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Shellshocked by the WAR : DEALING WITH IT : A Prescription for Handling the War: Become an Activist

February 03, 1991|Judith Viorst | Judith Viorst, a member of the Washington Psychoanalytic Society, is the author of "Necessary Losses" (Simon & Shuster)

WASHINGTON — The war in the Persian Gulf came upon us in slow motion. We had almost six months to contemplate its approach. But as in those classic nightmares where we are frozen, unable to move as disaster descends, many responsible people with grave reservations about this war have found themselves immobilized by ambivalence.

Ambivalence--the simultaneous holding of two opposing beliefs or emotions--can, if it is intense, paralyze action. For every "yes," there's a "no." For every "stay," there's a "go." For every "on the one hand," there's an "on the other hand."

Ambivalence can leave us obsessing endlessly, unable to make a move. And even when action is possible, ambivalence can render it tentative, inconclusive, ineffective.

To virtually every person I know, Iraq's attack on Kuwait was wrong and repugnant. No ambivalence there. President George Bush's decision to send American troops to safeguard the Saudis seemed to make sense. It should have been quickly apparent, as the rhetoric heated up and positions hardened, that what was at risk was a major Middle East war. But a friend vacationing on Cape Cod phoned in late August with an anxious query: "Nobody here seems upset about this business in the Gulf, and I'm scared to death. Am I crazy? Or are they?"

Back in Washington, with neighbors and friends on vacation and Congress in recess, I, too, was observing an eerie absence of urgency. A member in the 1960s of Women's Strike for Peace, a stop-the-war marcher, telegram-sender and envelope-stuffer, I was accustomed to getting a telephone call telling me where and when and how to protest. When the call never came, I realized that I was going to have to mobilize myself, balancing my loathing of Saddam Hussein's aggression against my deep conviction that for this a nation does not go to war.

"Talk, don't fight" was the telegram I sent, and urged several others to send, to the White House. But Bush told us right from the start that if talk meant negotiation instead of a get-out-of-Kuwait ultimatum, if talk meant allowing Saddam Hussein to save face, if talk meant some kind of compromise with the Bad Guy, he rejected it. Deeply opposed to a war yet also concerned about appeasing an aggressor, some of the people I spoke with--immobilized--could not send such a telegram to Bush.

In the next stage of the crisis, it was easier for these people to take a stand. Against the go-ahead to use force after Jan. 15. In favor of giving the sanctions more time to work.

But when Congress, by a narrow margin, gave the President the green light on going to war and then when, one day after the deadline, the bombing began, they were--more than ever--paralyzed by ambivalence.

As I study those who early and, indeed, enthusiastically favored a war against Hussein, I am struck by their total absence of ambivalence. They see no contradictions or complexities. They know exactly what's right and exactly what's wrong. They advocate, without any psychic conflict, a simple, clear-cut, let's-take-the-bastard-out strategy, resolving all troublesome questions by polarization, simplification and demonization.

Hussein, they declare, is the Butcher of Baghdad, an Adolph Hitler, a psychopathic monster. His ruthless ambition, coupled with his menacing weapons arsenal and complete disregard for civilization's rules, make him an intolerable threat to the world. There is no way we can co-exist or deal with this personification of evil. Take him out.

I should mention here that I, and a number of my friends, rather like the idea of taking the bastard out. But didn't we used to feel the same way about Stalin, Idi Amin, Mao Tse Tong and Khomeini? Haven't we learned that, obnoxious though they may be, it may be necessary to co-exist with Bad Guys? And remember our hands-off policy in the '50s and '60s when Soviet tanks moved on Budapest and Prague?

Unless we intend to conduct non-stop war, we will find ourselves having to tolerate some offensive international behavior. This is not a pretty thought, but as we march in peace demonstrations and urge Bush to negotiate with Hussein, that's one of those contradictions we have to live with.

There are plenty of others.

We march with the sounds in our ears of screeching air-raid sirens in Israel and Saudi Arabia. We march with the images in our heads of brutalized pilots and an oil-ravaged coast. We march with the knowledge that Hussein has, and is willing to use, chemical and biological weapons. We march with the awareness that he is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.

We march because we are in a war that a lot of experts believe need not have happened. We march because we think we have no national interest in pursuing this war.

We march in the hope that there still is time to reverse this tragic error, to negotiate, before the real blood bath begins. We march supporting our troops, but we support them by wanting to bring them home alive.

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