FIFTY years ago this month, a frighteningly small group of Englishmen dealt Adolf Hitler an astonishing blow that set back his plans for conquest and perhaps laid the foundation for the ultimate outcome of World War II. After occupying much of Europe, Hitler was poised to invade Britain. Before his armies could cross the English Channel, the Luftwaffe had to win control of the air.
Against the German planes, the British sent tatterdemalion squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes, piloted by young men sometimes just out of school, and in their late teens and early twenties.
Often they were caricatures of the upper-class Englishman, plummy-voiced, affecting languid poses, almost effete. But in thinking they could demolish them, the Germans made a terrible miscalculation.
For the young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force - ``The Few,'' as Churchill called them - blew the Luftwaffe out of the skies above southern England and won the Battle of Britain. An unconquered Britain became the staging base from which allied armies launched the invasion of Europe and went on to destroy Nazism.
George Bush is no Englishman but in a way he is cast from that same mold that spawned the Battle of Britain fliers. He too comes from the preppy, upper-class. He too fought as a fighter pilot in World War II, albeit in the Pacific.
He too can disguise with good manners and good nature a steely will and determination that causes his adversaries to miscalculate.
Saddam Hussein, the nearest thing to a Hitler of the 1990's, must today be ruing his miscalculation of George Bush's will. When he sent his stormtroopers into little Kuwait, Hussein must have been stunned at the swiftness of the American response in sending a small army to Saudi Arabia, and in mounting an international boycott of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein has learned the hard way that George Bush is no wimp. Now Hussein ponders his options. Does he invade Saudi Arabia, triggering an American military response? Does he strike through Jordan at Israel, uniting millions of Arabs behind him, but inviting terrible retribution from the Israelis?
Or does he simply hunker down, shielding his military installations with his foreign hostages, thinking he can outwait Bush, and that the American president does not have the right stuff to keep his army in Saudi Arabia for the long haul?
Americans are an impatient lot, and the most impatient among them are the news commentators beginning to ask whether the public will still support Bush if American soldiers are in Saudi Arabia six months, or a year, from now.
We'll have to see. If the security and price of oil is as important to the American national interest as George Bush says it is, he may have to take the unpopular step of basing American forces in Arabia permanently.
The United States has had divisions in Europe for more than 40 years. It has kept 50,000 troops in South Korea for decades. From both of those regions, the United States may soon be able to start withdrawing.
But perhaps it is Arabia's turn to play host to American forces, whose mission will be to protect the oil that fuels the industrialized world's economy.
We should not be fighting a land-war in the desert. But the ground troops would be the trip-wire that triggers air power against aggressors. With their long raid from bases in Britain to Qadaffi's headquarters in Libya, American air force pilots have shown their capabilities.
It is air power that the United States can best muster from its carriers and from bases in Saudi Arabia to defend the Gulf oil fields. It is air power, as the Israelis already proved in 1981 when they sent their planes against an Iraqi nuclear installation, that Saddam Hussein has most to fear.
In his initial response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, George Bush proved he has the right stuff. The right stuff may require him to convince the American public that American forces should stay in Arabia for a long time.