The Way We Think of War

THE heart that longs to feel that humanity is learning something over the centuries of history can take some comfort from the slowness with which the people are committing their soldiers to war. For some of our leaders, it is another story. President Bush has been overeager to surrender the question of war or peace to Saddam Hussein - ``It's his choice'' - to an extent that seems all the more illogical when we consider how many times the Iraqi leader has been called a madman.

But for the people, and thus for the Congress, the conviction that Saddam must be stopped has been coupled with the realization that stopping him militarily will cost lives. Oh, yes, there are some concerned more about a potential war's cost in tax dollars than about its cost in lives. Most, though, know that the price will be paid in individual lives, in sons and daughters. That it might take only relatively few of ``us'' to knock out a great number of ``them'' gives us no pleasure.

A visiting Arab diplomat in the office the other day observed, ``If you really got to know the Iraqi people, you would worry as much about them as you do your own people.''

To the extent that we have got to know them, through a number of means, not least of them the global village of around-the-clock television news, we do worry about them. We know of the immense sacrifices of the Iraqi people, and the Iranians, during an eight-year war. We know, too, of the fragility of the freedoms of the Baltic republics, trying to pull themselves out of the Soviet orbit. We are with them as they wave their banners and march through the main streets of places we barely know how to pronounce.

If the wave of democratization in Eastern Europe and elsewhere over the year-and-some-months has meant anything, it surely means that individual aspirations for self-determination can find expression almost anywhere, and that chains of oppression do break, or rust through.

Despite the reports of torture, continued mass violence, displacement, the value of the individual is clearly on the rise. Indeed, such reports wouldn't be so troubling if it weren't. Strugglers in the remotest villages half a world away make claim on our consciences. Who is my neighbor, Lord?

And so we might hope that war is about to price itself out of the market as a policy option. By the time the Tehran hostages were released, we knew them all by name. We have known the soldiers and sailors in the Gulf as individuals; we have watched their poignant goodbyes, we have seen them waving into the video cameras. If war breaks out, we will know the first casualties, at least, by name.

Saddam expresses doubt whether the American public has the heart for war, for the sight of body bags on the evening news. He is right that this is a certain vulnerability for the Americans, but it is also a strength of their system that it can afford to be as careful as it is with each life.

It was not ever thus. A century and a quarter ago, in his efforts to mold the dozens of German states into one Germany, Otto von Bismarck found war an acceptable tool. He picked fights with Austria and then France: Giving the Germans an enemy in opposition to which they could define themselves, he helped focus German national identity. But must war be the crucible of nationhood? (Could there have been a United States without a Revolutionary War?)

International politics in 19th-century Europe was a series of shifting alliances among Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. To his credit, Bismarck steered clear of war once he had his nation-state assembled. But in the main, warmaking was seen as what nations did, just as football teams play games against one another. It's enough to make one realize why the cold war, with its system of two deep-frozen power blocs, looked like progress: It was stable, at least.

If there is ever a time in which military victory would be a political defeat, it is now. Even if the American-led coalition defeats Iraq within a few weeks, as so many seem willing to predict, what kind of Middle East would we have afterward? One in which Syria and Iran enjoy new dominance? And where the United States is completely counted out as an honest broker?

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