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The Contract With Uncle Sam Has an Asterisk

Enlisting in the “peacetime” Army has to lead the list of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

The commercials would come on late at night when consumer resistance was low. The ads for the “Army! Navy! Air Force! Marines!” emphasized the useful skills you could obtain, the leadership qualities that would impress future employers and the camaraderie and fun you could find in the military.

Nowhere was the likelihood of real combat or actual death mentioned. But heck, I’ll bet those “ring-around-the-collar” commercials weren’t a hundred percent accurate either.

Now, volunteers in the U.S. armed services not only face actual combat in the Mideast, but they can’t even go home when their enlistment is up.

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Didn’t read the fine print, did they? Nope, they are stuck in service to their country for the duration. Not that America won’t be grateful to them when they come back:

Employer: “You got any skills?”

Combat Veteran: “I can defuse a poison gas canister and field-strip a howitzer.”

Employer: “Well, normally we’d start you on the hamburgers, but I guess you can move right up to the fries.”

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As has been pointed out numerous times, our peacetime Army is not representative of the nation as a whole. It is disproportionately poor and under-educated.

A few centuries ago, this would have been taken as normal, even desirable. Wars were seen as a way of “cleansing” societies of undesirable elements. Today, we don’t see it that way. Though a nice, drawn-out war would boost our economy.

There have already been a few stories: Gas-mask and bottled-water companies are doing fine. And high gas prices are helping the economies in states like Texas and Oklahoma. As we all know, the Great Depression of the 1930s was not really ended by anything Franklin Roosevelt did; it was ended by World War II.

Not that we can expect the same economic benefits from a Gulf war. It will be too short. Our President promises us this.

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George Bush’s optimistic assessment of the length of a Gulf war is based in part on geography and in part on Saddam Hussein’s inability to get replacement parts (assuming he does not already have them in stockpiles that we do not know about) and the assumption that all of America’s wonderful technological toys will work.

They won’t, of course.

In World War II, many American torpedoes simply bounced off Japanese ships. In Vietnam, rifles jammed. Today, when the toys have become even more complicated, it could be anything.

But don’t worry about the hardware. That is not our whole secret to victory. We have an ace in the hole: the American fighting man.

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The image of the American GI as superman--even after somewhat mixed reviews from Grenada and Panama--is persistent. I found it this week in an essay in a newsmagazine by an ex-Vietnam War correspondent, who wrote: “An army trained to take on the Soviet superpower should be able to beat--and beat quickly--a Third World force.”

Right. You bet. Those Iraqis are just a bunch of towel-heads, just like the North Vietnamese were just a bunch of monkeys in black pajamas. And our boys--trained to beat those big, strapping Russkies--will make mincemeat out of them. Yeah. Count on it.

Except that the Iraqis have the single most valuable combat tool: experience. You can say the eight-year Iran-Iraq war was fought by two stumble-bum armies, but there is no replacement for actual combat. Our men have had only training. The Iraqis have fought a modern war and survived.

But there is only one way to really find out who has the better army: war. And this is what George Bush is tilting for.

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In August, when he imposed sanctions on Iraq, he did not say four or five months was the limit of his patience. In August, he did not say sanctions had to work quickly or they would be abandoned. But he is saying that now.

He is saying it for a number of reasons, but the most important one is the need for Bush to wrest the initiative away from Saddam Hussein. So far, Saddam has been calling the shots. He invades. He lets hostages go one week. He makes threats the next week.

And our President must sit in the Oval Office and listen. Just like Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office and had to listen to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Waiting for sanctions to work makes George Bush feel passive and weak. And he will not tolerate that. He wants to seize the initiative even if he has to launch a war to do it.

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And, from his point of view, war must come relatively quickly if it is to come at all. By the end of next year, Bush must start actively campaigning for re-election. And he must have a resolution of this crisis by then.

George Bush has been in a war and has seen actual combat. So it is not possible for him to like war.

But it is possible for him to need one.


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