BATTEN DOWN BOTH FRONTS

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

"Can we win this war?"

That was the question tossed at me repeatedly over the past two weeks as my wife, Eilhys, and I traveled around this anxious country talking to citizens ranging from Starbucks baristas and their clients at New York City's LaGuardia Airport, to a large crowd in Nashville's Opry Mills Shopping Mall, to folks who stopped and talked with us on Southern California sidewalks, in restaurants and at TV and movie studios.

Clearly there's a torrent of concern and confusion coming from worried Americans facing their first war on their own turf and trying to figure out the score overseas. All wanted to know the real deal, and most feel close to clueless, perhaps because much of our media seem to be measuring this war with a World War II ruler.

But if we dial back to Dec. 7, 1941 -- Pearl Harbor -- things were grim and quickly got worse. Most of our Pacific Fleet was at the bottom of the ocean. Much of our very small and green Army was still running around the boonies like kids in a back lot going "bang bang" with wooden sticks for rifles and machine guns, while those who'd lucked out and had real weapons were toting the worn-out stuff their dads used in 1918. On maneuvers, our fighter jocks -- with just a fraction of the combat aircraft of their Nazi and Imperial Japanese foes -- were dropping flour sacks as simulated bombs against trucks that Gen. George Patton designated as enemy armored vehicles by having "tank" scrawled in chalk on their tarpaulins. In 1942, in the Philippines, our forces were totally defeated -- while the survivors were death-marched into inhumanly brutal POW camps. Then, at Midway and the Solomon Islands, the Navy and Marine Corps won their first fights but lost most of our torpedo attack aircraft and about a third of what was left of our Pacific fleet, and a lot of Marines and soldiers went down by bullets and bugs. Next, our Army got decked in Africa in its first big battle.

Not only were our armed forces not ready to fight, our opponent's multimillion-man army had conquered most of Europe, Asia and Africa with the most formidable military machine the world had ever seen. Only an unprepared United States and a beleaguered Great Britain -- which was being blitzed night and day by Nazi bombers -- stood in the way to stop it from conquering the world.

We picked ourselves up off the mat, rolled up our sleeves and built a 13 million-strong Citizen's Army from scratch while providing our British, Soviet, Chinese and other Allies with war materials to stop the jackbooted barbarians blasting away at their front gates.

Three years later, the fascists hoisted the white flag, and then our victorious forces set down their rifles, picked up shovels and picks and helped their former enemies dig themselves out of the rubble and rebuild into prosperous and decent democratic nations.

Today we've had the good fortune to go into our first fight in the 21st century with the most powerful military force in the world, including both a world-class aviation arm and Special Ops troops who -- as their brilliant and brave performance in Afghanistan testifies -- are as good as those boys get.

In Round One, the only hits we've taken so far have been a couple of helicopter crashes, and our Taliban opponent in Afghanistan is already coming apart faster than a wet paper sack filled with rocks. We're so squared away on the military front that last week the USS Enterprise sailed back to Norfolk, Va., in glory after successfully bombing the terrorists even deeper into their Afghan caves.

But what the stalwart sailors had on their minds was Main Street USA. It's time to batten down the domestic hatches, they're saying -- and get serious about defending our home shores with the same urgency our country's bringing to the battlefield they just left. These smart swabbies know more terrorist sucker punches are on the way, and that all the rhetoric aside, security at home is still loose as a goose.

Can we win this war? Bet your sweet patootie! But we'll win it with less civilian casualties only if Ridge & Co. get real and get moving.

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.