Yes, we are, too, winning

Posted: Apr 01, 2003 12:00 AM

The Sunday morning media quarterbacks showed up as expected, calling plays from the bench and chunking reproaches.

Oh! It had been so wonderful, those first days in Iraq! Jubilant villagers welcoming liberation; posters of Saddam Hussein ripped down; the Iraqi army seemingly in full flight. Then ... obstruction; and then ... casualties; and now ... suicide bombers. What about the one-week war we were going to win? Huh? Huh?

Yes, we're winning -- handily. You'd hardly know it, though, from watching the Sunday morning quarterbacks.

If wars move faster today than ever before, so do wartime emotions and apprehensions and just plain old gut-clutching waves of despair. These emotions, and our quickness at latching onto them, are not wholly the media's fault, if a part-time member of the media may venture that sentiment.

The media may be generally more liberal than the culture, but they are not space aliens; they swim, so to speak, in the larger culture. What the culture values -- e.g., speed, success and non-complexity -- media folk likewise value to one degree or another. This encourages skepticism about wars that drag on for, oh, five or six days.

But here we journalists, even we part-timers, have to step back from the culture. We have to strive for context. Without context, the event is everything; with it, events cluster together in patterns. What does context tell us?

Here's one thing: It tells us that the war didn't just magically degrade into a guerrilla conflict. It was that all along.

The wacko, America-hating guerrillas of the Middle East have been nibbling away at American flanks for a good 20 years -- at least since the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. On that one ghastly occasion, we lost many more Americans -- 241 -- than have died so far in Iraq or (please, God) may die there yet. The Khobar barracks in Saudi Arabia were blown up: more American dead. There was more recently the attempt to sink the U.S.S. Cole.

But the big-ticket item was of course Sept. 11 -- 3,000 dead on that day, in our commercial and governmental capitals. None of this, mind you, we had provoked, except insofar as a commitment to human freedom could be considered a provocation. We were at war, and nobody had told us. The likelihood now, as we are coming to appreciate, is that the war could last a while -- not years but possibly several months.

Now for more context. We could have averted the present moment by closing both eyes to what was going on, by ignoring the war. A war that Iraq was waging? One, at least, that it was encouraging and facilitating. No Iraqi-Al Qaeda connection has been unassailably shown. But if you stand on tiptoe for a look at the scene as a whole, despotic, anti-Western radicalism in the Arab world can be understood as a machine with coordinated parts: some larger, some smaller, all deadly.

There has been some tendency to treat the Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction question as a detective thriller. We await Sam Spade's lifting off of the blanket to reveal the weapons cache. That is not what this thing is about. What this thing is about is people who want to kill lots of Americans and who must be stopped before they succeed.

We could have pretended otherwise. Buying into the French version of reality would have bought peace for America, but it would not have stopped the war. The war was on. It remained only for us to show whether we were going to fight or appease.

This wretched war -- who could welcome such an occasion, doves or hawks either one? When you are in a war, nevertheless, the intelligent thing to do is to fight, just as Gen. Franks is doing: all the while doing better than a speed-obsessed American culture can appreciate without effort. As the Sunday morning quarterbacks sharpened their cleats, Gen. Tommy Franks pronounced the American achievement to date "truly remarkable."

Know what? He's right.