On Wednesday afternoon, two hours before the outbreak of hostilities in the Persian Gulf, Chuck Skaggs, 22, of Dale City, Va., finished up his paperwork at the Army recruiting office in Woodbridge, Va. A third-generation construction worker, whose grandfather had served in World War II and whose father had served in the '60s, Skaggs was absolutely clear on why he had just asked for "front-line combat infantry" training.
"I have always been taught, 'Defend your country at all cost,' " he said. "And if we can't help other people keep their freedom, what good are we?"
Skaggs' old-fashioned patriotism was very much on my mind as I walked to work later that night past posters reading, "Stop Bush's War Now."
Of course, the instant hostilities started, it stopped being "Bush's War" and became a cause to which the overwhelming majority of Americans instinctively rallied. After days and nights of tension during the countdown to the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, there was relief from the growing sense of frustration with the diplomatic "stiff-arm" Saddam Hussein had given to all proposals for a peaceful solution.
Just as oil prices dropped, instead of rising, on the news of war, American spirits rose, instead of sagging. An ABC News-Washington Post poll showed three out of four people approving the president's decision to delay no longer on the resort to force. The patriotic impulse was enhanced by the upbeat tone of the first Pentagon news briefings.
Welcome as that surge of emotion has been, reason cautions that harder times lie ahead -- and sterner tests for this nation's leadership.
Military strategists always assumed we could win the air war decisively. From all indications, that confidence was justified. But it will be several days at least until we know if the bombs and missiles have been effective enough to spare the allied armies in Saudi Arabia from the bloody task of uprooting the Iraqi forces entrenched in captured Kuwait. The attack on Israel last night threatens a wider war.
Each additional day of fighting will add to the controversy about the definition of "victory" for the anti-Saddam coalition. While Bush set the objective simply as the liberation of Kuwait and expressed the hope that "Iraq will live as a peaceful and cooperative member of the family of nations," it is by no means clear whether the forces in battle will tolerate Saddam Hussein's remaining in power.
Already, strong voices among American conservatives and supporters of Israel are arguing that it would be a travesty if he were allowed to salvage even a psychological victory as the ruler of Baghdad. But the overthrow of Saddam implies a conquest of Iraq -- a task the United Nations has never sanctioned and one which could entail far heavier casualties.
Beyond that, the question of a new strategic balance in the Middle East remains largely unaddressed. And so does the impact of this war on what Bush has called the "New World Order."
His Wednesday night Oval Office address was a disappointment, even to those of us who strongly agree with the president that the world could not tolerate naked aggression in an area as vital as the Gulf by a dictator with Saddam's ambition and arsenal.
The Bush speech was backward-looking, a rehash of the argument he already had won against those in Congress and the country who had, in good conscience, urged him to continue to rely on economic sanctions to bring Saddam to heel. It did little to clarify how and when we would consider the military action complete -- and what we want to see afterward.
Assuming that the armed forces of America and its allies do their job, the president and his administration will ultimately be judged on how well they fulfill three missions only they can perform:
First, they must lead in creating a stable balance of power in the Persian Gulf, dominated by nations less objectionable than Iran or our crypto-ally-for-the-moment, Syria, and secured by something other than a permanent and massive U.S. military presence in the region. And they must lead in addressing the too long postponed question of reconciling Palestinian rights with Israel's security.
Second, they must bring that wonderful concept of "New World Order" down to Earth before it is defined by political opponents in ways they would not like. Where do those economic powerhouses of Japan and Germany, so conspicuously on the sidelines in this struggle, fit into the NWO? How does Bush intend to induce them to play their part? That question must be answered, or Americans will be left thinking that our troops are the cops the world can summon whenever anyone is in a jam. And how about the Soviet Union? How long can we pretend not to see the increasing brutality of its internal policies?
Finally, the president and his administration must show their understanding of the American people's priorities by shifting as quickly as possible from targeting ammunition dumps and antiaircraft batteries to focusing on the evils here at home of hunger and homelessness, crime and drugs, illiteracy and disease.
The patriotism of a Chuck Skaggs and the sacrifices being made on the battlefields of the Middle East demand no less.