PORTLAND, ORE. — As I listen to the ongoing media debates and diatribes about US policy in the Persian Gulf, I sometimes hear echoes of a familiar voice. It's the voice of Walter Matthau portraying Professor Groeteschele in the 1964 film version of "Fail-Safe." The professor was never at a loss for an opinion as the crisis unfolded, and always delivered his conclusions with total self-assurance.
While much of the plot became outdated when the cold war ended, Mr. Matthau's character could walk off the screen right now and be a perfect guest for Chris Matthews, Larry King, or Fox News.
In situations where danger and uncertainty lurk, there's something compelling about bold, unequivocal advice. As politicians and military men in the film react with growing anxiety about the wayward American bombers heading for Moscow, Groeteschele offers his assessment without hesitation: "I think if the bombers get through, the Russians will surrender."
Undeterred by a hard-nosed but cautious General Black, the professor backs his hypothesis with rapid-fire assertions: "The Russian aim is to dominate the world. They think that communism must succeed eventually if the Soviet Union is left intact. They know that a war would leave the Soviet Union utterly destroyed. Therefore they would surrender."
Sounds like an open and shut case. Or does it?
The same kind of measured, interlocking logic can be found in almost every current discussion about fighting terrorism and bringing stability to Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics say we didn't send enough troops to maintain control of the rebuilding phase. Others say a bigger military force would make our intentions look more sinister and spark new opposition.
Does anyone really know what the locals are thinking? Some pundits claim they want us to stay but are afraid to say so. I've also heard reports about average Iraqis who are cooperating with the occupation by just putting on a good act, so the Americans will hurry up and leave.
And when should we leave, anyway? Setting deadlines and schedules is risky because the political damage can be huge if they don't pan out. But open-ended commitments such as "We'll stay as long as it takes" can easily be spun into simpler, scarier terms such as "quagmire." For every viewpoint on every issue these days, there are real-world versions of Professor Groeteschele. I'm a good listener, but much of the time I'm not sure who's telling the truth.
I did, however, discover one enduring truth in "Fail-Safe." It comes during an early scene, as two grizzled pilots are playing pool at an airbase in Alaska. One of them complains about how military life has changed, and says he doesn't know his crewmen anymore because they're constantly rotated around.
His pal says the policy is intended to eliminate personal feelings, and then adds a line that will never go out of date: "Everything's more complicated now."