Singing the praises of men and women who fought the good fight Heroes may find peace harder to win at home WAR IN THE GULF


In a few short weeks, we will realize the truth: The war wa the easy part. It's the peace that is going to be tough.

And I don't mean the peace overseas. I mean the peace here at home.

But for now, let us sing the songs and wave the flags. Let us hang the banners and make the toasts.

Let us cheer our troops and congratulate ourselves. Let us be happy. Let us party.

While we can.

I think it will take only about a month or so for the first stories to appear. Maybe less time than that.

The stories will be about the veterans of the Persian Gulf war who cannot find jobs. Who cannot pay their mortgages. Who cannot sell their homes or pay their property taxes.

The stories will be about the men and women who risked their lives in war, but cannot find the benefits of peace.

Everyday on the way to work, I see a ragged man who stands by the curb with a bent cardboard sign. "Homeless," it says. "Can you help?"

Sometimes I give him change. Mostly I just look down at the sidewalk and hurry along.

Will there be a day, a day when new people will hold new signs that read: "Veteran. Can you help?"

And what will we do for them? Hand them a yellow ribbon? Make them a speech? Or look down at the sidewalk and hurry along?

I try to remember now, just a few days later, the words of George Bush as he addressed Congress in this, his greatest moment of triumph.

But no phrases come to mind. All I can remember is the lawmakers in the audience, stomping their feet and clapping their hands and waving their flags and wearing their buttons that said: "I Voted for The President."

But can you recall last fall when Republicans refused even to appear on the same stage with George Bush? When senior members of his party advised candidates to distance themselves from George Bush because he called for new taxes instead of more pork barrel politics?

There was no distance from George Bush last week, however. As Bush passed down the aisle of the House, the lawmakers practically climbed in his lap, hooting, hollering, stretching out their hands, trying to grab onto his coattails for the long ride to 1992.

And what did he have to say to them and the country? Not a whole lot. There were words like "aggression is defeated" and and "Saddam Hussein was the villain, Kuwait the victim." But the speech did not soar or sing.

Afterward I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with John Brain, a poet and teacher at Towson State, who grew up in London during the Blitz. In talking about what sustained him and his family in the bomb shelters, he said: "Churchill was enormously helpful. He gave us the words. Those beautiful words to help us through."

Today, we have no such words by which to remember this war. There were no inspired speeches. No "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to see us through.

Instead, we had pictures. The troops leaving. The smart bombs striking. And now the troops coming home.

It was an ideal TV war. Quick. Clean. Very few casualties on our side. And it had a good villain.

Fighting the villain was the theme of the whole war and the theme of Bush's speech. Let's not get bogged down in ideologies or Mideast politics or recent history when Saddam Hussein was an ally we backed.

Let us instead compare him to Hitler and destroy him. America needed a negative symbol, a darkly mustachioed demon, to go along with the positive symbols -- yellow ribbons, flags, songs.

Bush and his media handlers were smart enough to know that in war it is not enough to give people something to love -- our soldiers, our country, our honor. You must also give them something to hate.

And what happens to the demon now? Well, we can hang him like Tojo or imprison him like Hess or forgive him like Hirohito. It doesn't matter much; it should not slow us down. There are so many dictators and so little time.

And our troops are coming home. But to what?

To a nation in trouble. Not hopeless trouble. Not despair. Not depression. But trouble.

Bush recognizes it. "In the war just ended, there were clear-cut objectives, timetables and, above all, an overiding imperative to achieve results," he told Congress. "We must bring that . . . to the same way we meet challenges here at home."

But here at home, we cannot smart bomb poverty. We cannot send B-52s to eradicate AIDS. We cannot roll tanks against homelessness. We cannot fire Patriots at unemployment.

On the day after the first troops came home, the figures came out: Unemployment in February had shot up to 6.5 percent, the highest rate in four years and the biggest one-month jump since 1986.

This is what our troops are coming home to. And to something else.

Hours before I watched the president speak, I watched a videotape of a black man being beaten senseless by cops in Los Angeles.

And I wondered: What will the returning soldiers make of this? Won't some wonder why we can mobilize a nation to fight injustice overseas, but we can't mobilize it to fight injustice at home?

It is time. It is past time. Past time to make this nation as noble in peace as it was in war.

Come home, America. There's a fight to be fought here, too.

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