A Ground War

CONGRESS'S debate on the use of force in the Persian Gulf was an exemplary moment for participatory democracy in America. Its outcome helped create the support necessary for the troops now fighting bravely on Gulf sands. But deliberation about the war - its conduct, its aftermath, and its meaning - did not end in Congress; it persists, as does the war itself. So far, war in the Gulf has been waged mainly in the air. As a result, the war is still somewhat abstract and relatively painless for most Americans. Few coalition lives have been lost. Americans are going about their daily affairs, preparing for Valentine's Day, while halfway across the world 50,000 air sorties have unloaded on Iraq and Kuwait a near-Armageddon of firepower.

The White House hopes the air war can so immobilize Iraq that it won't be necessary to fight the bloody ground engagement Saddam Hussein wants. The US hopes for a limited war - an air war with a ground-force mop up.

A major ground war could change matters substantially. Public questions that have so far been contained by numbing air strikes may be reopened. Americans would have to come to terms with the deeper issues regarding the cost and the nature of the Gulf war. How many lives is the liberation of Kuwait worth?

The cacophony of experts examining tactical Gulf issues has masked Saddam's own question: Can the US take 10,000 losses in a single battle?

These issues bear on the trip Gen. Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Cheney are taking to Saudi Arabia this week. They'll confer with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who has stated many times his determination to keep American casualties to a minimum. Current strategy is aimed at assuring that Saddam's question won't come up.

But ``body bags'' - a term politicized in the Vietnam - are in the ground war lexicon. They mean war is no longer an abstraction. A specific sacrifice is being made by fellow men and women, and this sacrifice must be made for something held sacred. The human cost on both sides of the conflict should be considered.

Has the talk of a ``new world order,'' and of the clear need to resist aggression, made the case for moving to the next stage in the war? Americans are at bottom a religious people. They have bled to free slaves and stop Nazis. They need a high ideal.

Yet shifts in the Gulf crisis have kept everyone off balance. First the troops were in Saudi Arabia for defensive reasons, then for offensive. In December, peace looked possible; then it didn't. The war itself shifts: One day it appears quickly winnable, another day it looks like an ugly slog. Some now feel Saddam's troops are shell-shocked and demoralized and won't stand an assault. Others say the bombing hasn't had much effect on his elite Republican Guard.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, economic factors, impending hot weather and sandstorms, and air supremacy are circumstances pushing for a ground war. Yet circumstances alone shouldn't dictate. Perhaps there is wisdom in continuing the air war - cutting off Iraqi troop resupply - along with sanctions.

The signals from Washington in the next days are key. A shift to a ground war may be the most important decision Mr. Bush makes in his presidency. Even Republican leaders voice concern. The ground war touches coalition troops, Iraqi troops, Arab sentiments, and opinion at home.

In order to fulfill US responsibilities in the Gulf, during and after the war, more thinking and praying about what a ground war will mean must be done. As Abraham Lincoln told Baltimore Presbyterians in 1863: ``Amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance on God....''

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