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A countdown on the brink of war
11 January 1991

It seems somehow trivial to talk about anything but the Persian Gulf this weekend. Still, poised here on the doorstep between deadline and war, what is left to say?

Has there ever been a countdown such as this? The prospects seem other-worldly: peace at 11:59, the option of war at 12:01. We stand at the brink of invasion and argue fine points; the United Nations has been asked to clarify whether the Jan. 15 deadline means the start of Jan. 15 or the end of the day. What time zone is involved? Midnight in the Middle East (where the war may be fought), or at U.N. headquarters on the Hudson Rive (where the vote was taken)?

Probably, the president does not intend to launch a full-frontal attack at a minute after midnight. On the other hand, he might. The rhetoric has been plain and categorical enough, with talk of lines in the sand and uncompromising ultimatums.

At this literal eleventh hour, discussion and diplomacy continue a desperate search for solutions -- or even for a little more time. (Writing on Friday for a Sunday deadline, even the details of the final maneuverings are uncertain). With the United States and Iraq apparently unwilling to budge for one another, third parties like the UN or an non-allied Arab state may yet emerge to break the steady march toward war, but prospects diminish.

And so, in another hundred hours, we may be at war: slaughter on a schedule, doomsday by deadline.

Have we fully faced the fact that tens of thousands of people may soon be dead? How do we reconcile that prospect with the higher aspirations we claim guide us as a society? Can it be that the whole world united has no better answer to the brutality of Saddam Hussein than to authorize the wholesale killing of his citizens?

The world's most ancient civilization was incubated in the warm, fertile valleys of Iraq between the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers. Our ancestors once walked the hills and plains and deserts of the region, though of course the names were different then: Persia, Mesopotamia, Babylon.

Conflicts in that ancient civilization were settled not much differently from us today: attack, kill, subdue. Since the earliest memory of our species, we've been killing one another over questions of territory, or property, or simple pride.

Waiting for the warplanes to fly and the missiles to fall in modern Persia this week, we must feel some shame for the fact that our species has progressed so little.

We take comfort, and rightly so, in the unifying cover of a United Nations resolution authorizing force. It is better, clearly, to unite the civilized nations in concert than to face the aggressor alone. By adding the color of law and the approval of a substantial majority of the world to the foundation, whatever action follows will be strengthened and somewhat more justified.

But the demons unleashed in a war against Iraq will not be easily subdued.

Military victory in the short term seems assured -- although the first lesson in the history of warfare is that nothing proceeds as planned. Still, the military might we bring to bear on Iraq bespeaks formidable prospect for success.

How many people will die for that? Will Saddam be able to draw Israel into the killing? Will terrorism strike us at home? Will our victory in the instant battle poison relations with the whole Islamic world for generations?

On Sunday, there are no answers to these questions.

The frightening fact is that by next Sunday, we may know.

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