Americans Hunker Down

This isn't Grenada, this isn't Panama and it isn't the Super Bowl, either. It's war, the real thing, and it's going to last for a while. Time and again--in news flashes from the Persian Gulf and in plain talk from Washington, D.C.--that message was driven home to the American public last week. Dick Cheney and Colin Powell said it in their joint briefing to the restive Pentagon press corps. George Bush implied it in his comments from the White House. And Marlin Fitzwater, the president's ever-earnest press secretary, said it most directly of all. "There are going to be ups and downs, there are going to be enemy victories, there are going to be enemy surprises, there are going to be days when we'll see allied losses," Fitzwater said. "We need to get into a frame of mind that allows us to accept those reverses and surges. We need to get on kind of an even keel in terms of our public psyche."

Hunker down, America. The spectacular successes of the first few days--of war-as-video game and of an enemy too confused or too incompetent to fight back effectively--were over. Slowed by a combination of bad weather and artful defensive tactics by the Iraqi high command, the jaunty dominance of the allied air offensive seemed to be bogging down in a blur of conflicting perceptions. The military numbers game--sorties flown, targets hit--competed in the public mind with dramatic images like those of frightened, obviously brutalized POWs who parroted clumsy propaganda lines at the command of unseen interrogators. Total-immersion television coverage offered little more than tight-lipped generals, evasive flacks and reporters getting shirty with the brass. Are we ahead or are we behind, and how do we know the score? The daily visuals--Scuds in Tel Aviv, Scuds in Saudi Arabia, Patriot missiles streaking upward in the gloom--looked awful, whether or not they had military significance.

On the home front, at least, all wars eventually become background noise of a dreadful sort. You do what you have to do -- answer the phone, take out the garbage--with one ear on the media and your mind on the business at hand. So many prisoners, so many airstrikes, so many MIAs. You wait, simultaneously hopeful and anxious, listening for news of distant events (a new offensive, some diplomatic breakthrough) that may or may not be decisive. The war is going pretty well, not so well or maybe just going on. Bit by bit and little by little, the gulf conflict was headed that way last week. The first rush of euphoria was over and the watching nation, to judge by the latest "Newsweek' Poll, was taking Marlin Fitzwater's advice: fully 63 percent of a national sample said the war would probably last several months, and only 11 percent still believed it would be over in a matter of weeks. That was indisputable evidence of the national hunkering down: just one week earlier, according to "Newsweek's' previous surveys, 44 percent of the public thought the war would end more quickly.

The operative and all-important question was, where was Saddam Hussein? What was he up to, what did he want, how would he play the few cards in his hand? There seemed little question that the Joker of Baghdad had more tricks up his sleeve. Allied fears of some sort of "rope-a-dope" strategy--a shrewdly timed kamikaze attack by the unseen Iraqi Air Force, for example--were rising. The White House, meanwhile, deemed Iraq's first ventures in public-opinion manipulation to be hearteningly dismal failures. The POW footage, like Saddam's ghoulish appearance with the children of hostage families last fall, instantly backfired, at least in the West. The ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory seemed destined to fail, too. And the tactical decision to release what may yet become history's biggest oil slick--an environmental catastrophe that made the Exxon Valdez spill look like a Sierra Club nature walk--was a public-relations disaster for Saddam. "We couldn't count on a better script to define an enemy," said a senior White House staffer. "The guy's done everything we need."

Done everything, that is, except to give George Bush what he wants most of all: a quick, relatively painless victory in the gulf. After almost two weeks of ducking and shadowboxing, Iraq seemed surprisingly well prepared to drag the United States and its allies into a longer war--a war that Saddam Hussein could not possible win, but one that nevertheless could produce high casualty figures and test American resolve. That was evident in the emerging pattern of Saddam Hussein's countertactics--the mixture of propaganda, terrorism and cunning refusal to meet the technological superiority of the West head-on. It suggested that Saddam's true strategic targets were the hearts and minds of Americans back home--the national will or, as dictators have always seen it, the soft underbelly of democracy. You Americans, as they like to say, have no stomach for war.

Saddam Hussein may yet find out whether that is true--and so may George Bush, and so may all the rest of us. From Washington last week came clearer signals that the Bush administration intends to destroy Iraq's offensive military power. That seems to be at least some escalation in what was once a war of limited aims--forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and restoring the Kuwaiti government. It means that George Bush, like his adversary, is prepared to go to the limit. The implications for allied military strategy may or may not be significant: it is up to Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Desert Storm, to find a path to victory that avoids the horrendous casualties of an assault on the dug-in Iraqi forces defending Kuwait. But Schwarzkopf--and Bush--may be forced to choose between a quick war and a costly war. Grinding down the Iraqi Army with air power alone could take months. Victory on the ground, on the other hand, would well raise U.S. and allied casualty totals into the thousands.

That now is the ultimate question: how many lives is the nation prepared to spend to stop this dictator in this distant war? There are parallels from the past. In Korea and Vietnam, U.S. public opinion swung decisively against the war when total casualties (wounded and killed combined) reached approximately 50,000. Saddam Hussein, biding his time and protecting his military assets, is gambling that history will repeat itself. Bush, for his part, clearly believes the Iraqis can be beaten without reviving the ghosts of Vietnam. But that too, is a gamble. It is a gamble for Bush himself, for the notion of America as world policeman and for all the men and women who now stand in harm's way in the Persian Gulf. And last week, one could surmise, Saddam and his commanders were trying to devise new and terrible ways to raise the stakes.


86% Approve 12% Disapprove

..CN.- Now that the United States has taken military action against Iraq, do you think the fighting will continue for:

Current 1/17-18 Current 1/17-18 Just a few days 1% 6% Several months 63% 36% A matter of weeks 11% 38% A year or more 18% 7%

For this "Newsweek' Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed a national sample of 751 adults by telephone Jan. 24-25. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. Some "Don't Know' and other responses not shown. The "Newsweek' Poll 1991 by Newsweek Inc.