Winners and losers


THE GROUP of veterans marched down the street, and as they came into sight the crowd at the curb seemed to move forward to greet them, to hold them like a hug.

They were youngish men, and their camouflage clothes were as different from the neat uniforms of the other groups as their war had been from other wars. Beside me, an old man waved a flag.

"We're with you," he shouted, as though he were putting all our cheers into words, and then he added, "We should have let you finish what you started." And the smile froze on my face, and fell.

It was five years ago that those Vietnam veterans marched by on Memorial Day, but I've thought about that scene more than once in the last 40 days.

From the beginning, it has been difficult to publicly oppose this war, to express reservations or even to forgo the exuberant displays of national accord.

A basketball player at Seton Hall University who did not wear a flag patch on his uniform was heckled so relentlessly by fans that he quit the team and the school.

The editor of The Kutztown (Pa.) Patriot was fired, and while the owners said there were other reasons, the ax fell just after he ran an antiwar editorial with the headline "How about a little PEACE!" -- the last word in letters as big as your finger.

What amazed him afterward, he said, were the people who called him eager to talk geopolitics, as though they were all members of a sub rosa self-help group: Hi. My name is Joe, and I have reservations about the war in the gulf.

Reservations are not accepted. There were antiwar demonstrations.

But mostly there was the majority rallying around the president, and a silent minority, constrained by the atmosphere of high-octane Amerimania, a prettified second cousin of her "Love It Or Leave It" forebears.

Some of us were ambivalent, but we don't do ambivalence well in America. We do courage of our convictions. We do might makes right. Ambivalence is French. Certainty is American.

Some people say dissent is a matter of time, that opposition to Vietnam took years to build. But I believe it's a sign of the times instead.

America had become the Muhammed Ali of nations, battered by foreign competition, by a faltering economy, by domestic problems as big as our national ambition.

HTC In the last six months Americans saw themselves as the leaders of the world again, assured of their inherent greatness and the essential evil of the enemy.

But the line between such convictions and jingoism can be very thin.

Everyone talked about standing behind the soldiers even while deploring the policy. "Support the troops -- bring them home alive," one protest sign read.

But like my neighbor at the parade, letters to the editor columns in dozens of newspapers made clear that people believed the way to show support was to agree that the troops were engaged in a necessary and a noble enterprise. If not, keep quiet.

The cumulative effect was epitomized at a rally in California several weeks ago: as though they were in the bleachers, a bunch of boys were chanting, "We're Number One!"

When the Soviet Union stepped in as a dealmaker, our former dark star, our one-time evil twin, it was hard to bear, especially when the negotiations included Saddam Hussein's survival.

His face has been plastered on dartboards and ping-pong paddles, and his mustache has become an instant metaphor for evil.

The U.N. resolutions called for making him leave Kuwait.

The grass-roots agenda, forged over heady days of the United States leading the world to war, is to destroy him. It is an agenda that lends itself to ultimatums, not negotiations.

"We should have let you finish what you started," I keep hearing that man yelling.

Some of us believed that our national agenda in the gulf war was murky from the start. But it has grown ever clearer: We must win, and Saddam Hussein must lose.

Trouble is, it's not that kind of world, and this isn't that kind of war. Saddam could lose big and still be a hero in some parts of the region.

We could run a devastating military campaign and still wind up hated and reviled.

But for some short time, the war in the Persian Gulf has made the world a simpler place. Black and white. Good and bad. Win and lose. But not for long.

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