, the Soviets and Americans had competed relentlessly in that part of the world, as they had everywhere else.

Now the two had patched things up and were otherwise preoccupied. Saddam supposed he would be left to do as he pleased--and his craving was to swallow his neighbor Kuwait, a feudal state run by a family of multibillionaires. He would then control the spigot on 40% of the region's oil. Who would dare to stop him?

But Saddam has been surprised. The oil he so covets has become a glue that bonds the world against him. A tidal moment in the post-Cold War era is at hand, the global community united in purpose if unsure of tactics.

War is only a shot away. In the raw heat and numbing cold of the desert, Americans assemble beside Brits and Saudis and Syrians and Pakistanis. Nations have urgent choices to make. Some send troops, some money, some neither.

For his part, President George Bush has become the draftsman of a line in the sand. He is personally offended by the Iraqi aggression--and pragmatically alarmed at what it may mean to the wheels of commerce. There may never again be such a thing as cheap oil, whether the cost is in dollars or blood.

The crisis is Bush's crucible. Always, he has seemed such an odd mix of pedigree and ambition, a nondescript figure even after 30 years of public life. He appears to blend with everything, like a primary color.

Yet now, he has found a great cause that steels him. It is Bush versus Saddam, each waiting for the other to flinch, the old-line, in-the-chips Ivy Leaguer and the peasant-born, gun-toting Butcher of Baghdad.

At their command are ordinary soldiers, men--their moms would call them boys--such as Marc Langlois (pronounced LAYNG-loyz). He is tall and blond and 21, just now coming into the broad daylight of his life.

He has never been outside the country before. His family is overcome with worry. He has been able to call home only once in three months. "Don't waste time crying, Mom," he began. "I think this call costs $7 a minute."

They spoke for an hour and a half. Donna was afraid he would say: Please, get me out of here. And what would she do then? But he was all Marine.

"We have to stop the Iraqis right here or they'll be in Florida before we know it," he said. "And if I have to shoot people and blow up buildings, I'd rather do it here than back home."

That was so much like Marc. Thanksgiving afternoon, the family could hear him as if he were there. Tough-guy Marine. The proud and the few.

"You know, I begged him not to go," Grandma said, nodding at the memory of enlistment.

And so had Donna. A year before, mother and son had argued at that same dining room table, now covered with a turkey feast for eight.

Marc had enlisted. That is what he had always wanted, but after graduating from high school he had stayed around to help out. Donna, 45, is divorced. She runs the switchboard operation at a hospital. Money is tight.

Marc worked as a lifeguard. He went to junior college. He watched out for Heather, 14, the youngest, who has rheumatoid arthritis, which swells up her joints. He was her lifter and zipper-upper.

He felt guilty about the decision to leave. But it was time to go. The Marines offered him an education, in service and after. He had signed up for eight years, a commitment that hit his mother like a fist.

Eight years! His 20s would be gone, the time a young man spends going to college and finding a wife. "You wanted a Volkswagen and that Marine recruiter sold you a Cadillac," she repeated until Marc got really angry.

So Donna tried another tack. She said, "What happens if there's war?"

But that one was easy for him. "It's peacetime, Mom."

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