Good Old Days

On a sleepy, spring-like Sunday in Orange, California, it is easy to forget about it.

We parked near the historic district and went for lunch at Watson Drugs & Soda Fountain (founded 1899). The jukebox played Patsy Cline and the Shirettes, and the placards of the wall urged us to buy Nehi and war bonds. This is where Tom Hanks filmed scenes for his 1950’s-era movie, "That Thing You Do," and it was all too easy to sit back, order a malted and pretend these are the good old days.

Later that same day in Orange, we popped in to some of the antique shops that radiate from the central plaza. In a world of eBay, even antique stores seem antique. In one store, I thumbed through a stack of old advertising posters, and out fell a red-white-and-blue sheet, the size of a movie theater lobby card, depicting a silhouette of a soldier against an American flag, printed with the words "Operation Desert Storm 1990-1991." It was $7.50.

The fact that relics of the last war are already collecting dust alongside World War II-era Japanese ammo belts ($60) and war bonds calendars ($24) made me wonder how, 10 years hence, we’ll regard Gulf War II. Will it resonate with world-shifting portent that World War II mementos do? Or will it seem by comparison to today’s war somehow small, eclipsed in our mind by more immediate threats and darker developments?

As soon as we returned to the car and turned on the radio, the answer seemed clear. U.S. soldiers had encountered some fierce resistance — several had been killed, many others taken prisoner. By Monday, there were reports of more missing, of Iraqi troops using guerilla tactics to inflict casualties. Areas that the Army initially announced in coalition control were now in the midst of firefights — I know, because I’ve watched several unfold on TV with surreal intimacy.

By Monday afternoon, the government’s announcements about the war had shifted in order to lower our expectations. There is no question that part of the American public’s initial approval of the war rose from the sense that it would be a cakewalk. Gulf War I, after all, exacted a relatively small price, and this time around we heard expert commentator after expert commentator describe the Iraqi army as even more demoralized and ill-equipped, and Saddam’s hold on power as even more tenuous. But as the initial shock and awe gave way to shock and awfulness, our doubts increased about how quickly the coalition would come, see and conquer.

Israelis, it’s revealing to note, were less shocked than Americans by the ferocious response of Iraqi fighters and many in the Iraqi population. For many years now they have been at war with desperate people who are fed one-sided propaganda by cynical leaders. The American people, wrote Avraham Tirosh in Israel’s daily, Ma’ariv, "got several awful examples of what awaits it. Not a deluxe war, which it was perhaps mistakenly led to expect, not an easy drive to Baghdad, with the main adversary being the dust and the sand. But dead, wounded, missing, helpless captives and victims of murder."

Writing in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s biggest-selling Hebrew daily, Alex Fishman contended that to win this war, President George W. Bush would have to conduct a much more bloody campaign. "The Americans want to show humanitarian warfare that is careful about human life," he wrote. "But they have no intention of losing the war either. To win it, from now on, they are going to need to destroy en masse the members of the Republican Guard and anyone near them."

If indeed we are in for a long, drawn-out war, followed by a long, drawn-out occupation, there is every indication that this conflict will prove to be as momentous a turning point in modern history as we will witness. Friendly Arab regimes will be in danger of collapse as their already restive populations become enraged by the war. Israel, which many have assumed would benefit from the disposal of Saddam, may find that anti-West feelings strengthen the fanaticism of the regime in Iran, which has long posed Israel’s gravest threat. And here at home, bitter feelings about a bloodier war will lead to more violent dissent, along with homeland terror.

We can hope and pray for a quick and successful resolution of this war. Because if not, what happened this week will indeed seem like the good old days.