'This is no time to go wobbly'

Some Americans are getting impatient.

The polls and the press suggest that they are getting restless about the war and are looking for quick fixes.

It's not going to happen. President Bush has warned from the beginning that it is going to be a long war. "This is not," he said last week, "an instant-gratification war."

He has also warned that it is going to be a war different from any other that Americans have fought. This is not just because we are fighting shadowy terrorists rather than an easily identifiable foe. It is because this is a war that has been brought to the US homeland.

In World Wars I and II - and Korea, and Vietnam, and the Gulf War - Americans suffered terrible tragedy as loved ones were killed in combat far away. Never before have Americans seen thousands of their own killed by a foreign enemy on the American mainland. It is a new and understandably unnerving experience.

But others have done it and triumphed - notably the British, who survived not five weeks, but five years of Nazi assault on their island homeland during World War II. Which is perhaps one of the reasons the British are today America's sturdiest ally. They have been through it; they understand what Americans are experiencing, and what may yet lie ahead.

I was a schoolboy in London throughout those years, and my memories of the bombing and the destruction are vivid, but not ones of despair. Even in the darkest days, when we hunkered in waterlogged air-raid shelters through night after night of German bombing, and a German invasion across the English Channel seemed likely, I do not remember a single person in my family, or among our friends, or among people we met, who ever doubted that we would ultimately prevail. That was the spirit of the British people. As Winston Churchill, our wartime hero, wrote after the conflict: "Hitler ... misjudged our will-power."

In the early days of the war, Hitler tried to break this will with high-explosive bombs, then showers of incendiary bombs intended to burn London to the ground, then delayed-action bombs designed to disrupt and spread terror. In the latter days of the war, there were the V-I rockets you could see coming before their engines cut out and they spluttered to earth with their deadly payloads - then later the faster V-IIs, which exploded without warning. Parliament, and the king and queen, never fled London. Many thousands of civilians were killed, many thousands of buildings destroyed. Some parts of London, and other English cities, were flattened.

But despite the bombing and the hardships, the British remained cheerful and confident of the ultimate outcome. My father - at 40 years of age - was conscripted, and went off to spend three years in North Africa with Montgomery's Eighth Army. At home, the elderly men were recruited for the Home Guard. We schoolboys were signed up for the Army Cadet Force, and we drilled with ancient carbines. Homeowners surrendered their wrought-iron fences, which were melted down for the war effort. When the government asked for our aluminum pots and pans to make Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes, we gave. When our glass windows were blown out by bomb blast, we patched them up with rolls of black tar-paper.

Food was rationed, gasoline was nonexistent, and clothing coupons allowed us to have a new garment every few years. I seem to remember the meat ration being about the equivalent of 18 cents a week in the currency of those days. Eggs were in short supply, and an orange every six weeks was a special treat.

One of my mother's most anguished moments of the war was when a bomb dropped nearby at night and blew out one of our last remaining windows. We were safe inside a new kind of indoor air-raid shelter, basically a steel box in which you would remain until rescued if your house collapsed around you. The blast blew lethal slivers and shards of glass across the room, slashing a wall to pieces. But my mother's concern was the week's precious sugar ration, left in a small bowl on the dining room table. Alas, it was filled with glass, and had to be thrown away.

Such travails were inconsequential, compared with the losses of other families. But as the years went on, the British cheerily endured at home as the allies fought their way to ultimate victory.

In a much later conflict, the Gulf War, Britain's Margaret Thatcher enjoined at a critical moment: "This is no time to go wobbly."

They are good words to heed today.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.