We Have Been Here Before

`THEY have the blitz mentality,'' the British official was saying into the camera the other morning just as we tuned into the television news. He was so understated in his manner that it took a moment to realize that in the context, the ``blitz mentality'' was probably a very useful thing to have. The spokesman was referring to his foreign service compatriots at their embassy in Kuwait, where they are holding out against Saddam Hussein's efforts to close them down on the grounds. He insists that as part of Iraq, Kuwait needs no embassies.

If the traditions of folk memory can sustain people under pressure, surely those British diplomats have quite a bit to draw on. Fifty years ago Nazi bombs were raining down upon London in a blitz that would go on from the autumn until the following May, as Britain stood alone against Hitler. There were no American allies then, and wouldn't be until after Pearl Harbor.

The Cabinet War Rooms, the secret complex under Great George Street in Westminster, whence Winston Churchill conducted his small wartime Cabinet, have been restored as they were and opened to the public. A visitor there comes away with the authentic whine of the air-raid siren in his ears, and likely an eerie feeling of similarities between the situation of Europe as World War II was about to engulf it and the current crisis in the Middle East.

Generals, as they say, are always looking to fight the last war over again. Britain came out of what was then known as the Great War fearing, after the German Zeppelin raids of that conflict, that the next big war would be fought from the air. So it proved to be. And it appears a Gulf war would be largely an air war.

The Cabinet War Rooms feature a gas mask or two - mercifully, gas wasn't used in World War II, but people prepared for it as they are preparing for it now in the Middle East.

Reservists were being called up. And although they didn't speak of ``hostages'' in those days, waves of displaced people were a familiar sight. ``It was a war of suitcases,'' the voice in our headsets observes as we come upon a modest tan suitcase lying on one of the Spartan beds in the underground complex.

And let's not think the placing of civilians, particularly women and children, at risk is some awful meanness unique to Saddam. The goal of Hitler's blitz of London, we are told, was to hit enough women and children to undermine morale and ultimately the whole war effort. To the great credit of the British, the blitz did nothing of the kind.

A war in the Gulf would be a television war, as Vietnam was. But World War II was fought over the airwaves too. Shakespeare showed us Henry V encouraging his troops one on one on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. Churchill - and George VI, too - rallied a whole people by radio.

Our secret communications technologies had antecedents during World War II. The scrambling technology developed for the hot line between Churchill and Roosevelt was a major breakthrough using electronics which are the basis of today's digital systems. (That said, however, we should note that the main scrambler of that system was so large it had to be hidden in the basement of Selfridge's department store on Oxford Street, a mile away.)

Those who did not live through World War II continue to wonder of those who did, How did their hearts not break?

If we see parallels in all this, we certainly see models not to repeat as well. George Bush and Margaret Thatcher are clearly trying hard not to be Neville Chamberlain.

(However, the discovery at an English country house a few days ago of an air ticket from his Munich trip provided the occasion to air a revisionist view that signing away Czechoslovakia gave Britain a bit of breathing room to prepare for the real fighting.)

Surely a younger generation in the Congress and elsewhere will try to ensure that Saudi Arabia does not become another hotter, drier Vietnam. We must take care that whatever alliances we may make of the moment to try to resolve one conflict do not sow the seeds of another.

We must learn not to let hatred of one enemy blind us to the dangers posed by another. And we must learn that it is not enough to let a situation deteriorate and force us into the least evil of a narrow range of choices we should have been seeking to broaden.

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