War's Second Front: The Needy at Home

A HAND-LETTERED sign in the doorway of our local pharmacy bears a timely - and touching - message: ``Did you know that thousands of U.S. servicemen and women in the Middle East have no family for any love and support? You can help by taking part in `Project Send-A-Hug.''' The poster instructs participants to write a message inside a Valentine or other greeting card, then return the stamped envelope to the pharmacy, which will ``make sure it gets to someone serving in the Middle East.'' The last line reads, ``Thank you from everyone at CVS for helping the troops.''

The approach may be simple and naively homespun. But as war escalates in the Persian Gulf, the desire to ``help the troops,'' especially those with no close family ties, grows stronger. Current ads for the U.S.O. (United Service Organization) make similar appeals for outreach. ``You don't have to enlist to volunteer for the armed forces,'' one ad says. ``Volunteer your time. Your money. Your support for our armed forces in the Middle East.''

No one can underestimate the importance of charitable solicitations for troops abroad - and of caring responses to them. Yet as war becomes a national preoccupation, the danger mounts that those in need of emotional or financial support here at home will be forgotten. In the days since the United States launched the first attack on Baghdad, for instance, the homeless have all but disappeared from the news - although not from the streets.

War is always a distraction, necessarily reordering national priorities and diverting attention and money from issues close at hand. But it can also be a convenient way of changing the subject, of avoiding or putting on hold problems the nation would rather not deal with. Poor children? Crack babies? Education? Infant mortality? Affordable housing? Sorry, those are yesterday's issues, now rendered invisible and less affordable until a vague, postwar tomorrow.

So far, no one is predicting how quickly that tomorrow will come, although early hopes for a short war appear to be fading. For now, the incessant military pounding of Iraq is costing upward of $500 million a day. One congressional study estimates that a six-month war could cost $100 billion.

Even if that figure is too high, as some analysts insist, a huge question hangs over the Saudi desert and the nation's capital: How will we pay for Operation Desert Storm? Beyond vague murmurings about a special war tax, congressional leaders have offered no specific answers. Whatever the final Department of Defense tally, it almost certainly involves money that will not be available for already hard-pressed domestic programs.

Early last week, barely five days into the war, an exultant Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas observed that the conflict in the Gulf clearly shows that ``we are the major power in the world now militarily.'' Yet military superiority is of questionable value if the country's basic social infrastructure crumbles.

A few comparative figures speak volumes about national priorities. It took nearly five years for Congress to pass a $2.5 billion child-care bill. ``Too expensive,'' critics grumbled at the time. By contrast, it took only five days for the US military to blow up that amount in the Persian Gulf.

Similarly, an amount equal to the $2.1 billion annual budget for WIC, a widely praised food program that serves low-income pregnant women, infants, and children, disappeared in four days over the Middle East. And in just a little over three hours of Desert Shield maneuvers, the US military spent $66 million - the amount of the emergency fund Congress approved last summer to keep 250,000 poor mothers and their children on the WIC rolls.

War induces a state of either-or: Guns or butter was the way the choice used to be stated. But the destructive agenda of war cannot be allowed to replace totally the constructive agendas of peace, else what has the war been fought for?

A campaign of ``Send-A-Hug'' can begin with soldiers in the Gulf, yet it cannot end there. There are not enough hugs - or anything else - to go around for all the men, women, and children at home and abroad who are poorer, hungrier, and more isolated because of this war, or any war.

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