A Flag From the Old Order

THE American flag outside our house has been put up at dawn and taken in at dusk every day since the war against Iraq began. The flag has 48 stars.

It is a family flag, from the days of the old order. It flew at my boyhood home in Detroit when World War II ended, celebrated by the kids on the block by banging kettles and pot lids at passing, honking cars on Seven Mile Road on the east side, and for national holidays thereafter.

It also flew as a welcome after long absences. ``Put out the flag!'' someone would say.

It would be flying, I was sure, when I rode my bike home from Boston after my sophomore classes. It was a trek my family did not want me to hazard but which they would not oppose. The last day, after 130 miles across Canada in 100-degree heat, I paused on the crescent of the Ambassador Bridge: The Detroit River was deep blue; the downtown, not yet rubbled by the '60s riots, shimmered in the summer heat. Then I pushed on for the last few miles. Sure enough, there was the flag, and friends' and family's c ars, and a homecoming dinner in the yard under the apricot tree. When the folks were gone, the flag came to my house, along with a handmade mahogany stool, my father's cider press, and some of mother's crystal.

A neighbor has girdled a tree with a yellow ribbon. Another has added a touch of yellow on a still-hanging holiday wreath.

Here and there, quietly, Americans show they are thinking about the war. It is not patriotism, exactly. Polls show two-thirds of the public want to see not just Kuwait liberated but Iraq's Saddam Hussein defeated and humiliated. But Saddam is not a natural enemy of the United States. Americans do not recognize themselves as the infidels Saddam calls them. His imprecations sound crazy. The logic to Americans is that Saddam does not belong in Kuwait and should get out. President Bush was right: Waiting lo nger would only have prolonged the reckoning. Saddam would not listen.

Americans are not good at keeping enemies. Their own psychological history with the Indians, the Spanish, Asians, has not been good. But Americans are mostly future-oriented. They are led alternately by ideals of equality and of self-fulfillment. They have no abiding place for devils: Witness the quick evaporation of cold-war attitudes toward the Soviets.

Saddam is the enemy chiefly in the sense that he is compelling the coalition forces, our own young men and women, to kill and be killed. He would not govern himself. He is compelling others to discipline him. Saddam must go.

What has Saddam achieved? He could not draw Israel into the conflict to split the coalition. The Soviet Union could not be drawn away from the United Nations position. Nor could China. Iran and Syria are waiting to share the spoils of the outcome. So is Turkey. Jordan could quickly disintegrate.

Bush has been the instigator of the UN disciplinary expedition, no doubt about it. His attitude fits an American vein that strikes many in the world as self-righteous, obnoxious. ``Why does the United States think it is right all the time, that it has all the answers, that it can tell others what to do?'' a European friend protests. What some see as moral global leadership, others see as criminal, intrusive arrogance.

Bush has kept the coalition together. The British, French, Egyptians, Saudis, and others have been given significant roles in the fighting. They will be there at the table when it is over. The US position in the region will be strengthened. But the Arab world will have been split more deeply. And Bush and America will be anathematized.

A new world order? Improved human rights and democratic self-government in the Fertile Crescent and Arabian Peninsula?

Or will simply greater force again have prevailed? Will the UN find a new usefulness, or will it lapse back into its function as a huge, labyrinthian ear erect on New York's East Side?

Americans are ambivalent about the war. They hear what the military and foreign policy analysts say about the significance of the outcome.

Oil? Do we need the oil? Conservationists argue that easy energy-saving steps could compensate for the supply from the region under siege.

It is not a necessary war, the public feels, but we are in it. It will be over. Soon, we hope. We have to look ahead to the reunion for what survives. The new order must include what we have loved from the past.

Put out the flag.

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