On Monday, in Saudi Arabia, an American military officer briefed the media on the latest wave of bombing missions being carried out amid good weather, and he proclaimed it "a beautiful day for bombing." On Tuesday, at the Pentagon, another ranking officer briefed reporters on that day's air missions and said, "Today is a healthy day for bombing." On Wednesday, the war and the official tenor of remarks about it changed, perhaps forever.
No longer was the war "beautiful" or "healthy" or wondrously remote in the sense of a high-tech electronic game where targets disappear in magic puffs of smoke that leave no signs of damage or human suffering. This now was war as it always has been -- brutal and violent and dirty, engendering cries of hatred and vengeance and stirring the kinds of passions and controversies that have marked warfare through the ages.
Even before the televised scenes from Baghdad of charred bodies at the air raid shelter/military command and control bunker were instantly transmitted worldwide, it was clear that the war was entering a new and more difficult stage.
By cruel coincidence, news of the bombing raid and its heavy losses came as the war was entering its fifth week, signaling that initial soaring hopes for a quick and easy victory were misplaced. In the buildup to war, the American people were led to believe that this conflict could be completed swiftly. Members of Congress such as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a distinguished World War II combat veteran, returned from inspection tours and briefings by top commanders in the Persian Gulf region and expressed belief that war, if it came, could be won in a mere four days.
President Bush and other high-ranking officials did attempt to dampen unfounded expectations of a painless, quick war. But many administration officials contributed to those high expectations, while key strategists predicated war planning on a crucial assumption: that the battle would be completed relatively quickly.
They brimmed with confidence. This, it was said repeatedly, was not going to be "another Vietnam" where troops were committed incrementally over years yet often restrained by civilian leaders from utilizing the nation's full military might. This time, the world's greatest military power was prepared long before actual combat. Targets on the desert sands and surrounding bodies of water were carefully selected, and a strategy of massive coordinated attacks was in place.
In congressional debates on authorizing war, which took place last month but already seem to have occurred years ago, numerous voices expressed caution about prospects for an easy victory. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said no one could predict how long the war would last. It could end in five days, he said, or five weeks or five months. The one certainty, he and others contended, was that the unforeseen would occur -- that the United States would face its hardest task after the war as an inevitable wave of anti-Americanism was ignited throughout the Muslim world. The likely prospect of civilian casualties was cited.
Those and other concerns were forgotten instantly amid the euphoria that flourished after only one night of war. The lightning allied air attacks, carried out with high success, great skill and astonishingly scant or ineffectual response from Iraqi defenders, fed the public readiness to believe that quick victory really was possible. So did the confident, even cocky, appearances by U.S. military briefers who presented daily images of modern warfare -- sanitized, bloodless and featuring "smart" weaponry performing with surgical skill and with no "collateral damage" to civilians and non-military targets.
Wednesday's bombing attack shattered those illusions. Now the nation grapples with the kinds of terrible questions that are the lot of every war. It must worry about civilian losses, about the wisdom of striking heavily populated areas, about the media's role in reporting from behind enemy lines, about propaganda emanating from both Baghdad and Washington and about accepting the need for even dirtier, more brutal ground warfare. It also must fret about accelerating the combat timetable even as dissent increases among the allied coalition, the Arab world and within the United States itself.
The war is not neat, tidy or predictable, and no one should ever have thought it would be. This war, like each of its predecessors, is testing America's nerve and will force the nation to deal with its consequences for many years.