War Effort: Seen and Unseen

Americans could view the $388 billion omnibus spending bill that President Bush signed this week as another late-arriving colossus typical of Washington's federal budget process.

Or, they could see it for the telling message it sends about sacrifices Americans are now being required to make for the war on terrorism: $1 billion less for public housing projects, for instance, or $225 million less in anticrime grants to states and localities.

Interestingly, this bill, which funds all of the government's departments except for the Pentagon and Homeland Security, is one of the most austere domestic budgets in a decade. It even includes an across-the-board spending cut of at least 0.8 percent. The restraint, of course, is necessary to pay for the nearly $50 billion increase in the military and homeland defense budgets.

After three years of fighting a war on terrorism, Americans - through the 2005 budget - are now contributing in a tangible way to the war effort, even if they're not aware of the connection.

Because 9/11 launched an atypical war, "sacrifice" for Americans has been hard to define. The government has not called on the public to endure rationing, collect scrap metal, or buy war bonds. Days after the terrorists hit the Twin Towers and Pentagon, President Bush said he hoped ordinary Americans would have to make "no sacrifice whatsoever."

But the sacrifices are accumulating. US families have lost nearly 1,300 men and women to the war in Iraq, and the number of US troops wounded there is approaching 9,800. At least 150 US troops have been killed and more than 400 wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom, fought mostly in and around Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, communities and employers are stretched by absent National Guard and Reserve troops. Other hardships include a general anxiety about safety and travel; a barricaded nation's capital; and on the pocketbook side, higher interest rates, growing deficits, a falling dollar (which means more expensive imports) - all related, at least partly, to 9/11.

More still will be required of Americans - in human and dollar terms. Ports and nuclear and chemical facilities are underprotected, as is passenger-airplane cargo. And when will the US wean itself from foreign oil?

The president speaks often of sacrifice - mostly related to the US military, and what Americans can do to better support the troops. These are voluntary actions that can bring a country together. The longer the war goes on, however, the wider the circle of sacrifice. At some point, the president may find he needs to rally the country more broadly.

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