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Jewish World Review March 20, 2002 / 7 Nisan, 5762

Bob Greene

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The tunnel at the
end of the tunnel | This time we were told about the tunnel -- but no one promised any light, at the end of it or anywhere inside it.

It is the biggest single difference in how Americans were prepared for this war -- the biggest single difference between the war President Bush is presiding over, and wars that some of his recent predecessors were in charge of waging.

The deaths of American military combat helicopter crews in Afghanistan brought into sharp focus the contrast between what citizens at home have been led to expect about the war, and what citizens in previous post-World War II conflicts were advised to expect. It's a striking change.

President Bush and his advisers, from the first day, have told Americans: This is going to be long. This is going to be difficult. There will be casualties -- perhaps many. Victory will be elusive. The only phrase the president did not use to characterize the coming war was "endless" -- but he might as well have. In the days after Sept. 11, he stopped just short of preparing the country for a war without end.

And what has happened? The country -- at least so far -- seems to have accepted the sober prognosis, and endorsed it. In retrospect, it might have been seen as an enormous gamble. Recent U.S. presidents have been hesitant to deliver bad news -- or at least the prediction of bad news -- to the country. Optimism, wrapped in the jauntiest verbiage, has been the rule in most White Houses since the mid-20th Century.

So after the United States was attacked on that September Tuesday, the president would have been following the form of previous leaders had he said something like:

"A great nation has been challenged by a small band of radicals. We will respond with such force and might that all Americans will soon be able to tell their children that the world is safe and secure again. We will be swift, and we will be unrelenting. We look forward to the day very soon when those responsible for these terrible acts have been vanquished. We will find them and be rid of them, and America will again prevail."

Instead he said to prepare for long and uncertain times. Instead he made no promises about when this might end. And so far it seems to have been a brilliant decision. It is tempting to ask oneself:

What if, during the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson -- and John Kennedy before him, and Richard Nixon after him -- had made the same decision? What if -- during that light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel period of U.S. history -- the commanders-in-chief had promised not victory, but long years of darkness and death? Would their frankness with the citizens have helped their cause?

It's tempting to ask that -- but the parallels are inexact. President Bush found himself thrust into a conflict that was much easier for Americans to endorse than Vietnam was. Had Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon shared their worst fears for that war with the American people, the response might have been: Then don't do it. Get out now. It's someone else's fight.

Then, the talk was of dominoes falling -- the political phrase to try to explain to the American people why an enemy must be stopped in Southeast Asia. What fell on Sept. 11 was not dominoes -- what fell was the World Trade Center, in full and uncensored view. Whatever President Bush said would likely have been cheered by the nation.

Still, his choice was a remarkable one. Instead of pledging glory, he warned of clouds as far as the eye could see. What he said in those first days is what makes it difficult for his political adversaries to succeed in questioning him now. When Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle challenged the direction and speed of the war effort, he didn't seem to get very far with it. The war is dragging on? If that's what Daschle was charging, it was no different from what the president had said was going to happen.

Presidents during the Vietnam era hit their lowest points in the public's esteem when the war effort seemed to turn into what was called a "quagmire." This time, President Bush all but announced at the start: A quagmire is coming. It was a strategic decision that will probably be studied for centuries: the unveiling of the tunnel, the preclusion of the light.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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