LONDON -- "And how do the Americans feel about President Bush, sir?," the taxi driver asks as he picks up a passenger at Victoria Station. "I mean, are they really prepared to use force, do you think?" To judge from the coverage in the British press, there seems no doubt about the answer to that question.
This time, America is united behind a president who is, as the banner headlines here proclaim, "angry" and "stepping closer to war."
Some front page reports do not even hedge their assessments about the resolve of the president and of America. War is inevitable, these accounts from Washington say. The decision to strike and "flatten" Iraq has already been made, it is reported authoritatively, however inaccurate that proves to be. This time, the United States will not permit its national purpose to be thwarted.
Whether that is so, of course, no one can really say at this volatile and dangerous moment. But lurking behind all of the assured commentary about America's new purpose and reassertion of world leadership lies an old doubt: the memory of America's Vietnam experience and what impact that still holds on American life and action.
By curious historical coincidence, this summer of sudden world crisis, the first of the new post-Cold War era, comes amid several reminders of the painful past, both of its suffering, sacrifice and victory and of its irresolution, disharmony and defeat.
In London, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain is being celebrated. Posters throughout the city remind people of the horrors and glories of Britain during the blitz. Along with its extensive coverage from the Mideast, the British Broadcasting Corp. runs retrospective programs on Royal Air Force exploits that repelled Nazi attacks over Britain half a century ago.
This August too marks the 45th anniversary of the end of World War II with the surrender of Japan and triumph of allied forces. London abounds with reminders of that time in the form of monuments and memorials scattered across the city.
In Grosvenor Square, a bronze statue of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower surveys the contemporary scene. He's in uniform, hands on hips, striking a supremely confident pose, a sense Americans have not enjoyed much in recent years. In Westminster Abbey, tourists throng around the tablet set in the ancient floor commemorating the grandeur of Winston Churchill. A few feet away, embedded in the wall by the door, another tablet pays tribute to the valorous leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At the same time, no one here or elsewhere can escape the instant reminders of the current, far different crisis and of the infinitely more complex world that emerged from the wartime alliance perhaps being reborn in new formation to meet yet another threat to international stability and order. At noon, during the daily moment of silent prayer, visitors to Westminster Abbey are asked to pray for peace in the Middle East and for the safety of foreign nationals held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait.
On every corner, newspaper stands present the latest war zone bulletins in the almost humorously inflammatory style of Fleet Street. One arresting news poster in Trafalgar Square informs passersby of Iraqi intentions in dealing with downed western airmen:
Another, further whipping emotions, simply describes Saddam Hussein's hostage-taking as:
Nor does the war fever obscure longstanding doubts about American purpose and resolve. In some ways, the grim, new crisis only intensifies them.
Every day at 6 a.m., crowds begin forming outside the Drury Lane Theatre Royal to buy tickets to the smash musical and talk of London, "Miss Saigon." It's a powerful and disturbing rendition, in modern folk opera form, of the way America misunderstood and then betrayed the people it chose to defend but finally abandoned in Vietnam.
A penultimate, emotion-laden scene depicts the mad scramble of the final helicopter departure from the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon and the ignominious American withdrawal in 1975. It hits the audience with special force.
Wednesday's announcement of the first American call-up of reserves for military duty since the Tet offensive strengthens the Vietnam analogy. It's another reason why people like the taxi driver at Victoria Station are wondering about America's long-term willingness to employ both force and wisdom in another part of the world about which it still knows all too little and has made so many costly mistakes and misjudgments.