David H. Hackworth
Column 6


In 1981), when the Cold War ended, hopes in the United States were high. After almost a century of conflict in various parts of the world, peace had come to planet Earth. ,Johnny and Jill would come marching home, B-2 bombers would be hammered into sports cars and peace dividends would fill our mailboxes.

Now, four years after the Berlin Wall crumbled, there have been more cyclones than rainbows, and war taxes have rocketed. Nor has there been any break for our troops. They simply got pulled off Iron Curtain duty and marched to more troubled hot spots.

Only a short time after the Cold War cannons were packed up, there was the invasion of Panama, then the fighting in Kuwait and Iraq. Simultaneously, brutal unrest -- in which four million people have died -- became routine in the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Africa, Asia and in the Americas from Los Angeles to Lima.

During a four-decade-long nuclear high noon, Uncle Sam and Ivan divided the world: white hats on one side and black hats on the other. The loose cannons now tearing up much of the world had stayed under control or their superpower bosses slapped them down. Now with Ivan dead and Uncle Sam the only cop left on the beat, many of these loony tunes are taking advantage of the superpower vacuum to grab turf and power and settle old scores. Instead of playing by the rules of modern warfare, these nasties behave like rattlesnakes shedding their skins -- dangerous and unpredictable.

Since 1600, with the arrival of modern states and modern armies, the nature of warfare had been horribly consistent. The military solution was used when diplomacy failed to resolve political flaps over trade routes, turf and market ownership. Both sides would fight, and the conflict would end with a clear-cut winner and loser. Warfare was straight- forward and easy to understand.

Today, however, war wears the face it wore pre-1450, before there was even an idea of modern states and international politics. Back then, tribal rows, bandits, ethnic conflicts and nationalistic and religious dog- fights produced low-level warfare that scorched, plundered and destroyed cities anti battered regions.

Today the world has reverted to a Dark Ages minefield crawling with armed gangs and rogue armies clawing at one other and any poor souls caught in the middle. These fights have become more frequent, more widespread and increasingly destructive.

Warfare has returned to the form used centuries ago because no nation -- rich or poor -- can afford high-tech weapons or maintain a large modern army. And because of vast firepower -- nuclear and conventional -- as well as smart weapon accuracy and the staggering cost o fit all, no one wins.

Desert Storm proved that modern weapons can take out a city like Baghdad -- or even Boston or Tokyo -- before you can say "mother of all battles." This awesome firepower display, coupled with the end of the superpower race, has caused warfare to shift from conflicts fought with high-tech, exotic weapons to small-scale, down-and-dirty battles fought by "Rambo" bands armed mainly with rifles, mines and shoulder-fired rockets.

There will never be another war fought on the scale of World War II or even Desert Storm. But there will be little wars like those going on now in Northern Ireland, Peru and Somalia that the Pentagon calls "low intensity conflicts." Besides the ongoing fights we see on the tube, there are a lot more smoldering all over the world just waiting to flare up.

The United States cannot be the good global cop and jump into every fight that comes along. Our leaders must be wise and prudent before sending our forces anywhere. The choices will be hard, but there's a limit to America's power, resources and what we can do beyond our shores. We must use our shrinking military strength judiciously, where it will do our nation and the world the most good, but not break our bank or waste our youth.

Most of today's global squalls don't affect the United States. Our politicians should check the weather before they set a course, and our generals must not revert to their old trick of fighting tomorrow's wars with yesterday's tactics and mindset.