"Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"
The media are beginning to sound an awful lot like brats in the backseat nagging Daddy Rumsfeld because the war is taking sooooo long. I mean, it's been a little more than a week already!
As a military friend said recently: "The American attention span for wars is the length of an average Hollywood movie."
Since the U.S.-allied attack began on Iraq, reporters and commentators have been struggling for definition. It's as though we were all handed a syllabus at the beginning of the war, and any deviation thereafter is a narcissistic insult, or worse, a military failure.
In nearly every press briefing lately, whether with generals in the desert or with President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the question surfaces: Why is the war taking so long?
Part of the problem, now thoroughly dissected, is the 24/7 news coverage, which provides slices of war without the larger context. Forget not seeing the forest for the trees; we're focused on the granular composition of the sand. Such saturated emphasis on minutiae moreover conveys the impression that the war has been on going for months when it has been little more than a week, as Rumsfeld has noted.
When reporters asked Bush and Blair Thursday how long the war will take, Blair gave the only answer possible: "We will carry on until the job is done." Later he added that the schedule isn't "set by time; it's set by the nature of the job."
It's true that the U.S. military thought we'd be in Baghdad by now, but those predictions were predicated on a northern front that would have forced Saddam to split his defenses. Even so, our forces were within 50 miles of Baghdad by the fifth day.
Thus, what's slow isn't the war itself, but our capacity to absorb the onslaught of information. Although embedded reporters may provide us with up-to-the-second, live-action outtakes, our brains are just as fast as they were 50 years ago. That is, we need time for due consideration, time to absorb, process, select and analyze. Yet we allow ourselves none of that.
It isn't hard to trace the roots of this quintessentially American problem. We're a drive-through nation addicted to fast food and accustomed to stories that wrap up in a couple of hours. At the same time, we're a tad compulsive about knowing how things turn out. In real-time war, we can't cheat and skip to the last page or dodge into the next-door theater and catch the end of "Rambo Does Iraq."
War requires that we become comfortable with ambivalence, that we temporarily suspend our need for instant gratification and perhaps that we adopt the attitude of a wounded American soldier interviewed Thursday in Germany, whose comments were posted on National Review Online.
"I saw that my foot was gone," he said. "I put that out of my mind."
War demands such toughness, yet we spectators lack the training that allows that young man to soldier on. Instead, our instantaneous exposure to war's brutal and bloody consequences makes us wish for a hasty end. Call it the Mogadishu Effect. Although there's nothing inherently wrong with the instinct to retreat in the face of danger, pulling back now renders meaningless the sacrifices thus far made and, as Blair said, would send a disastrous signal to the world's brutal dictators.
It is worth suggesting, meanwhile, that Bush and Blair might be commended for their honesty regarding the duration of war rather than criticized for their failure to speculate about its end. Compare their candor to President Clinton's promise in 1996 that we would be in Bosnia for only one year.
An Army officer serving in Bosnia told me how the military had to rename its operation from IFOR (Implementation Force) to SFOR (Stabilization Force) in order to meet Clinton's one-year promise.
"We were scrambling madly to figure out what to call ourselves. All we did was change the lettering, but we were essentially the same operation, although a little smaller." Seven years later, we still have forces in Bosnia.
In other words, when Bush and Blair say the war may take a while, it may take a while. But better to be realistic -not to mention honest -about what lies ahead than to play word games in order to calm the brats.