• U.S.

Anxiety Before the Storm

8 minute read
Lance Morrow

Americans mostly wanted to change the channel. They may have been depressed and a little stunned to discover that they could not.

It had seemed a strange, unsatisfying story: The Iraqi came down like a wolf on the fold (Kuwait). The posse formed and then spent 5 1/2 months announcing what would happen to the wolf if it did not stop gnawing on the carcass.

The interval between August and January took on a peculiar unreality — a psychological suspension, an air lock between Saddam’s offense and the retaliation against him, between peace and war. The world went on hold. Disturbances that in other times would have riveted attention — the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania, the fighting in Somalia — became secondary. When violence is so elaborately laid out in advance, when it is both insistently menacing and hypothetical, it loses spontaneity. The waiting makes war seem unnatural. By last week so much premeditation had given a certain pallor to the American mood, a sense of resignation, of mingled apprehension and anger: ^ a kind of chill where passion is supposed to be blazing up at the start of a war. The country had worn itself out, a little bit anyway, by revving its aggressive engines so hard without taking off the brakes.

In World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam, America joined conflicts already in progress. In the gulf, the U.S. and its allies would be starting war out of a long, calculated pause, proceeding from that deliberative cool into violent heat. The circumstances made Americans feel surreal, not entirely sure of themselves, and somewhat clammy.

Much of the nation’s opinion was clustered in the cautious middle ground. Americans were not yet sounding especially jingoistic or bellicose. John Barry, an insurance underwriter in Troy, Mich., expressed a characteristic note: “Bush has given ample time for Iraq to leave Kuwait. I think we’ve got to act according to our word. We can’t say we’re going to militarily evict Iraq from Kuwait and then not do it. We’ve spent too much time and money to just whistle in the breeze and not do anything.”

The words that many other Americans used were “doubt” and “inevitability” and “get it over with” and “not happy about it, but . . .” and “between a rock and a hard place.” Opinions came out modulated by sadness and resignation. Mary Tom, a legal secretary in San Francisco, related, “The situation really hit home with me when my brother-in-law, a nurse, went on active duty. I think war is imminent. I don’t support it, and I never have. Bush has backed himself into a corner by giving them a deadline. The first strike will kill a lot of people on both sides. The sad thing is there isn’t much we can do about it. It all boils down to oil.”

Few questioned that Saddam Hussein is a villain who raped Kuwait and must be removed. Saddam made it easy by being a sort of caricature of an enemy, a heavy out of professional wrestling. There seemed no chance that he would be adulated as, say, Ho Chi Minh was during the Vietnam War. The question in Americans’ minds was whether Saddam should be forcibly, militarily, removed now, or squeezed over many months by international sanctions. After the Geneva talks broke up last week, Americans seemed resigned that war would come. They thought it was necessary, but they did not much welcome it. “I think it’s stupid. I don’t like why we’re there,” said Brian Scanlan, 34, a Boston carpenter. “But I feel it’s inevitable.”

In Phoenix an engineer named Darin McDaniel expressed the same somewhat unhappy sense of a nation performing an international service in which it did not entirely believe: “I would have decided not to fight before Bush got us up to this point. He’s already closed the door. The only thing to do now is finish it off. I’m for getting it over in a hurry.”

The purely hawkish chords were audible too, of course. “We have to go in there and do tremendous damage,” said Chicago dentist Jerald Schwab. “We have to wipe out the military capability of Saddam Hussein permanently and totally. If we don’t go to war, we are going to have much greater problems in the future.” In Jacksonville an insurance agent by the name of George Bush, who is no relation to the President, said, “We have no other alternative but to go in before Saddam Hussein makes it worse. This maniac only answers at the point of a gun, I’m afraid.” Insurance agent Bush worries, however: with three nearby naval bases, the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park has a large number of reservists and military personnel among its residents. Bush wonders how they will pay their bills if they are sent to the gulf. “I insure a lot of doctors and professional people. A lot of them have big mortgages and big staffs.” Bush hopes the war will be over quickly.

Some Americans escaped into a wistful fantasy that Saddam Hussein would vanish, the hard way. Said Leigh Ginn of Dallas Bluff, Ga.: “It seems like the CIA has the power to do that. It sounds like I’m a murderer, but goodness, look at the people he’s going to murder if there’s a war.”

An antiwar movement was forming, though not in large numbers. A group of protesters in the Senate gallery were arrested for disrupting the debate on the war. A coalition of Protestant leaders said, “We call upon the churches and upon the nation to fast and pray for peace, to pursue every means available of public dialogue and popular expression to find a way out of certain catastrophe.” Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Virginia said Catholics in the military should consider laying down their arms if war breaks out.

A Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger, whose parish is located in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, declared, “If George Bush wants to set deadlines, he could set deadlines on unemployment, apartheid, homelessness. He has been hell-bound for months on war. I have never heard a President talk so much war talk in my lifetime.” During Vietnam, American labor unions and blue-collar workers tended to support the war. This time, the presidents of * nine major unions argued for a peaceful solution.

The old cracks that Vietnam made in American society remain visible. That war divided the nation into those who believe that the use of force is a necessary evil and those who think it is plain evil. Some fear that Americans are now too remote from the realities of war to understand what they mean. “I was in Vietnam in 1969-70, and the more I think about war in the gulf, the more I tremble,” said Bud Shumake, 42, a service manager for Pacific Bell in California. “The consequences are going to alter our lives forever. I don’t think people in America are aware of just how devastating a war can be, not just for a soldier in battle but for generations to come.”

American veterans of World War II are pretty much united on the virtue of the battles they fought. But from Vietnam, Americans drew different lessons about the uses of power. To one group, Vietnam instructed: Never again. To another, the war counseled: Next time, do it quickly and decisively. There remains a moral chasm: on one side, a reflexive, almost Quakerish pacifism; on another, a hard-boiled, Machiavellian mind-set.

Kathleen Kaneko Lopes, a legal assistant in Berkeley, is the mother of four sons, ages 9 to 21. Said she: “There’s got to be a real good reason to donate one of my son’s lives, and this isn’t one of them. Americans would rather pay more for their gasoline than give up their sons. If Neil Bush had to go, George would be a little more anxious. I don’t think Barbara would let Neil go.”

But the American mood, so tentative and troubled on the eve of a prospective war, is subject to what may be astonishing change once a war comes. Some have said that the sight of body bags bringing home American soldiers may arouse antiwar sentiment. In the short term, anyway, the reverse effect may be more likely. If Americans begin to die at the hands of Iraqis, the nation may become inflamed and far more bellicose than it is now. Americans are a warlike people, once their blood is up. If they are roused from the dreamlike unreality of recent months and face real, unavoidable combat, they may become focused, and fierce in a way that will surprise even themselves.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com